WELL DRESSING - 2
Well dressing almost certainly dates back to pagan times, when sacrifices were made to water gods for maintaining the supply of water and as an inducement to continue to do so. The sacrifices took both human and animal form, but gradually the cruelty and wastefulness of this method of giving thanks gave way to primitive man hanging garlands of flowers over the wells.
Water was such a vital commodity for ancient man that settlements were always located close to a good supply of fresh water and the consequences of the source running dry were dire. This led to many other countries offering thanks to water gods at pagan festivals and flowers were often used. In Italy, at Genzano, flowers were arranged to form a gigantic pattern along the village street, but in no other country were boards used to mount the display, as in Derbyshire.
Well dressers pose for a photograph in 1926
The early Christian Church did not object to the 'harmless' pursuit of well dressings despite its pagan origins. However, future generations were not so tolerant and for many years well dressing was banned altogether. During the reign of Henry VIII, his Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, was instructed to arrange the destruction of all the equipment used in well dressing. At Buxton, the statue of St Anne was dismantled and the crutches and sticks of those people who visited the well seeking to have their disabilities cured were smashed.
An altogether different position exists today and well dressing has strong religious links. Many of the pictures have a religious significance, a strictly followed rule by some towns and villages. A religious ceremony is performed, usually inter-denominational, to bless the wells. This often takes place in the form of a procession, when each well is blessed in turn. The wells are usually blessed on the day of erection, except when that is a Saturday, the blessing is then often left to the Sunday.
Originally only wells, or springs as they are also called were dressed, but with the arrival of the Victorian era, when piped water became common, people took to decorating the taps in similar fashion to wells. Strictly speaking this should be called 'tap dressing', but all towns and villages advertise their annual event as 'well dressing.'
In more recent years as the number of wells dressed has increased, many dressings have been sited away from both wells and taps. Some well dressings have lapsed over the years, but this has been more than compensated for by the introduction of new sites and the reviving of old ones.
Special years, when events such as Coronations and Jubilees occur, seem to inspire an increase in the number of dressings. The Millennium year for example saw the Moravian Settlement at Ockbrook, who celebrated the 250th anniversary of their church at Ockbrook that year, set up a well dressing in the grounds of the settlement.
Ockbrook Moravian Settlement
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In 1827, piped water terminating at taps in the town centre arrived in Wirksworth. The taps were dressed in thanks for the supply of water, but now well dressings occupy the most convenient and eye catching locations.
A festival takes place at the same time as the well dressings, when a Queen is crowned. She wears a gown designed by the famous fashion designer Janet Reger, who at one time resided in the town.
From time to time to mark special occasions well dressings take place as 'one-off events.' In 1991, to celebrate the establishment of the Toyota Motor Company at Burnaston, the Derbyshire County Council organised a Japanese Festival at Derby. As part of the event a well was dressed displaying the word 'Youkoso'. which means 'welcome' in Japanese.
In the centre of the market place is a huge circular water tank or conduit head, known locally as ‘The Fountain’, which since 1829 has supplied soft water to the villagers, initially at an annual charge of 6d. It was built following a campaign by the ‘Friendly Society of Women’, who demanded a cleaner, healthier and more efficient supply of water.
For about 20 years The Fountain was dressed before interest lapsed. It was revived however, after a series of taps were installed and villagers started to dress them. The Fountain receiving special attention.
Both wild and cultivated flowers are used by the dressers, when normally only the petals are used, but in some places, such as Barlow, the flower itself is used. Frequently flowers are grown specially at nurseries, particularly for those places that hold their well dressings early in the season when wild and garden flowers are in short supply.
All the images on this page have been kindly supplied by John and Irene North and have been taken from their highly acclaimed Well Dressing Video, which is narrated by BBC Radio Derby's Paul McKenzie.
For full details of their video collection contact:
Alpha Audio Visual www.derbyshirevideos.co.uk
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