NGR: SD 90135 48324. At the southwest side of St Mary’s parish church (on Church Road) at Thornton-in-Craven, Lancashire, is ‘Church Well’ or ‘St Mary’s Well’. The octagonal wellhouse enclosing the spring was built by Henry Richardson, rector of St Mary’s in 1764, but the spring itself dates to far earlier times maybe the pre-Christian period (the site being not far from a Roman road). Later, the well was almost certainly being venerated by the 7th Century AD but with the tenuous link and dedication to St Oswald, the King and martyr, who was beheaded (654 AD). There is an interesting Latin inscription running around the top of the wellhouse. St Mary the Virgin parish church, which is situated above the well, was built in the early 16th Century but it stands on the site of an earlier 12th Century church and, possibly a Saxon building before that? St Mary’s Church and holy well are on the Lancashire side of the north Yorkshire border on Church Road (Skipton Road) opposite the lane to Thornton Hall, some 2 miles east of Barnoldswick and 6½ miles south-west of Skipton. An iron gate gives access to the churchyard and the wellhouse, which is over to the left.
Derek D. Clabburn (2007) says: “We have no means of discovering why Richardson should have chosen to build an octagonal random stone cover over the well in Thornton churchyard. As far as can be deduced, the waters from the well possess no medicinal properties such as found at Harrogate or Bath or the nearby sulphur wells at Broughton and possibly near Crickle Hall at East Marton. Richardson’s Account Book reveals that he suffered from gout as early as 1748 and there are frequent references to remodeling or repair of a ‘gouty shoe’ and for administrations from a Dr. Kitchen, but it seems unlikely that the covering of the well was prompted by medical considerations, nor was it likely to be a source of water for any dwelling in the vicinity of the church. The well being situated in a hollow some 12 to 15 feet below the level of the main burial ground on the south side, the likelihood of water contamination is possible, although this would have been virtually unrecognized by scientific minds in the mid eighteenth century. If it was to provide ease of access for watering his livestock on his adjoining glebe lands, then the act of covering the well makes sense.
“But why lavish an enigmatic Latin commemorative inscription around the frieze of the building? Its manifest purpose eludes us nearly 250 years after it was erected. Another curiosity of the building is its capping formed from a large millstone. Its grooving is clearly seen as the ceiling within the cover. The axle shaft hole at its centre is capped by a turned sphere, which is kept in place by its own weight and forms a plug to the roof cover. The construction at the base of the octagonal cover forms a square some 3 feet deep with steps descending into the well proper. The depth of water within the well is controlled by a wooden plug in the well floor, which when removed drains away the stored water. When in place, the water depth rises to a point where it flows out in a channel beneath the doorstep and fills a drinking stoup. Hereafter the water drains away to supply the Rectory Farm on a regular daily basis.
Mr Clabburn goes on to adds that: “The Latin inscription reads: Fontem hunc salutiferum et perantiquum Tecto munivet Anno Aerae Christianae MDCCLXIV. Quod Publicae Sanitate bene vortat H. RICHARDSON RECTOR. (One translation reads: That it might prove of benefit for the health/salvation of the community, H. Richardson, Rector, built a covering for the health/salvation-giving and most ancient font/spring, in the year 1764 of the Christian era.”
John & Phillip Dixon (1990) say of St Mary’s Church: “The embattled Perpendicular tower dominates the edifice, the south face of which bears an inscription and arms that I cannot make out along with a date, 1510. The inside of the church holds no hidden delights, but of interest is the churchyard draw well.”
Sources / References & Related Websites:
Clabburn, Derek D., Henry Richardson 1710-1778 — Life and Legacy of a Thornton Rector, Earby & District Local History Society, 22 Salterforth Road, Earby, Barnoldswick, BB18 6ND, 2007.
Dixon, John & Phillip, Journeys Through Brigantia Volume One: Walks in Craven, Airedale and Wharfedale, Aussteiger Publications, Barnoldswick, 1990.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.