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The Holy Wells of Furness

lain McNichol is a qualified archaeologist who combines his knowledge of history and talent for acting to bring the past to life in the school classroom under the guise of various characters. These range from a Neolithic Man to second world war A.R.R Warden!

A few years ago a member of a local group, who will remain nameless, rang me up and asked me to speak at the societies annual dinner. During the call I was told by the caller that: "I have already spoken to Mr Rollinson and unfortunately he has a prior booking." I spoke at the event and had a very pleasant evening. The next time I met Bill I told him that I had gone up in the world as for at least one local group I was second choice after him for after dinner speaking, we both found this highly amusing.

There was another time when I bought a second-hand copy of William Cell's diary, which Bill edited. The bookshop owner told me Bill had been in the day before and signed the copy I had just bought. The owner had put an extra £3 on the price of the book. I thought Bill was going to choke when I told him but he didn't offer to refund the £3!

I first met Bill at one of his lectures in Barrow library and more than any other single person he inspired my interest in local history and the fascinating development of human life and society in Furness thanks to his inspired lectures and sites visits around the area.

The enthusiasm Bill could put into his talks was phenomenal but it didn't stop there. When I was researching "Life in Victorian Lakeland", Bill didn't just lend me his work "Life and Tradition in the Lake District", he gave me a copy.

He really wanted people to continue to study the history of the area and I'm sure they will. Bill would always help people as much as he could in their research. A call to Bill would result in a stream of sources of information to help your work and even now I still think: "I'll just ring Bill about this," before I realise he is no longer with us.

However, we do have his work and the memory of his enthusiasm to inspire us in continuing to look at the past, without which we cannot understand the present and have no chance of divining the future.

Holy wells are a common feature in many parts of the British Isles, probably due to the fact humans and indeed all life need water in order to survive. Therefore it is not surprising many wells or springs, which provided good healthy drinking water would, even in this notoriously damp climate, be regarded as holy or sacred.

Apart from this obvious reason why many of these sites were regarded as special, some wells, often spring sites as opposed to places where wells have been sunk, were given special regard because the water that bubbled forth had medicinal properties. For instance, the hot springs around which the city of Bath developed are a world famous British example. The most famous medicinal spring near Furness is probably the Holy Well at Humphrey Head, which today is a sad dribble near the beach where a sign warns not to drink the water.

This is in contrast to the status of the well as late as the 19th century. Then, there was a house at the base of the cliff where the occupants ran a thriving business selling the water as a "grand flusher-out" for all ailments, with a clientele ranging across the whole of north-west England.

In particular the water was believed to be excellent for the complaints of lead miners and in the early 1800s the house had accommodation for people who wished to stay and consume the water over a longer time or in greater quantity. Tide and time have long since dispensed with the house and as we have seen, the reputation of the well is in similar disarray.

This state of affairs is nowadays quite common and in Furness much the same. Only one of the sites we shall look at in this essay is cared for and even this is generally locked up - a far cry from the days when these places were venerated and celebrated for their life-preserving qualities by societies more respectful of nature than our own.

One aspect of these sites that shows us how deeply they were respected is the sheer age of their use. This can be seen in the fact, as with many other pagan sites, when Christianity arrived they were sanctified and the holy men and women of the new religion replaced the old gods and goddesses. This is probably not quite the case in two of the Furness wells but more of this later.

This essay does not claim to mention all the holy wells in Low Furness but contains the more interesting I have found. Undoubtedly there are more. So if you dear reader know of others please do not condemn me or make rude comments about: "So-called experts who think they! how all and know nowt," at the bar of your local. Please let me know, particufarly if you have any good legends or stories that may well have missed the rarefied ears of Furness's Victorian antiquarians.

In Barrow's record office there is a book called, "The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire," written by Henry Taylor. It contains most of the wells mentioned here as well as much other information which I would recommend to anyone interested in this topic but enough of this and let us look at the holy wells of Low Furness.

I decided to look at these wells in alphabetical order, which means we must start with the Abbey Well which is placed in the corner of the Amphitheatre adjacent to Furness Abbey, next to the railway line.

Taylor says: "The Well appears to have been a structure of some importance."

If this was the case there is very little to see now. There is a substantial hollow where the stream runs under the railway embankment which would appear to be the feature mentioned in early Ordnance Survey maps but beyond that there is nothing to suggest a well on the site at present.

Next on the list is the Bean Well on the shore of Morecambe Bay near Baycliff. This well is still visible as a spring that gushes onto the beach near to the appropriately named Bean Well Scar.

The name Bean Well probably comes from the Latin "bene" meaning well or the good well referring to the plentiful supply of water that it produces. However, it is possible, as in Beanthwaite on Kirkby Moor it could derive from the Viking name Bjorn or Bjarni and may mean, "The Well belonging to Bjorn". Like the beach at Aldingham, Bean Well Scar was used in the 18th and 19th centuries, if not earlier, as a loading point for the local iron ore trade.

Humphrey Head

Ore was brought down in carts to the beach where barges were stranded at low tide, the barges were loaded and then re-floated as the tide came in, sailing out of the bay to various destinations, including South Wales. It would seem that at this time Bean Well and other springs along the shore were in great demand to satisfy the considerable needs of thirsty horses engaged in carrying ore to the beach.

Brigget Well lies down a lane off the road between Leece and the Coast Road and appears on the 19th century tithe map for the parish of Aldingham.

The spring feeding this site is at present lost in a marshy area of ground but it is the name of this site that is of great interest. We can fairly safely assume that Brigget is a corruption of Bridget, a very popular Irish Dark Age Saint. Many also believe it to be a Christianised and sanctified form of the Celtic goddess Brigantia, who gave her name to the association of North West British tribes known to the Romans as the Brigantes.

Is it possible that this well has remained dedicated to Brigantia after 1500 years of Christian domination? 1 don't know but I do feel that this area would be worth investigating as a possible Celtic/Romano British religious site and as anyone who has studied archaeology in Furness knows sites of this period are as rare as hen's teeth.

In Dalton there is mention of the Mary Bank Well at Goose Green which probably refers to the Virgin Mary, an understandably popular Saint in Furness due to the special dedication to the Virgin of the Cistercian Order to which the monks of Furness belonged. There is also mention in the works of Harper Gaythorpe, a 19th century local historian, of there being another well  dedicated to Our Lady in the hamlet of Chapels near Kirkby. Although the name of the village suggests an area certainly worthy of more research there appears to be no trace of the well.

The next well is probably one of the best known in Furness and that is Michael's Well, or more colloquially, the Mickle Well, in Gleaston, near Ulverston.

The well lies near the green known as the Guards and just behind the hall at the western end of the village. It is locked behind a door with a sign telling how to get the key. Its name probably refers not to the dragon slaying archangel Michael, but to one of the two Michael le Flemings, lords of the manor of Muchland (i.e. Michael's land) who had their headquarters at Aldingham Motte during the 1100s


It is still possible to hear stories about the past importance of this well to the villages around Gleaston. For instance I have been told that in the early 20th century people from Scales would use the well in time of summer drought, because, unlike water supplies in Scales, the Mickle Well never dried up.

Another story regarding this well that I was once told at the bar of "The Farmers" in Baycliff, was that Oliver Cromwell took his last drink there!

St Helen's well near to the sadly very derelict St Helen's Chapel and close to Goldmire may now be lost under Bennett Bank tip at Thwaite Flat near Dalton. This is a very great shame as some late 19th century excavations here seemed to show some evidence that there may have been medieval healing baths here.

The dedication to St Helen is interesting as she was the mother of Constantine the Great, the Emperor who made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. She was also credited with finding the true cross, or at least finding five crosses, all with good claims to be the real one. To test them, she placed a corpse on each and the cross that revived the corpse was declared the real one.

Early English historians believed her to be British born, a daughter of Coel Hen, legendary commander of Hadrian's Wall and better known as Old King Cole. Possibly of more relevance to the origin of this well dedication is the fact that there was a Celtic water goddess called Elen.

Also in the Dalton area, near the northern end of the town is Yarlwell.

In the Domesday Book it is recorded that Furness was held, prior to 1066, by Yarl (Earl) Tostig who was killed at Stamford Bridge in the dreadful run up to the battle of Hastings. Whether or not he is the Yarl commemorated in Furness names such as Yarlside and Yarlwell, we will probably never know.

As a final item in this rapid tour of wells and water sites, I thought I would finish with Urswick Tarn and its legend. Although it is obviously not a well in itself there is one in the tale and I feel that somewhere behind this lies a remnant of the importance water held in the days when the only taps in Furness were at the abbey, or before Christianity reached the district.

The story goes that at one time Urswick was short of fresh water, presumably a long time ago when the weather was different!

Villagers asked the vicar to intercede with the good Lord to provide a well. He did as he was asked and lo and behold, a well appeared as if by magic and for a time everything was fine. Then, the ladies of the village complained that although the well was greatly appreciated, it was very difficult to wash clothes in it, to say nothing of the quality of the water after such abuse and could they have a stream as well.

The parson um-ed and ah-ed over this for some time, but eventually agreed to as the Lord a second time. Consequently, the next morning there was a brook babbling through the village. There is a saying that goes along the lines of: "Gratitude being merely the anticipation of favours yet to come". In the case of the early villagers of Urswick this was only too true, for a few days later an angry crowd approached the vicar demanding, with menaces, for another, clean source of water as the stream was dirty and no good.

The vicar deciding not to follow advice about turning the other cheek turned on the crowd and saying: "Water, water, I'll give thee water." He turned on the celestial taps in the form of a rainstorm and didn't stop until the last whinging villager was drowned and the village had vanished beneath what is now Urswick Tarn.

For any adventurous souls who feel they might like to dive beneath the tarn to find the remains of this aquatic Gomorrah, don't bother, because another village legend claims it is bottomless.

The version of the legend I have given here is the one that was current when I was at Urswick Grammar School more than 20 years ago. There may well be others but at least in part the old mystery of the freshwater holy sites of our district have been preserved into the early 21st century and long may they continue.

If they do not we will end with a culture with no local tradition and one that is bland as refined lard. As the "North Lonsdale Magazine" would proudly proclaimed 100 years ago "What is local is often national".