Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Well dressing in Derbyshire

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Well dressing is a custom where wells, springs and other water sources are decorated with designs made from flower petals. The custom is traditionally associated mostly with Derbyshire and the Peak District though it has now spread to other counties. Some sources claim that it started in Tissington, though this is disputed by Eyam and Stony Middleton. According to wikipedia the custom almost died out in the early twentieth century but was revived in the 1920-30s by the local headmaster Edwin Shimsell. The same source describes the process of making the designs:

Wooden frames are constructed and covered with clay, mixed with water and salt. A design is sketched on paper, often of a religious theme, and this is traced onto the clay. The picture is then filled in with natural materials, predominantly flower petals and mosses, but also beans, seeds and small cones

Well-dressing in Tissington

Most accounts suggest that well-dressing has gone on for a very long time in Tissington. The annual ceremony takes place on Ascension Day when, traditionally, five wells were decorated, Yew Tree Well, Hall Well, Hands Well, Coffin Well and Town Well. In 1982, after Vallin's visit, a sixth well was added.

According to one website:

Dressing consists of erecting boards covered in clay, into which thousands of flower petals are pressed to create an elaborate tableaux of some biblical or topographical scene.

It has been suggested that the well dressing started in thanksgiving to the village's escape from the Black Death, which the villagers attributed to the purity of its water. However, the precise origins of this tradition are unknown. Tissington is considered to have been one of the first places in Derbyshire to decorate wells. The well dressing has been interrupted by some world events (like the two world wars in the twentieth century) and by disease (like the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001).

The tradition has been recorded several times. Here is one account from 1817:

There is an annual custom at Tissington, of dressing the wells or springs, in different parts of the village: these, on Holy-Thursday are adorned with flowers, arranged in various devices, and accompanied with inscriptions, by the persons on whose premises they are situated. This is performed with boards cut to the size and form of the subject intended to be represented, and covered with moist clay, in which the flowers are inserted, and the petals of flowers forming a sort of mosaic-work. These boards, thus ornamented, are fixed at the back of the spring, which appears to issue from under them. There is service in the church on that day, and a sermon, after which each of the wells is visited, and the three Psalms for the day, with the Epistle and Gospel, are read, one at each well; of which there are five, of remarkably clear water. The whole concludes with a psalm, which is sung by the church singers, accompanied by a band of music. [Daniel and Samuel Lysons 1817 Magna Britannia volume 5 page 242]


When Vallin visited in 1971 the parish only had a population of 140 according to the local vicar (though the census for that year actually records 177), today it has a population nearer 200 but it is still a small place to run such a popular public event. The population of the village has declined, in 1801 455 people lived in the parish, by 1901 this had declined to 367.

Vision for Britain records two historical accounts of the village:

TISSINGTON, a parish, with a village, in Ashborne district, Derby; 4 miles N of Ashborne r. station. Post town, Parwich, under Ashborne. Acres, 2,316. Real property, £5,157. Pop., 403. Houses, 72. The manor, with T. Hall, belonged to the Savages; passed to the Meynelles, the Clintons, the Herthulls, the Corkaynes, and others; and belongs now to Sir W. Fitzherbert, Bart. There are cotton mills. The living is a p. curacy in the diocese of Lichfield Value, £97.* Patron, Sir W. Fitzherbert, Bart. The church is Norman. There are a free school, and charities £23. Graves wrote here some part of his "Spiritual Quixote."
[John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72)]

Tissington, par. and vil., Derbyshire, 4 miles N. of Ashborne, 2307 ac., pop. 352; P.O.; Tissington Hall is the seat of the Fitzherbert family. Tissington is famous for its wells, five in number, and for the custom of "Well Dressing," which takes place on Holy Thursday.
[John Bartholomew, Gazetteer of the British Isles (1887)]

More information about Tissington

Back to Ettlinger's interest in well-dressing