The springs at Willowbridge Wells, near Newcastle-under-Lyme

A new letter, purchased by The Bodleian library this week…

“Lady Gerard’s discovery of a ‘healing spring’ at Willowbridge in Staffordshire would be recorded in 1676 by her chaplain Samuel Gilbert in a pamphlet entitled ‘Fons sanitatis’ (London, 1676). She died in 1703. … The present letter reveals Lady Gerard to have had a serious interest in writings on witchcraft”.

The springs appear to have been about 8 miles south-west of Newcastle-under-Lyme…

“Willowbridge Wells are on the north side of the parish, nearly 2 miles North of Ashley, and in the neighbourhood of extensive woods which supply immense quantities of crate-wood for the Potteries, and timber for the manufacture of oak baskets. The wells in the now enclosed park of Willowbridge were formerly in great celebrity for their medicinal virtues.” — from William White’s History, Gazetteer and Directory of Staffordshire, 1851.

Roy Booth has dug up the relevant text from “Fons sanitatis, or, The healing spring at Willowbridge in Stafford-shire found out by the Right Honourable the Lady Jane Gerard”, and gives an extract…

“This Spring was first taken notice of, and several experiments tryed with it, by the most Ingenious and true vertuosa, that Right Honourable Lady Jane Gerard, Baroness of Bromley, of Sandon in Staffordshire, whose Charitable care and charge, in damming it out from the common Water, into which it delivered it self, (a large Pool through which the River Terne runs, taking its beginning about half a mile above it,) causing it to be divided into two large Baths; the one for Men, the other for Horses.”

I’ve also searched Google Books. I see that the whole of Fons sanitatis is available there. Thomas Pennant’s account of The Journey from Chester to London (1783) notes…

“I RETURNED into the great road by Winnington forge and Willowbridge wells. The last were once in high esteem for their sanative waters, strongly impregnated with sulphur. They were formerly much frequented on account of bathing…”

The “once” suggests they had declined in repute or power, by the 1780s.

William Pitt’s A Topographical History of Staffordshire (1817) add more…

The North Staffordshire Field Club visited a century later in 1917, a short while after the woods had been denuded for war-time timber needs…


April 28th, 1917.

The opening excursion of the season was favoured with the usual “Club weather” and on alighting at Pipegate Station the members at once made their way to the outskirts of Willowbridge Wells, where the leader gave a short address. He stated that the place owed its name to the large number of sulphurous springs, as no less than sixty of these had been noted within an area of ten square yards. In the 17th and 18th Centuries the waters were highly esteemed on account of their curative properties, and Dr. Plot, who visited the district in 1686, quaintly remarks:—

“It cures many diseases by its balsamic virtue and great subtlety and volatility, easily permeating the closest texture and most inaccessible parts of the body, when once
heated by the stomach if taken inwardly, or by the external heat of the skin, if applied outwardly by way of a bath.”

The road led through Willowbridge Woods, which have suffered heavily from the recent demand for timber, and here Mr. Ridge addressed the party on the ecology of the district, tracing the steps by which the once dominant type of forest vegetation became converted into heather moor.

There’s no mention in the 1917 report (given in the 1918 volume) of the springs still being in existence, or the relics of their stone enclosures visible. In which case one has to assume that the transition from woodland to heathland may have dried them up long before the First World War fellings. The mention of “wells” in the 1851 text (see above) suggests the natural water level had sunk quite deep by the 1850s, deep enough that wells were required to get to the sulphurous waters that once flowed on the surface.


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