A Hebrew holy well? The mysterious Synagogue Well of Frodsham, Cheshire

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Lying in a public park in a small town in Cheshire is a curiously named holy well. My first attempt to find the site in the 1990s was unsuccessful but it is reassuring that a return in 2014 not only found the park it lies in being much improved but now there were signposts to the well.

The Synagogue Well is perhaps uniquely named in the country a point I shall refer to later. Charles Hope in his 1893 notes:

The Synagogue Well, evidently one of great antiquity, and, before an attempt was made to improve it, of most picturesque appearance, is in the grounds of Park Place, Frodsham, late belonging to Joseph Stubs, Esq.”

Hope’s claim that it was of great antiquity however does not appear to easy to substantiate. However it certainly attracted antiquarian interest, William Beaumont in his 1888 An Account of the Ancient Town of Frodsham in Cheshire records in comparison to a similar site in the county:

“Such a fount there is at Frodsham, called ‘The Synagogue Well,’ which sends forth waters as copious and as limpid as that once frequented by Numa. It seems as if such a fount was necessary near an ancient castle; for as this fount rises close to the site of Frodsham Castle, so at the foot of Beeston Castle there is a similar spring. They both spring from the living rock, and both have a large square stone basin to receive the surplus water as it flows away.”

A poet’s romantic origin

In an unusual feature for a holy well, the site was immortalized in a poem which records:

“THE SYNAGOGUE WELL

The Roman, in his toilsome march, Disdainful viewed this humble spot, And thought not of Egeria’s fount And Numa’s grot.

No altar crowned the margin green, No dedication marked the stone; The warrior quaffed the living stream And hasten’d on.

iii.

Then was upreared the Norman keep, Where from the vale the uplands swell But, unobserved, in crystal jets The waters fell.

In conquering Edward’s reign of pride, Gay streamed his flag from Frodsham’s tower, But saw no step approach the wild And sylvan bower ;

Till once, when Mersey’s silvery tides Were reddening with the beams of morn, There stood beside the fountain clear A man forlorn;

And, as his weary limbs he lav’d In its cool waters, you might trace That he was of the wand’ring tribe Of Israel’s race.

vii.

With pious care, to guard the spring, A masonry compact he made, And all around its glistening verge Fresh flowers he laid.

viii.

“God of my fathers!” he exclaimed, Beheld of old in Horeb’s mount, Who gav’st my sires Bethesda’s pool And Siloa’s fount,

Whose welcome streams, as erst of yore, To Judah’s pilgrims never fail, Tho’ exil’d far from Jordan’s banks And Kedron’s Vale

Grant that when yonder frowning walls, With tower and keep are crush’d and gone; The stones the Hebrew raised may last, And from his Well the strengthening spring May still flow on! “

A Jewish Mikveh, consonantal drift or folly bath?

Despite the poet’s assertion that “he was of the wand’ring tribe, Of Israel’s race.” and that: “The stones the Hebrew raised may last” relics of Britain’s Jewish heritage are scant and any site associated with them historically is of course of great interest and importance. But is Frodsham Castle’s an example? Such baths have been uncovered which were originally ritual baths called Mikveh or Mikvah was this site one? It might be convenient to associate the site with a Jewish community attached to Frodsham Castle. However, there no evidence of a community ever being located there or in the more likely medieval Chester.

So where does the name come from? Beaumont (1888) records that:

“Some have suggested that Saint Agnes was its’ patron, and that thence it won its name.”

This belief is recorded on the current sign beside the well but the name itself is problematic. The majority of St. Agnes dedications appear to associated with late or spurious holy wells such as St. Agnes at Cothelstone where legends of love-lorn visits are linked – all Victorian romantic stuff. The clue to the origin of the well is again recorded by Beumont who states:

“The basin of that at Horsley is called a bath, and, as might be expected, the Synagogue well was also called, for once there was a curate at Frodsham who was an inveterate bather, and he resorted thither every morning and bathed in the well even when it was frozen over, and he had to break the ice before he could have his invigorating bath. But he was of a swimming family, and his father, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, Master of the Rolls, might often be seen leading his seven sons in a swim down the Thames.”

This suggests that the site was probably a plunge pool or cold bath folly. Indeed the steps down in one corner suggest this and the sandstone fabric does not look old enough to be anything of antiquity. Perhaps one of the bathers was Jewish at some point and a local joke developed? Unlikely.

Another option may be that the chamber was the water supply for the castle or great houses. Similar basins exist associated with castles such as Wollaton Hall’s, coincidentally called the Admiral’s Bath due a local resident bathing in it, despite it being a water supply at the time!

Perhaps now the site is no longer being used a receptacle for garden waste, more research may be done to reveal the details.

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Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on March 19, 2017, in Cheshire, Favourite site, Folklore, Folly, Hebrew, Jewish and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Though recent illnesses and family events have prevented me tramping the fields in search of wells over recent months, I have still been carrying out extensive research. Recently revisiting this post on Synagogue’s Well – my own local well – sparked a little detour into an English well which led somewhere quite unexpected.

    Bathing in Synagogue’s well is recorded at least as far back as 1809 when it is recorded in the Chester Chronicle as being a “far famed well known cold bath”. Claims that it was effective in relieving rheumatism were made at the time.

    Throughout the later nineteenth century water was drawn off from the spring to provide a supply to local houses and businesses, and it was constantly under review as a water source – the cleanliness and suitability of it for mor general supply often being debated. In 1875 it was reported that

    “a great amount of vegetable matter adheres to the bhottom and sides of the well. This vegetable matter contains an enormous quantity of worms and other insects which in my opinion will not improve the quality of the water. The well should be thoroughly cleaned out at least once a year.”

    However, aside from this the well had another side to it, a more tragic use. As early as the 1840s there is a record of a woman’s body having been pulled from the well; but a stream of suicides between the 1890s and 1930s seems to have led to the well finally being closed.

    In 1898 a local bricklayer, William Garner aged 64 was found drowned in the well. He had just been laid off by a contractor saying his work was not up to standard. He was reported to have left his home trying to find new employment, but was later found drowned in the well. An open verdict was returned. Curiously both his brother and father had drowned themselves, although whether in Synagogue’s Well or elsewhere is not reported. However, just 8 months later his nephew Joseph Garner, aged 48 and another builder definitely drowned himself in Synagogue Well. This on a Saturday night. He told one Thomas Fletcher whom he passed on the path that he was going to the well to drown himself, Fletcher tried to stop him, but he knocked him aside. Fletcher reported it to the police who eventually found the body.
    The well was surrounded by stone paving, the water some six feet deep.

    At this point the local press began to note some curious power of the well – “The well appears apparently to possess somewhat of a charm to persons of a suicidal nature, this is the fourth case of people being found drowned there”. “As usual with people drowned in this place the deceased was found in an erect position under water owing to the force of the spring”.
    In 1900 a local tailor, aged 68, was arrested and charged with being drunk, at the time of his apprehension near the well he claimed he was “going after Joe Brown”, which was taken as a reference that he was planning to drown himself in the well.

    In 1903 a well-known local tradeswoman, Miss Louisa Grice, age 65, was found drowned in the well. She had left home in the evening in her nightclothes, throwing a skirt over them, to walk some distance to the well, where she was found the next morning. In 1914 a retired gentleman, aged 75, of some means took the same journey. He had been low spirited for a week, and had been seen hanging around by the well on previous days. He went out one Monday morning, and when he didn’t return for lunch search parties were sent out. He had hung his hat, coat and stick on the railings by the well and his body was found in the water.
    Around this time efforts were made to fence off the well. Six foot railings were installed and a gate to the well which could be padlocked. This however failed to prevent infant school headmistress Miss Elsie Burrows, 45, in 1935. She suffered from a nervous complaint, and had had a breakdown the year before. She left home one evening,, walked to the well and scaled the padlocked gate before leaving her hat and gloves and her handbag containing two notes beside the well.

    After this event clamour was made to have the well filled in. The following year the well was covered with strong galvanised wire. One report suggests that the well remained in this state until an accidental drowning in the 1960s, although I can’t find any record of this being true. At any rate, the well we see today is dry and little more than a couple of feet deep.

    So really a very unexpected little story emerges here, so many tragic lives intertwined by the Synagogue’s Well. Where ever the name derives from, its history couldn’t be much sorrier.a

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