“Qui non dat quod habet, Daemon infra vide… “
It may not match Dante’s “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” in terms of making with the ominous vibes, but the inscription carved into the ancient Monks’ Well gifts it a unique place in Wavertree’s geography and folklore. From a distance, The Monks’ Well appears innocuous and almost forgotten. Yet its place at the intersection of North Drive and Mill Lane allows the sandstone structure to gaze down upon the very modern contrast of Wavertree – arterial junctions, commerce, bright green suburbia and boisterous drinking holes – seemingly passing neither word nor judgement from its pious position.
It may come as a surprise to some locals that its current standing point was not its original one – it was initially placed further up Mill Road, where it collected the water that leaked from the sheer scale of sandstone that comprises Olive Mount. Translated, The Monks’ Well’s inscription reads: “He who here does nought bestow, The Devil laughs at him below”. As with anything that mentions the Dark Lord himself, the Monks’ Well comes replete with centuries of rumour, fear and legend that makes it one of the more engaging curios of the borough.
The inscription denotes the year 1414, yet it wasn’t until 1796 that William Moss’s ‘Liverpool Guide’ provided the first recorded instance of the origin of the name. The naming of The Monks’ Well is said to have derived from “an old monastic looking house”, wrote Moss, “… inhabited by some religious order, who might thus request alms towards their support”. The inscription promised those that did not give alms would incur the scorn and mischievous attention of the Devil, bringing bad fortune to those who did not play the game. Time may heal wounds, but it also serves to heighten mystery. From the time of the Wavertree Enclosure Act of 1768, rumours persisted that The Monks’ Well provided an entry point to a series of tunnels that led to any and all of Childwall Abbey, Childwall Priory and the Bishop Eton Monastery. The Act noted that a “tunnel, channel or stone gutter, lately laid and made” had been built in and around the well, carrying water away from the original basin and into a newly-constructed one. It’s more than likely that this is where rumours of a web of tunnels snaking underneath Wavertree began, but the truth is far more innocuous: the owner of nearby Lake House had grown so tired of locals ‘trespassing’ on his land to fetch water, that he erected the diversion. It seems the notion of miserable upper classes is as old as The Monks’ Well itself…
Along with the Williamson Tunnels, it seems we can’t get enough of myths and rumour pertaining to underground networks in this part of the world. However, given that Bishop Eton Monastery was not established until the 1840s, it seems extremely unlikely a tunnel was built to service that route and to do so secretly may have proved nigh on impossible. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good yarn?
The staus of The Monks’ Well as a focal point for the community was highlighted by a typically draconian and odd crackdown from the local authorities in 1835 – after the installation of a new pump, Wavertree’s constabulary were ordered to lock the site up during Sunday services in order to prevent women from ‘gossiping’ to each other instead of the Lord. It was also around this time that the well began to fall into disrepair. The introduction of more advanced waterworks and sanitation – largely down to William Henry Duncan’s Liverpool Sanatory [sic] Act of 1846 – meant that its sole purpose became largely redundant.
The Monks’ Well underwent a century of obscurity, propped up by diminishing rumours and stories, its crumbling façade becoming overgrown and its status as a symbol of life and centrality for Wavertree disappearing as quickly as water into a basin. Then, in a strange fit of incompetence and at some unknown juncture, the cross that adorns the top of The Monks’ Well became ‘lost’, only restored in 1895 and accompanied by a new, further inscription: “Deus dedit, Homo bebit” (“God gives, Man drinks”). As with many historical sites and areas of cultural importance, interest was revived in it only when its existence was threatened by a building firm (some things never change). Having demolished Monkswell House in 1932, David Roberts, Son & Co. planned to build a housing estate on the site of the old house… and the well itself. In a rare victory for common sense, the building firm understood the historical value of the site and, having brought it to the attention of Liverpool City Council, it was designated as one of Liverpool’s first listed buildings in 1952.
The place of The Monks’ Well in Wavertree, both physically and historically, is a testament to the power of tradition, folklore and permanence in a city that has undergone radical changes over the past few decades.
Pic by J Viney