A generous gift

A generous gift

good deed The well at Stoke Row, which is now a tourist  attraction.Can you imagine that in the heyday of the British Empire in 1864, many villages in Great Britain were water starved and in one of them, the Stoke Row at Oxfordshire, even today, exists a deep well, gifted by an Indian Maharaja, the ruler of Benares?

It all happened thus. In the Stoke Row village, for more than 700 years the richest landowners were the Reade family. In  1826, one of them, Edward Anderton Reade (1807-1886) joined the civil service in India and by dint of his labours rose from the post of joint magistrate in the mofussil town of Azamgarh in 1831 to the post of the lieutenant governor of the North-Western Provinces (modern Uttar Pradesh) in 1857. Because of his official position, he was a great friend of the Maharaja of Benares, Iswari Prasad Narayan Singh (1822-1889).

Since his own village in England, Stoke Row, was water-starved, during his civil service years in India, Reade was sensitive to the needs of the villagers and ensured that they had access to water.

Then in 1831 in the town of Azamgarh, he solved a land dispute between two brothers, by having to assume the ownership of the land himself since he was the magistrate. He then sank a well on the land, which provided drinking water to the villagers, and had trees planted around it. On the well, he had the following inscription put, ‘The well spring and the tree shade are the gifts of the Almighty. Rest traveller, refresh and be thankful.”

Thirty years later, Reade retired to England to his village of Stoke Row, but not before he had entrusted the care of the well to his friend, Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh, Maharaja of Benares. During his discussions, he told the Maharaja, that even in his own village of Stoke Row, there was acute water shortage and villagers were dependent on water retained in dirty ponds and deserted clay pits. In the dry seasons, the shortage was so much, that the water used in cooking in one cottage was passed on to do the same work in others. Children, who raided the family water buckets, were punished strictly and the washing days were few and far between.

When the Maharaja heard this, he was so moved that he offered to donate a well to the British village. The 368 feet deep  extraordinary well was dug entirely by hand. The water was found at 342 ft down, but the extra depth of 16 feet was allowed for seasonal fluctuations. To ensure that the water could be drawn up by hand, a system of  narrow-topped nine gallon buckets counter balancing each others was provided. Even a woman or a young boy could turn a handle and draw up a full bucket in only 10 minutes. There were many glass lenses fitted into the dome to allow light through to show the water line. But, what catches one’s eye, are the words on the periphery of the dome, ‘His Highness, the Maharaja of Benares’.

The 23-foot-high structure is capped by a gilded dome, below which lies the winding mechanism and a large decorative elephant. It was capable of providing 700 gallons a day to the local community. The well was inaugurated on Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24, 1864. That was a day Stoke Row would never forget! After a service at the local church, tea, sugar, bacon, bread, and a pair of blankets marked ‘Ishwari’ were distributed to the cottages in the village. This was followed by a day of feasting, which culminated in a spectacular display of fireworks.

The Maharaja had spent 420 pounds for the well project — 350 pounds for the well and 75 pounds for a cottage nearby for a watchman, to ensure that the well was maintained properly. To ensure that the use of the well remained free, the Maharaja paid for the purchase of a four-acre cherry orchard, the profits from which contributed to the upkeep of the well. The watchman lived rent-free in the cottage, and was given an annual income of one pound, in addition to the income from the sale of the cherries. This was to be raised to two pounds, if his annual income from the cherry orchard was less than 10 pounds.

Once year-round water was available, Stoke Row village started to prosper. The local clay deposits were put to good use by the building of a brick works making bricks and tiles and pottery, and the local beech wood was used for the turning of chair legs and tent pegs which were used by the British army.

The well continued to quench everyone’s thirst for at least 50 years after the inauguration, thanks to the funds from the cherry orchard. Then piped water arrived in the early part of the 20th century, the well fell into disuse, but was renovated in the 1950s and can still provide water. The keeper’s cottage is still alongside, but the cherry orchard is now an ornamental garden. Though the village is no longer dependent on the well for its water supply, it is being maintained as a tourist attraction.

The saga of the Maharajah’s well, had an interesting sequel. In 1951, the grandson of  Maharaja Ishwari Prasad Singh, Maharaja Vibhuti Narayan Singh (1927-2000) asked one of his British visitors about the well, which his grandfather had donated. Happily for the Maharaja, the visitor knew all the details, and he decided to repair the well. With a sense of timing like his grandfather, the present Maharaja chose the visit of HRH Queen Elizabeth to Benares in 1961 to point out that the centenary of the well wasn’t too far away, and presented an ivory model of the well to the Queen. He  went to the UK, repaired the well, and invited the Duke of Edinburgh to grace the centenary of the opening of the well at Stoke Row on April 8, 1964, and 1,500 invitees had a lovely spring day out.

Today, the Stoke Row village has about 650 inhabitants and about 3500 tourists come annually to visit the Maharaja’s well.

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