St. George’s Well, Edinburgh, Midlothian

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NT 24401 74070

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 133173

Getting Here

St George's Well on 1851 map
St George’s Well on 1851 map

In Edinburgh, get to the west-end of Princes Street (nearest the castle), and where there’s the curious mess of 6 roads nearly skewing into each other, head down Queensferry Street for 450 yards until, just before you go over the bridge, walk down Bells Brae on your left, then turn right down Miller Row where you’ll see the sign to St. Bernard’s Well.  St. George’s Well is the small, dilapidated spray-painted building right at the water’s edge 200 yards before St. Bernard’s site.

Archaeology & History

Compared to its companion holy well 200 yards downstream, poor old St. George’s Well is a paltry by comparison, in both historical and literary senses.  The site was said to have been “set up in competition with St Bernard’s Well but never achieving its purpose”, wrote Ruth & Frank Morris (1982)—which is more than a little sad.  Not on the fact that it failed, but on the fact that some halfwits were using local people’s water supply to make money out of and, when failing, locked up the medicinal spring and deny access to people to this day!

In Mr Grant’s Old & New Edinburgh (1882), the following short narrative was given of the site:

“A plain little circular building was erected in 1810 over (this) spring that existed a little to the westwards of St. Bernard’s, by Mr MacDonald of Stockbridge, who named it St. George Well.  The water is said to be the same as the former, but if so, no use has been made of it for many years…”

St George's Well, looking N
St George’s Well, looking N
St George's Well, looking SW
St George’s Well, looking SW

The association to St. George was in fact to commemorate the jubilee of King George III that year.  If you visit the place, the run-down little building with its grafitti-door has a small stone engraving etched above it with the date ‘1810’ carved.

As the waters here were found to possess mainly iron, then smaller quantities of sulphur, magnesia and salts, it was designated as a chalybeate well.  Its curative properties would be very similar to that of St. Bernard’s Well, which were very good at,

“assisting digestion in the stomach and first passages … cleansing the glandular system, and carrying their noxious contents by their respective emunctories out of the habit, without pain or fatigue; on the contrary, the patient feels himself lightsome and cheerful, and by degrees an increase to his general health, strength and spirits.  The waters of St. Bernard’s Well operates for the most part as a strong diuretic.  If drunk in a large quantity it becomes gently laxative, and powerfully promotes insensible perspiration.  It likewise has a wonderfully exhilarating influence on the faculties of the mind.”

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul, Ancient and Holy Wells of Edinburgh, TNA: Alva 2017.
  2. Grant, James, Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh – volume 3, Cassell, Petter Galpin: London 1882.
  3. Harris, Stuart, The Place-Names of Edinburgh, Gordon Wright: Edinburgh 1996.
  4. Hill, Cumberland, Historic Memorials and Reminiscences of Stockbridge, the Dean and Water of Leith, Robert Somerville: Edinburgh 1887.
  5. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  6. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  7. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient & Historical Monuments of the City of Edinburgh, HMSO: Edinburgh 1951.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  55.953648, -3.212286 St George\'s Well

Wanstead Spa, Redbridge, London, Essex

Healing Well (lost):  OS Grid Reference – TQ 40 87

Also Known as:

  1. Wanstead Spring

Archaeology & History

The exact location of this site remains a mystery.  Addison (1951) mentions it as being “close to the Blake Hall Road” where a drinking fountain was erected, but notes that this was not the original site of the spring.  It was obviously a medicinal spring of some renown to the local people, before it was appropriated by the wealthy to turn it into a ‘spa well’.  In doing so, it brought the attention of those curious lords and ladies, along with King James himself, adorning themselves in usual view as important people, and playing the part in social gatherings, as folks did at those spa wells.  But the fad didn’t last long and the spa never really caught on.  One account tells how it was a dangerous place for the rich and wealthy to visit!  Locals can and do get pissed-off if you steal their basic water supplies!

The primary description of the site is that afforded by Christy & Thresh (1910) in their excellent survey of Essex waters.  With no mention of the unimportant local people (!), they told how it was “first discovered” in the early 17th century:

“John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on 23 August 1619, says:

“‘…We have great noise here of a new Spaa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”

“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had “almost drawn it dry.” If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.

“Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, whose knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled, writes us : —

“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts on Bush wood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘ The Grove ‘ (now cut up and built over). The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”

“Under the guidance of Mr. W. Ping, F.C.S., of Wanstead, Mr. Christy has visited two springs at Snaresbrook — namely, that known as the ‘Birch Well’, in the Forest, near the Eagle Pond, and a spring in the grounds of ‘The Hermitage’; but neither of these is credited locally with being a mineral spring and neither has any appearance of being such. Since then, Mr. Ping has written us as follows: “I have spoken with the oldest inhabitant of Wanstead, a Mr. Merryman, whose knowledge, both local and national, is remarkable and accurate. He tells me that the only Mineral Spring he ever heard of in Wanstead was in the grass bordering the roadside nearly opposite the house, in the Blake Hall Road, formerly occupied by Lord Mayor Figgis, and now by Sir John Bethell, M.P.  This spring he remembers well. Its water was chalybeate and left considerable reddish deposit. People came and drank it to give them an appetite. They used to kneel down and drink it from their hands, and also took it away in bottles. Others used to bathe their ankles in it to make them strong. Mr. Merryman adds that, about 1870, drainage operations deprived the spring of its water. The fountain, which has since been put up near its site, supplies waterworks water only.”  Mr. Ping adds that, recently when deeper drainage operations were in progress at the spot, water of a very markedly ferruginous character was encountered. This is no evidence that this spring was identical with that which came into prominence in 1619, but very likely it was.

“Mr. Dalton expresses the opinion that, if either surmise as to the position is correct, seeing that the comparison with the Tunbridge Wells chalybeate water was sound, the well in question probably yielded a ferruginous water from the Glacial (?) gravels of the Snaresbrook plateau at their contact with the pyritous London Clay.”

References:

  1. Addison, William, English Spas, Batsford: London 1951.
  2. Christy, Miller & Thresh, May, A History of the Mineral Waters and Medicinal Springs of the County of Essex, Essex Field Club: Stratford & London 1910.
  3. Hembry, Phyllis, The English Spa 1560-1815, Athlone Press: London 1990.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

Wanstead Spa

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Wanstead Spa 51.569141, 0.023656 Wanstead Spa

Haworth Moor Spa Wells, West Yorkshire

Healing Wells:  OS Grid Reference – SE 0041 3513

Getting Here

Spa Wells on 1852 map

Go through Haworth and head for the well-known Penistone Hill country park.  On the far western side of the hill up near the top of Moorside Lane, there’s a car-park.  Right across the road from this there are two footpaths: one heads you into the moor, whilst the other (going the same direction) follows the edge of walling onto the moors.  Take this path. Walk on and downhill, past the end of the reservoir, then the path continues uphill. You’ll hit a nice cheery tree beside the path a few hundred yards up.  Stop here, look into the boggy region with bits of walling on the moor in front of you.  That’s where you’re heading!

Archaeology & History

The first, weaker of the Spa Wells
The first, weaker of the Spa Wells

This was a really curious spot to me, as I found absolutely nothing about the damn place!  But thanks to the assistance of local historian and writer Steven Wood (2009), that’s changed.  Shown on the 1852 OS-map, at least two springs of clear water trickle slowly from the wet slope above you into the boggy reeds.  Close by there are overgrown remains of old buildings, covered with the time of moorland vegetation, seemingly telling that the waters were collected for bathing rooms.  But who the hell even started the notion that they’d be able to get Victorian rich-folk up here at the crack-of-dawn to drink or bathe in the waters is seemingly forgotten.  And, as is evident from the lack of local history, the project was a failed one which seemed not to have lasted too long. 

Folklore

The stronger of the Spa Wells
The stronger Spa Well

It was quite obvious that of all the springs around here and despite the strong-flowing streams either side of these spa well, that the local animals drink here more than the other nearby springs of water, as there were literally hundreds of animal tracks all across the boggy ground of the spas.*  The waters also seem to have the usual ‘spa’ qualities of stinking, but once we’d cleaned out the overgrown springs — which looked as if they hadn’t been touched for 100 years or more the waters were clear and tasted good, and were curiously slightly warm!

Although my initial search for information on this site drew a blank, Steve Wood pointed us in the right direction for info on the place.  As with many other holy wells and spas in Yorkshire, it turned out that this was another spot much revered around Beltane, indicating strongly there would have been  earlier pre-christian rites practiced at this site.   Steve pointed me to Martha Heaton’s (2006) local history work, which told:

“For many years the first Sunday in May was a special day. It was known as Spa Sunday, for on this day people gathered up in the hills overlooking what is now Leeshaw Reservoir, here was a well, known as Spa Well, and the stream which now feeds the reservoir is known as Spa Beck. People came from Haworth, Oxenhope, Stanbury, and other villages sitting round the well, they sang songs, some bringing their musical instruments to accompany the singing. Children brought bottles with hard spanish in the bottom filling the bottle with water from the well, shaking it until all the spanish or liquorice had been dissolved. This mixture was known as ‘Poppa Lol’ and would be kept for weeks after a little sugar had been added, then it was used sparingly as medicine.  The custom seems to have died out when Bradford Corporation took over the water and made Leeshaw Compensation Reservoir in 1875, though up to about 1930 two men from Haworth would wend their way to the spot on the moor, the first Sunday in May. The men were John Mitchell and Riley Sunderland, better known, in those days as ‘Johnny o’Paul’s’ and ‘Rile Sun’.

It was a great day for many people, the Keighley News of May 1867 mentioned it, the report of local news reads thus: ‘A large assembly met on Spa Sunday on the moors about two miles from Haworth, and a party of musicians from Denholme performed sacred music’.

This locality was often visited during the summer months by the Bronte family.”

References:

  1. Heaton, Martha, Recollections and History of Oxenhope, privately printed 2006.
  2. Wood, Steven & Palmer, Ian, Oxenhope and Stanbury through Time, Amberley Publishing 2009.

Acknowledgements: – Huge thanks to Steven Wood for his help; and to Hazel Holmes for permission to quote from Martha Heaton’s work.

* A common creation myth behind many healing wells is that animals with breaks or illness drag themselves to drink from otherwise small or insignificant springs and wells, despite of the copious streams or rivers which may be nearer.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Haworth Moor Spa

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Haworth Moor Spa 53.812456, -1.995255 Haworth Moor Spa