A Simple question


St Oswald's Well, Ryhill,

St Oswald’s Well, Ryhill,

I sometimes get asked which is the oldest water trough I’ve come across. It’s not a question I can answer easily. Dating roadside wells and water troughs is, to say the least, problematic. Often, on little more evidence than a dedication to St Helen or some other medieval saint, they are presumed to date back for centuries. Possibly so, but probably not. The fact is that the only medieval wellhead in my own region of West Yorkshire (UK) is, rather ironically, St Oswald’s Well at Ryhill near Wakefield. I say ‘rather ironically’ since, despite the name, it was built as a conduit head to supply water to the nearby priory at Nostell. The priory itself was dedicated to St Oswald. Hence the well became known as St Oswald’s well. It makes you wonder how many other wells received their ‘dedications’ from similar circumstances.

Dating evidence

Roadside well Slaithwaite

Roadside well Slaithwaite

At least there are documentary sources for St Oswald’s well. Most of the time, the only thing you can do is go by association. If, for example, you find a wellhead in a dry stone wall, it’s a reasonable bet that it was put there at the same time as the wall was created. Probably the water source originally lay within an unenclosed field. When the field was enclosed the point of supply was moved to the edge of the field so that there would be no need to trespass to get to the water. Find out when the field was enclosed– there’s often an enclosure map in the local Archives Office – and you can find out when the water trough was put there.

Wells with dates

Honley wells

Honley wells

There are very few wellheads in West Yorkshire which have either dates stones or dates inscribed on their troughs (as opposed to Civic Trust blue plaques telling me the history of the site). In fact, I can think of only two possible candidates for ‘the oldest surviving water trough’ and the inscription evidence of one of these is perhaps misleading. This is the well which stands in Eastgate in Honley near Huddersfield. The two bath-sized troughs – possibly, the biggest water troughs I have come across – are backed by a low wall in which is set a stone bearing the inscription:

Date stone Honley wells

Date stone Honley wells

Any Person who damages these

 Wells or defiles the water incurs

the Penalty of ten shillings


  Unfortunately, this inscription refers to the first well to be erected on the site. What you can see now is a mid-Victorian rebuild which was further altered in the 1930s. It is not therefore possible to say for certain whether these troughs were part of the original design or not.

The other candidate is a little more promising. This trough is at a Hamlet called Holme House near Keighley.   This bears the inscription:

Pro Bono Publico


Trough at Holme House near Keighley

Trough at Holme House near Keighley

As the inscription is on the trough itself rather than on a stone set in the surrounding wall, it might be considered more likely to be contemporary with the construction of the trough itself. If that’s so, it might make it the oldest dated water trough in the region.

A simple question

And so we get to the simple question of the title. It’s easy to ask but I suspect it might be harder to answer. The question is this: does anyone know an earlier example of a dated water trough than the one at Holme House? I’ve not come across one, have you?

Dave Weldrake

October 2013

To read more about the wells of West Yorkshire click here.

To book a talk about historic wells contact me here.


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