St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference — SD 3544 0128

Getting Here

It is best to start at the Punch Bowl Inn car park, Sefton, then travel a short distance along Lunt Road by St Helen’s church. A footpath/lane is reached where a barrier stands and about 10 metres opposite the main road beneath the undergrowth is St. Helen’s holy well, or what remains of it.

Archaeology & History

St Helens Well, Sefton 1850

St Helen’s Well on 1850 map

The well is now, sadly, capped off with an inscribed stone that recalls ST HELEN’S WELL.  The well originally stood inside a rather nice little wellhouse with a pyramid-shaped, overlapping roof, with railings running around it.  It was renowned for its icy waters which were especially good for people suffering from rheumatism, sprains, bruising and, also nervous problems.  It had a hand pump at the side of the well-house to enable people to drink the water. But all this has now gone, though the church congregation still visit the site on the saint’s feast day and are still hoping that some day the well will be restored again.

It was probably a pre-Christian spring that in the Middle Ages turned into a pilgrimage site, especially so in the 14th century when the church was built close by.

Folklore

In pre-Reformation times it was much in use, but later on and in more recent times it had become a wishing well; pins were thrown into the well by young folk. Apparently, if the pin could be seen at the bottom of the well a favourable outcome was likely with regard to good luck in a forthcoming marriage by a couple much in love.

Addenda:

To complement Ray’s entry, here are Mr Taylor’s notes from his Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells (1906), in which he wrote the following:

“This celebrated spring rises at a distance of three hundred yards in a westerly direction from Sefton Church.  In the year 1891 the well was walled round, and a handsome canopy placed over it, from the designs of Mr John Douglas, at the cost of William Philip, fourth earl of Sefton.  The traditions connected with this holy well are thus graphically summed up in the History of Sefton:-

“”We must not omit to mention St Helen’s Well, which springs near the first cottage in the Thornton Road, beyond the inn.  Formerly a ‘pad-road’ only led from the well to the church, the Thornton Road passing through the Rectory grounds.  In the Churchwarden’s accounts we find several items of expenditure incurred for the keeping in order of St Helen’s Well.  Thus we read in 1758: ‘For a new Dish and Chain for S. Ellen’s Well, 2/-.’  Ashcroft  [writing about the year 1819] tells us ‘that this well was once in great repute for curing rheumatism, strains, bruises and weaknesses of the nerves.  It has no mineral quality, however, and he remarks that its principal virtue seems to have been its coldness.’  In different times great respect was paid to wells ’eminent for curing distempers upon the Saint’s Day whose name the well bore,’ and it was once the custom to decorate the wells of Holy Thursday with boughs of trees, garlands of flowers, etc, places in various devices, and after service in the church the parson and singers repaired to the well, where they sang psalms and prayed.  The bottom of the well, which is of no great depth and very clear, may generally be strewn with pins which are dropped in by superstitious young country folks to denote to them the probability of their marriage, which is said to be near if the pin falls pointing towards the church.  Pins and pebbles were often dropped into wells, and the circles formed thereby on the surface of the water (or the question whether the water was troubled at all) were used as omens by which the observers drew inferences of future events.  Mr Hampson, in his Medii Ævi Kalendarium, says: ‘I have frequently seen the bottom of S. Helen’s Well, near Sefton, Lancashire, almost covered with pins, which I suppose must have been thrown in for like purposes.'”

“…Mr Gregson wrote: ‘With regard to the curious frequency of well dedication to S. Helen, I formed a theory many years ago that the S. Helen of the county of Lancaster is not unconnected with the Celtic S. Elian, who is a frequent patron saint of wells in North Wales.  Do they not both draw a common ancestry from Ella, the water sprite?'”

References:

  1. Caroe, W.D. & Gordon, E.J.A., Sefton: A Descriptive and Historical Account, Longmans Green: London 1893.
  2. Taylor, Henry, The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Sherratt & Hughes: Manchester 1906.

© Ray Spencer, 2011

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About megalithix

Prehistorian and independent archaeological researcher, specializing in prehistoric rock art, Neolithic, Bronze Age & Iron Age sites, and the animistic cosmologies of pre-Christian & traditional cultures.
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5 Responses to St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire

  1. sunbright57 says:

    According to Baines, iii 497, Notes and Queries 5 S.X.158, St Helen’s Well, at Sefton, is like a stone reservoir, in and out of which the water perpetually flows. He says the well is to be found on the Ince-Blundell road, 200 yards south of that road, near St Helen’s Church, Sefton.

  2. sunbright57 says:

    The friends of St Helen’s church magazine has a rather good image of the local holy well as it used to be.
    http://www.sthelenssefton.prg.uk/main/friends/newsletters/archive/news27.pdf

  3. I visited this well only yesterday, the illustration on the link shows the area cleared, whereas now it is surrounded by trees and thickets. One has to walk on the opposite side of the road to reach it as there is no pavement on the side of the well. The Sefton church states that it was built in 1127 (certainly 1100’s as I recall) Not as this post states, the 14th. Either way, the church would have been Catholic in those days, this whole area was known for its fervent Catholicism; however it is now owned by the Anglican church. I think it is a mistake to associate the naming of the well with a corruption of the name of a pagan deity, that is too ” easy” an assumption. The area is known for its waterways and canals. some historians believe that the mother of Emperor Constantine hailed from Colchester, and this could well be the connection of St. Helen with England. As an Iconograher, I have to do some research on these matters, so I am sharing a little of what I have found. I too hope the well will be returned to its former Christian usage, I suppose that depends somewhat on the owner of the present stretch of land giving his or her permission.

  4. sunbright57 says:

    Okay thanks for that info Jeanette, much obliged. Yes, probably St Helena mother of Constantine, though there was a Welsh St Helen, which can sometimes confuse things a bit. The Welsh Helen also had a son called Constantine (Cwstennin in Welsh). She married Maximus Wleddig who was also made co-emperor for a short time in the west by his own legions. Helen or Elen Luddog may have been responsible for the building of Sarn Helen, the Roman road in south and west Wales?

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