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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Flamsteed's Well Greenwich (TQ 389 773).
by F Willmot.
(Lewisham Natural History Society.)

After the Royal Observatory at Greenwich had been moved to Hurstmonceux in 1948, a programme of restoration of the old Observatory buildings was started. While work progressed, attempts were made to locate "Flamsteed's Well." This was a shaft, about 100 feet deep, used by the first Astronomer Royal for observations on the stars. An engraving circa 1676 shows a partly brick lined shaft, cutting through 60 feet of upper strata and continuing 30 feet into the chalk below. A wooden spiral staircase leads down to where Flamsteed is shown lying, making his observations.

The bottom of the "Well" would appear always to have been above the water table. There is no record among Flamsteed's papers of his having had a well dug and it is possible he made use of a shaft already in existence -- a denehole or something similar. Shafts with comparable measurements have been reported in the Blackheath area from time to time.

In 1965, the Society learned of the efforts being made to locate the well, and examining the site, found that the contractors had uncovered a roughly circular, filled shaft, between 7 feet and 8 feet in diameter. This was near a spot indicated on a 19th century plan of the Observatory as being "site of Flamsteed's Well." At the request of the Ministry of Public Building and Works, the Society continued to remove the mixed infill of the "well," at the same time preserving its circular edge. At 24 feet below ground level, the Society reported to the Ministry that it would be unwise to continue deeper without further timbering.

No real evidence of any brick lining was found. No stratification existed within the well, the part examined having been filled in the 19th century. Traces of a hexagon shape within the infill of the circle of the well were noted, perhaps associated with a small six-sided building known to have capped the well in Flamsteed's time. The shaft had been cut through sloping bands of alternate sand and gravel.

Quantities of pottery sherds and some clay tobacco pipes were collected, as well as building material, animal bones, oyster shells, nails, glass, etc. A representative selection of the pottery was dated by Guildhall Museum. Analysis showed that the bulk of the pottery dated from circa 1700. Sherds identified included one Roman, one possible medieval, lead-glazed earthenware (17th century or possibly earlier), combed slipware, Westerwald stoneware, Chinese porcelain, delftware, salt-glazed stoneware, etc., and 19th century cream coloured earthenware. Clay pipes ranged from Type a3 (Oswald classification -- circa 1620-1650) to Type 12? (19th century). The finds were deposited at Flamsteed House.

In 1967, the spoil heap was removed, the shaft boarded over with a view to possible further excavation and the restored Observatory buildings opened to the public.

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