Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Votive rags from St Helen's Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project


1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well. Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.

The documentation the Museum has about these objects is as follows:

1884.140.331 Blue book entry - Idols and objects connected with religion Case 78 159 Fragments of rag used as votive offerings for the cure of diseases at St Helens Well Thorp Arch Yorkshire at the present time (2496)
Delivery Catalogue II entry - Religious emblems Votive rags on card 2496 13 Cases 225 226
Detailed Amulet card catalogue entry - Amulets D. Crop Fertility, E. Offerings to Gods etc F. Spirit Houses, Scares G. Sacred and Mem. food H. Relics and Mementos - Models of human body E3 Ex voto rags, pins etc Description: Votive rags from bushes at a holy well hung there by the country people who believe the water is good for eye diseases [insert] if [end insert] combined with an offering of this type to St Helen. They are often left by Roman Catholics being near Clifford where they are numerous Locality: St Helen's Well Thorp Church Yorks Collected by: Mrs Marianne Cooke 1869 How Acquired: PR coll 159 dd Mrs M. Cooke 1869 [sic]

This well was just off the Roman road, the Rudgate. This well was supposed to be devoted to St Helen. The site of the well is actually at Thorp Arch, outside Boston Spa near Wetherby in North Yorkshire. Ellen Ettlinger mentions the rags:

In pre-Christian days, when wells and trees were identified with spirits, offerings were deposited in their immediate neighbourhood to preserve the contact between the worshipper and the divinity. Since the spread of Christianity the real intention of this rite has been preserved only at those wells, where Christian Saints replaced the well spirit. To quote only instances from the Pitt Rivers Museum, this was the case at St. Helen's Well in Thorparch, Yorks. [Ettlinger, 1943: 247-8]

Other accounts of the well mention textiles tied near the well:

Bonser also recalls visiting St Helen's Well in Thorp Arch in the 1930s, when "there were a number of rags and ribbons fluttering from the branches of bushes overhanging the spring which bubbled out of the ground quite close to the banks of the River Wharfe, at a ford where the Roman road, the Rudgate, crossed the river. [http://www.northernearth.co.uk/61leeds.htm]


St Helen's Well, Rudgate (SE 451 458)
Situated on the north side of River Wharfe east of Thorpe Arch, and about 400 yards from the river.'This well was re-dedicated from a Pagan deity to St Helen's Well. Metal and pins were thrown into the water and ribbons tied to trees nearby. Waters reputed to be of specific use for eye troubles.' [Speight, Lower Wharfedale].
'The well is now dried up due to the lowering water table but in the not too distant past people, particularly young girls, used to give offerings to St Helen in the form of pieces of cloth tied to the branches of trees around it. In this way, if done in secret, you would see your true love. Also, that ghastly hound the Bargest was supposed to haunt St Helen's Well rattling its chains. Leland mentions a chapel at St Helen's (now gone).' [Guy Ragland Phillips].
St Helen's Cross was found near the spring. There is a plantation to the NE of the well called Chapel Wood and the church at Bilton 3 miles to the North is dedicated to St Helen. [http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living-spring/sourcearchive/fs3/fs3ew1.htm]

A website image suggests that people still tie things to the tree near the well. Votive rags at wells are a subject that has been written about extensively in Folklore (for example Broadwood, 1898; Hartland, 1893)

Although Pitt Rivers acquired his examples long before most of these authors wrote about them, he must have found the two articles of interest if he recalled the item in his collection.


Further Reading

Broadwood, Lucy E. 1898 'Pins and Metal in Wells Pins and Metal in Wells' Folklore, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec., 1898), p. 368
Ettlinger, Ellen. 1943 'Documents of British Superstition in Oxford' Folklore, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1943), pp. 227-249
Hartland, E. Sidney 1893 Pin-Wells and Rag-Bushes' Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Dec., 1893), pp. 451-470