From holy well to bus stop and back again….St Thomas a Becket’s Well, Northampton
Standing beside the main road to Bedford is one of the most impressive wells in the Northamptonshire, that of St Thomas a Becket’s Well. According to Markham and Cox (1898) in The Records of the Borough of Northampton, it was first mentioned in the thirteenth century and it is shown on John Speed’s 1611 map as ‘St Thomas well’. It was still highly regarded in 1629 as there were orders that no glover was to hang or lay any sheep skins or leather upon the hedge of St Thomas’ well. However, this was probably to preserve the source as a drinking water source and cleaning of the well is noted every year in the chamberlain’s accounts from 1765 until the turn of the century when:
“Cave and others for underdraining and work at St Tho’s Well, £4 3s 9d.”
Renovations of the well are noted in these accounts. An iron dish and chain being bought in 1718 costing 2s 6d, and 9d accordingly and In 1765 10s 6d bought a ladle.
Thompson (1909–10) in A history of the water supply of Northampton was told that people still visited the well, bathing their eyes in the water and taking water home with them.
Rise, fall and rise of the well
An old print dating from 1830 shows a large brick or stone structure with a square opening and pitched roof. A wooden frame goes across the entrance. This structure, if the proportions can be believed is a much greater one than the present. This was constructed by the corporation in 1843 at a cost of £210. The well chamber is made of local yellow sand stone and resembles a chapel with a pitched tiled roof topped with a Celtic cross finial. The well entrance is arched Gothic with two carved heads either side. A central stone bears the date of its building. Inside two golden lions are spouts filling a rectangular basin. Above this on the wall inside a maroon plaque topped with a gilded Northampton Crest reads:
“St Thomas a Becket’s WELL rebuilt by the CORPORATION 1943 E b Burwell Esq MAYOR.”
However, in the 1950s, the well itself was sealed up and served as a bus-shelter. However, by the time Bord and Bord (1985) report it for Sacred Waters it had been recently restored in 1984. This restoration included a fresco made by local children from Abington Vale and Kingsley Vale depicting St Thomas à Becket’s life which remains. Visiting in the 1990s I found the site again looking a little forlorn, the basin was empty. A visit this year, showed that it had been in 2006 been restored again. Although the water fills the basin, it appears not to flow from the lions although they have been nicely re-gilded. Access to the water is prevented by a metal frame work which is topped by ornate gold tipped arrows.
Truth in the legend?
Thompson (1909-10) in his work on Northamptonshire wells, suggests the well was previously named Swinewell, suggesting a name called Swinewell Street. Why the well is named after the saint is due to a legend that he stohis famous night escape from the castle on October 19th, 1165. However, it is known that Becket fled is on the other side of Northampton. It would be clear that this was the best well to associate with the saint. The possible origin may relate to the hospital which was founded in 1450 but of course this is after the first references if they are to be believed. Whatever, the truth it is great to see despite the hurtling traffic Becket’s Well remains in as better shape as it has in its long history.
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The well fresco