Saturday, 24 August 2019

Memories of helping to save Maharajah’s Well

Memories of helping to save Maharajah’s Well

MY recent mention in Hidden Henley of the Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row has prompted a response from reader Laureen
Williamson.

She recalls that it was almost exactly 40 years ago that Thomas Octavius reported how the well and its cottage were saved from demolition thanks to a campaign by villagers to restore them.

Laureen, who lives in Bell Street Mews, Henley, says the two well properties, opposite the village garage, hid an extraordinary history which started in India around 1830 and only came to light when she researched them in detail to help the restoration appeal.

She takes up the story: “I had known the well since 1960 and in particular I knew Michael Reade, the then Squire of Ipsden, which until 1952 included the Stoke Row hamlet in its parish.

“Mr Reade’s great grandfather Edward Anderdon Reade had become a long-term friend of the Maharajah of Benares (now Varanasi) while working for the East India Company as lieutenant governor of the North Western Provinces.

“Unknown to the Maharajah, Mr Reade gave India a well and orchard in 1831 (that’s another story) and some 30 years later the Maharajah returned the gesture to England (another story!)

“The upkeep of the well and cottage was supposed to be through the sale of cherries from the adjacent orchard as the water was free to all and the resident warden lived rent free on a salary of £1 a year, rising to £2 if the cherries yielded £10 profit.

“In 1972 the resident warden died, having lived there since 1893. The last regular water was drawn about1939 but piped water did not reach the warden until 1950 so she ‘borrowed’ water from a neighbour as the well’s ‘ropes’ had rusted.

“Times were changing and the cherries were now food for the birds rather than profits for the cherry pickers and the well’s funds.

“By 1975 the well and cottage were in a very poor, even dangerous, state and Mr Reade was considering their demolition as restoration was costly.

“At this point a few residents decided to see if he would support village efforts to raise the cash to save them. He agreed and allowed me to enter the cottage, probably the first person to do so for more than three years. When I saw the effects of the late warden relating to her long history as warden just rotting on the creaking walls and floors, I collected them carefully and, with appropriate permissions, had them preserved by the Oxfordshire museums service and eventually deposited all of them in Oxford for study and safe keeping.

“The fund-raising committee got itself into gear and the first ever Stoke Row Steam Rally in 1981 behind Giles Farm was organised by Stoke Row builder Maurice Robins and chums.

“It was a colossal success and is still run today but for other charities.

“Funds flooded in and all Stoke Row residents worked tirelessly for the cause. The actor George Cole and his wife Penny, who lived locally, organised a magnificent music hall spectacular at the Kenton Theatre in Henley and many smaller efforts helped the cash come in. Everyone worked really hard.

“Once the restoration was complete, Mr Reade decided the charity needed to release his family from its management so the Charity Commissioners amended the trust deed and Stoke Row Parish Council became its manager through a well committee.

“All this was 40 years ago. Thanks, Thomas, for reviving the memories.”

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