Graham Hudson examines the imagery of Knaresboroughs
premier tourist character, the prophetess Mother Shipton.
Visiting the Knaresborough Dropping Well in 1697,
Celia Fiennes wrote in her journal and this water as it runns and
where it lyes in the hollows of the rocks does turn moss and wood into Stone
...I took Moss my self from thence which is all crisp'd and perfect Stone
... the whole rock is continually dropping with water besides the showering
from the top which ever runns, and this is called the dropping well1.
Thus did Celia Fiennes observe the petrifying qualities of this North Yorkshire
town's premier tourist site; yet, curiously, she made no mention of Knaresboroughs
premier tourist character, the prophetess Mother Shipton.
Engraving c1771, closely copied from an earlier engraving of 1746-7 by Francis Vivares after Thomas Smith, depicting the scene much as Celia Fiennes knew it.
Ursula Southeil - later through marriage, Mother Shipton
- is said to have been born in the cave adjacent to the Dropping Well around
1488. The earliest publication of her prophecies is a pamphlet printed in
York as late as 1641, by which date, not surprisingly perhaps, most of its
predictions had been fulfilled. In 1684 Richard Head published The
Life and Death of Mother Shipton a garbled version of which subsequently
appeared in 1862. This later edition included some additional prophecies, such as:
Around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye
Iron in the water shall float as easy as a wooden boat
and, somewhat more disturbingly for the 1862 reader:
The world then to an end shall come in Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-One
The author Charles Hindley owned up to the concoction of these retrospective
prophecies in 1873, but even so, when 1881 came round, there was in the
words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica the most poignant
alarm throughout rural England ... the people deserting their houses, and
spending the night in prayer in the fields, churches and chapels.
In my copy of The Life and Prophecies of Ursula Sontheil [sic]
Better Known as Mother Shipton, Dropping Well Estate Ltd, undated
but certainly later than the 1880s, I note earths doom subsequently
quoted at Nineteen Hundred and Ninety One, which fortunately
we have now safely passed. Mother Shiptons Prophecy Book
(Diana Windsor, lan Wolverson, Astroquail Ltd, 1988) countenances no similar
updating and omits the prophecy altogether.
The old lady shown on Ideas as to Mother Shiptons appearance have varied with
the context of their description. Richard Head has it that her head
was long, with sharp fíery eyes, her nose of an incredible and unproportionate
length, having many crooks and turnings, adorned with many strange pimples
of divers colours, as red, blue, and dirt ...
the soap-wrapper block illustrated here Mother Shiptons Soap
No Boiling is altogether more prepossessing - a benign granny in a
The present owners of the estate are ambiguous: the effigy shown
in their Historia Museum is defínitely in the Richard Head old crone tradition,
whilst the image on their publicity leaflet is more that of the rosy cheeked
The waters of the Dropping Well
do turn things into stone. In the museum you can see a shoe
donated for petrifícation by the late Queen Mary, a lace parasol turned
to stone in the 1890s, and a petrifíed top hat which one can actually
try on. The size is about six & seven eighths inches and it is very heavy.
The waters of the well are rich in calcium bicarbonate. Decrease in pressure
as the water emerges from a spring above the Dropping Well causes an out-gassing
of carbon dioxide with the consequent freeing of calcium carbonate, otherwise
known as calcite. Once chemically free, the calcite tends to crystallise
on what ever the water then encounters; and today there are a host of
things hung up for the water to encounter as it splashes down into the
pool below 2.
Stuffed birds and animals need up to 18 months to take
on their coating of stony calcite. Cardigans and similar knitwear require
but six to eight. Teddy bears (a current favourite) will I reckon take somewhere
between the two. There were 61 teddies suspended in various stages of petrifícation,
some already fíxed and stony, others in the early stages and still more
or less ginger, at the time of my visit in August 2001.
The Knaresborough Dropping Well
was the subject of a painting by the 18th century topographical artist
Thomas Smith of Derby, who engaged Francis Vivares to make an engraving
after his picture in 1746-7, dedicating the plate to the estates
owner Sir Henry Slingsby3. The same image was subsequently re-engraved,
by another hand and on a smaller scale, as an illustration for The
Complete English Traveller published in 1771. Here, now fíxed for
ever in paint and line, a lady and gentleman relax at a rustic table,
another gentleman contemplates the prospect of Knaresborough Castle across
the Nidd; the lady gestures, and a maid approaches by the ever falling
waters. This is virtually the Dropping Well as Celia Fiennes had known
it a generation or more before, when she could write: ...there is
an arbour and the Company used to come and eat a Supper there in the evening,
to have the pleaseing prospect, and the murmuring shower to divert their
Other things are worthy our notice in this scene. First
- no representation of Mother Shiptons Cave, though it would have
been in plain sight from Smith's viewpoint, a curious omission in the age
of the picturesque. Then equally surprisingly there are no things hung about
the well for petrifícation. Celia Fiennes in 1697 did observe of the Dropping
Well that, besides moss, in a good space of tyme it will harden Ribon
like Stone or any thing else [my emphasis], suggesting at
least the occasional introduction of items for petrifícation in those early
days, but nothing on the scale that the visitor sees today.
The Dropping Well at Knaresborough. Image courtesy of antiqueprints.com
In 1829 J Hinton of Warwick Square, London, published an engraving by J Shury after a drawing by N Whittock
showing the Dropping Well from the opposite viewpoint. Again objects hung
up for petrifícation are notable by their absence. That such would have
been overlooked or disregarded by the artist seems inconceivable, so one
concludes that the practice was not established even by this date. So
when was it? Certainly by 1855, in which year Rock & Co published a charming
vignette of the Dropping Well on a sheet of their illustrated writing
paper. Examining the fíne detail with a magnifying glass it is just possible
to make out the shapes of various items suspended beneath the dropping
To stand in the entrance to Mother Shiptons Cave
today with Shurys engraving in hand, looking out on the scene as Whittock
did when he made his sketch, is an education in the mind-set of the picturesque.
The Dropping Well is impressive today, but the tiny family in the engraving
(the adults can be no more than 18 inches tall) make of it a lofty crag.
The castle is worthy of note too. There is a castle at Knaresborough,
but in vain will you look for it down-river towards Low Bridge. Thomas Souths
view, looking up-river, is the more correct, but even then Smith had to
indulge in a 45° westward shift of the ruins to get them into view.
The last word on the Dropping
Well can go to the Field correspondent Francis Buckland, who
in his Curiosities of Natural History describes taking the
footpath to the well, and there beholding a curious frowning rock
suspended with a peculiar assortment of objects. According to the
little girl who directed Buckland to the spot, in those days the petrifications
included a pumpkin, a small hotter and a nedgeog4.
Mother Shiptons Cave, the Dropping Well, and
there is a genuine Wishing Well too, are well worth your visit. From Knaresboroughs
High Bridge one follows Sir Henry Slingsbys Walk and then descends
by the steps that Buckland took down to the bank of the Nidd. There, it
is all glistening stone and refulgent green moss. Long streamers of ivy
hang pendant on the rock faces, and endlessly there is the trickle, splash
and cascade of water. Things here can have changed but little since Celias
day, when she could lay down her pen and then she and her company turn to
supper, with all the while the murmuring shower to divert their eare.
- Morris, Christopher (Ed), The Journeys of Celia Fiennes, Cresset Press, 1947.
- The chemical aspects of this and other petrifying springs are dicussed by Allan Pentecost in Springs that turn life to stone, New Scientist 21/28 Dec 1991.
- The present where abouts of Smiths painting is unknown, and information would be appreciated. The V&A has a print of the Vivares engraving.
- Quoted from Allan Pentecost’s article. Pentecost gives the date as 1883 but I think this will relate to a later edition. There is no mention of the Dropping Well in Bucklands initial publication of 1858 so I presume that his account appeared in either his second series of l860 or new series of l865, neither of which I have yet had opportunity to examine.
Copyright © Graham Hudson 2003. All Rights reserved.