History

Origin

The origin of the Well lay in the friendship between East India Company Official and local squire Edward Anderton Reade and the Maharajah of Benares, Ishree Pershad Naryan Singh.

The Maharajah was much intrigued by Reade's tales of the miserable conditions of the poor back in the Chilterns. Reade described the impact of the limited access to clean water on the lives of villagers in his Oxfordshire parish: ‘water retained in dirty ponds, and deserted clay pits. [How] in the dry season the water used for cooking in one cottage was passed onto the like office in others, urchins cruelly thumped for furtive quenching’s of thirst, and washing days indefinitely postponed’.

As a result, the Maharajah provided the funds to pay for a well for the villagers. Work began on the project on Foundation Day 10th March 1863 – the day of the Prince of Wales’ Royal Marriage. In truth, in the immediate aftermath of the Indian Rebellion (then known as Mutiny) the Well was not just a gift to the people of Stoke Row but also a symbol of loyalty by the Maharajah to Queen Victoria. The well was completed a year later (1864) and the following year provided with a grand canopy whose unique Anglo-Indian Architecture was based on a pavilion at the Maharajah’s palace at Ramnagar under which the Maharajah and Reade had conversed on many evenings. The golden elephant was added circa 1871.

The Maharajah not only provided the capital to construct the Well but to purchase land to build a cherry tree plantation to provide income for the upkeep of the well and payment for the Well Keeper. This was in line with the custom in India where Well’s were habitually supported by an orchard. The Ishree Bagh was named by Reade after the Maharajah Ishree Pershad. Bagh meaning garden.

The site also incorporated symbols associated with the Maharajah. The original plan illustrated how shrubbery in front of the Warden’s cottage was shaped into the Maharajah’s armorial bearings of a full moon surrounded by two fishes. Such symbols are also incorporated on the canopy which adorns the Well structure today.

When Reade designed the Ishree Bagh he named many elements in Hindustani to make clear the connection to the Maharajah –such as Muchlee Pokhara (a fish pond in the shape of a fish), Ishree Bagh (a Cherry tree plantation), Saya Khoond (a shady ravine), Purbhoo Teela (a mound) and Purbhoo Tal (a cattle pond). As Reade had spent his entire working life in the subcontinent and had been away from India for almost a decade, the Indian names perhaps had a reassuring nostalgic resonance for him.

The Ishree Bagh as well as containing an orchard was landscaped by Reade according to the Picturesque aesthetic to provide a pleasurable place for picnics and promenading.

Later Years

For many years the connection to India was lost. However, Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Benares (1961) was marked with a gift of a marble model of the well from the then Maharajah and an invitation to Prince Philip to visit Stoke Row for the forthcoming centenary celebrations. On the 8th of April 1964 and to the villagers delight, Prince Philip, accompanied by representatives of the Maharajah, arrived in Stoke Row by means of a red helicopter which landed on the village green. Significantly the representatives brought with them a vessel containing Holy Ganges water from Benares believed to cleanse the soul of all sins. There followed a ceremonial mixing of the waters – perhaps making the Maharajah’s Well’s water the most holy outside of India.

The Well Booklet

A history of the Well and the context of Anglo-Indian history within which it was created can be found in ‘The Maharajah’s Well – an illustrated history’ by Dr Graeme Whitehall. This can be purchased at the well site.

The Well Archives - Oxfordshire History Centre (OHC)

The Trust is committed to conserve not only the architectural heritage and landscape in situ at Stoke Row but also the archive and ephemeral documents that form part of the site’s history. In order to provide a suitable environment for archival conservation and suitable public access, The Trust has placed all historical manuscripts, photographs, and associated ephemera pertaining to the Well in trust at the Oxfordshire History Centre, Oxford under a loan agreement.

Contact details for the centre which is open to the public are:

Oxfordshire History Centre, St Luke's Church, Temple Road, Cowley, Oxford, OX4 2HT

Tel: 01865 398200

Email: oxhist@oxfordshire.gov.uk