Category Archives: Essex
Could the Birch Well be the Wanstead Well?
Tucked away on Leyton Flats in a Birch Wood near to the boundary fence of Snaresbrook Crown Court and near the Eagle Pond, is an enigmatic spring, called the Birch Well.
Enigmatic because there must be more we should know about the site. The spring arises in a substantial stone-lined oval well head around 1.5 metres long, one of the most substantial of any well in Essex.
The lost Wanstead Spring?
Discovered early in the Seventeenth Century, the Wanstead Spring was a potential spa. A John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on August 1619, stated:
“ We have great noise here of a new Spa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) in their seminal Medicinal Wells of Essex note significantly:
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had ‘almost drawn it dry.’ If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.”
Both accounts appear to suggest that any significant spring in the Wanstead area could vie for the said well. The Birch Well has good provenance, particularly as it is a chalybeate, that is iron rich spring, a common feature of the early medicinal springs, and indeed Chamberlain by comparing to Tunbridge, possibly the best-known chalybeate well, is underling it is.
Further evidence is given by a correspondent, a Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, who writes to Thresh and Miller. They state that the correspondent’s knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled. He stated:
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts ou Bushwood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘The Grove’ (now cut up and built over).The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) took the suggestion of Snaresbrook and visited the Birch Well but was not 100% convinced. However, it is difficult on the paucity of evidence to be anyway near 100%!
Winifred Eastment in her 1946 Wanstead through the ages gives no indication that the spa spring and the Birch well are one and the same but does emphasis that it was one of the most important public wells of Wanstead and indeed people from beyond the parish payed a penny for three buckets or 1.6d for a buttful! Although it is clear it was only used for drinking water. More curiously a local tradition tells how at least one person drowned at the well before the stone surround was established. Before this the site was more open, described as an open gravel pit with wooden steps, much like some of the earlier spas are indeed described.
So, is the Birch Well Wanstead Spa? I think it is highly probable. The site is clearly important by its position by the boundary, noted by a small boundary stone by the well. However, the chalybeate water produced by the spring head is perhaps the most suggestive.
Sometimes there are some curious places for find an ancient healing well. Tucked in a sub-urban park on the outskirts of London is one such location. Nestling as an oasis of calm between busy streets and shops is Valentine’s Park. This is dome shaped red brick structure, rendered in flints, quartz and concrete. In some reports called a grotto. Others might confuse it with an ice-well. However, it is a very small one if it is any of these. As water flows from the site, it clearly is a well and digging deeper a name can be found Jacob’s or the Wishing Well (TQ 435 880). The report by Oxford Archaeology survey (http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-841-1/dissemination/pdf/oxfordar1-58853_1.pdf) notes:
“The well retains water and there is an opening within the side of the structure c.0.75 m wide by 0.9 m tall, beneath a rough segmental brick arch. There is a metal grille fixed over this entrance although this appears to be of mid 20th-century date and is presumably a secondary alteration for safety reasons since the area became a public park. The opening has a stone sill. The internal faces of the structure are of brickwork although this now has extensive algae colouration….. The cement mortar used with large grit inclusions suggests that the structure has undergone considerable repairs since the park was purchased by the council in 1924. The condition of the feature is poor and it has suffered from the misguided use of cement mortar in the repairs. In areas this has cracked and come away from the main structure to reveal patches of the brickwork behind.”
An early report records by G. E. Tasker, Ilford Past and Present in 1901 notes:
“(The well) stands by itself in the grounds, protected by an alcove of bricks overgrown with ivy. The water is clear and runs off with a strong current through a pipe into a pond. This well has never, so far as is known, been frozen over, even in the severest winter, but during sharp frosts it gives out a steam or vapour.”
The account suggests that the spring was a thermal one, although I have found no evidence to support this. What is more interesting are the traditions associated with it.
Much frequented in the 1920s a number of wishing rituals appear to have developed around it. Of which A Smith (1959) in Some Local Lore Collected in Essex in Folklore notes:
“For the last fifty years at least the well has been known among children as a wishing well. The ceremony was for a child to go to the well alone, throw in a small stone, and make a wish. Today children sometimes scratch a wish on a laurel leaf and throw that in. Whether the well is old or new, we have not been able to ascertain. The tradition about it is, however, strong.”
Scratching a wish on a leaf is an unusual activity and I have found no other such rituals. Another account, recorded by a Dr Raine about the pre-1914, recorded in http://www.valentines.org.uk/valentines_park/about_us/newsletters/vpcn14.pdf mysteriously reports that in the early part of the twentieth century a bent pin would be thrown in and that it this had something to do with ancient Egypt but what that was is unclear! Again very curious.
A lost holy well?
The park was enclosed in the late 1600s so it may preserve an old holy well but this is only speculative. Interestingly, fifteenth century records that Stephen Atte Well, nearby suggesting possibly a hint at an important spring or stream in the location.
The brick work does certainly appear quite old, but I have been unable to trace a date. The estate was landscaped in the early 1720s by a Robert Surman which is highly suggestive of a non-holy well origin. The fabric being the same as a nearby grottoes and alcove. It first appears in on a 1854 Estate Plan.
The name Jacob is not promising for supporting a holy well of any age. Although some have identified the name as vulgarisation of St James, the name is too frequently encountered at sites associated with folly wells such as Jacob’s Well at Hagley Hall, Worcestershire and that in Grosvenor Park, Cheshire – both dubious in their antiquity.
Whatever its origin, since 2009, the little Wishing well is looking a lot better than when I first remember it back in the 1970s and the restorations and improvements are much to be commended.
Missing from the gazetteer!
Sadly, when producing a book on a topic which has never been produced before, you can miss something. Queen Anne’s Well is one site I missed. I knew nothing about it, but a brief mention as it happens by the Friends of Bedfords Park. Asking at the visitor centre the name was well known and I was given clear instructions. Expecting to find some boggy hole, the site as can be seen is far more impressive and certainly fabric wise one of the county’s best ancient wells.
The well consists of a brick and sandstone arch well house set into a bank. Inside the well house is plastered brickwork and sits up a small platform. The water arises in a roughly rectangular aperture and flows to fill Nursery pond below. A gnarled tree grows over the well holding some of it together, although the quoin stone is missing, which may have given some clue to its origin. The structure is quite substantial and well built. Water from the spring fills lower Nursery pond. There is also a nearby brick lined reservoir, not necessarily linked, which was the mansion’s domestic source being pumped by a pumping engine.
Holy well or Victorian Folly?
The spring may be the reason for the original settlement as Bedfords Park providing a valueable source of water. According to Mrs Lois Amos of the Friends of Bedfords Park it was known way back in the 16th century and onwards as ‘Belfonts’. This is an interesting thought if it derives from OFr belle meaning ‘good’ or ‘reliable’; and indeed there are small number of healing and/or holy wells called bonny well which has a similar derivation.
However this is at odds with the view that it was named after a John Bedford who held the land in 1362 and built the first manor. It would be apparent that etymological issues have happened here.
This notwithstanding this does not explain how old is the well? Is it a mediaeval? Tudor? Or a folly or Victorian piece of gothic? The lack of embellishment or indeed history suggests that it the site is not a result of any landscape improvements in either the 1700s or 1800s.
The fabric may give the best evidence. The well is not built wholly of brick, which would suggest a post-1600 construction perhaps, but a high quality green sandstone. This is noted by Nigel Oxley, the Boroughs buildings Conservation Officer that such a high quality material used in a number of local churches, emphasising its importance. It is similar to that of Charlotte’s Well in Stratford which suggests a Tudor origin.
Maps can be an excellent source and being enclosed within an estate one would expect some reference to it. However, it does not appear until an 1896 Ordnance Survey map which even then shows it simply as ‘Spring’. The absence of the site from maps is no indication of a lack of age, but it is curious. Simon Donoghue, Havering’s Local History Librarian, produced an excellent guide to the estate and no mention is made of the well.
Bedfords Park is in the London borough of Havering, nearby being Havering atte Bower, which has been a Royal manor since the 8th century. It would appear that Havering-atte-Bower, a Royal property can be cited as the source for the Queen. However, in the late 1300s, the King’s Sergeant lived in the manor who was in the service of Richard II’s queen – Anne of Bohemia. James. However, it is Henry’s wife Anne of Boleyn is the most likely perhaps.
The cult of Queen Anne
I believe that the significance of the occurrence of wells associated with Anne Boleyn has been missed by researchers. Ann was a convenient figure to apply to wells at a time of flux. The cult of Saint Anne and its association with wells is a relatively recent one, dating from the 15th century. Could it be that at the Reformation, that local community or rather a local landowner, realising that the population would have divided into those following the old ways would focus on re-dedication to this popular Queen. Anne was of course, the mother of Elizabeth, the first Protestant figurehead, who herself had a cult and feast day associated with her.
Evidently she has a name which can be conveniently transferred to St. Ann Wells especially as like Ann she was the mother of Elizabeth the founder of English Protestantism. I have noted before how Queen Ann has been associated with springs, however dubious.
Sadly, there is no evidence and I write this post hoping someone can help. However, I do believe that the weight of circumstance and likelihood suggests that the well which exists in Bedford’s Park predates its association with Queen Anne and was probably a St. Anne’s Well.
Now here’s a conundrum. Is the eighteen inch Dagenham Idol associated with water or not? It was uncovered, in 1922 buried in peaty marshy soil on the edge of the River Thames on the site when 8 years later the Ford’s works was built. The accepted view is that it was an offering to increase the fertility of the land, associated as it was with a sacrificed deer skeleton, but is discovery in marshland surely goes against that view and underlines the lack of understanding of votive offerings.
The Idol is one of the oldest European effigy of a person and dates from the Neolithic period (between c4000 and 2000 BC) making it date from 4300 years old. Made of Scots Pine a tree which is often found in dry areas of peat bogs
It is a most striking effigy. The figure has an almost modernist feel about it; its head is disc shaped with a large rectangular nose and has thin but proportionate legs. It lacks arms but does not appear unusual for that and it is possible that the loss of arms is significant. Does it emphasise a need that the depositor wanted to heal, if so this is an action akin to many deposits in Celtic springs.
Another feature which has been identified to give some idea of its origin is the possibility of it having one eye. It has been suggested that this is a very early representative image of the Norse God Odin. This would make it unusual as the earliest recognised image dates from the Bronze Age in Denmark being Broddenbjerg’s effigy. Odin is of course significant in water worship as he is said to had self-sacrificed his eye at Mimir’s Well a well which lay at the base of the great world tree Yggdrasil, to obtain a drink and the wisdom within it.
A translation of Prose Edda reads:
“Of what wouldst thou ask me?
Why temptest thou me?
Odin! I know all,
where thou thine eye didst sink
in the pure well of Mim.
Mim drinks from mead each morn
from Valfather’s pledge.”
What is greater evidence for the effigy being Odin of course is the circular hole between the legs. This would appear to suggest that like the Broddenbjerg a phallus would be inserted in it. Of course no phallus was found but the similarity despite the unlikely fact that a Viking God being over 3000 years older than we expect, the evidence appears to support the view. Furthermore it appears to again suggest a water association.
For many years the Idol sat pride of place in Colchester Museum. That was until November 2009 when it went missing. Where did it go? Police in San Francisco bizarrely had the answer. They were called to a house where a next door neighbour was dancing and chanting naked in his backyard. When the police arrived he pleaded to them to “harness the power of the Idol”. The man had been carved a replica of it around which he was dancing
He admitted the theft telling the police that:
“I was visiting Colchester Castle and the Idol spoke to me, as soon as I saw it I felt its power, its hard to describe, I just suddenly felt Neolithic and I knew I had to have it”
“When I came back to San Francisco strange things began to happen, I soon felt my life spinning out of control and I knew it was the power of the Idol, I thought I could speak to it and it would help me but the more I spoke to it the worse things got”.
The man noted that once he returned to San Francisco
“My construction business really took off when I got back, despite the recession I started making more money than ever, while everyone else was struggling I was having success, it had to be the power of the Idol”
The power was short lived as he noted:
“Then all of a sudden everything turned upside down, my cat died and then my favourite cactus, and then I got a visit from the IRS and things really went downhill, I started drinking heavily and gambling and I squandered all the money I had made, Dawn threatened to leave me, worst of all, my football team started losing every game”.
This would appear to be in line with the view of Colchester Museum curator:
“Some very odd and unpleasant things have happened to people who have dealt with the Idol over the centuries, it is said to be cursed”.
This curse does not appear to have discouraged Valence House Museum in Dagenham who petitioned for a permanent display there and now it stands there in a class cabinet all alone in the room.
So the does the Dagenham Idol relate to lost pagan water worship. I think yes, but perhaps one day we will know for sure.
Copyright Pixyled Publications
Well (no pun intended) another year for the blog and there’s still plenty of sites to record. Let us start with a delightful well in an unexpected part of Essex…
Finding a genuine well dedicated to St. Cedd is problematic. Like his brother Chad, many sites are possible eytomological back deriving. However, local legend records that St. Cedd’s Well (TQ 586 849) was used for the baptism of heathen Saxons and it is probable because it is known that the saint founded a monastery in Tilbury, not far away. Another more romantic notion is that the water arises in Kent and gushes forth in Essex. Could this legend refer to some knowledge of a ley line, or local memory when this part of Essex belonged to Kent? The well was indeed the original focal point for the community, and the foundation of the church nearby enforces the religious traditions and the Christianisation of a pagan spring.
There would appear to be some evidence to suggest that there were seven springs here giving the village its original name Wokindun Set Funteines in 1274. The familiar water bodies were adopted in the 13th Century by the first Rector, a William de Septermfontayns. Although no trace of the other six are visible, it is believed they feed the nearby moat, which would explain its considerable volume. Of course the name seven may be mythological as it is a number commonly associated with springs, this being regardless of their actual number! Pythagoras believed that every number had a function, and that seven was a religious number relating to the then seven celestial bodies. It is possible that the affix was taken from the name of rector rather than the other way around, especially as no multiple springs appear apparent.
The well today
The well is a fairly large rectangular brick lined spring of about four feet long and of several feet deep: one could certainly envision it as baptism pool. Although it went through a period of being seemingly ignored, being covered by an ugly corrugated metal cover, when I visited in the 1990s it was covered by a large green well house made and designed by local children This covered by quaint illustrations: one depicts a bearded man with a white ruff, and gold chain, below that of a lady wearing a cowl crying. The roof has a figure and a mule, depicting scenes from the saint’s life. Both roof and side wall bear the dedication. Sadly, the elements have had considerable effect on these. Interesting, Johnson (1996) in his Hidden Heritage: Discovering Ancient Essex, notes:
‘ “Has a wooden decorated canopy over it featuring Mary Magdalen and a male figure. Mike Batley told me that some years ago he met an elderly woman who looked after it. She told him that the male figure once had horns that were erased because the Church authorities frowned upon them.”
Some photos of before and after!
Not surprisingly that in 2012 the well was repaired and renewed and the iconography removed, given a new roof and clean brickwork. The water flows down a channel into the lake below and is accessed by a small pump. This water is of considerable clarity, although I am unaware of any chemical tests on its medicinal properties. It appears to be still used, as there is a plastic bucket for drawing water attached to a metal bar across the opening. I know of no traditions associated with the well, but it is now the best condition and looked after well in the county with an improved garden around it. Lets hope that when people ask locally, they be more informed. When I asked in the 1990s, I spoke to a local man who although walked here every weekend, had never heard of the well!
Extracted from Holy Wells and healing springs of Essex Copyright Pixyledpublications
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.
In my volume of Essex holy and healing wells I referred to Sandon’s Lady well which is recorded on the first series of Ordnance Survey and that I recorded as being lost. My further research suggested that the site may exist. Closer inspection of a modern map combined with google map satellite images appeared to show a lane off the main road, called Ladywell lane and some springs near a tennis centre there.
I contacted the Tennis Club but they knew nothing of a spring so I assumed the spring I could see was not as I had assumed on their property. The best idea was to do some field work. At first I investigated the bushes near the Tennis Club, and after exploring where I thought the spring was, found nothing and appeared much to the surprise of a man walking his dog. Despite being interested and having lived in the area for many years, he had never questioned why it was called lady well.
Exploring further down the lane I rang the doorbell of a Ladywell House and a lady appeared. She did know the reason for the lane’s name and confirmed that it still existed! She pointed me to a small copse on the edge, but beyond, her garden where the spring lay. She did not know who owned the land but added that access would not be a problem. Taking the footpath, and there I did I find a gate into the woods, long since broken away which served access to the woody area. Going back on myself as instructed I found a steep channel carved through the mud and tracing back to the source, a spring arising from a clay pipe and forming a shallow but quickly moving stream. Perhaps not the most picturesque of wells but in Essex something unique, a surviving Lady well. Why this sort should be a lady well is unclear, the church dedication is St Andrew although Great Baddow’s church is dedicated to St Mary and interestingly the named Baddow is believed to mean bad water!
I was informed by the owner of Ladywell House, that it was believed locally that a local women drowned in the spring and this is why it is so called. I am always intrigued by such explanations and clearly this cannot be the reason and I postulate it is more likely to be due to some post-Reformation reassignment. Of course I say rediscovered peope knew it existed in the area but not many!!
Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.
However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.
King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:
“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”
Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)
I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John. He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.
The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.
The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!
The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.
The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!
Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact. Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)
Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it! This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.
Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.
However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire), Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.
Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.
In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.
Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:
a) Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.
b) Those associated with their castles, palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?
c) Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.
No survey can be thorough and frustatingly one always finds new sites or details on them after publishing as the books are a series I intend to write an appendix to list the new Essex sites I have discovered or have been informed about. One such site, mentioned in the gazzatteer of named wells in the book has now revealed itself to be a possible holy well dedicated to St. Helen. I look at the evidence and hunt for the remains of this site.
So many St Helen’s Wells?
Harte (2008) notes that St. Helen is the most common dedication for wells with 40% of all sites named after saints being given the dedication 50 sites in his work. I hestitate to add another to that list which both he and I were unaware of when compiling my work on Essex sites.
Why St Helen?
St Helen developed at special folklore relationship with England, thanks to authors Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth. They claimed that she was the daughter of Cole of Camulodunum a British King and ally of Constantius. Support for this belief perhaps coming from the fact that Constantine was with his father in Eboracum (York) when he died and that her son picked up Christianity in the province. This scant lack of evidence did not appear to have affected mediaeval minds who even suggested that Colchester’s St Helen’s Chapel was even founded by the saint and she became patron saint of here and Abingdon.Folklorists and historians have debated the origins of this myth. Some have seen her derived from an equally dubious St Helen wife of Magnus Maximus or Elen a probably invented pagan goddess
A holy well or well by association?
The only written reference to St Helen in the town, is to St Helen’s Chapel which is mentioned in 1529 will of John Padgett leaving money towards the costs of the construction of said site. However, the date is so late it is unclear whether the chapel was ever built being so close to the Reformation. No remains bar the name of the well and the lane/crossroads. No the question is, is the well named after the chapel or the chapel named after the well. There could be support for both arguments. In support of the later, one might question why a chapel is being built so late, is it built to capitalise on the spring’s importance. The only problem with this being that it does appear to be unlikely that the spring would not have been recorded separately. It is certainly an ancient site, its situation on the site of the original saxon burg is suggestive of its importance to that settlement. Furthermore, early maps show a site called Maidenspond in the area approximating to where the spring is situated. Does this suggest a Christianisation of a pagan site, the only record of which is the name Maiden? Is it a coincidence or significant that Colchester’s St Helen’s Chapel is in Maidenburgh Lane? For the contra argument, there is Essex precedence, Colchester’s St. Helen’s Chapel was situated by a well called St. Helen and the naming of holy wells by association is frequently encountered across the country. It has been also suggested that St Helen chapels or churches were often renamed All Saints and indeed St. Helen’s Well is in All Saint’s parish. There is of course an All Saints Well in Colchester as well and Ipswich has a St Helen’s church so being midway between the two it may be genuine.
Later life as the Cromwell?
The spring itself does not appear, above notwithstanding, until 1587 when Thomas Cammock paid for Maldon’s very first convenient water supply piped in a 600 yards lead conduit from his well in Beeleigh Road (the ‘Crom’ or ‘St. Helen’s Well’) to a pump on St. Helen’s Lane (now Cromwell Hill). The name Crom probably derives from O.E. crumb for crooked and may explain the winching equipment or its difficult position to get to, which describes it well now as the actual spring head does not appear to be traceable.
In search of surviving relics
Fortunately, two relics survive, the ‘cromwell pump’ on Cromwell hill and the cistern which feeds it above it in a private garden on Beeleigh Road and as such is not easily accessed. The pump, cast-iron shaft with spour was constructed in 1805. It is situated on a rectangular stone platform with brick plinth and stone slab well cover. The whole structure stands within a granite kerbed enclosure with a retaining wall with steeply raking top and curved corner to north. To the south-west is the lower part of a square brick chamber with stepped opening to street which may have been used to provide water for animals. The supply came from the cistern house which originally would have used the water from ‘St Helen’s Well’. This cistern house has structure dating from 1587 and 1805. It is red header-bond brick with Roman cement-rendered dome. with a circular brick structure with narrow entrance door, enclosing water cistern which is full of water and drains into a small pond nearby. Over the door is a stone lintel with panel inscribed ‘REBUILT BY SUBSCRIPTION 1805’ in Roman lettering. The only pictures of the cistern show it overgrown with ivy and slightly derelict, but is pleasing to note that the present owner undertook a fine repair job replacing the original acorn finial and Roman cement and ensuring the water supply does not overflow the chamber by repairing the piping.
T/A 850/14 Grant D/B 3/14/111 1926 Plans of Cromwell Spring watermains, showing, inter alia , Cromwell Spring, and Cromwell Cistern, Well and Pump on Cromwell Hill
Gilbert, A., (1998) The Holy Kingdom: The Quest for the Real King Arthur, 1998. Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories”. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/NPNF2-02/Npnf2-02-19.htm#P2958_1190344
Harbus, A., (2002) Helen of Britain in Medieval Legend, 2002.
Harte, J., (2008) English holy wells a source book
Jones, G., (1986) Holy Wells and the Cult of St. Helen. Journal of the society of Landscape studies.
Maldon-Historic Town Assessment Report ads.ahds.ac.uk/…/Maldon/…/Maldon_1999_Historic_Towns_Assessment_Report.pdf copyright Pixyledpublications
The following is taken from Holy wells and healing springs of Essex (This blog includes reference sites not included in the original text and will be described in a further volume of the works as an appendix)
In regards to healing springs, Essex has been better served, in regards the study of mineral waters and particularly notable surveys are Allen (1699/1710), and more recently Christy and Thresh (1910). Both have touched upon holy wells but this was certainly not in an exhaustive manner. Cowell (2000) updates much of this work but again only touches upon holy wells. This work attempts to catalogue and update these previous works, with the aim of providing the definitive accurate guide to both mineral spas, holy wells and water bodies with associated folklore in the county.
In approximate terms there are probably many thousands of holy wells across the country. Although there appear to be areas or counties with high concentrations, this is probably because the others have as yet been adequately studied. Only three works have attempted to give a countrywide survey of sites (Hope (1893), Bords (1985), Rattue (1995) and Bord (2008)). (and subsequently Harte (2008)) Perhaps an accurate survey of all sites would result in an average distribution across the country; topographical features allowing, which would show that all counties have a similar distribution.
Despite some attention for specific sites and counties, the holy well has been largely ignored by the historical and archaeological establishment, leaving the field open to antiquarians and enthusiasts. Consequently, much mythology has developed around them, and very few have been professionally excavated, particularly in East Anglia. Hence, a general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, claims for ancient origins is difficult to make.
I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.
There does not appear to be any holy wells which can claim this pre-Christian heritage via written record, although there are wells called Roman spring (Earl’s Colne), Chesterwell (castle well) (Great Horkesley) and Dengewell (Danishwell) (Great Oakley) and possibly Herwell (Army well) (Little Bardfield) and totwell (from O.E toot for meeting place or look out) (Birchanger), which suggest great age but there is no evidence of these being healing or holy. There is a Puck well (Waltham Holy Cross) recorded suggesting a site associated with O.E pwca for goblin. Records of ghosts, often used by folklorists to indicate either pagan or Christian traditions are scant in the county, with St. Oysth’s well (St Oysths) and Charlotte’s Well (Birchanger) being the only examples.
Certainly, compared to other counties per square mile, Essex is low on numbers of holy wells. Why is this? It seems likely that there may be many more sites but poorly recorded. Others may be recorded in names which do not suggest holy or healing immediately. There are for example many sites called hog well in the county, whose name may derive from halig Old English (O.E) for healing. However, other sites said to be holy wells, such as the number of Chadwells (9) in the county, reveal themselves to be more likely to be derived from Caldwell irrespective of local folklore. Most common are Lady well (9), followed by Holy wells (4), Cedd (2) (brother of Chad),and two named after God, although this could be derived from a personal name. All the other sites have one dedication(in some case one off dedications suggesting local cults (or loss of knowledge)): St. Edmund, St Thomas, St Anne, St Germain, and local saints St. Oysth and St. Botolph.
Taking only holy wells (and I have been generous to include some sites likely to be) Essex has a density of 0.3 wells per square mile. Taking into consideration all noted, healing and holy wells, this density becomes 0.6 of a well per square mile. This suggests that holy wells and healing springs are in low numbers across the county.
The reason for the low numbers of holy wells may be explained by the larger amount of mineral springs noted in the county. Across the country many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. As noted Essex is fortunate for its mineral spring history is well recorded. However, in no examples given by either Allen or Trinder is it noted that the site had previously been a holy well. Certainly, it is hinted at with such sites as Brentwood, Havering Well, Woodford and Felstead, (all with some pre-Reformation past) but nothing is explicitly stated. This may indicate the strength of anti-Catholic feeling in the authors or the Essex people. Was the impact of Protestantism and non-conformism that great? This would explain the paucity of holy wells for such a large county, particularly to the eastern side. By comparison there are a large number of mineral springs. Perhaps we can consider these all as past holy wells?……….
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Essex