Holy Well: OS Grid Reference — SJ 413 662
The well is found on the south-east corner edge of Grovesnor Park, which is the south-east of the city beside the River Dee.
Archaeology & History
An early reference to this site is in the place-name of Billy Obbies Field, marked in 1745, with an accompanying spring marked at 1791. This would appear to suggest that the spring gained its name from the field and not vice versa, with the name possibly representing a local person. Yet the name may hide a much earlier origin. The name ‘Hobby’ derives from hobb, a name for a devil or demon – and where the name hobgoblin derives from. It may be possible that the area was a marshy waste and to warn people away a legend of a demon was introduced. More interesting is the idea that as the name ‘Hobb’ is synonymous with Puck, and Puck possibly having a Roman origin, that the site could be a much earlier Pagan site. This might explain the fertility ritual found here (see Folklore, below) if it has a greater age. It may be significant that when the park was developed, a long line of Roman earthenware water pipes were found. Did they draw water from the spring?
Whatever the origin, when the garden was developed in the 1860s by the 2nd Earl of Westminster, Richard Grosvenor, a rather grand and impressive red and buff sandstone ashlar well house was erected. This was designed by John Douglas, a local Chester architect, who was not forthcoming in making this well grand with canted corners, pointed arches flanked by a granite columns with wrought iron bars. At each corner is a small carved circle containing carved sheafs and portcullis and the voussoirs contain carved roses. A tiled spired roof sits upon the structure with an apex surmounted by a copper fish weathervane. All in all, rather ostentatious for a well – especially as access to the well chamber has not been made very easy by the enclosure. Whether the improvements were done to develop some sort of spa well is unclear, but it is known that the when Canniff Haight (1904) visited for his United Empire, the spring was still flowing and noted, for he records:
“Billy Hobby’s Well,” a spring of excellent water, where we have a drink.”
This was a local wishing well. A local anonymous rhyme records:
“I lov’d the tales that idle maids do tell,
Of wonders wrought at Billy Hobby’s Well,
Where love-sick girls with leg immured would stand,
The right leg ’twas – the other on dry land,
With face so simple – stocking in the hand –
Wishing for husbands half a winter’s day.
With ninety times the zeal they used to pray”
This old rhyme despite some pedigree suggested I have been able to date only to 1823. It appears to record a ritual undertaken at the well, a similar ‘one part of the body in, one out’ was done at Walsingham by lovelorn maidens, but it does look to be Victorian in origin there (or at least post Reformation). The only problem with the practice being undertaken then is that the present structure dates from that period.
From the forthcoming work on Holy wells and healing springs of Cheshire
- Dodgson, J.M., The Place-Names of Cheshire – Part 5, English Place-Name Society: Cambridge 1981.
- Haight, Canniff, A United Empire Loyalist in Great Britain, William Briggs: Toronto 1904.
- Hole, Christina, Traditions and Customs of Cheshire, Williams & Norgate: London 1937.
© R.B. Parish, The Northern Antiquarian