The Maharajah’s Well is, to say the least, a rather unexpected sight in a small village in the Chilterns. Its influences are clearly Indian, with its gilded dome and elephant sitting astride the well housing. So how did it come about?
Mr Edward Reade, the local squire, had worked with the Maharajah of Benares in India for many years in the mid nineteenth century. One of his many deeds there was to sink a well in 1831 to aid a local community in Azimurgh. When Mr Reade finally left the area in 1860, he asked the Maharajah to ensure that the well remained available to the public.
A couple of years later the Maharajah decided on an endowment in England. He recalled Mr Reade’s generosity in 1831 and also remembered his stories of water deprivation in his home area of Ipsden. And so the well in Stoke Row duly came about. It was dug, by hand, of course – all 368 feet of it to a width of 4 feet. That’s in excess of the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral, although considering it as being more than twice the height of Nelson’s Column comes closer in the mind to the width. It took about a year to build and was opened officially on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1864.
The well and superstructure cost £353 13s 7d. The elephant and machinery cost a further £39 10s, the project being undertaken by the (still) local firm of Wilder in Wallingford. Finally the cottage cost a modest £74 14s 6d. The well remained in use for over 70 years so it was clearly money well spent.
Links with the Maharajah continue to this day. When Queen Elizabeth was visiting Benares (now known as Varanasi) in 1961, the Maharajah pointed out that the well was shortly coming up to its centenary. He invited the Duke of Edinburgh to visit Stoke Row for the celebrations. This he duly did, arriving in his red helicopter. You can see the little red helicopter immortalised on the front cover of every copy of the local magazine, the Stoke Row News.
More details of the well’s history can be read in The Maharajah’s Well booklet, available at the well. It is derived from a full history of the well, written by Laureen Williamson in 1979 and updated in 1983.