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A rediscovered Essex Lady well

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!!

Is there a lost St. Helen’s Well…in Maldon?

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.

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…/Maldon/…/Maldon_1999_Historic_Towns_Assessment_Report.pdf copyright Pixyledpublications

Essex holy wells and healing springs – an Overview

  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