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Hand digging a well

Hand dug wells and other manual methods to dig a well have been in existence for thousands of years. Though mechanized methods are more efficient and effective, there are often no options for people and communities in need of water.

In rural areas of the developing world it is still the most common means of providing water to villages and homes. The volume of water in a well acts like a reservoir which can meet high demands, replenishing during periods of no abstraction.

Traditional technique

At we still use the traditional hand digging technique for 

shallows wells. Although most wells we dig and construct now are for 

aesthetic reasons with lighting and glass tops we can still provided shallow 

wells where boreholes are not suitable.


Hand Digging


When digging a well by hand, using simple tools like a spade and shovel, with a bucket on a rope to remove cuttings, this is the oldest method of getting access to groundwater.

We still use this method with many of the modern day safety precautions.

Hand dug wells can range in depth from 4m to around 30m to exploit the known aquifer. It is impractical to excavate a well less than 1m diameter. A diameter of 1.2m to 1.5m diameter provides adequate working space.

A large diameter hand dug wells may produce more water than a borehole in the same aquifer.

We generally construct wells from pre-cast concrete rings, however these are unslightly and we often provide a brick inner lining.

After construction the base is plugged with gravel. This helps to prevent silty materials from clay soils or fines from sandy materials being drawn into the well. Any annular space between the lining and excavation will be filled with gravel.

Machine dug wells

Where the space and land allows it is quicker and cheaper to construct a well using a large excavator and concrete rings.

This is not our preferred method but it is efficient and provides as good water yield as hand dug wells.

The outside of the rings are surrounded with 40mm gravel to ensure good yield. The well is pump for several days to clear water channels and any silt from the digging process.

As per a hand dug well the base is plugged with gravel. This helps to prevent silty materials from clay soils or fines from sandy materials being drawn into the well.


Life after Death - A transcript of an article by A.E.Clarke

What is it like and how i came to know

What is like to be faced with a situation you may have often dreaded, and knew could happen without warning. The moment when you all is finished you think of your wife and family. Do you panic, I didn’t, may be the absence of oxygen in the

air dulled my senses, although I remember vividly that “I am finished feeling”. I do not remember losing my calm:

How did this come about, well it happened the last war in a little Suffolk village near Lowestoft, a place called Haw Wood Darsham, and passing through there again recently brought it all back again, and I felt I would like to record my experience as it might be of some interest, and if printed might catch the eye of the men serving with the R.A.F. at this camp in the woods where it happened.


I was employed by an Ipswich firm of Water Engineers to sink a well for a water supply for the camp and knowing the district well I knew I would have to dig down about a hundred feet to get water, I also knew there was a real risk of what we called foul air or carbon dioxide gas that could come through any of the various strata’s of soil without warning, so it was necessary to keep a candle burning all the time for as soon as the gas began to form the candle would become dim and then go out for want of oxygen.

This practise of burning a candle before I went down and always keeping it alight, it was always very religiously adhered to, as I knew my life depended on it, in fact it was also necessary to keep a check on the air at various levels as the well became deeper, for pockets of foul air could form down where I was working and quickly overcome me as I passed through it on my way up or down.

At the time this incident happened I had dug down about forty feet or so in heavy blue clay and was expecting a good deal more of this very difficult soil, hence my joy when I suddenly broke through it to a sand strata, in fact I was so pleased I decided I would not do any more that day. It was then about four o’clock and we normally worked to about five, so I came up, put out my candle and went to a small tea shop nearby and stayed about half an hour to celebrate our good fortune.

The well such as I was sinking had to be lined with large concrete tubes which had to be made to follow us as the soil was removed. This is sometimes difficult and at this time they were moving very slowly so on coming back from the tea shop I found they had moved as far they should, I decided to make a quick descent to see what the trouble was and it was this that nearly finished my life.


I had at this time two ladders placed inside the well lining to go up and down by, but it was my practise when in a hurry to go down in the soil bucket, this I did on this occasion not troubling to light my candle again as I did not intend to stay down and I had not as yet seen any sign of foul air since I had started, I remember that still feeling placed at my good fortune at the change of soil, I was singing as I was lowered down, but on reaching the bottom I found myself feeling drowsy and helpless and I knew at once I had allowed myself to be lowered as I thought to my grave.

I put my hands helplessly on the side and tried to call out, but could not, and knowing how remote were my chances of getting out alive I had no illusions about my position or fate and in fact so quick is the effect of foul air I was soon in a heap on the clay floor of the well.

My mate at the time leaned over the top to speak to me and receiving no answer knew something was wrong. Something he dreaded might happen for he knew that I had many times told him that if I ever got trapped by foul air never to come down to me for it would only mean two deaths instead of one, a thing that had happened many times and had sometimes involved three deaths for nothing, so you imagine his predicament and state of mind when this happened.

As I have said it was an R.A.F. camp and he ran to the guard room for help and the alarm soon brought many helpers but they soon really saw they could do very little, but they did prevail in persuading my mate to come down the ladder a little to try and find out if I was still alive. He told me afterwards that he came about half way down and could then see me laying on the bottom, and feeling himself going he quickly climbed out again and said I was dead.


An officer then managed to persuade him to put on a gas mask and he then allowed them to lower him down again in the soil bucket, attached to which was another small rope such as builders use to tie scaffolding, but which had only two strands instead of three, it was these two strands that he hurriedly tied round me before quickly climbing out again by the ladders. The large rope on the soil bucket and to which was attached the smaller rope was affixed to a roller on a hand winch and by this I was gradually wound up but not before a mishap through excitement by those on the handles, I was allowed to slip down again.

When I was eventually pulled out artificial respiration was started and kept up for a long time without much success or much hope of results, but their perseverance was at last rewarded and I started to breath again, and my first recollection since becoming unconscious was hearing voices that seemed at first to be miles away gradually getting nearer and nearer. I was taken to Halesworth Hospital where I lost consciousness again and had to remain there for almost a week.

My mate at this time was suffering more than I was for we were lodging at the village undertakers house, and he often used to bring a coffin indoors in the evening to line it etc. and a day or two before my incident a man had been killed on a local aerodrome, and he was brought to the house and put in the front room until a coffin was made, and my mate although he was a man of about thirty had never seen a dead man before, and this coupled with seeing me as he thought dead prayed on his mind. Well I was able after about a week to resume my job, this time with an air line attached to an engine driven fan pumping down fresh air all the time, and I was able to finish the job safely.

Well what is it like to find yourself alive again, it is a wonderful experience, you just cannot believe it at first and you seem to have been given a completely new start, and everything you held dear before become more precious. You look at your wife and children as if they are something that have been given back to you and you somehow feel you have gained by the experience. I might say that when I got home and saw my family again in this way they did not know that I had been through this experience as I was away lodging and I never spoke about it when I got home, so as not to make them worry about my job, and it was only by means of a letter from a relation that had seen the account in a local paper where it happened that my wife got to know about it all as I had asked that she should not be informed.

My only regret is that my mate, a Mr Potter from Ipswich was never rewarded or had his gallantry recognised for what he did.

The war being on and so much was happening all the time that what would have caused a stir in normal times became a trivial affair, but not to me, and I know I shall never forget when I thought my life was finished, and as you will realise that had this happened anywhere else but a camp so that plenty of help was available, and of course the services mask it would have been the finish for me and I should have joined the many workmen that have without warning been sacrificed in the service of others.

An amazing story, thank you very much for sharing this with us. Both my father and I have enjoyed reading it and our memories of well digging.

Glen Denny,

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