The History of Well Dressing

well dressing pic2

The History of Well Dressing

The origin of well dressing is difficult to establish and much disputed. Some claim that it goes back to the Celts who arrived in Britain in 400 BC. Certainly it was a Celtic practice to worship the local water gods and the Celts were responsible for other local ceremonies which have survived into the modern age such as garland festivals, corn dollies and maypole dancing. But whether wells and springs were decorated with flowers in the Iron Age is impossible to prove.

Others claim that it derives from the time of the Black Death or great plague of 1348-1349 which ravaged the country killing up to half the population. Where the death toll was less severe, it was sometimes erroneously believed that salvation had come from the purity of the local water supply for which thanksgiving and celebration ought to be offered.

well dressing 1951

What is more certain is that the first undisputed record of well dressing was at Tissington in 1615 after the five wells of the village had continued to flow even at the end of the severe drought of that year which had lasted for over 4 months. Many other villages on the limestone plateau of the High Peak took up the practice thereafter. Before the arrival of a piped public water supply, the White Peak was entirely dependant on spring water and reliable springs were rare because the abundant rainfall tended to seep through the porous limestone into underground channels without emerging above ground before reaching the rivers.

Wormhill is known to have had its own well dressing in the 1800s and perhaps even before the Brindley Memorial was constructed in 1875. John Leyland referred to it in 1891 : "Where the streamlet bursts from its earth-bound course at Wormhill Springs, the ancient custom of well dressing was kept up, as at Tissington, within living memory, and the peasantry of the neighbourhood used to awake the echoes of the ravine with the sounds of their rustic jollity".

In modern times the well dressing at Wormhill has taken place in most years since 1951 when the custom was revived as part of the celebrations for the Festival of Britain.