Notes Towards a Survey of

Shropshire Holy Wells - 1

by Laurens Otter


Locations

 

North West Salop; Oswestry (2), Knocking, West Felton (Woolston), Llanymynych, Baschurch.
North Salop; Wem, Moreton Say, and one on the road to Wem from Shrewsbury.
Shrewsbury area; Haughmond Abbey, Hanly's Spa, Pengwern Ferry, Burnt Mill Bridge (possibly two or more), Uriconium, Acton Burnell (not Holy but satanic), Pitchford, Bill Well, Shrewsbury.
East Salop;

(Newport area)

Tibberton, Newport, Sutton, Lilleshall (at least two and possibly three), Sherrif Hales.
East Salop;

(Wrekin/Telford)

Admaston (this was chalybeate and later commercial), Wellington, The Wrekin (hill), Lawley, Dawley/Lightmoor.
East Salop;

(east of the Wrekin)

Albrighton, Worfield.
South central Salop; Plaish, Chetton. Shirlett Common, Much Wenlock.
South-west central Salop; Worthen, Ladywell Mine near Mynsterly, Rorrington, Church Stoke, Wentnor, Prolley Moor, Bethcott, and on the Long Mynd.
South Salop; Ludford, Hope Bagot, Sunny Gutter, Richard's Castle, Ludlow, Titterstone Clee, Stoke St Milborough, Corfham/Diddlebury.
Unlocated; Saltmore, Pulley Common, Kingley Wick.

 


Prejudices of the Writer

 

     Most authorities (for instance Hope) on holy wells see an impelling motive, 'the belief that the pure refreshing element, without which no life can be sustained, is either in itself divine, or is the abode of some deity.'

     The argument is put even more forcibly by P.J. Hartnett, Holy Wells of East Muskerry, Co. Cork (Cork Antiquarian Society Journal); 'Water is so vital a commodity, so full of life & so suggestive of movement, that it is easy to understand why prehistoric man should have regarded it as one of the great elemental powers without which existence would be impossible'.

     Or in the same journal, an author whom I cannot transliterate on an English typewriter; 'Water is a cherished possession in all ages and in all places. It has been the object of veneration and adoration in pagan lands. It is easy to understand how a precious thing on which life depends can become an object of worship. Who has not heard of the sacred waters of the Ganges and of the Jordan, of the Pool of Bethsaida...where a great multitude always lay in the five porches awaiting the "moving of the waters", of Lourdes. and its miraculous waters, and in our own country, Lough Derg or St Patrick's Purgatory?'

     It is at first a convincing argument, and indeed I only began to question it when I read that last passage for the third time. In hot and dry climates I can fully understand that water would always be reverenced in the way he suggests; but when a writer living in the West of Ireland says it, I find myself pulled up sharp.

     No doubt the purity and movement of a spring is beautiful and always a thing of wonder. But in these islands is water really always desirable? Especially in days when the population was little more than three or four per cent of what it is now? Were they really, often, so desperate for drinking water in pagan times that they would deify so many wells? And if so many, why not all?

     Certainly there would be some places, cut off from normal supplies, where by some trick of capillary action, or some fault in the rock, a spring or well existed where one would not expect it. Indeed, such a seemingly miraculous supply would appear wondrous even where water was anyway plentiful.

     I fear I always get the quotation wrong, and it is too far to go to correct it, but perhaps some moonraker in the Source readership can:

'Drink traveller drink, of Bradley's

     purest rill,

For strange to say the water runs, for

quite a mile, up-hill...'

     One can see that the well at Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire, would have stirred all sorts of superstitions in pagan ages, and - as the normal pattern was that wells devoted to pagan gods/goddesses were re-dedicated to Christian saints - that it would have evolved into a holy well. Though in fact I cannot recall that when I knew it in my childhood, the Maiden Bradley well was described as holy.

     However, though Ekwall (Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names) traces the 'Maiden' part of the name back to a monastic hospice for sick women, it is not impossible that this is a 'back-formation', and that the name dates back to an earlier hagiological dedication connected with the well.

     But these accidents of hydro-dynamics would not I suspect account for more than a small proportion of the holy wells to be found. I suspect that by far the greatest number of them contained curative chemical impurities within their waters; (borax, and chalybeate are obvious, though as many cured or were supposed to cure dermatological complaints it is not difficult to envisage others); and that a full study of a county's holy wells would need to involve chemical testing, coupled with a full study of the geological causes of such impurities.

 


Shropshire Holy Wells

 

     The far south west of the county - the Clun Valley - an area particularly rich in folk-lore and legend seems to have no holy wells.

     Ellesmere in the north west is an area with a number of lakes (meres) and the well there is almost - in folk-lore terms - an extension of these; since it figures almost as an aside in tales of the meres. The Oswestry area (famous for Penda's defeat of Oswald) lying for the most part between Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke, an old established borderland (before Oswald's defeat, Oswestry was called Maserfeld, the first element of which derives from the Maersaetan, the border people), is equally rich in legend - though far less remote and rugged - and is also particularly rich in holy wells.

     So it does not seem far fetched to suspect that the reasons for this difference would lie in the very different geological formations of these two areas of the Welsh border.

     Obviously, since these were wells which stood out markedly within their own areas, only a little can be deduced from the general geology's of those areas. Without tracing the exact spot of every well, many of which have not been traced for over a century, and some of which lie under more modern buildings; so as to check both for geological faults or peculiarities (if expert aid is available) and to make chemical/pharmaceutical tests on the nearest available spring water; any survey of wells would - given my basic theories- be inadequate. However, since I cannot unfortunately do all this. I will attempt what I can and perhaps others can follow on.

     I will start with the Wrekin area for no better reason than that it is where I live. Besides the wells listed in the Wrekin and Newport areas, some commentators have included amongst our holy wells, writing in the last century, an oil well in Broseley. which appears to have produced a constant, adequate but not excessive (so non-polluting) supply in the Middle Ages, and was no doubt seen therefore as extraordinary and miraculous. That has since been lost, though it may be connected with the bituminous tar tunnel, on the other side of the Severn from Broseley, under the Coalport end of the Blists' Hill Museum.

     The Wrekin is a hill about a mile and a half in length, with a small series of satellite hills, all of which with Lilleshall Hill eight miles north east, and a series of hills east of the Stretton fault, fifteen miles south west, form part of a very ancient (and once very high) hill range, formed of pre-Cambrian intrusive igneous rock.

     Though the Wrekin is only some 1300 feet high the fact that it stands well north of its kindred hills, and that for miles (in an arc stretching from its west to its north east) lies the North Shropshire plain interrupted only by a few much smaller (mainly Old Sandstone) hills, means that it is visible for many miles around, and makes a most impressive landmark.

     The associated hills, and also Wenlock Edge on the other side of the Severn, are rich in iron ore, coal near the surface (though now mostly worked out) and limestone. This explains why the area was an early centre of the iron industry in the Industrial Revolution; and the forests (then widespread) of the area provided wood for charcoal before coal was used for smelting.

     Given that in Angevin and Wars of the Roses days the area was mostly royal forest, most of the older settlements in the area were built by miner-squatters. As royal authority weakened and the need for iron grew, in areas such as this, such settlements had to be tolerated by monarchs and aristocrats who undoubtedly disliked them.

     Of the holy wells in the area that at Admaston lies just over 3 miles slightly east of north of the Wrekin, on a parallel (though obviously lower) strip of the same pre-Cambrian rock, at its northern extremity. During the last century Admaston was a commercial spa with several chalybeate springs and which of these was the holy well is uncertain.

     Perhaps half a mile closer to the Wrekin, and further east, but like Admaston on the north side of Wellington, lay St Margaret's Well. Though this may have been one of two Wellington wells with this dedication as a writer in the Shropshire Magazine claimed to have located St Margaret's Well, south of Wellington, on the Ercall, the second largest of the Wrekin hills.

     East of the Wrekin and south of Wellington there are holy wells at Lawley and Dawley; and finally there was one on the Wrekin itself.

     Admaston's reputation as a holy well has unfortunately been largely overlain by its subsequent reputation as a spa. Rev. G. S. Hewins, Byways of Shropshire (1927) says it was quite famous at one time. I have not been able to trace a dedication for it or any early mention, though there is a disputed reference to a medieval holy well in Wrockwardine, in whose manor Admaston would then have been situated. So I will need to return to this subject later in the series.

     Of St Margaret's Well, Hope, quoting an earlier writer, said; 'This is renowned for its eye-healing virtues, and was yearly visited by Black Country folk and others who "douked" or dipped their heads in it on Good Friday'.

     The site of the well is now under a new estate, but even when the site had not been developed. it lay in the middle of a cultivated field, where the farmer was not given to acknowledging rights of way, and so for the last fifteen years there has been no sign of the well or indication of a spring. Though less than forty years ago the site of the well was clearly visible and in that part of Wellington generally known; within living memory it was known for providing the purest water available in the town, which, considering the fact that several small streams brought water straight from the Ercall, would have been high recommendation.

     There was a cult of St Margaret in late Saxon times in England, so that at the time of the Conquest there were 200 churches (at least) dedicated to her; and Margaret Atheling (later also canonised as St Margaret of Scotland) who married Malcolm (Canmore) II of Scotland was named after her.

     The cult had spread from the East where it was widespread, even though Pope Gelasius had declared the stories of her to be apocryphal. (They bear obvious similarities, as do those of her male counterpart, St George, to pagan myths). Relics, including bones, of hers were brought to Western Europe in the ninth century. The Papal condemnation of her cult was repeated in 1969; as was that of St George.

     The story ran that she was the daughter of a pagan priest who turned her out when she became a Christian. She became a shepherdess, a passing nobleman picked her up in his chariot and took her to Antioch; but she resisted his attempted seduction. She then openly declared her Christianity and with the aid of fourteen holy helpers she preached and converted in Antioch. She and many of the helpers were beheaded at the time of the Diocletian persecution.

     However, this was embroidered with more extravagant versions, in which she was devoured by a dragon which promptly burst asunder so that she re-emerged unscathed. (Wherefore devotion to her was believed to protect against the dangers of childbirth - and, despite the papal edict, this belief appeared in the Medieval Sarum Breviary).

     The cult of St Margaret was stronger in Saxon England than almost anywhere else in the West. It survived the Norman conquest - the Normans had no special devotion to her - and wells such as this may have taken on some importance at a time when the Saxons were shut out of the churches which were taken over by the Normans.

     There are many instances where popular wishes have changed the dedications of shrines from a saint whose memory has faded to one whose repute is more widely known. Indeed in Dawley, a local collector of oral history, John Hassall, has found that the holy well there is widely supposed to be holy because John Wesley drank from it. A dedication which would shock the sensibilities of Wesley and his early supporters who viewed the commemoration of holy wells in Ireland as a distressing survival of paganism.

     Whether therefore St Margaret was the earliest dedication of the Wellington well, which would mean that the well was only held to have had healing properties from the ninth century and would preclude the possibility that the well had earlier been dedicated to a pagan god(dess) and had become 'christianised' (a history which can be proved in the case of many holy wells); or whether there was an earlier dedication to another saint, it is not possible to tell.

     Given that devotion to St Margaret was initially believed to guard against miscarriages, it is surprising that the curative properties of the well are not connected with pregnancy. It could of course be that the writer of the Shropshire folk-lore quoted, or his informants, resorted to euphemism, not believing that miscarriages should be mentioned in these conditions.

     Also, it is surprising that the douking ceremonials should have been on Good Friday. Though the exact dates in the Anglican and Orthodox calendars vary, both place St Margaret's day in July. In towns where there are wells dedicated to more than one saint, then a neutral - and generally Christ-connected - vigil or festival is common; but though there is a suggestion of another St Margaret's Well on the other (south) side of Wellington, on the base of the Ercall, there is no record of a well dedicated to another saint.

     It could of course be that the reputation of the well survived the end of the cult of St Margaret (unlikely to have lasted beyond the puritan period unscathed) and that as the cult of the well revived and pilgrimages restarted the original stories and believed properties of the well were forgotten. The Black Country pilgrimages are hardly surprising; when the centre of the iron industry moved from Shropshire to the Black Country, it took with it many of the former workers on Salopian furnaces, so that most Black Country families originated from Shropshire.

     Oakengates, four miles east of Wellington, was in Medieval days famous for wells dedicated to Mammon - alum wells, whose products were much sought after for the Shrewsbury wool trade. At one time alum production was a papal monopoly, pure alum could only be produced by papal agents and the Holy See derived a large part of its income from this. It could well be that well-water, which happened to contain alum, was not affected by this rule: which would have made the Oakengate wells of particular interest.

     I must confess to being somewhat perplexed by the holy well in the Lawley district, mentioned in the Shropshire Magazine in a letter by W. Howard Williams, but not by any other authority I have consulted. Even Williams's reference could be ambiguous, for Lawley is a small village in the Wrekin area, and is also a hill (one of the same series of pre-Cambrian rock as the Wrekin, but fourteen miles south-west), and it could be that Williams meant near the Lawley hill. But that said, there is a well visible at Lawley Farm and another nearby, so Williams's mention may have pointed to one of these or a neighbour. Lawley is south of Wellington and north of Dawley.

     The Dawley well, in fact between Little Dawley and Lightmoor, in Holywell Lane, just by Stocking Farm (which last might just be indicative of an early Saxon 'inga') was a pin-well, i.e. a wishing well into which pins were thrown.

     I am indebted to Father Gresham Kirkby (a Cornishman in origins) for pointing out that the custom of throwing pins in wells (generally found in counties where metallic ores are near the surface and so metals were extracted in pre-Christian days) is a reversion to the pagan belief in placating the tin gods for robbing them of their metal.

     Ironically this reversion occurred as a result of eighteenth century Evangelical and Methodist preaching against the paganism inherent in holy well 'patterns'. Destroying the old (no doubt pagan-derived) rituals made for an open return to an older custom which had never been transformed by churchmen. Not of course the only example of this, Luther's condemnation of the crucifix was followed by the restoration of the pagan rites of the Yuletide pine-tree and log.

     I have mentioned that John Hassall, in a collection of essays in local history, has written at some length of this well, after he visited it a couple of years ago. I find it unlikely that the name Ladywell Lane, which certainly dates back to a time when Methodists were still looked on askance by property owners, owes its name to a well whose earliest claim to sanctity is that John Wesley drank from it; and as I have said, rededication is sufficiently common elsewhere to explain that story. But, that said, John's description of the well would reward enquiry.

     Between Dawley and the Wrekin lies the village of Little Wenlock, fortunate enough not to be within the designated area of Telford New Town (which embraces all the communities so far named) but unfortunate in being surrounded by suitable areas for open cast coal mining, or other quarrying.

     No-one in any list of Shropshire holy wells mentions the wells - initially built, one gathers, by the monks of Much Wenlock - that lie on the outskirts of the village, one of which is still in fair repair. (Obviously rebuilt long after the Dissolution of the monasteries).

     But since the same sort of wells are found in Much Wenlock, where celebrations at the two main holy wells still amounted to a town fair in the last century (if Lady Gaskell's account is to be believed) they may be worth some thought.

     Though Much Wenlock is five miles to the south, on the other side of the Severn, there are points where the village recalls the town. The obvious reason is the ownership of both settlements by the same monastery; and after the dissolution the two constituted a single borough.

St Owen's Well, Much Wenlock   I had not considered the fact the connection is much deeper until I started to write this. Wenlock Edge, on which Much Wenlock stands, is an highly fosiliferous, thin, long lowish ridge of Silurian limestone; and Little Wenlock also stands on a strip of limestone, though it is of much more recent origin, and though unlike Wenlock Edge it is not straight but loops. Since these two ridges of limestone are surrounded by older rocks, it seems likely that when they were first so named, people were conscious of a similarity, if only because the similarity of soil would have affected cultivation.

     Charlotte Burne [Shropshire Folk Lore, (1883)] holds that St Milburga who founded the monastery at Much Wenlock, chose the site because of its proximity to St Owen's Well there. She says the site of this was lost, but the Shropshire Magazine carried a photo of what it believed to be St Owen's Well in August 1959, and the structure so depicted is still to be seen. If she was correct about St Milburga's reason, and given that the town also has a well dedicated to her, it would seem likely that the monks - at least until the Norman Conquest - had a particular devotion to holy wells, which would suggest that there would have been a degree of veneration involved in the construction of travellers' wells on the boundaries of the town and village.

     The most notable surviving structure at Little Wenlock is on the N.E. of the village, on the left hand side of the road (NGR 650 072) - two brick arches, the larger about 4'6" high, set into the verge and so somewhat overgrown, with behind them smallish water troughs somewhat lower than the base of the arch, obviously fed by springs. Not particularly impressive, but resembling one of the wells still dressed in the Peak District.

     We complete the holy wells of the Wrekin District with St Hawthorn's Well on the Wrekin itself. (There is also the Raven's Bowl, alias Cuckoo's Cup, near the top of the Wrekin, which suggests a more frankly pagan origin; a natural waterbowl that is still very much to be seen).

     None of the authorities locate St Hawthorn's Well's exact site on the Wrekin, either because none knew, or when they wrote its position was so well-known that it seemed unnecessary. Like all other hard rock hills the Wrekin has a large number of streams originating from small springs, carrying water down the hill on all sides, so there are many candidates. However, where one stream emerges onto the road (NGR 624 069) the place is known as The Spout, and this may possibly commemorate St Hawthorn's Well.

     The well was known for scorbutic therapeutical properties, and the fact that one unfortunate's unrewarded visit is commonly recorded suggests it was generally held to be efficacious. Burne holds St Hawthorn(e) to be a corruption of St Alkmund, to whom a nearby monastery was dedicated; but other authorities (and for once Mrs Burne's view seems unlikely) suggest that there was a tree there that was venerated and the spring was close by.

     There are a number of examples of trees in these islands that were considered holy; in Western Ireland (and to a lesser extent West Wales) some early missionaries are supposed to have planted their staffs which miraculously immediately sprouted leaves and turned into a tree whose progeny never died. In England such cases are often attributed to sticks brought from the Holy Land by Joseph of Arimathea. Indeed, there are so many so attributed that it has been irreverantly suggested that in order to smuggle the Holy Grail through the Roman customs, the saint hid it in a crate-full of Palestinian hawthorn poles, and later distributed these latter as widely as possible.

     Not a holy well, but worth noting is the 'Miners' Well' above Wellington in the Lime Kiln woods - on the same seam of limestone as Little Wenlock.

 


Postscript

 

     Since writing this piece, the Victoria County History volume dealing with Telford has been published. In the section dealing with Little Wenlock, there is a reference to an area called 'Haliwelu' within the parish, which the authors guess was 'perhaps near Holloway Hays', suggesting that these were indeed Hallywell Hays. While - since the parish extends to the Wrekin and the haye would undoubtedly be within the Wrekin forest - this might well refer to St Hawthorn's Well (not mentioned in the VCH) it could. however, be a reference to the network of travellers' fountains I described above, which may have been piped from a single 'holy' spring.

     Concerning Dawley well, since 'stocking' normally means a clearing where tree-stumps remained; and since it can derive from stock meaning cattle or from 'stoc' meaning an holy site; it may have seemed perverse to suggest that in this case it was an 'inga' without adding that in this area - the core of the wreocensaetan principality - there are only three inconclusive possibilities for the local 'inga'.

     Near the now buried site of St Margaret's Well, north of Wellington, there is a pond obviously fed by a spring. It is possible that with the upheavals caused by building an estate etc., the spring which originally fed the well now feeds this pond, which is in the grounds of what will be Telford Hospital; in view of the saint's patronage of childbirth and the well's repute in the cure of eyes, it bodes well for the hospital.

     South of the river (in Jackfield's, St Mary's, churchyard), there is an unimposing arched structure with water at the bottom. It looks like a number of holy wells in the county, for which these brick structures were built between 150-200 years ago. I know of no reference to a holy well in Jackfield, but positioned as it is in the corner of the churchyard, by the road side, and given that St Mary's, though it has a settlement round it, is set a little way away from the original village, it could be possible that the church was sited by an holy well.

 

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Text Laurens Otter (1985) | Illustration Edna Whelan (1985)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick ( 1999) | Created 27/03/00