Category Archives: London
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.
The other noticeable spring, (see here for the other) in the picturesque suburb of Carshalton is St. Margaret’s Well. It appears to be an obvious holy well with that name, however it may not that clear cut. The area was redeveloped by the noted John Ruskin, social reformer, philanthropist, art critic and environmentalist, as a memorial to his mother. A rectangular stone reading:
“In obedience to the giver of Life,
of the brooks and fruits that fed it,
and the peace that ends/may this well be kept sacred,
for the service of men’s flocks and flowers,
and be by kindness called/Margaret’s well.”
This pool was beautifie and endowed by John Ruskin Esq M.A.,L.L.D.,/1876.”
Ruskin kept detailed notes on the work to repair the site. He wrote of his first intentions he mused:
“Half-a-dozen men, with one day’s work could cleanse these pools and trim the flowers about the banks…”
By 1872 Ruskin he was repairing the site using George Brightling, a local historian to help him and it is his letters of correspondence which tell us something of the work done on it. As the area was a manorial waste, Ruskin had to get approval from the manor court and in 1872 they agreed that Ruskin:
“be at liberty to make improvements to the rear of the Police Station by forming a Dipping Well with a pathway thereto and outlet from the pond, and in so doing to give the same facilities for the use of the water as now exist and to clear out the pond at his own expense and to continue to do so and to plant shrubs and flowers by the paths.”
This is clearly suggests that there was not a well already on the site, but whether there was a spring which already bore the name is not clear. By April 12th that year Ruskin had asked Mr Scott to draw up plans and to protect the opening from all possibility of pollution and to face the wall above the pond with stone. A further letter from from a Gilbert Scott to Brightling dated 15 April 1872 describe:
“It consists mainly of a facing of the central part of the wall – say equal to those central arches – with marble – I would say a foot thick, with projecting counter- points from the piers of – say – 2 to 2½ ft projection, & 3 ft wide. I think that the side arches of his work will not be so wide as the present side arches, though the central arch will coincide with the present one in width. The main thing probably is the foundation for all this, which must be based on whatever substratum there is capable of supporting the work..”
However, the marble fountain was never constructed. By 1877 it was basically constructed and every photos show a rustic wooden bridge over the outflow and similarly rustic fencing. Today, the pool is very rarely full of water, but the decorative remain and most can be seen peering through the railings. Beside the railings on the footpath remains the dipping well supplied by a pump…sadly dry.
Holy Well or not?
Whitaker in his Water supplies of Surrey calls it Lady or St. Margaret’s Pond. The spring is certainly the main one of the settlement that referred to in the place name of Auueltone in 675. Sadly, the church which can aid in identifying holy wells is called All Saints. On reflection I think it is likely considering Ruskin’s concern for nature that he found a well named the same his mother rather than invent it. One hopes that a modern day Ruskin could tidy it up once again!
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.- an indispensable guide
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.
This year I published my long researched Holy wells and healing springs of Kent, number six in the series. Here is an analysis of the county’s urban wells which may interest.
Ancient water supplies do not survive well in urban areas. What were once the very focal points of such communities quickly become swept away by progress and the need for better sanitation and supply. However, in my research into ancient wells of the county, I have been interested to note that there appear to have been some particularly interesting examples in what is now the most urbanised area of Kent that which has now in the most part been incorporated into the London sprawl. Some of these sites, Lewisham’s Lady Well, Bromley’s St. Blaise’s Well and Keston’s Caesar’s Well, are well known and suitable for articles in their own right, but there are a number of other interesting sites. In some cases unfortunately their existence in most cases is only remembered by their placenames such as street names or wood names and in some cases actually survive.
For example Greenwich drew the majority of its water from a source called the Stockwell, being the main source of the palace’s conduit tunnels. It may well have drawn upon spring water used by the Romans as Roman wells were located nearby. The site has long gone, and all that remains to remind us is a plaque on the site. Another spring head, not given a name anciently it appears, has in recent years been a focus for local pagans.
Blackheath’s water history is even less clear. Two names are noted Cresswell, a road name and Queen Elizabeth’s Well. The origin of the latter name is lost. Does it suggest that Elizabeth I drank from it when resident in the Royal Palace?
Lewisham had a number of noted water supplies, the Lady Well ( probably the same as the Woe Water ) and the Mineral Spring, however modern street names may record other interesting examples: Abbot’s Well, Cordwell and Foxwell. Swanley street names record a Kettlewell.
Further out, in the Parish of Eltham, there was an interesting well called the Lemon Well. The properties and brief histories of this spring are recorded by a correspondent of Dunkin ( 1856 ):
“..a spring which rises in the hedge by the road side a little beyond the residence of Thomas Lewin Esq, in the road towards Bexley. This spring has long gone by the name of Lemon Well; and has been supposed by the sort of people who entertain such notions, curative of sore eyes.”
This correspondent continues to note that the well was once filled in, but complaints from local people resulted in the culprit cleaning out the well and ‘putting it in a convenient form with new brick work.’ Yet an examination appropriate ordnance survey map and of the area fails to show a well or spring in this position; hence one presumes that the site was indeed finally filled in.
Nearby in the Elmstead Parish, was Garret’s Well. This marked on an 1841 tithe award, and may be derived from Old English garra for the triangular pieces of land left once the furrows were established. Indeed, old tithe awards are often the only evidence of these lost water supplies. For example at Downe, one records a Herwell, although no spring is noted, it would appear to be likely to be a site. The name probably derives from O.E hara for a hare or her for soldier, but possibly hearg for a pagan sacred grove.
A Sundridge tithe awards record a Camberwell and an Orpington tithe awards record a Cornwell, whether this records a spring that was noted for being able to predict corn prices? Another interestingly named site is noted on a Tithe Award in the Parish of St Paul’s Cray. It is called Henrietta Spring, and was the main supply for the village, being located north of the road. One imagines that its name came from local lady benefactor. Often ancient wells are recorded in wills and testaments. Such a mentions can suggest that the well was considered of importance. One such example, may have been found in Erith. Here records of a will of Robert Hethorpe of 1493, describe a Belton Well, ‘3s 5d for the mendying of a well called Beton well.’ This well would appear to be described as Beden Well in 1769 and Beeting Well in 1843. The origin for its name is unclear, it was probably taken from a landowner, but it may have been derived from the pagan festival of Beltaine – unlikely but more interesting if it was. The Cray valley has some interesting examples. The name Cray itself is believed to derive from Celtic for ‘fresh water’, so one would except its source to be considered important. This would appear to called as Craegas aeuuelme in the 8th Century, or fons aewielm, otherwise the ‘Great Spring’. In more modern times it gained the name Newell.
Further out was an interesting site, located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place. Located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place on the road side was Jacob’s or Hussey’s Well so called because it was repaired with stonework with a hollow stone by a Jacob Angus, and later by a Rev. Dr. Thomas Hussey, Rector from 1831-54. Its water was rich in calcium and sulphates and considered to be medicinal. Sadly, although the ponds remain, the well’s only monument is the name of the street encircling these pools. Hussey has also given his name to the Archdeacons’s or Hussey’s Well. This being a public fountain set up by Archdeacon Clarke of Norwich and Rector.
Cray has an interesting named site, called the Hobling Well which is probably the same as that marked as Robin’s Hole, on Tithe map. Both names suggest that the well was believed to be the abode of elementals. The name Hob being an Old English name for goblin, and Robin possibly recording the pagan character of Robin-a-Tiptoe, an elemental that would do arduous farm work without pay. Why the site should be so name is unclear. What I have always assume is the site, a boggy spring fed pool in Hobling Well wood still survives and recently saw off a plan to use the area as a waste dump. Presumably there was also a site called Palewell, as it has given its name to a local street.
There was also a unnamed pin well in the Parish at Beckenham. Langley was famed for its woe water, but also had an unnamed spring, which was used by a local physician, Dr. Scott in his research into the production of anti-bilious pills. This is now dry, but was known to have medicinal properties.
Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known. The first apparently is where Pett’s Wood derived its name, being that of Swellinde Pette, a name first recorded in 862 as Swelgende. The name refers to Whirl Pool, which was in Pett’s Wood. I have been unable to find any details regarding why local people should have believed there was such a site. Its early date suggests that it was Saxon, and may have been there interpretation of a local Dane Hole. But it is interesting that Horblingwell wood and pookridden woods are nearby was someone trying to warn us of these wood’s danger.
Despite there being some confusion over this site, Chislehurst still has one surviving site, a little known holy well called the Bishop’s Well. I searched for this site whilst undertaking research for my forthcoming book on the subject and was pleased to find that it was still extant. The well, like St. Blaise’s Well, was said to be one of the springs consecrated by the Bishop’s of Rochester during their tenure at Bromley. It was enclosed into the grounds of the Crown Inn in Victorian times. This is not the current Crown, but now the private residence of Old Crown Cottage. I was fortunate to discover the owners in Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known.
I was informed by the then present owner, Bill Orman, that when the previous owners had taken over the property in the 1940s, the well was surrounded by a number of small crosses, which sadly they disposed of. The well shaft is of considerable depth, and older brickwork is visible towards its bottom. The top is enclosed in a square brick chamber, and water still fills the chamber below. There is some dispute regarding the exact site, and I was shown another well, capped and fitted with an old pump, laying in the grounds of Bishop’s Well House. However, despite the name, it is generally believed that the Old Crown Cottage’s well is the said site, and that this other well being above the other draws water from that. So despite the fear of such watering holes spreading cholera, and hence cleared away on sanitary grounds, such an interesting site exists. Fortunately the sprawl of London into the county, the interesting water history of this region of Kent still continues in documents and antiquarian accounts.
To find a more delightful oasis in suburban London would be harder to find. Despite the traffic which flows through this town, a significant calm is created by the bubbling waters which give Carshalton its name which derives from Cars – Aul – ton with aul means well or spring and there are a number of notable water sites.
“There is a well at Carshalton, A neater one never was seen; And there’s not a maid of Carshalton, But has heard of the well of Boleyn. It stands near the rustic churchyard, Not far from the village green; And the villagers show with rustic pride, The quaint old well of Boleyn.”
One of the springs which supply these pools is the best known in the town – Anne Boleyn’s Well. It would be difficult to understand how, as its been dry for many years, but it was once a spring of note and a site which regularly props up as a ‘holy well’ in work such as Hope’s Legendary Lore and the Bords Sacred Waters. Usually such associations are fanciable antiquarian suggestions. However this time there may be more evidence.
The well is a simple structure for many years obscured with weeds and a rather vigorous lavendar, probably in homage to the town’s famed agricultural export. It has recently been tidied up and now a small brick well head can be seen surrounded by railings. It perhaps looks a little unloved and forlorn but at least it has survived. The site was once in the middle of the roadway as old postcards attest..other urban sites would have been long lost if they were in that position in other locations. Unusually, the pavement was extended to include the site and now it sits in the shadow of All Saint’s Parish church. The move clearly resulted in a rebuild as early pictures show a domed shaped structure surrounded by a stone surround. Sadly, also the chain and bowl once attached for wayfairs to drink from has long gone, not that a drink could be had anyhow!
The legend of its origins
The legend is recorded, possibly for the first time in G.B. Brightling’s History and Antiquities of Carshalton (1827) and notes that Henry VIIIth and Anne were riding over from Nonsuch Palace to Beddington Park to see Sir Nicholas Carew when at the spot the horse rose up and striking the ground a spring formed. The villagers then enclosed the well and named it after her as a memorial.
The problems with the legend
The clear problem was that if they were travelling from Nonsuch, no such place would have existed then – it was constructed after the Queen’s execution in 1538! However, this does not completely remove the legend as it must have come from somewhere.
The true origins?
A number of possible alternative origins are suggested for the well. The commonest suggestion is that it was dedicated to St. Anne, whilst this is a convenient and obvious origin, there is no evidence. A more prosaic origin is hinted by the alternative name Bullen does it originate from Old English billen refering to roaring and perhaps describes the nature of the spring, and perhaps explained the legend of the spring erupting. However, the most accepted origin is that the name derives from the Count of Boulogne who was Lord of the Manor in Carshalton in the 12th century. This would explain the legend that Anne had a house near the well as well. A variant of this is that the well was associated with a small cottage, sadly long since demolished, which abutted the churchyard. This cottage was called Dame Duffin’s Cottage but was believed to have originally been a chantry chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Boulogne. A chapel was given by Nicholas Gainsford in 1497 according to Michael Wilks 2002 Book of Carshalton. The well appears likely to have been the spring probably used by the chapel as its water source. Whether it was truly a holy well or rather a well named by association is unclear. There is no clear reason for a chantry chapel in the location, although of course it is close to a bridge and often chapels are built nearby to these for offering purposes. It is just as probable that the chapel was established for those attracted to the spring. It has been suggested that the recess behind the well may have originated as a resting place for visitors and maybe all that remains of the chapel and was where the spring arose. Interesting Hogpit pond is suggested as the true origin of its water. This is significant in justifying its holy well origin as hog is most often derived from Old English halig for holy and pit derives from putte for spring.
So why Anne?
However, we should not completely dismiss the Boleyn connection perhaps because it is rather interesting legend and one with a familiar motif. There a number of springs across the country such as Beckett’s Well at Otford where a saint has thrust their staff into the ground and a holy spring arose. Similarly saints have lost heads and springs arose at the point they hit the ground! So taking this into account what do we read into the legend? I have speculated that Anne became a cult figure of the Reformation and sites became associated with her akin to they would have done with Saints. Local people berift of their saints reattached legends to her in response. Perhaps if this did happen, and I suggest the same happened with Elizabeth, it was a sort transitional development, but the name stuck. However, the question asks where did the legend come from. If it was a construction of Brightling, no further back than antiquarian musings, but if its older than something more significant could be read into it.
Queen Anne Boleyn’s Well is not the only supposed holy well in Carshalton and in a future instalment I will investigate other sites.
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.
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.
Pinner is classic suburbs. Lovely well kept houses, neat lawns, tidy hedges but as John Betjemen’s quote suggests some relics of past times remains……in this case on the junction of Waxwell Road and Uxbridge Road. The Waxwell (TQ 118 905) is such a surprising substantial well site that it is surprising it is so little known. Researching our holy and healing well heritage in London and Middlesex is generally a disheartening experience. Many wells have been lost forever, even their locations cannot be effectively traced or else enclosed away. The Wax well is an exception, although it has not completely escaped the perils of urbanisation, it remains remarkably unchanged from the last century as comparison with today and the postcard testifies.
Watching or Waecca?
The name is interesting, it is the only one I am aware of. A plaque by the Harrow Heritage Trust reads:
“Wax Well Name was first recorded in 1274 as ‘Wakeswell’ Thought to mean ‘Waecc’s’ Spring. Until mid-19th century the well was the most important source of water in Pinner village and reputed to have healing properties.”
The name is either from a personal name or Anglo-Saxon Woecce whichmeans ‘to guard’ perhaps suggesting that the water was important or associated with a ritual. However, the site is close to Grime’s Dyke which was the boundary of Mercia so the guard may relate to use by people associated with that site.
Staying in Pinner forever?
A tradition that anyone who drunk of the well would stay in Pinner forever, this being a tradition often associated from Anglo-Saxon sites, such as Keldwell in Lincolnshire and Bywell in Northumberland, both Saxon sounding wells so there appears to be a significant relationship. Pinner residents clearly protective of who lives in the area, they have perhaps prevented people from testing this out for no water can be found there!
Yet it was a very reliable water source especially in dry periods when people would travel from miles around to collect it. The healing properties of the water ranged from the being good for eyes to unusually reviving people at the point of death! Sadly, since 1870, the site has been sealed up and the site is now dry and deep in leaves. The well consists of a large red brick domed structure set into the bank and earth covered. The water arose under an arch in a semi circular basin set into base of the chamber with three steps reaching the water.
“If I throw thys ryche swerde in the water, thereof shall never com good, but harme and losse.’ And then sir Bedwere hyd Excalyber undir a tre… But King Arthur repremands him and sends him back.
So Bedevere went to the watirs syde. And there he bounde the gyrdyll aboute the hyltis, and threw the swerde as farre into the watir as he myght. And there cam an arme and an honde above the watir, and toke hit and cleyght hit, and shoke hit thryse and braundysshed, and than vanysshed with the swerde into the watir.”
So retells one of the most famed scenes recorded in Arthurian romance: the Lady in the Lake taking the mighty Excalibur back. A scene which may remember folk memory of Celtic and possibly pre-Celtic traditions of depositing sword votive offerings such as those held in the British Museum. A number of sites have revealed sword and other weapon deposits as far apart as Flag Fen (Cambridgeshire) to Carlingwark (Scotland). In some places there are considerable amounts. An intriguing window into the Celtic world and the ritual significance of water has been revealed for example at Llyn Cerrig Bach. Here 150 objects dating from second century B.C to the first century A.D have been extracted. Many of these objects show damage before their deposition, i.e rendering them useless although some were quite servicable, a common theme it appears.
One particular location which too has been clearly significant is the river Thames. This received a wide range of weaponry and other military equipment over at least a millennium, such as early Iron Age spearhead daggers still in their sheaths, at Chelsea, Wandsworth, Barn Elms and even a bronze helmet with bulls horns found era near Waterloo Bridge.
A bronze shield found in 1985 in a gravel pit near the River Thames at Chertsey with a pair of double-headed snakes beside the handle suggesting a higher level of working then would usual.
However, most famed of these votive river offerings is the Battersea Shield, a rare relic from the Iron Age. It is delightfully decorated being highlighted by 27 framed studs of red enamel associated with three roundels, with a high domed boss in the middle of the central one with a large stud in its centre. A reprousse technique having been used with engraving and stippling being used. Its rich decoration with polished bronze and red glass as well as the thinness of its iron suggests that it could never have been used for defence and clearly was purely ceremonial or made for depositing as a sacrifice for appease some deity. The Battersea shield is remarkable in being made of metal as many shields found in burial sites are wood and had very few metal parts. It is probable that the Battersea shield was only the front part of the shield and there is evidence of rivets on it.
But why leave something like this? Did it prepare the giver for the afterlife? Was there a god or goddess for war associated with water? Perhaps we shall never really know. Certainly, there is evidence in the currency of giving something very valuable to appease a deity. What is interesting is despite consideration that this an Iron Age custom, there is evidence that such depositions continued into the fourteenth century and as such gives greater evidence for folklorists suggesting that customs and ceremonies can survive from prehistoric times perhaps!
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
One of the fundamental important aspects of humanity is the understanding of both the importance of water and its purity. In the Hebrew faith, the significance of water in having a ritual cleansing function has been distilled into the mikveh, Mikvah, Mikve or Mikva which literally translated means ‘collection of water’. Unlike many of the sites recorded on this blog, mikveh still have a central and pivotal role in all forms of the faith.
The Mikveh thus has a wide range of purifying functions. Firstly, to enter the Temple, the person needed to be purified, but the convert would also need such purification. Secondly, the body of a woman would become ‘purified’ by immersion after child birth and menstruation, Niddah, so that marital relations could be resumed. However, deeper research of the Torah suggest an even greater amount of uses:
• after Keri — normal emissions of semen, whether from sexual activity, or from nocturnal emission;
• after Zav/Zavah — abnormal discharges of bodily fluids;
• after Tzaraath — certain skin condition(s).
• by anyone who came into contact with someone suffering from Zav/Zavah,
• by Jewish priests when they are being consecrated
• by the Jewish high priest on Yom Kippur, after sending away the goat to Azazel, and by the man who leads away the goat
• by the Jewish priest who performed the Red Heifer ritual
• after contact with a corpse or grave, in addition to having the ashes of the Red Heifer ritual sprinkled upon them
• after eating meat not dispatched kosher
Consequently, with such a wide range of demands, Mikveh would be placed in domestic and public locations. Importantly, the water used for a Mikveh, natural spring water was preferred if clean and not affected by mineralisation, like chalybeate springs. Alternatively, water derived from rain, snow or ice is considered pure enough.
However, I am focusing on the discovery of one particular Mikveh which dates from the mid-13th century. A medieval Jewish community existed in England from 1066, when William the Conqueror invited the community to establish themselves in a ghetto until its expulsion in 1290 by Edward I. A report in the Guardian from October 25th 2001 reported that what is thought to be the oldest physical evidence of Jews in Europe and the only found in London was discovered. This was during a routine excavation of the gold bullion vault of the State Bank of India in development of office works. It was in the area called the Old Jewry in London, on the corner of Gresham Street and Milk Street. So far no concrete evidence of Jewish life had ever been found in the area, supposedly because no difference could be seen in domestic buildings between Jews and gentiles. Howver, Dayan Ehrentreu, head of the Court of the Chief Rabbi, indentified it as a genuine mikveh.
It has been elucidated was that it was built for a local Medieval Jewish family called the Crespin family, however where it was a private site or part of a synagogue is not clear. The site made of well cut greensand stones consists of a semi circular basin around four feet across and four feet deep with a flight of stone steps leading down into it. The next oldest Mikveh site was found in the 1950s in Cologne, Germany and dates from 1170. Of course there may be many more Mikveh waiting to be discovered, another Mikveh may have been unearthed in the 1980s. It was described as “‘A rather strange tank-like structure was found about 100 yards from where this mikvah was found. It was identified at the time as possibly a strongroom, photographed, and cleared away,” It is said that years later, an archaeologist working in Israel looked at the photographs identified it as a Mikveh
The survival of this mikveh illustrates that water is important to all communities of the country and that water is important in ritual to all faiths. The Bevis Marks Synagogue paid to have the site removed and were to rebuild it in their grounds, but in the end it was set up in London’s prestigious Jewish Museum where it can be examined….a rare medieval relic.