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New River Folk

A fictional museum of working-class water culture by Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe

New River Head in Clerkenwell is part of a historic landscape of water that included wells, spas, springs and rivers. At the time of the New River’s construction in 1604, water was seen by many people as sacred. Water-related rituals and superstitious beliefs were an important part of life.

Once completed in 1613, the New River created a major shift in people’s relationship with water. The river was an engineering feat that brought much-needed, ‘sweete’ fresh water to London. At the same time, it replaced medieval water culture in the city. People no longer gathered at communal wells and fountains. This weakened social bonds and the potential for collective political action. It moved people away from nature and increased their reliance on technology and infrastructure.

Below are objects attributed to three Londoners who were affected by this change. Mary Woolaston (a well-keeper), Joan Starkey (a tankard-bearer) and William Mollitrape (a mole catcher employed by the New River Company). They are part of the New River Folk museum’s collection and were excavated by narrative archaeologists Copsey and Crewe in 2021.

Mary Woolaston (Black Mary), well-keeper
The River Fleet in London was once called the River of Wells and Black Mary’s Hole was one of them. It was located close to Sadler’s Well.

In medieval culture, ‘miracle plays’ based on biblical themes were regularly performed at wells. But Black Mary’s Hole was said to be for the more mystic customer. Guests would visit on a full moon for ritual and the water’s healing properties – especially the ability to cure sore eyes.

There are many theories about the origin of the name ‘Black Mary’s Hole’. One curious account from 1813 says that “the hole, was leased to one Mary Woolaston, who kept a black cow, whose milk the gentleman and ladies consume, with the conduit waters.” Recent research suggests that Black Mary may have been a woman of colour making a living from the sale of healing waters. Or was Black Mary a nun from nearby St Mary’s Priory, dressed in a black habit?

In 2006 a local psychic visited the vicinity of Black Mary’s Hole. They said the hole was a sacrificial pit dedicated to a lunar goddess. Is it a coincidence lunar deities such as Isis and Hathor are often portrayed as cows?

No trace of Black Mary’s Hole survives today. It has been built over and perhaps now rests under the housing block named Spring House on Cubitt Street.

Photograph of 21 black and white printed playing cards, each with a different illustration and caption, including 'ingest' with an image of a cocktail,  and 'The King' with an image of a foot poking above the surface of the water

Black Mary’s ritual cards

58° 48´ 25˝ N 0° 03´ 21˝ W
Replica Black Mary’s Hole ritual cards, inspired by a deck said to have been used by Black Mary herself during lunar rituals.

The symbols and meanings of each card refer to the watery history of Clerkenwell’s healing spas, wells and springs, and stories and characters from the New River’s past.

The collaged photograms were made in the New River on the New Moon when the landscape was dark enough to capture traces of the water onto light-sensitive paper.

Photograph of back and white playing cards arranged in three hands. The top cards are 'idle talk' with an image of a scold's bridle, 'the blind poet' with two eyes and 'Black Mary' with an intricate pattern

Black Mary’s ritual cards

58° 48´ 25˝ N 0° 03´ 21˝ W

Photograph of a bone cast in pewter with a brown string threaded through the top

The Devil’s Conduit ampulla

51° 31´ 43.4˝ N 0° 06´ 28.2˝ W
Pendent in pewter, cast from a bone found in the Devil’s Conduit.

Used to store healing water close to the heart during pilgrimages to Black Mary’s Hole, a site renowned for its healing properties, particularly the ability to cure sore eyes.

In the 1500s, pilgrimages to sacred places were the main reason that ordinary people travelled. Ampulla vials were a common souvenir.

Objects capture a moment in time and having responsibility for them gives us purpose. Perhaps this motivated the New River Company to rebuild a conduit at their site, even though their water pipes had made them obsolete.

Two poloroid photographs, one of a moon-like well from above and one of a shop fridge filled with bottles of water

Photographs of Sadler’s Well

Sadler’s Well c.1683 and Sadler’s Well 2021
51° 31´ 46.05˝ N 0° 06´ 22.12˝ W
Polaroids of the original Sadler’s Well (rediscovered in 1683) and a corner shop ‘well’ – Sadler’s Well – in 2021.

In the medieval era, water was given freely and wells were important cultural sites. Biblical ‘mystery plays’ were performed around wells to captive audiences. Their popularity led to the development of more formal cultural sites, including Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

These images allude to water as an ongoing essential component of all life, but with an increasing reliance on commerce, technology and plastic.

Photograph of a cow's head made with black straw and with a yellow straw woven star on its forehead

Black Mary’s mummers mask

Replica mummers mask made from straw, plaster and ribbon.

Used as a costume for ritual ceremonies (or ‘mumming’) performed at Black Mary’s Hole.

Mary Woolaston, a woman of colour, was a well-keeper. She was said to earn a living from selling its healing waters and performing lunar rituals.

The mask references the intriguing suggestion that a cow living in Black Mary’s field (and perhaps also called Mary) provided milk that visitors to the Hole were said to drink with well water.

Photograph of a cow's head made with black straw and with a yellow straw woven star on its forehead

Black Mary’s mummers mask


Joan Starkeye, tankard-bearer
Water tankard-bearers were a large union of low-status workers, often women and children. They earned a living by collecting free water and selling it door-to-door by the tankard. Joan Starkeye was one of this collective, sourcing water each day from whichever of the quarrelsome wells was least polluted.

The arrival of the New River Company’s profit-making piped water service put many tankard-bearers out of work. This presented a moral question for wealthier citizens who saw hiring tankard-bearers as a charitable act.

Joan and others like her would have been privy to local gossip that was shared at communal wells and fountains. In the medieval era this was frowned upon. The Church said that a demon called Tutivillus would write the name of anyone engaging in ‘idle talk’ on a long scroll to be read on Judgement Day.

The idea of ‘idle talk’ was used as a method of control, a tactic to silence ‘disobedient’ women. Joan may have been vulnerable to accusations of idle talk, a punishable sin where the accused may have to wear a scold’s bridle, a kind of muzzle.

Photograph of a wooden block with an image of a woman standing with water buckets looking at two people with their arms up

Woodblock stamp

1 of 4
For embossing clay.

Each stamp depicts an instance of gossip involving water carriers. Abridged versions of each narrative are etched on the sides of each stamp. The semi-fictional character of water carrier Joan Starkeye witnesses each scene. Her upright form is a deliberate contrast to the widely-distributed etching of a downtrodden 17th-century water carrier by Marcus Laroon.

Wooden block with an image of a woman carrying water buckers with three smaller people under the moonlight etched into the surface

Woodblock stamp

2 of 4

Wood block with an image of a woman carrying two water buckets looking at two people talking under an archway etched into the surface

Woodblock stamp

3 of 4

Woodblock stamp with an image of a large woman carrying water buckets illuminated by the sun and facing a smaller person and a fog etched into the surface

Woodblock stamp

4 of 4

Photograph of a scold's bridle made from woven yellow straw with a black ribbon at the top and two coiled black eyes

Wicker scold’s bridle

Made from dried straw.

Gossip and rumour have always been a part of everyday social life. But in the medieval era, women accused of ‘idle talk’ could be forced to wear an iron muzzle that would physically prevent them from talking.

This ritual protest effigy is made to be burned as an act of reclaiming the freedom to speak.

Photograph with a red clay mug with a brown museum label beside it. The mug is embossed using the wooden stamps displayed earlier in the sequence.

Water tankard

51° 32´ 13˝ N 0° 5´ 51˝ W
(source of London clay)
Made from London red clay, dug from the Packington Estate in Islington.

It is said to have been owned by water tankard-bearer Joan Starkeye and features embossed imagery of her daily grind as a ‘cob seller’. Hidden in the bottom of the tankard is Tutivillus, the demon of idle talk. A pact with the demon is unwittingly entered into when drinking from the vessel.

Photograph of red mug seen from above with a black image of a horned and winged figure inside

Water tankard

51° 32´ 13˝ N 0° 5´ 51˝ W
(source of London clay)

Photograph of a simple wooden camera

Pinhole camera

51° 31´ 43.4˝ N 0° 06´ 28.2˝ W
(location of the Devils Conduit)
Pinhole camera made to capture the aura of the Devil’s Conduit over a three month period.

The Devil’s Conduit was moved from Bloomsbury to New River Head in 1927 and no one can be sure of the etymological links with the devil. Etched onto its walls are historic graffiti and ‘witch marks’, giving rise to theories that the conduit was perhaps the lair of Tutivillus, the demon of ‘idle talk’.

Drawing in black collage and line of a horned, winged figure with the caption 'Tutivillus'

Suspected image of Tutivillus

51° 31´ 43.4˝ N 0° 06´ 28.2˝ W
(location of the Devils Conduit)
Image captured in the Devil’s Conduit using a pinhole camera.

Photograph of a large glass jug full of water with a museum label around the neck

New River water

51° 48´ 20.02˝ N 0° 03´ 7.2˝ W
New River water, collected at the source on the eve of the summer solstice in 2021.

In the 17th-century, gangs of ‘walksmen’ would have patrolled the riverbanks to prevent theft but in 2021 the banks were unguarded.

William ‘Mollitrappe’ Smythe, mole catcher
Moles have been the subject of much folklore down the years, much of it negative. Since medieval times they have been treated somewhere between loathing and pathological hatred. It’s true that they can cause damage to crops and embankments, but their reputation is perhaps more to do with their murky below-ground existence than their destructive actions.

By the 17th-century, people felt that nature should be controlled rather than simply managed. The New River Company cut a channel through the land to create a ‘new river’. Its soft banks needed to be protected from ‘the enemy beneath’, and so a mole catcher named William Smythe was employed.

It must have been a solitary life for William (who later changed his surname to ‘Mollitrape’, perhaps to cash in on the superstitious reputation of his trade). Trudging up and down the New River in all weathers, eyes darting from bank to bank scanning for the merest glimpse of a molehill.

Any ‘gentlemen in black velvet’ that William caught would have presented a lucrative opportunity. Moleskin or paws (which were often worn as good luck charms) could be sold. If a buyer for skins couldn’t be found, it is likely that he would have made his own moleskin coat.

Photograph of a wooden staff with a carved figure at one end: a man wearing a giant moleskin as a costume

Detail of hardwood tool shaft

51° 31´ 42.7˝ N 0° 06´ 33.9˝ W
Possibly a ‘spud’ belonging to mole catcher William ‘Mollitrappe’ Smythe, mentioned in the New River Company works records in March 1613.

‘Spud’ is a colloquial term for a trowel used to uncover mole runs. The carved figure represents the tension between becoming close to something and having to exterminate it.

The shaft was found at New River Head in two halves, perhaps broken by the final mole catcher employed by the New River Company upon their retirement.

Photograph of a long spade, broken in the centre

Hardwood tool shaft

51° 31´ 42.7˝ N 0° 06´ 33.9˝ W

Photograph of a saw with a wooden handle and an intricate design etched into the rusted blade

Steel saw blade

51° 31´ 43.9˝ N 0° 06´ 31.7˝ W
(location of Pipe Borers’ Wharf)
Found at New River Head, fitted with an elm handle and etched with an illustration showing the production of elm pipes used by the New River Company.

Water pipes were made at Pipe Borers’ Wharf on the Thames. Trees were cut to size and hollowed out with a horse-powered machine.

Elm was an interesting choice for underground pipes. It has a long association with the underworld, perhaps because of its resistance to rot and traditional use for coffins. Or it might be because of its reputation for unexpectedly dropping boughs, giving rise to the saying “Elm hateth man, and waiteth”.

Rusted saw blade with etched design showing tree trunks being winched off a boat and then but to shape and a horse-powered engine

Detail of steel saw blade

51° 31´ 43.9˝ N 0° 06´ 31.7˝ W
(location of Pipe Borers’ Wharf)

Rusted saw blade with etched design of people digging a trench to lay pipes with a cityscape in the background

Detail of steel saw blade

51° 31´ 43.9˝ N 0° 06´ 31.7˝ W
(location of Pipe Borers’ Wharf)

Photograph of a wooden musical pipe with finger holes, made of six sections with two sections separateds

Elm pipe woodwind instrument

51° 30´ 22.4˝ N 0° 04´ 59.8˝ W
Reproduction representing pipes used by the New River Company to transport water from Islington to the City.

A 1625 book on gardening refers to ancient techniques for getting rid of moles. Most involve fire, but a more humane suggestion is to thrust leeks, garlic or onions into a mole hole, which causes moles to “forfeit the earth, and fall into a trance.” Perhaps William Smythe found a better way, charming moles with the shrill notes of an elm flute made for him by a carpenter colleague at the wharf.

Photograph of a green knitted hat with a museum label attached to a loop at the top

Monmouth cap

51° 34´ 16.4˝ N 0° 05´ 18.5˝ W
Reproduction felted hat.

In 1613 a lavish opening ceremony was staged at New River Head. Workers were given green Monmouth caps. This may have been a thoughtful gift referencing the Welsh heritage of the New River Company’s governor. Another view is that the hats were a uniform and that the parade of workers wearing them reflected the growing militarisation of cultural rituals. Either way, it’s likely that William appreciated his cap when walking the banks of the river on cold winter mornings.

Monmouth caps were made to one size then boiled until they fitted snugly. This cap was boiled in New River water.

COPSEY AND CREWE NARRATIVE EXCAVATION SERVICES™ are dedicated professionals with years of experience. They work to identify stories with an uncanny sense of time. By following unlikely tangents, their field work involves getting deep, looking underneath, behind and in the margins of things. They find curious metaphors and gaps in recorded knowledge.

Copsey and Crewe admit their findings are fictional and that they “aren’t archaeologists or anything”. The authentic stories they excavate are carefully selected from an array of infinite historic possibilities. Their selections remind us that histories aren’t fixed, they are interpreted from the here and now.

Copsey and Crewe’s current research is centred on unexcavated sites at New River Head and the banks of the New River.

With thanks to other experts in the field:
Alice Blackstock (artist), Alex Copsey (archaeologist), Michael Cranny and Denise Hickey (therapeutic services), Edwin and Wally (concierges at the Metropolitan Water Board building), James Holcombe (Erehwon Lab), Richard Marshall (Hermitage Brewery), Carol Partridge (straw weaver), Tom Rochester (bike mechanic), Andrew Smith (engineer and New River expert), Emily Stapleton-Jefferis (ceramicist) and the staff at Islington Local History Centre and Islington Museum.

Photograph of green fabric tool roll with wooden stamps, test tubes, digging tools, a magnifying glass, a ruler, pens and a Double Decker chocolate bar

This work was created as part of a residency project by Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe. In 2021 they researched the history of water in Clerkenwell. They focused on the trades and superstitions that were part of people’s lives in the 17th century.

Laura and Philip found the names of three working-class Londoners: Mary Woolastone, Joan Starkey and William Mollitrape. They crafted objects to tell each of their stories using different techniques and materials found at New River Head. They collaborated with a range of people, including Alice Blackstock (who made the Monmouth cap), Emily Stapleton-Jefferis (who advised on the water tankard) and Carol Partridge (who supported the making of Black Mary’s mummers mask and the wicker scold’s bridle).

New River Folk speculates on the experiences and beliefs of people who do not appear in ‘official’ museums or written histories. By combining archival fragments and fiction, Laura and Philip aim to make them visible.

Laura Copsey is an experimental illustrator from East Anglia and Philip Crewe is a designer from the Isle of Wight. They are a collaborative duo with a playful approach to illustration and storytelling. Their work is inspired by archaeological fieldwork and explores traces of human endeavour from history, heritage locations, traditional trades and museum collections. Laura and Philip inhabit the the grey area between what is real and imagined using processes that connect them to time and place, to communicate their experience and the narratives they excavate.

Images © Laura Copsey and Philip Crewe, photographed by Justin Piperger

Our residency programme invites illustrators to explore heritage and is generously supported by the Barbara and Philip Denny Trust.