Ffynnon Elian (St. Elian’s Well)
St Elian’s Well, like most Holy Well’s was associated with having healing properties until around 1723 when it developed a reputation for being a cursing well. Thought to have sprang forth to quench the thirst of St Elian in the 6th century, the well was a source of pilgrimage for many centuries. Pilgrims were thought to pay a groat (2p in today’s money) or its equivalent value in bread in order to obtain a cure for a ill young child. Part of the healing ritual was an attempt the empty the well three times. This changed though when the waters were soured by the greed of the visitors.
We are told by Wirt Sykes in his ‘British Goblins’ (1881) ’St. Elian’s is accounted the most dreadful well in Wales. It is in the parish of Llanelian, Denbighshire. It is at the head of the cursing wells, of which there are but few in the Principality, and holds still a strong influence over the ignorant mind. The popular belief is that you can put ‘your enemy’ into this well, i.e., render him subject to its evil influence, so that he will pine away and perhaps die unless the curse be removed. The degree and nature of the curse can be modified as the ‘offerer’ desires, so that the obnoxious person will suffer aches and pains in his body, or troubles in his pocket — the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The minister of the well appears to be some heartless wretch residing in the neighbourhood, whose services are enlisted for a small fee. The name of the person to be ‘put into’ the well is registered in a book kept by the wretch aforesaid, and a pin is cast into the well in his name, together with a pebble inscribed with its initials. The person so cursed soon hears of it, and the fact preys on his mind; he imagines for himself every conceivable ill, and if gifted with a lively faith soon finds himself reduced to a condition where he cannot rest till he has secured the removal of the curse. This is effected by a reversal of the above ceremonies — erasing the name, taking out the pebble, and otherwise appeasing the spirit of the well. It is asserted that death has in many instances resulted from the curse of this wickedly malicious well.’
The following story of the cursing of Pedws Ffowk appeared in ‘The Welsh Fairy Book’ (1908) by W. Jenkyn Thomas. ‘PEDWS FFOWK was for three years afflicted with a complaint which nobody could understand. She was well and yet she was not well: she was sick and yet she was not sick. That is to say, she had no ache or pain, and her appetite was good. But all the time she became thinner and thinner, until at last she was nothing but skin and bone. She went to doctor after doctor, but they could not find out what was the matter with her. She consulted quacks also, but even they did her no good. Finally, she went to a wise man. He, after hearing her story, said, “Someone has put you into St. Elian’s Well.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Pedws.
“Someone has gone to the woman who keeps. the well,” answered the wise man, “and put your name on the register, and thrown a pin into the well, together with a pebble with your initials on it.”
“Well, what is the harm of that?” inquired Pedws, who had not heard of the power of the cursing well.
“You are cursed,” was the reply, “and unless the curse is removed, you will pine away and die.”
“But what am I to do?” said Pedwa, now thoroughly frightened.
“You must go to the woman who keeps the well, and pay her to take you out of the well,” was the wise man’s advice.
Pedws lost no time in going to the guardian of the well, who, for a small fee, agreed to examine her register. Sure enough, the name of Pedws Ffowk was there inscribed, and the date of the entry corresponded with the time when she had begun to waste away. On the payment of another and a larger sum of money the priestess of the fountain agreed to take out of the water the stone on which the initials of Pedws Ffowk were scratched. From that moment flesh began to grow on her bones, and before long her clothes, which had hung upon her like rags upon a scarecrow, were filled out as well as they had ever been. Pedws lived to a good old age, and her greatest trouble was that she never found out which of her best friends had put her into the well.
Methods of invoking the curse changed depending upon the guardian, so sometimes it was said to involve other ingredients such as using the well water for drinking, using lead, parchment and slate for seals and the use of small miniatures representing the cursed individual that were stabbed with pins and then cast into the well. Obviously the more intricate the ritual, the more likely the victim was to believe was to believe in the occult powers being employed against them. I also think that the purchaser of the curse would feel that that they got more value for their money.
In 1829 or 1828 the local Methodist Minister and his congregation decided put an end to the trade in curses and arranged to have the well destroyed. A local man named John Evans or Jac Ffynnon Elian diverted the waters safely onto his own land and hence he could continue the business and became the next guardian of the well. Although he had to spend a few months in jail for fraud when found guilty of charging people to remove curses that had not been cast, Jac continued the tradition for several decades before the well was finally closed in 1850 and is no longer accessible.
[Note the map below does not show the exact location of the well]