Monthly Archives: June 2012

Holy Well, Wishing well, Dairy or Grotto? The mystery behind Hollinhead’s holy well

From the car park one has an evocative if a little muddle journey to the ruins of Hollinshead Hall and its so called Holy Well, although it is well worth it. My knowledge of this curious well being drawn by an excellent article by Cramshaw in the now defunct Source. The house has virtually been raised to the ground all bar a few foot high walls criss-cross the field they lie and by far the most substantial remains is the holy well. As such it is the largest holy well in the county yet for certain is known regarding it.

It can be described as being built in the same sandstone rubble as the hall with a stone slate roof. The building a single cell is built into a slope from which the spring arises and is encapsulated by it. Either side a high walls creating a sort of forecourt with side benches with inward-facing chamfered piers with ball finials at the ends. The well house itself is quite an attractive building and is certainly not thrown up, having a symmetrical facade with chamfered unglazed widows which are fitted with spear-headed iron bars and clearly the building has never been glazed. The gable end has a large oval opening with a matching one at the rear. In the centre is a heavy board door with a chamfered doorway. This doorway unfortunately is locked baring any entrance to the well house.

Peering in through the windows one can see how strong the vaulted roof is, adorned by a pendent ball in its centre. The spring’s water flows from a crudely carved lion’s head, either side of a reredo of Ionic colonnettes, with a sunken stone tank beneath and each side a rectangular recess which enclose rectangular pools. There is a diamond-paved floor with a central gutter draining from this well or trough at centre of rear wall:

Curative water

Abram’s “Blackburn (1877) is perhaps the first to state that the water was curative. However, anonymous quote in Nightingales History of Tockholes  describes the well as:

“Here no less than five different springs of water, after uniting together and passing through a very old carved stone representing a lion’s head, flow into a well.  To this Well pilgrimages were formerly made and the water which is of a peculiar quality, is remarkable as an efficacious remedy for ophthalmic complaints.”

Post-Reformation holy well or is it a diary or grotto

Local tradition accounts that there was a site here from Medieval times and indeed, that the name Hollinshead was derived from a version of holy well although O.E hol, for hollow is more likely although there is a Halliwell Fold Farm nearby being derived from O.E halig for healing. The pool  with steps down above the well house may be the original well of course. The discovery of a hoard of medieval coins in 1970s would support the date and perhaps they were an offering. Another tradition is that the site was a resting place for pilgrims to Whalley Abbey and that the trough was used as  baptistery, however, this would be more likely to be the spring above the well house.. It is probably a springhouse, a structure built over a natural source of water for the storage of dairy products and other foods that needed to be kept fresh.

Reculsancy, that is practising Catholicism in secret, was very prevalent in Lancashire and the well house does the bear the coat of arms of the Radcliffes . It would suggest why the structure is so ornate and suggest a 1600s date although many authorities suggest an 18th century origin.  The site would be a secret baptistery and its design as a dairy ,would also help as well as being still function, certainly the presence of benches suggest this functionality. It appears to be too close to the house to be a garden folly such as a grotto! The suggestion of stained glass in the windows suggests something more significant discovered during the present stone roof’s construction. Indeed, the choice of the lion’s head is possibly that of the ‘Lion of Judah’, meaning Jesus providing rich and valuable water, although this is a common motif on many drinking fountains of course! Interesting, Cramshaw tells us that the site was in the 1980s the site of a well dressing, although what type is unclear and no other author has mentioned it as far as I am aware. Perhaps we shall never know the real origin of this delightful building.

The Lady Well of Woolpit

The village boasts a spring of clear and clean water has been an important site of pilgrimage possibly for centuries, called The Lady’s Well ( TL 977 626 ) although the villages most prominent attraction was its church.

Confusion over the Lady Chapel

Before the Reformation Woolpit’s Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Our Lady with its miracle giving Virgin was the religious focal point of this region of East Anglia. Its patron effigy was adorned with riches of silver and gold; the many gifts donated by thankful wealthy and poor pilgrims alike who were cured by the act of prayer here.  The chapel even saw was Royal patronage in the form of Henry VII ‘s wife, Queen Elizabeth, who visited it in 1501. First mentioned in 1211 and 1214 in a mandate from the Bishop Of Norwich, which granted all its to the nearby monks of Bury Abbey. It remained an important place of adoration for centuries, and records of Wills show that many legacies were given to upkeep the shrine. As early as the 13th Century, The Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, was established, on the 8th September, a fair to cater for and capitalise on the pilgrim trade.       However as with most prominent shrines it ultimately meet the wrath of the overzealous Henry VIII. Around 1538 he ordered that the Image be removed, and the surrounding chapel was consequently removed about 1551. After this the site was largely forgotten and Woolpit slips into the fringes of history. Although archaeologists disagree on the location fine details, it is believed to lie the North side of the church’s Chancel.

Not a mediaeval shrine?

There would appear to be no evidence to suggest, however, that although the village was a pilgrim site, that the well was venerated before the Reformation. Indeed one could suggest that the well’s veneration somehow was a substitute for the loss of the chapel and its effigy. This is supported by the fact that the earliest specific reference to the well is post-Reformation and is mentioned as a piece of land in a survey of the manor of 1573-76, referring back to manorial court of 1557-58:

“..lying alongside the way which led to the spring called our lady’s well.’

However, first description of the well is not until 1778 within church notes written by Sir John Cullum. These state:

“in  a close near the near the east ends of the Church is a spring still bricked up called Our Ladys Spring.”

They continue to state that Parish tradition:

“ says there was a chapel near the spring.”

Now is this the Lady chapel or another chapel? This would appear to be the earliest mention concerning a chapel serving the well directly. The lack of contemporary records of such a well chapel would appear to suggest antiquarian confusion with the Woolpit Lady Chapel. However after this mention the existence of this chapel is emphasised in Gough’s 1789 Britannia:

“..a spring which is called Our Ladys Spring, that the inhabitants have traditional report….that there was a chapel near the spring, but there is no remains of it. The spring is a square and bricked and supplies a large moat with very clear water.”

It all depends what is meant by near? An unlikely source, mainly because of its lack of academic rigour, Arthur Mee (1904) mentions a chapel in association with the well and records that Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds travelled to Rome in 1173 to secure the revenue for the well, and Dickinson ( 1957, an update on that of 1904 ) emphasises a mediaeval origin. However neither authors quote earlier sources and on known evidence appear erroneous. Abbot Samson did claim the revenue of the Lady Chapel and thus these authors show how confusion with Our Lady’s Chapel can occur. The earliest record of direct pilgrimage associated with the spring was referred to by the Rev John Cobbold of Woolpit in a letter to David Elisha Davy, a Suffolk Antiquarian. He states that:

“..tradition says that a pilgrimage of Holy Nuns came from Ireland to visit it.”

This was recalled by a local lady of 90 years, and he states that the well was still:

“In great request with antiquated females….for its numerous virtues.”

Indeed from 1794 until 1802, Augustinian Holy Nuns may have come from an English convent at Bruges to live at Hengrave Hall where they established their own Chapel. In Bury St Edmunds and Its Environs ( 1827 ) its anonymous author described it as a ‘ far-famed well ‘ being:

“A perpetual spring about two feet deep of beautiful clear water, and so cold that a hand immersed in it is very soon benumbed.”

This I can personally vouch for in winter! The author continues that: ‘It is used occasionally for the immersion of weakly children, and much resorted by people with weak eyes.’ This benefit for eyes is noted by William Dutt, in his Little Guide to Suffolk (1904), as well as the ubiquitous Arthur Mee (1904). Walker (1988) states the Queen Elizabeth I visited the well. However I have been unable to find any corroborative evidence for this claim and suggest that the author may have confused the incident with Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII, who as previously noted visited the Lady Chapel, and not the well!

Considering the water’s benefits, tests were made by Anglia Water Authority were made in 1978. They revealed the water to be more mineralised than the drinking water supply abstraction around Bury St Edmunds. A high sulphate level was also recorded, which medically is of interest as sulphates were used as an antiseptic, and thus could be useful against trachoma (an eye ailment), explaining the use of the water as a eye curative.

The site became an Ancient Monument in 1978, despite the area of the well being overgrown: the well itself only being identified as being beneath a rotten wooden board. Consequently access to the well was difficult until 1989-1991 when preservation work was done. The work commenced in 1989, and has improved access and preservation considerably. The area now being designated as a Nature Reserve. This preservation work was carried out by English Heritage, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Mid Suffolk Council, Parish Council and brewers Ruddles.

The well is composed of a square structure of grey stone work of about a foot depth. A metal grid with chicken wire has been wielded over the opening to the well. Obviously to prevent it becoming clogged with leaves, and anything or one falling in! The water is clear, and flows in a Northerly direction through a square aperture, large enough to insert ones hand to sample the water, into a small stream that feeds the moat.

The Our Lady’s Well at Woolpit, in its woodland setting, is a magical site. Woolpit itself is a remarkable village, steeped in history and lore. Most of its claims to fame being displayed upon the prominent village sign ( depicted ), the well is however is absent, perhaps it was difficult to depict!! the name of the village is believed, among other possible theories, to originate from a pit dug to dispose of wolves: indeed it is said that wolves are said to haunt here! The village boasts an impressive Parish church ( worthy of a visit for its surviving poppy heads alone ), a village Lock-up and ornate Victorian village well canopy. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame, is the story of the Green Children, a strange Babes-In-The-Woodsesque story that any half decent folklorist will recant at length. For those curious, the church has an original translation from the latin account which describes the appearance of the green boy and girl, of whom the former died, but the latter lived,  lost her greenness, and married a Norfolk man. This is despite only eating peas!!? A story owing perhaps more to symbolic fable than substantiated fact.

Recently clooties and an effigy of our Lady have arrived!

Some lost wells and found wells of eastern central London

DSC_0064Finsbury’s Sadler’s Well is believed by some to have been a converted holy well. Indeed, Hood (1813) records that in A True and Exact Account of Sadler’s Well, 1684:

“the new Well at Islington is a certain Spring in the middle of a Garden, belonging to the Musick-house, built by Mr Sadler… the water whereof was, before the Reformation, very much famed for several extraordinary cures performed therby, and was therefore accounted sacred, and called Holy-Well… But, upon the Reformation, the Well was stopt up’, until some workmen uncovered it, and Sadler began to market it as a spa.”

Despite the likelihood of the site being a holy well it is more probable that the site had a back history created for the benefit of advertising the spa. In the recent refurbishment of the Opera House, the old Sadler’s well was not forgotten and now has been given a clear cover so that the well can be observed just right of the foyer up the stairs.


In Holborn, the Powis Well was discovered according to Foord (1910) before 1721 as it is mentioned in The Weekly Journal of 1721 January 17th::

 “Tuesday morning last happened a very odd and deplorable accident; a man going to a little spring at the back of Lord Powis’s house, in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, to which  there is a great resort on account of its being reported good in several impurities; stooping to wash his eyes, as ’tis supposed, he fell headlong in and was suffocated.”

Clearly named after the house it was found in the garden of, now the north-west end of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and as stated its water was said to be good for eyes. The well had a house of entertainment and walks associated with it. Foord (1910) notes an advertisement dated August 4, 1748 (the name of the newspaper does not appear) announces that :

 “The Long Room at Powis Wells by Lamb’s Conduit will be opened for the Summer Season, with an assembly of Country Dancing. To begin on Monday next. Tickets to be had at the said Wells at two shilings each. The doors to be opened at four o’clock. There will be good Musick and good accommodations.”

Another advertisement (of 1754) is in these terms:

 “Powis Wells by the Foundling Hospital. These waters are now in their full perfection. They are of a sweetening, diuritic, and gently purging quality, and are recommended by many eminent Physicians and Surgeons for the cure of breakings out, sore legs, inflammation of the eyes, and other scorbutic and leprous disorders, &c. Those who send for these waters are desired to take notice that the Bottles are sealed upon the cork with the words ‘Powis Wells Water.’”

The site is now lost, but is remembered in Powis Street. Three noted healing springs existed in the Clerkenwell parish, one of which gave the borough its name. The Clerks Well is the best preserved holy well in this area of London. The spring is so called because as Hone (1823) notes that the Miracle Plays were performed here by virtue of its suitability of its aspect,

“being a rapid slope from Clerkenwell Green down to the valley of the Fleet, forming a sort of natural amphitheatre, whence the spectators could see distinctly all that went on below them.”

Stow gives its position as:

“ not far from the west end of Clerkenwell Church, but close without the wall that incloseth it.”

Agas’s (1558)  pictorial plan of London shows that the water gushed from a spout at the south-west corner of St. Mary’s Nunnery, and falling into a trough, enclosed by a low wall as described by Stow. In 1673, James third Earl of Northampton donated the water and its land to the poor of St. James. However, this did not stop the Vestry leasing the spring to John Crosse a brewer, who enclosed the well and ran a conduit from it to Hockley in the Hole. The well had formerly iron- work and brass cocks, which are now cut off. The water spins through the old wall. I was there and tasted the water and found it excellently clear, sweet, and well tasted.  The Clerks’ Well was still marked by a pump in 1858 in the south-east corner of Ray Street, the spring from which it was supplied being 4 feet eastwards. An iron tablet which was erected over the pump remains and it commemorates the Clerk’s performances and that ‘the water was greatly esteemed by the prior and brethren of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and the Benedictine Nuns in the neighbourhood.’ By 1897, the well existed being covered by a massive brick arch, but under the floor of No. 18, Farringdon Road, formerly the parish watch-house. But by 1924, the exact location was unknown, but it was rediscovered on Farringdon Lane. The site was finally renovated in 1984, with a small exhibition.


Of the Skinner’s Well, another spring associated by Miracle or Mystery plays, this time done by the Skinners, it is noted in a Feet of Fines MS notes a Godewell described as between the Priory and the Holeburne ; apparently somewhat to the south. The name at least dates from 1327 as a Charter was granted to the Skinners then by they would have existed before then to be granted such a charter so the well may be older in its dedication.

Foord (1910) states that the Skinners’ Well had been lost by 1720 if not by Stow’s time but he was informed that it lay west of St. James Church Clerkenwell and was enclosed within certain houses there. He notes that:

“Dr. Rogers, who formerly lived in an house there, showed Mr. Edmund Howard, late churchwarden, marks in a wall in the close where, as he affirmed, the pipes lay, that it might be known after his death.”

Yet exact site of Skinners’ Well is not now known. Another site may be considered a holy well by virtue of association, Loders Well; was granted to the Nuns of Clerkenwell in year 1200 by a Muriel de Montigny who gave the  ‘fons qui vocatur Lodderswell’ with a right-of-way thereto from the Priory. The site of the well has now been lost.


The final Clerkenwell site was the Coldbath spring was located near the Clerk’s wel, near river Fleet and Turnmill Brook. It was described as a mild chalybeate spring at first drunk and then by 1697 to be bathed in. Sutherland (1915) tells us that Walter Baynes noted it as the most noted and first bathing place in London. Water was good for scorbutic complaints, rheumatism, chronic disorders and help with the appetite. It consisted of a 103 foot by 60 foot bath and in its large garden was a four turret summer house. In 1815 the front of the building as removed but the bath remained until 1870. The neighbourhood was called Coldbath fields and now nothing is left to remember it

There are a number of well sites at Cripplegate; possibly some recall the same site. The most confirmed was at the back of St. Giles Church was the Crowder’s or Crowd’s Well which according to Childrey (1661) as tasting like new milk and was good for eyes.  Near the site was a Jewish cemetery and it has been commented that a Crowell is close to a medieval Jewish cemetery in Oxford and a Crowder’s Terrace in Winchester near a medieval cemetery. This view is further supported by the presence of a Jacob’s Well north of the cemetery plot. It has been postulated that this well may have been a mikveh used on the site for ritual ablutions (cf Jacob’s Well Bristol, also near a Jewish cemetery). Until fairly recently a Pub, Crowd’s Well remembered it, but it too has gone.   Monkwell Street commemorates the Monk Well. The site is possibly linked to a hermitage or Chantry chapel established in 1347 by Lady Mary de St. Pol, Countess of Pembroke. She granted the Cistercian Abbey of Garendon, Leicestershire, two tenements one in Fleet Street and the other in Sherbourne Lane. In return the Abbot and Convent were to maintain one monk in a hermitage near Cripplegate, to pray for the soul of Aymer de Valence, late Earl of Pembroke.   Foord (1909) notes that a little west of Well Street and Monk well was a site called St. Giles’s Well. There is no evidence of this well having this name and so may have been a site by association with St. Giles’ church and a confusion with Monk well or Crowd’s well.

As this brief article shows, the restless urban progress of London has robbed us of many interesting sites, but  like many great cities, some sites remain, preserved like flies trapped in aspic giving us a view of when London’s wells were a vital part of their society.