A team led by artist-curator Gaylene Gould is on a mission to revive a fabled 17th-century healing well in Clerkenwell
By Oliver Bennett
Clerkenwell is full of the ghosts of ancient spas. Once these were places where people gathered, drank, listened to music, watched theatre and took part in rituals both religious and rumbustious. Some believe they were overseen by women – the tough landladies of their day – who would facilitate activities and keep the peace.
This is one interpretation of Black Mary, also known as Mary Woolaston, whom it is thought presided over a spring called Black Mary’s Hole, in pole riparian position overlooking the River Fleet on the borders of Clerkenwell and King’s Cross in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Documents are scant and sources are scarce – but centuries on, Mary is about to become famous once again. Arts group The Space To Come, led by artist Gaylene Gould, has started the multifaceted Black Mary Project: a production that will see a new artist’s memorial to Black Mary, a dedicated garden, a Healing Tour and other manifestations of the ancient lady of the well, to be largely based at the Calthorpe Community Garden in Gray’s Inn Road. Funded by the Greater London Authority, it will bring the legend of Black Mary alive.
“Black Mary’s been haunting me for decades now,” says Gaylene. “I first read about her in a book about A Guide to Black London by historian Steve Martin, a specialist in early Black London, who mentioned this fabled character who ran a healing well called Black Mary. I couldn’t get over it and had so many questions.”
Gaylene and her colleagues, including psychotherapist Zaynab Bunsie and members of Calthorpe Community Garden, put on a preliminary event called ‘Who is Black Mary?’ last October and this summer their project is set to take off. There is to be an event in June and the full programme, including the new memorial and garden, is set to land in Calthorpe Garden next spring. The memorial, which may well be a statue or sculpture, is to be made by a Black female artist yet to be commissioned by Gaylene – who has worked on many projects including for Tate, V&A and Selfridges. They will be assisted by two curators, and the memorial healing garden is to be designed by Juliet Sargeant,who has won awards at Chelsea Flower Show. “We want it to be contemplative – a healing, regenerative garden for London,” says Gaylene. Film-maker Adenike Oke is making a film documenting the whole project. Gaylene is herself to devise the Healing Tour through Clerkenwell. “I’ll take the tour through Clerkenwell ending up at Calthorpe Garden, taking about Black Mary and inviting people to share their own stories.”
Yet there remains a huge question. Who was Black Mary and did she even exist? Some interpretations suggest that the ‘Black’ part of her name referred to the colour of Benedictine nuns’ habits, or to the Christian icon of the Black Madonna. Yet most suggest the likelihood is that she was indeed a Black woman – with a tantalising lack of further detail.
“Assuming she existed, we’re probably not going to find many hard and fast records because she was poor and Black,” says Gaylene. “People like that weren’t recorded.” The biggest source, she says, is Thomas Cromwell’s ‘History and Description of the Parish of Clerkenwell’ of 1828, which speaks of Mary Woolaston and the healing well Black Mary’s Hole, where people would come for a water cure, notably for the eyes.
“It seems to have been a lively spot,” says Gaylene. “Back then spas were healing places but also pleasure gardens that attracted everyone from highwaymen to the queer community – and Clerkenwell was quite rough.”
Finding the exact place remains a work in progress. The historian on the Black Mary Project, Kelly Foster, has overlain 16th-century maps onto the maps of today, and Gaylene says that the Project’s current best guess is around the site of the Crowne Plaza hotel on the north side of Mount Pleasant: “But we’re going to keep on digging and see what comes up.” The site of Calthorpe Community Garden, a great survivor amid the developments of inner London, may not itself be Black Mary’s Hole but it is very much part of the story. “When I saw Calthorpe Garden I thought, ‘This is it’,” says Gaylene. “It really feels like a ‘healing well’ and a contemporary healing sanctuary, and it’s been an inspiration to explore it with local communities.”
Wherever the Hole lay, it appears from old reports that when Black Mary died, the well fell into disrepair and then the Fleet was culverted, helping to kill off the exuberant spa culture. “What we’re finding is that women well-keepers were a thing across England, and when the wells fell out of use they stopped being these public spaces,” says Gaylene. “It makes me wonder what happened to the women of that time.”
Another aspect of Black Mary is that she is dated to the 16th century, whereas a lot of Black figures in historic London are from the 18th-19th centuries, attached to the transatlantic slave trade and connected to wealthy people. Perhaps, as Black Mary was a working woman, this was not her story – yet her name, Mary Woolaston, suggests that she may have been part of an English family, or in some way renamed. Who knows? “The research is fascinating,” says Gaylene. “But one of the great things about being an artist and not a historian is that I’m interested in stories and sites of memory – and how people carry memory.” That the UK’s new Dementia Research Institute is being built next door to Calthorpe Community Garden has not escaped the team.
Whatever the historical facts about Black Mary, she is a considerable muse and that so much is unknown about her leaves ample space for creative interpretation. “She has given us a wonderful opportunity to look at the history of Clerkenwell and its healing waters, spaces and sanctuaries,” says Gaylene. Perhaps Black Mary was a ‘wise woman’ figure, dispensing the vital female element of water? “Possibly,” says Gaylene. “Part of the project is that the capital city needs a healing space more than ever.” And it could be right here, on the Gray’s Inn Road.
In June, Calthorpe Community Gardens will host a public event to show the work-in-progress on The Black Mary Project highlighting the new artists memorial, the healing garden and healing tour.
Find out more information about the project at thespacetocome.com/blackmaryproject and sign up to The Space To Come mailing list to get updates and follow the progress on Instagram @blackmaryproject