Pells Spring-Water Timeline

 

Local historian and keen swimmer Fiona Marsden has been researching the history of the Pells area for several years.  

Imagine a line of 40 metres, about the length of the Pells Pool. Now imagine that each metre represents 100 years.  Our story starts at the shallow end at around 2,000 BC. The Christian calendar would begin at the mid-point of our timeline. The history of the Pells swimming pool, from Victorian times onwards, would have to be squeezed into the last 1½ metres!  But the spring-waters that still feed the pool have been significant for a lot longer ...

A row of springs below the low cliffs at the Pells once formed a group of pools. The name Pells comes from an ancient word for pools. One of these springs, below the church, was considered sacred for thousands of years. People may have hoped for healing there in the days before medicine, or perhaps they were seeking good fortune.

Important people were buried close by on the cliff top under large earth mounds called barrows. Bronze Age people probably built the barrows over four thousand years ago, but there are signs that the Romans and pagan Saxons used them for burials too.

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We now have to leap forward 2,700 years, over halfway along our timeline, the Romans had come and gone but the mounds and the springs remained.

About 1,300 years ago the local Saxon king became Christian and forced his followers to convert. They were ducked completely underwater in an early form of baptism. Some Saxons may have been baptised like this in the sacred spring beside the Pells. Later Lewes' first church was built among the barrows above and dedicated to St John the Baptist.

 
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Soon Vikings were attacking rich Christian monasteries and a Viking ship was probably captured heading for the monastery at South Malling, just across the river. The skeletons of many tall, strong young men, with their hands tied behind their backs, have been found. They were executed and thrown into a pit within sight of the Pells.

 
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In 1066 the Normans, who were descended from Vikings who settled in France, captured England from the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings. Powerful Norman barons like William de Warenne at Lewes were set to guard the Normans' escape route back to France.

 

William de Warenne, the new Earl of Surrey, used Saxon slaves to build a strong castle at Lewes. Outside the fortifications his private park, known as the Earl's Garden, ran down to the river at the Pells.

The Normans probably used the Pells pools to hold fish such as salmon, sea trout, eels and carp. Some were bred and some were caught in the river. For religious reasons, people had to eat fish and not meat every Friday, and for forty days running in Lent. They got fed up with it, but water birds counted as fish and in wealthy households like the Earl's they liked to eat big meaty swans.

 
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William de Warenne, the new Earl of Surrey, used Saxon slaves to build a strong castle at Lewes. Outside the fortifications his private park, known as the Earl's Garden, ran down to the river at the Pells.

The Normans probably used the Pells pools to hold fish such as salmon, sea trout, eels and carp. Some were bred and some were caught in the river. For religious reasons, people had to eat fish and not meat every Friday, and for forty days running in Lent. They got fed up with it, but water birds counted as fish and in wealthy households like the Earl's they liked to eat big meaty swans.

 

In 1264 many men died in the river mud trying to reach Cliffe Bridge when King Henry III lost the Battle of Lewes to powerful Barons who wanted more say in government. The Castle probably protected the Pells from the fighting and the 7th Earl de Warenne, who supported the King, may have escaped across the river here.

In about 1540, after the de Warennes had died out and soon after the Priory was closed down, a big scheme to drain land beside the river turned miles of muddy wetland, including the Pells, into water meadows. Sheep, cows and pigs grazed here in summer, but the land was allowed to flood in winter to help the grass grow more richly.

 
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In 1603, Lewes lawyer John Rowe bought a couple of these fields and gave them to the towns-people of Lewes. The fields were rented out and the money used for a Feast for men who had helped the town's administrators.

 
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The original deed complete with James the First's Seal was relatively recently discovered in Lewes Town Hall

About 150 years later, during the Industrial Revolution, the river was canalised to make it deeper and straighter, so that boats could fetch chalk from quarries as far up river as Offham. Canals were much more efficient than the muddy roads.

 
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In 1802, a water-powered mill was built at the Pells to make paper. It had become scarce and expensive during the war against Napoleon and the French, when sea blockades cut off imports. The stream from the Upper Pells pond was widened and deepened to make a millpond, which held enough water in reserve to turn a big water wheel and keep the heavy millstones moving.

Papermaking was dusty work and other dirty industries like a sawmill and a smelly leather tannery were nearby. Soon there were complaints about nude men in the millpond. They were probably workers having a wash, since most houses had no baths or even piped water.

 
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Swimming was also becoming popular as a sport and even men who could afford swimwear preferred to swim in the nude. Women were expected to avoid them or look the other way.

 
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From about 1850, parks were provided in big towns to give workers fresh air and exercise. In Lewes, the fields given by John Rowe in 1603 happened to be beside the millpond, which made an attractive lake when the mill closed down. One or two people added other bits of land and in 1860 this became the town's first park.

 
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To keep nude men out of the lake - and give workers a place to wash - people were asked to give money to provide two swimming baths, screened by a flint wall. Swimmers could pay to use the Subscription Pool, or could swim or wash without charge in a larger, shallower pool called the Free Bath.

 
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Women could now bathe too, but wore long legged full-skirted costumes or long petticoats in the Free Bath to stop men peeping and to protect them from suntan. Only poor women who worked in the fields were tanned. Men could still swim in the nude and there was no mixed bathing.

In the park's heyday, there were islands and bridges in the lake, and rare ducks and diving birds.  Money donated at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 allowed a walled playground to be built to keep children safe. Alongside was a huge greenhouse to raise plants, and the playground and islands were colourful with summer flowers.

 
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Soon Lewes Rowing Club was holding an annual Venetian Fete on the Pells Lake. On late summer evenings, hundreds of candles in jars were hung among the trees, Lewes Town Band played music and there was a competition for the best-decorated boat with the crew in fancy dress.

Winters were colder then and the water in the Subscription Bath was lowered to make a smooth skating rink. There was free skating on the frozen lake but the ice was roughened by ice slides, where workers' hob nailed boots made a good substitute for skates.

 
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Early in World War I, 1600 soldiers suddenly arrived in Lewes. They were billeted in every house and in daytime they trained vigorously on the Downs. The Pells was one of the few places that they could get a much-needed bath. By now many houses had piped water, but there were still very few bathrooms.  Later in the war, with most soldiers in France, those under training in Lewes were taught to swim in the Pells.

 
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After the war the Government wanted all children to learn to swim. The water was often very cold, and the teacher was stern, but children who learnt to swim got a free season ticket the next year. Wearing swimsuits became normal and girls, boys, men and women all wore similar ones with short legs and shoulder straps.

 
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Sunbathing was now fashionable and beautiful new lido pools surrounded with sun terraces were being built. More people were also going to private bathhouses in the town and paying for a weekly hot bath. Soon the old Free Bath had few customers.

When the pools were damaged by frost one cold winter, it was decided that only the Subscription Bath would be repaired.

 
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During the Second World War the Pells Pool was used again for military training. Firman trained fully dressed and weighed down with heavy equipment and steel helmets in preparation for any eventuality.

 
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Visits to the coast and holiday travel were restricted, and the forces got priority to use the Pells Pool. It was very overcrowded, the water was dirty and the Lake stank from lack of maintenance. When bombs fell close by in North Street, the blast destroyed the large greenhouses beside the playground.

At the end of the war towns were encouraged to plan for a better future. New houses must have proper bathrooms and indoor toilets. At Lewes, the Grange Gardens were purchased as a smarter park, with a covered heated swimming pool planned at the eastern end, and a car park beside it. The Pells was to become playing fields with the swimming pool and lake grassed over.

Protests and lack of money wrecked these plans. Instead, the main Pells Pool was renovated in 1950 and the old Free Pool became the lawn. Later the sun terraces and changing rooms were added.

 
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In the 1980s and 90s The Pells was again under threat of closure, but John Rowe's gift of the land in 1603 prevented it being sold off for redevelopment. In 2000, Lewes Town Council took over the Pells Park and Pool. The Pells Pool Community Association has run the Pool since 2001: just 10 centimetres on our timeline.

The Pells Pool is recognised as the oldest outdoor freshwater public pool in the country. It has been open every summer for the last 155 years; help us maintain it for the next 155!