Holy Well: OS Grid Reference – SK 7255 8280
One of the most unusually sited of Nottinghamshire’s holy wells is St. John’s Well at Welham. It lies beneath a private kitchen floor in a house in Bonemill Lane in Welham, just off the Clarborough Road out of Retford.
Archaeology & History
The well itself is undoubtedly an ancient one. The Domesday Book refers to ‘Wellun’; this changed to ‘Wellum’ by 1166, and by the 16th century had become ‘Wellom’; but in Chapman and Andrews map of Nottinghamshire in 1775 was shown as ‘Welham’. None of these sources call it St John’s Well and it is not so named until 1710, either as a re-dedication once the Reformation zealouts had died down, or perhaps coined by John Hutchinson to give the bath a story to explain its healing waters. It is shown on Chapman’s map of Nottinghamshire (1774) as ‘Well House’. Piercy (1828) gives the greatest information and states that the hamlet of Welham was named after St. John’s Well whose waters contained magnesium and gypsum and was:
“good for rheumatics and scorbutic diseases. Its waters formed into a large bath, and remained entire during the early part of the 18th century, it was famous for many cures, but latterly it has lost much of its celebrity.John Hutchinson, Esq. erected a cottage adjoining, and enclosed the bath, to preserve it from injury. Cold baths like this were formerly regarded with superstitious reverence, being supposed to possess a sovereign remedy for agues such as rheumatism.”
By 1832 White’s Directory notes that it had lost much of its former celebrity. A Robert Walker was a bath keeper at the Well house and may well have been the last one as it appears the well soon fell into terminal decline and I can find nothing is noted of it until 1938. At this time it is noted that its water was still used to provide several cottages in the village. An article written in 1957 states the bathhouse disappeared stating the coming of the railway encouraged people to move away to find more effective spas around the 1830s. It goes on to note that the actual spring location was lost. This I thought was to be the situation, but local investigations not only showed the house to be still existence but the bath still remained! Records show that the estate, was bought by an Arthur Robert Garland of Welham Hall from the deceased estate of John Henry Hutchinson of Clarborough Hall acres117.3.16 along with Well House Cottage and garden for the sum of £3200 on in 1910. He then sold the cottage and garden to Fred Anderson on 1910 for £130. This was subsequently bought by the late Mr Eric Durham on 1955, later to be purchased by the current owner, Mr Whelan, in 1975.
The present house, although it had been added onto in the last century, has its core fabric as John Hutchinson built it. The large house being the well keeper’s abode with the side building, now a modern kitchen was the bath house. Arriving at the house, I was at first shown the site by Mr. Whelan the spring which filled the bath which was diverted to the side of the house, the spring itself arising close to the footpath behind the house. A man-hole cover in the drive way revealed that the spring flows at a fast rate, several gallons per minute. He notes that it had a very high mineral content, soaking through the gypsum in Clarborough hills. He stressed it is drinkable, in small quantities, due to its high magnesium and sulphate (like Andrews Liver Salts). It is quite chalky to taste flat but is very pleasant to drink if aerated. However he did not recommend long term drinking was probably not good for one’s health.
In the kitchen, a small trap door can be removed and beneath the remains of the bath is revealed. This appears to as Mee (1938) describes; a stone basin twelve feet square with a flight of steps entering the water. I scrambled down into this bath and found it presently to have two stone steps which enter the bath, although bricks built upon these suggest that there may have been more.
Remarkably the bath still remains enclosing an area fifteen feet by twelve feet, and despite the water being diverted, was full to over a two foot of water. The present kitchen is supported by four brick pillars but this does not appear to have damaged the fabric of the bath which is in fine condition, being made of good quality neat squared stonework. A pipe is found four feet high or so in the wall and a line around it made by the presence of water indicates that the water was of a considerable depth supporting the fact that it was large enough to be a hazard, explaining how Thomas Heald, Vicar of Babworth drowned in it on the 18th June 1759. Mr. Whelan informs me that although the house is not a listed building previous owners had sensibly preserved the bath. Around 30 years ago he was often showing local school children, but it appears now to forgotten. So there it remains a curious relic preserved in its most unusual place.
John Piercy (1828) notes:
“Here was, until lately, a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
What is interesting about this account is the reference of games and a fair suggesting that if the well itself did not have such a dedication, the saint was celebrated in the locale. This may indicate that indeed the well was so dedicated or that Hutchinson chose this name because of the local fair. Without further information we shall never know.
It must be noted that due to its location, under a private kitchen, that the site is not readily viewable so please don’t turn up unannounced.
- Mee, Arthur, Nottinghamshire, Hodder & Stoughton: London 1938.
- Parish, R.B. (2010) Holy Wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire
- Piercy, John S., The History of Retford, F. Hodson: Retford 1828.
© R.B. Parish, The Northern Antiquarian