The final blog in our series about Madron Chapel, Well and well moor is about the folklore associated with the site. Some of the longest standing traditions associated with a holy well site have been recorded for Madron well and its waters; and the site is still very actively used for offerings and contemplation today, keeping that tradition very much alive.
Part of the desk based historical and archaeological assessment was to record these amazing stories that go back so far in time. As it was so well summarized by Cathy Parkes of Cornwall Archaeological Unit who conducted the study, I have included some highlights here:
The earliest written sources relating to activity on the site date to the 17th century, where several records give more insight into the Well’s reputed ‘virtue of healinge’ reported by Norden in 1590. Cornish Catholic Nicholas Roscarrock, writing c1610, recorded that at Madron Well ‘there hath beene sundrye miracles wrought & especiallie on the Feastes of Corpus’. Corpus Christi, a moveable feast like Easter which it follows 60 days later, occurs on a Thursday in May or June.
A miraculous cure of a back condition by washing in the water of St Madron’s Well was recorded by Bishop Hall of Exeter who visited here in 1640; where one John Trelille first had a dream suggested a cure would be had by washing in the well or in the stream running from it, John had then in fact washed his whole body. After washing John lay and slept on ‘S Madern’s bed, a grassy hillock near by’. The cure was sought ‘on Thursday in May’ and on the two following Thursdays, after which it was complete so that John was able to work at day-labour and then became a soldier in the Royalist army (he was killed during the Civil War in Dorset in 1644).
The story of a separate cure, said to have been written first in the Cornish language and then transcribed in 1777, again has a reference placing the action at the time of the Civil War. It tells that two men both ‘lame and decrepit’ went to the Well on ‘Corpus Christi evening’. They placed a small offering on the altar, lay on the ground all night, drank of the water there, and took away a bottle of it each away with them. Their health improved within three weeks and after a repetition the next year improved again, and ‘at length’ both were substantially or fully cured.
Local parson Mr Hutchens, Vicar of Ludgvan 1601-1627, reproved parishioners both privately and in sermons for frequenting the Well. He afterwards met a woman coming from the Well with a bottle of its water, asked to drink from it ‘being then troubled with colical pains’, and was then cured (Hunt 1923, 294-295; Jennings 1936, 41).
A description of the Well by the later Vicar of Ludgvan, antiquarian Dr William Borlase whose brother Walter was Vicar of Madron, conveys the disapproval of its author as an Anglican cleric. Nevertheless, besides indicating the range of ailments for which the water’s cure, recorded earlier, was sought, it provides early evidence of divination;
‘…. Hither also upon much less justifiable errands come the uneasy, impatient, and superstitious, and by dropping pins or pebbles into the Water, and by shaking the ground round the Spring, so as to raise bubbles from the bottom, at a certain time of the year, Moon, and day, endeavour to settle such doubts and enquiries as will not let the idle and anxious rest’.
From the mid-19th century, more practices associated with cures, divination and wishing were reported in local newspapers. Water in the Chapel was used to treat eye conditions;
‘….even to this day this old [chapel] building at Madron is visited by persons having weak eyes who, having faith in the efficacy of the water, like the devotees of old, pass thro’ its threshold to wash their eyes; and then deposit their votive rags on the bushes around and within. No doubt the washing does them good, cleanliness being the chief agent with eyes which otherwise would never be washed’ (CT December 12th 1855, 2).
In the following decade, use of the Well water to cure children's skin disease on particular days in May, and use of the spring for divination, were current, if dwindling, practices;
‘The water is still resorted to on the first three Wednesdays in May by some few women of the neighbourhood, who bring children to be cured of skin disease by being bathed in the Well water. And its old repute as a divining fount has not yet quite died out, though the young folks come here now to drop pins or pebbles into the spring, more for fun and the pleasure of each other’s company’ (CRT October 16th 1868, 4).
It was stated at this time that around fifty years previously (so c. 1800), the number of bubbles rising in the spring, when the ground near it was stamped, would give answers to questions including the number of years before a particular event would occur.
Another newspaper report gives further details of divination, attributed to an ‘old woman, Ann [Aunt] Katty’, guide to the ‘scores of maidens’ who came ‘from ever so far’ on summer evenings and would leave balls of yarn or other requests for her (never money) on the road outside the ‘Well-Moors’. Aunt Katty knew the site as the Wishing Well, and had never heard of a saint in connection with it. She knew of no-one going to the Chapel (as opposed to the Well) for any ceremony (CRT November 13th 1868, 3).
Aunt Katty said young women would think (not speak) of the names of a couple, while dropping into the Well pins, gravel, or ‘any small thing that would sink’ which represented them. The fate of the couple would be seen in the way the objects sank and remained together or separated. This was only worth trying when the spring was ‘working’ (rising strongly), and it was unlucky to speak when near the Well at such times.
A visitor in 1881 thought all visitors were expected to throw in a crooked pin, and might see other pins rising from the bottom to meet theirs. A group of girls who’d walked from Madron on May Day morning were ‘witnessed’ crossing straws each about an inch long, running a pin through the cross, dropping it into the Well and counting the rising bubbles which marked the years to pass until ‘when they were to be married’.
On the occasion of the Penzance antiquarians visit in 1888, several customs and their effects at the Well were described particularly clearly. Many bits of rag were observed hanging on low bramble bushes near the Well, and so many pins had been dropped into it that they were seen shining in the water at its base several months after May Day;
‘Two inch-long bits of the rushes which grow near the saint’s well are crossed and a pin thrust through the crossed rushes at their centre. Then he or she who would know their future stands across the little stream that runs from the well to the baptistery, back to the well, face to the place of baptism and prayer. Thinking, or murmuring, the question or the wish, the test of the wells answer is thrown over the shoulder. As it sinks or floats, as bubbles ascend or the surface of the well is dumb, in the case of some questions as are the number of the bubbles, so is the answer’ (Cornishman August 9th 1888, 3).
Bottrell in his 1873 and 1880 volumes of West Cornwall traditions presents the lore of Aunt Katty, saying he learnt it from her, so it would seem he wrote the 1868 report referred to above. He adds to it that to cure a child their carer, facing the sun, would dip them naked three times in the water against the sun; pass them nine times around the spring going from east to west, or with the sun; lay them warmly dressed ‘near the water’- when the child sleeping, and also the water bubbling, were good omens; and hang a torn (not cut) piece of the child’s clothing generally out of sight on a thorn growing in the chapel wall or between the stones by the leat (1873, 240-241; 1880 115-117).
Traditional May Day celebrations
In Madron Churchtown, as in Penzance and elsewhere in Cornwall (Courtney 1878, 45-46), children gathered very early on May Day to welcome summer with home-made whistles or simple tin trumpets called May-horns. Madron boys ‘marched’ together to Madron Well, and gathered wild flowers and green boughs of May (sycamore) to take back to Churchtown. During the rest of the day they went from door to door asking ‘Will ’ee have a tune? Missis, will ay?’ until “rewarded” to go away. The band in 1878 included a drummer or a fife player ‘very unpopular’ in some quarters (CT May 7th 1878, 5).
Although the above account does not mention them, girls and young women also celebrated the coming of summer here. In this district, as elsewhere in Cornwall, around midnight on May Day Eve they formed parties with the young men to visit dairy farms which offered junketing - feasting on milk junket with sugar and cream, drinking rum, and dancing in barns or open ground. On May Day itself the parties visited Madron Well to make wishes and drop pins for divination.
Ritual maintenance of the Madron Well water system also took place on May Day;
‘It used to be a custom to clean out Madron Well, like others, on May day in the morning, and dress it with sycamore branches. A turf was also cut and placed in a rill, branching off the brook, so as to turn it through a hole in the chapel and cause it to enter the baptistery’ (Cornishman May 8th 1879, 4).
Early May Methodist services
A Wesleyan service held ‘at Madron Well’ was described in 1869 as an annual event on the first Sunday in May, and was said in 1873 to have been held for over 30 years. At the service of 1873 (as on later occasions) there was a collection in aid of the Wesleyans’ nearby Boswarthen Chapel. Services were held on consecutive Sundays in May, not just the first, at least in 1873 and again in 1888. Preachers are named in several reports; the Rev. E. Nye, and Rev. T.T. Lambert. Crowds of several hundreds, coming from Penzance and surrounding villages, could gather on these occasions, especially if the weather was fine. In 1888 ‘a great many from St Just’ were present. It would appear that the preachings were at the Well, rather than at the Chapel not mentioned in these reports.
As observed at the time, for many people at the May gatherings of the later 19th century the content of the service was not in itself the attraction, or not the sole one as these newspaper snippets suggest;
‘some listening attentively to the preacher, others (particularly the young men and maidens) keeping up one of the old superstitious customs of dropping pins into the well and then wishing for something which they were anxious to possess….’ (WB May 12th 1870, 6).
After the services, everyone at the preaching generally took part in a version of the ancient traditions of the Well, crowding around it and making a silent wish;
‘[they] threw in a pin, attached to two pieces of rush: if the pin sank the wish would ‘come true’, but if it floated the unuttered desire proved useless. Hundreds of pins went to the bottom during the afternoon, whilst others refused to sink’ (Cornishman May 10th 1888, 4).
Continuing traditions in the 20th century
The continuity of the traditions of the Well and Chapel, prevailing despite disapproval from Anglican clergy and the introduction of Methodist ceremonies, is striking. The association of the power the site with the month of May, the annual casting-up of turf, and the importance of revisiting the site as part of cures, are among the practices reflected in the earliest accounts and again in those recorded some 200 years later.
Divination and the seeking of cures or other wishes has continued through the later 20th century to the present day, as noted in studies of heritage especially at the Well;
‘When I visited it I found some visitors had dropped little crosses of reed in the water’ (Lane-Davies 1970).
‘….bushes around the well are still hung with strips of votive rag’ (Weatherhill 1981).
‘Of all the holy wells in Cornwall, this is the one to which people have continuously resorted and nowadays, thanks in particular to the power of the internet, it is probably the best known and most visited’ (Preston-Jones and Mossop 2007).
So there is a rich and long standing tradition of activity and caretaking at this site, more associated with the well site than he chapel although as the two sites are linked with a leat carrying water between the two there is a clear connection in the archaeological sense. Considering that for most of its life the site would have been on open grazing land and not the wet and boggy woodland you see today, it would have been a lot easier to congregate and visit. The scant scrub of well moor having now turned into woodland means there are more opportunities to hang rags and offerings which does seem to be a very visual focus of activity today.
In any case, in alignment with good practice at this lovely site I would urge visitors to consider May time as a time to refresh and clear their own offerings from the site ahead of the summer months, and to help protect the trees and habitat from becoming cluttered. And in all instances please consider offerings of natural materials only so that they can return to the land with the minimum of impact.
The PLP and partners are intending to sensitively tidy up some of the offerings that are non-biodegradable at the beginning of May, so do watch this space for information.