Bob Trubshaw’s trailblazing 1990 work on the Holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland was the first time I had heard of this fascinating spring arising beneath the church. He recorded it as follows:
“Where the footpath leaves the churchyard to cross the brook there are five steps down and a spring gushes from a recess in the churchyard wall, draining away into the brook. This is about thirty yards to the east of the chancel. The spring originates under the crypt of the church and piped to the churchyard wall; during the nineteenth century the water was used to power the organ. The crypt was rebuilt in 1848 and now contains the heating boilers etc. There were apparently never any tombs or graves in it.
Where the water issues from the churchyard wall is densely shaded by trees and is muddy underfoot as a result of the water flowing towards Grace Dieu Brook. The water maintains a good flow and is quite cold (about three gallons per minute at 10C on 4th February 1989); it is pleasant tasting.“
But despite Trubshaw’s inclusion is it a holy well?
Well Trubshaw does not explicitly call it a holy well but does its location suggest so? Many holy wells do arise from beneath churches – there are examples across the country but more are not of course. Although it is interesting to note that springs associated with churches would suggest an origin from the earliest days of the church. The wikipedia site for the village notes:
“It is possible that this site was regarded as sacred in pre-Christian times, thereby influencing the choice of location for the church.”
I am not sure who it is specifically regarded by though to be honest! Thomas Charles Potter in his work on 1842 The History of Charnwood Forest: The Villages Of The District includes a drawing of the church with the spring clearly shown but makes no reference to it at all in the text.
How old is the church?
One of the earliest mentions of the place, as Witewic, is in the Domesday Book and the fragments of a pre-Norman cross shaft appear to be found in the wall of the chancel suggesting the site was Christianised at least in the Saxon times. A recent visit I was given access to the crypt to explore whether there was any evidence of a spring. However, nothing could be found and as Trubshaw noted it was probably removed in the Victorian period.
What is in a name?
What is particularly significant is that the church is called John the Baptist. A saint who of course was decapitated. Heads and sacred springs have a considerable connection according to some researchers, Does this indicate a previous association with the spring of a headless saint as can be found in other sites or is it pure coincidence? Is this a further indication of the site being a holy well? Of course there are plenty of St John the Baptist churches without associated springs.
A lost mineral spring?
Interestingly Whitwick had three firms who specialised in mineral waters. Wikipedia notes:
“The largest of these was the firm of Bernard Beckworth on Cademan Street, which was established in 1875 and ran until the 1970s; it is listed in Kelly’s Directories of Leicestershire from 1904 through to 1941 as ‘Beckworth and Co. Ltd, Charnwood Mineral Water Works’.
By 1904, the firm of Stinson Brothers, based on Loughborough Road, had appeared. By 1912, this firm is listed as simply Horace Stinson and it had disappeared from the Whitwick Directories by 1928.
The firm of Richard Massey appears from 1916, listed at 36, Castle Street, Whitwick. Massey’s has disappeared by 1941.
A Stinson Bros codd bottle appeared among lots listed for auction in Barnsley (BBR Auctions) on Saturday 8 January 2006. It was described as a 9 inch tall emerald green glass codd bottle, embossed, ‘STINSON BROS/WHITWICK.’ The guide price was £80 – £100, the relatively high estimate presumably reflecting the rarity of the glass, but the bottle was in fact sold for £515. The bottle was turned up by a plough in a field opposite A.W. Waldrum’s Coal Merchant’s premises on Grace Dieu Road, Whitwick and is the only known example.
There is also known to have existed a ‘Botanical Brewery’, though it is believed that this may have been a part of the Stinson or Massey enterprises, both of which later moved to Hermitage Road. Both firms are listed on Hermitage Road (under Coalville) in a trade directory of 1941. There are also known to have been examples of 19th-century bottles bearing the name of McCarthy and Beckworth, Coalville.”
Does this suggest that the spring itself is a medicinal water? Strangely despite these firms no one appears to have tried it! So there is nothing to suggest that the Whitwick spring is a holy well but as a remarkable survival in the 21st century of a flowing urban spring it is no doubt miraculous!