A modest and simple-looking covered well sits outside the Nuffield Hospital in Woodingdean, near Brighton and Hove. Despite its simple look, Woodingdean Water Well holds the record for being the world’s deepest hand-dug well. It is as deep as the Empire State Building in New York, at 390 meters.
The original intention was to build a 6-foot-wide brick-lined well down to 400 feet, where the subterranean water table would be reached. After two years of drilling, the shaft had reached a depth of 400 feet, but no water had been discovered. The contractor gave orders for a lateral chamber to be driven 30 feet northward, believing they had missed the water source. But this too yielded nothing.
More lateral tunnels were dug west and east, but none of them worked. Rather than give up, the authorities authorized the excavation of a 4-foot-wide shaft at the eastern tunnel’s end. For the following two years, men worked in horrible conditions, digging around the clock.
Workers descended rickety ladders hundreds of feet below the ground, using hand tools to dig into the earth, piling buckets with debris and delivering it up to the top, then lining the tiny interior with bricks passed down from above. Workers were able to breathe because steam engines circulated air through pipes below.
The more the well was dug, the more expensive it became to keep going. After water broke through the surface at a depth of 1285 feet and four years of digging, the men hurried up the shaft to prevent drowning. Climbing out of such incredible depth took 45 minutes alone.
Despite the high cost, extensive effort, and assurances that the well would save the town a fortune in water rates each year, it was only utilized for four years before being replaced by a more practical mains supply.
It is presently encircled by a 2-foot flint and brick wall, with a metal lid on top to keep people and goods from falling down.
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