Archaeology & History
This holy well was one of two in the village of Barmby, neither of which seems to exist anymore — although, it has to be said, there are conflicting reports as to its demise from the word go. When it was first mentioned in Thomas Allen’s (1831) huge work on the history of Yorkshire he told us that,
“In this village are two extraordinary springs of sulphuric and chalybeate water, denominated St Peter’s and St Helen’s; the former possesses the rare virtue of curing scorbutic eruptions by external application. Both of these wells, within the last six years, have been wantonly filled up, and the site is only known to a few of the villagers.”
Their “extraordinary” waters however, were apparently found to be still flowing when the Ordnance Survey lads surveyed here in 1849, as they published it a few years later on the 1853 OS-map of the region, along with its nearby compatriot of St Helen.
Less than ten years earlier, Will White (1840) also spoke of St Peter’s Well, albeit briefly, telling that it “was said to possess medicinal properties”—but it seems that he never visited the site and was merely going on Mr Allen’s earlier description. Its exact whereabouts however, is somewhat of a curiosity. Although the Ordnance Survey lads mapped it as being SE 6885 2848 on the southwest side of the village, in William Smith’s (1923) survey of holy wells he gave us a very different location. “St Peter’s Well,” he wrote,
“is situated in an orchard about a hundred yards to the south-east of the church, and is reached by going through three fields. It is a pool about eight feet deep and fifteen in diameter, the spring now rising several yards from its original site. It flows clear and strong, and though attempts have been made to block it up, it always reappears. The water is soft and has never been known to freeze. It contains sulphur, as I can testify, having tasted the water. It is noted for curing scurvy and sore eyes, if applied externally, and half-a-century ago, people suffering from these ailments came long distances to apply the water as a remedy, and went away benefited. An eye-witness has said a man living far from Barmby, advised by his medical man, as a last resort visited the well and applied the water externally for the cure of scurvy, and so quickly did he lose the scales that fresh sheets for his bed were required each night…
“About a century ago, the owner of the orchard in which the well is situated had a son, a doctor, who commenced to practice in the district. The owner’s wife looked upon the spring as detrimental to the prospects of the son. So she said to her husband, “Tummus, we’ll hev that well filled oop. Foaks can cure thersens, an’ ther’ll be nowt fur poor Tummy ti dea.” Tummus was so convinced by his wife’s foresight that he did as she wished, and filled up the well.”
Naathen, on the very first OS-map of the village, the lads marked it at SE 6885 2848, as well as on subsequent surveys. This spot is 170 yards west of the village church wall. The location described by Smith has no “well” or spring marked on any maps, but, on the 25-inch scale map, 100 yards southeast of the the church walling we see marshland on the other side of a copse of trees in the very spot he told us about. Whether or not this was the actual spot, or whether the OS-lads had it right, we might never know. Field-name surveys may help; the existence and location of the orchard may help; other literary accounts might also be useful. But, one final query that may be important relates to Tom Allen’s (1831) words when he told us that “the site is only known to a few of the villagers.” By that, did he mean that the local folk kept its position quiet from outsiders? Even today, in our numerous inquiries with local people in the glens and mountains when seeking out lost or forgotten places, we still come across some olde local folk who are still quite hesitant, with that serious quizzical look in their eyes…
St Peter’s day was celebrated on June 29. He was one of the so-called “major saints” due to him being one JC’s Apostles. His symbol was a key.
- Allen, Thomas, A New and Complete History of the County of York – volume 2, I.T. Hinton: London 1831.
- Gutch, E., Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning the East Riding of Yorkshire, Folk-Lore Society: London 1912.
- Harte, Jeremy, English Holy Wells – volume 2, Heart of Albion press: Wymeswold 2008.
- Smith, William, Ancient Springs and Streams of the East Riding of Yorkshire, A. Brown: Hull 1923.
- White, William, History, Gazetteer and Directory of the East and North Ridings of Yorkshire, R. Leader: Sheffield 1840.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian