St Blaise's Well, Bromley, Kent

by Barrie Williams


     Bromley in Kent once described by Sir John Betjeman as a 'lonely, high-class suburb', is not a place which comes readily to mind in connection with holy wells and pilgrimages. But until the last century, St Blaise's Well enjoyed a certain reputation; in the Middle Ages, it was a place of pilgrimage; later it became a minor spa.

     Bromley owed much of its early prosperity to being the residence of the Bishop of Rochester. According to some accounts, Eadbert, King of Kent, granted land at Bromley to Bishop Eardulf around 750 A.D. There was a chalybeate spring on this land, the waters of which were found to have healing properties. The water from the spring was gathered in a well some 200 yards away, the site being marked by a cluster of eight oak trees. The area has been transformed almost out of recognition this century by the development of the Palace Estate and it is hard to imagine the location, about half-way between Widmore Road and the main Victoria-Chatham railway line as being one of semi-rural charm; but so it was and Bishops of Rochester encouraged pilgrimages to the well, building an oratory nearby dedicated to St Blasius or Blaise. The dedication is interesting. Clearly there was no association between the well and any local saint. Indeed, local saints are a rarity in west Kent. St Blaise was Bishop of Sebaste in Cappdocia (modern Turkey), martyred in 316 A.D. in one of the last great persecutions in Roman times. It is said that he had his flesh torn off with an iron comb and, because of its resemblance to a wool-comb, St Blaise was held in particular veneration by wool workers. Blaise was a popular saint in medieval England when the wool trade was the main source of the nation's wealth. His feast day, 3rd February, was made a public holiday in 1222. Bonfires were lit on the hills at night and a special taper offered at High Mass [1]. This was possibly an extension of the Candlemas celebrations of the previous day. There appears to have been a great deal of devotion to St Blaise in west Kent where at least thirteen churches are known to have images of him or alters dedicated to him [2]. One of these was the parish of St Peter and St Paul at Bromley. This serves as a reminder that Bromley once flourished on the wool trade.

     It is not easy to separate pilgrimage to the well from the general veneration of St Blaise but the main season of devotion at the well was evidently Whitsuntide. A papal indulgence of forty days was granted to all those who, on Whitsunday or the following two days (being Holy Days), made their confession and offered prayers at St Blaise's Chapel [3]. Drinking the waters of the well was presumably part of the devotions.

     Pilgrimage to the well ceased at the Reformation. Bishop Nicholas Ridley was an ardent Reformer and no doubt discouraged it. The oratory and well fell into decay and even the site was forgotten. But after the religious strife of the 16th and 17th centuries had died down, St Blaise's Well experienced a revival. Henrietta Maria, Queen to Charles I (1625-49) began the age of the spa town in England by patronising Tunbridge Wells. Bath, Cheltenham and numerous other towns with healing waters attained great popularity in the following century. Bromley enjoys a salubrious air, at least compared with most of south London. 'The air, though not very clear, is both wholesome and temperate', wrote Thomas Wilson c. 1800. Even in those days, wealthy business men could commute the ten miles into the City. Rediscovery of St Blaise's Well added to the town's amenities. In 1754, the tract of the stream was traced from the spring through the yellow ochry sediment and the site of the well identified [4]. It is not known whether this discovery was made by chance but it is more likey that someone with antiquarian knowledge was searching for it. Old steps made of oak planks were found at the well, down which pilgrims of earlier times had descended to 'take the waters'. Bishop Joseph Wilcocks (1731-56) ordered the well to be covered with a roof of thatch supported by six pillars and it became known as the Bishop's Well [5]. For more than half a century Bromley enjoyed the status of a spa town. 'Numbers of people, especially of the middling and poorer sort, have been remarkably relieved by it from various infirmities of body and diseases' [6]. The accounts of Bromley written c. 1800 all speak proudly of St Blaise's Well as one of the town's assets. But Dunkin's account points to the reasons for the declining popularity of the well. The wealthy frequented the more fashionable spas, including nearby Tunbridge Wells, while the middling and poorer sort were diverted to the growing popularity of the sea-side resorts, of which Margate was one of the first in the field. The grounds of Bromley Palace were neglected under Bishop Walter King (1809-27). His successor, George Murray (1827-60), made improvements but the period of decay had already set in. The original thatch covering over the well was replaced by a tiled roof but this collapsed in a snow storm in 1887. The flow of water from the spring diminished to a trickle, though it was still detectable when Horsburgh visited the site in 1928 [7]. The survival of the well, at least as an identifiable site, became unlikely under these circumstances and the departure of the Bishops of Rochester from the Palace and subsequent housing development made it virtually inevitable.

     St Blaise's Well at Bromley is a lesser example of what we find, for instance, at St Anne's Well, Buxton or St Cybi's Well at Llangybi; a holy place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages which later developed as a spa, though without the same continuous history of usage. But unlike Buxton and Llangybi, it is an instance of how modern social development can, quite literally, bury an interesting piece of history leaving only a street name and a record in old books. Now that we are so 'heritage' conscious, it is hoped that such a thing would not happen again.

 


References

1. Baring-Gould, S, Lives of the Saints, vol. ii, p. 48.
2. Horsburgh, E.L.S., Bromley, p. 100.
3. Wilson, Thomas, An Accurate Description of Bromley, p. 23.
4. Dunkin, John, History and Antiquities of Bromley, pp. 14-15.
5. Horsburgh, op. cit., p. 100.
6. Dunkin, op. cit., p. 15.
7. Horsburgh, op. cit., p. 100.

 

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Text Barrie Williams (1998)

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