Gaylene Gould: Black Mary’s Hole

In the 1600’s the River Fleet was in its heyday, running proudly from Hampstead all the way down to the city of London, past Bagnigge House just south of Kings Cross where they say Nell Gwynne entertained her lover, King Charles II. The river’s water trickled down through layers of soil and sand until it splashed against the London Clay Basin. With nowhere to go, the water bubbled up again, replete with rich ferrous oxide and minerals, creating a spine of healing water wells in the river’s wake. One such well was called Black Mary’s Hole, situated close to the fancy Bagnigge House. The well was said to cure eye afflictions and was purportedly managed by a Black woman called Mary Woolaston.

Arguably there isn’t a body that more reflects Gaia theory, developed by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, than bodies of water. Water carries the stories of the environment it traverses through. Urban rivers whisper the secrets of the city if we listen closely enough. Now driven underground, the Fleet carries memories of the healing wells that once ringed London, offering a balm to the growing, disease-ridden city. In the seventeenth century those healing wells were our physicians, our gathering places, our spaces of ritual.

St Chad’s Well sat close to Black Mary’s Hole and in his book Spas, Wells and Pleasure Gardens, James Stevens Curl describes: ‘There was miraculous water, quaffed by the bilious and other invalids who flocked to visit in crowds to drink at the cost of sixpence. The water there was a laxative. It was heated in a large cauldron and thrown off into glasses, a pint being considered actively purgative, mildly tonic and powerfully diuretic.’

Maybe Black Mary’s Hole also had a vibe like this. Maybe Mary’s well offered a place of respite for the needy. Maybe Mary had her own spiritual practices, which meant that she could offer a little something special. Maybe, unlike St Chad, she honoured another deity, the Goddess Isis, who the Romans had brought with them to England. A Roman relic was found close to her well, after all.

Another book that mentions Black Mary’s Hole, The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England by Richard Charles Hope, says: ‘Some say a black woman named Woolaston leased here a conduit to which the citizens resorted to drink the waters, and who kept a black cow, whose milk gentleman and ladies drank with the waters.’

Water does not write its own history and rarely do Black women of the past. So while researching Mary’s shadowy story, we only have the words of men to go on and they flow quickly past and around her. They conflate her with the ‘Black Maries’ of the neighbouring St Mary’s Benedictine Nunnery despite the closing of the convent during the Reformation at least fifty years before Mary’s appearance. Probably the most compelling evidence that a Black woman did indeed run the well is the very strange title given to it: Black Mary’s Hole. It is highly unlikely that a well once run by nuns would be given such a sexually suggestive name even if those nuns were Catholic.

Pollution from industry eventually turned the Fleet rank. The Myddleton brothers who were key to the founding of the East India Company, practised their colonising enterprise on the founding of the New River, which eventually piped fresh water into London and put the wells out of business. Soon after this, Mary Woolaston died. The well was bricked over and so too were the memory of the healing waters and the mysterious woman who dispensed them.

Over three hundred years later, I am now leading a project to revive Mary Woolaston and the spirit of her healing well, working with a team of Black women artists and members of the Calthorpe Community Gardens, which border the land that Mary Woolaston once tended. The community, caretaking and healing work that takes place at Calthorpe echoes the nourishing spirit of the water wells. To pay homage to the ancestor that watered the land before us, we will be creating a contemplative healing garden and permanent artwork in Mary’s honour. Through the tenacious historical research of Calthorpe member Emanuela Aru, we believe we have now located the actual spot where Black Mary’s Hole once was. A small circular scrub of land sits in the overgrown grounds of a housing estate just off the King’s Cross Road. When sitting in that spot, the noise of the traffic miraculously disappears and you are left in a well of peace. This project continues to draw many of us together in a community of care – a testament to the fact that, even when buried, the ancient healing waters beneath our feet continue to guide us.


Gaylene Gould is an artist who creates projects out of a desire for a more compassionately connected world. She specialises in place-based works that connect the buried memories of a place with the memories of people, as a way to more deeply connect. Her projects have been commissioned by Tate, V&A, Clore Leadership, Selfridges, Durham University, Moderna Museet Sweden and BAM, New York amongst others. Gaylene is also a culture broadcaster and is currently host of the Serpentine podcast.

The Black Mary Project will be launched in 2024. You can read more about and follow the project’s progress at the Black Mary Project website and Instagram.