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The Mystery of Emma’s Well

By John Ruffels on September 9, 2019 in Other

Well, well, well… what have we here? by Andrew Worssam.

At the top of Heartbreak Hill, the steep stretch of New South Head Road at Rose Bay loved by City To Surf runners, and directly opposite the Rose Bay Convent is a low sandstone wall just behind the normal roadside gutter. Attached to the wall is a marble tablet telling you this is the site of Emma’s Well.
The spring is permanent water and formed the northern arm of a stream which flowed through the Tivoli property and into Rose Bay at Sophia’s Falls. Mr George Thorne of Claremont is given the credit of having a trough placed there in 1874 for the benefit of horses labouring up the long hill. Iron cups were also placed there for human use and a stream of water from the land of the Hon. Sir John Hay was diverted to it to ensure a constant supply of water.
Back in 1934 when Woollahra Council planted this plaque, this innocent spot became the subject of a lively debate about who Emma actually was. The illustrious Royal Australian Historical Society brought out three eminent commentators who each had a different opinion. The debate was in the newspapers and lasted five years.
A Paddington man, who used to travel to Vaucluse to fish, recalled back in 1874 often seeing an Aboriginal couple who lived in a hut opposite the well. The Aboriginal man was known as Peter Collins and his wife was Emma. One day the fisherman produced some chalk and wrote “Emma’s Well” on a large rock beside the stream.
As frequently happened back then, when much was not written down, the local Wentworth family said they had always called it St Agnes’ Well from a hymn about Good King Wenceslaus. Someone else felt sure the name came from a sonnet by English poet William Wordsworth (which mentioned a spring and a girl named Emma). Other locals just called it The Spring.
Prominent historian K. R. Cramp decreed in the delicate language of his day, “Emma was probably an old ‘abo’ woman of the early days, who showed settlers, or even perhaps the military in convict days, this unfailing supply of crystal-clear water.” Back then natural spring-water was important for travellers in mid-summer Australia, especially on steep hills.
Despite all this expert knowledge there was another explanation. A quick search on Google answered the mystery; up came details of a village in Hertfordshire, England, named Amwell, which had a fresh water spring supposed to have curative powers and was named Emma’s Well.
“O’vering with shrubs that fringe the chalky rock. A little fount purr’d forth its gurgling rill. In flinty channel trickling o’er the green, From EMMA nam’d perhaps some sainted maid, For holy life rever’d so such erewhile, Fond superstition many a pleasant grove, And limpid Spring was wont to consecrate, Of Emma’s story nought Tradition speaks, Conjecture who behind Oblivion’s veil. Along the doubtful past delights to fray, boasts now indeed that from her well the place Received as appellation. In Domesday book this village Amwell written Emmaswelle.”
The well’s water flows under the road, and fills the aforementioned artificial pool, created by damming, with its two interlinked manicured turfed isles. Upon the islet is a monument to this scheme’s deviser, Sir Hugh Myddleton (1609). It states:
“From the spring at Chadwell 2 miles west and from this source at Amwell the aqueduct meanders for the space of XL miles conveying health, pleasure and convenience to the metropolis of Great Britain. An immortal task since man cannot more nearly initiate the Deity than by bestowing health. This monument was dedicated by Robert Mylne, architect, engineer in 1800. Sacred to the memory of Sir Hugh Myddleton Bart who, successfully assisted by the patronage of the King, conveyed this stream to London. This humble tribute to the genius, talents and clarity of mind.”