Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Tap-dressing

Illustrated by Henry George Hine


A singular custom prevails in the old-fashioned town of Wirksworth, in Derbyshire, which is called tap-dressing, or sometimes well-dressing. It would appear that, in former times, the inhabitants of this town and its neighbourhood suffered much from the insufficiency of their supply of water. When a constant supply was at last insured by laying down iron pipes, the ceremony of tap-dressing was instituted to commemorate the improvement. This Whitsuntide of the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty, was the hundred and fifth anniversary of the event.

After a beautiful drive of about two miles from Matlock, the stranger comes upon a quaint little town surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills with dark plumes of waving firs upon their crests, and sides clothed with softer foliage which mingles at last with the apple-blossoms of the gardens. Half way up the steep street, which gives entrance to the town, he will find the first tap. That is the first dressed tap—a tap in which the teetotaller and the art-student, who does not invariably eschew more stimulating beverage, are equally interested.

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The tap is a tableau of Moses striking the rock. The figure of Moses and all the accessories of the scene are composed of clay, but covered entirely with flowers. The complexion of Moses was produced (a singular coincidence) by the petals of the Mount Tabor Peony. His vesture was of violets; but his hair and beard were the greatest success. Composed of dark moss, their effect might have excited jealousy in the breast of Madame Tussaud. To borrow the language of the playbills of our minor theatres, the illusion was completed by “real water.”

When the rod of Moses rested on the rock, a sufficient stream trickled from early morn to dewy eve.

The designs of the other taps were not so ambitious. They both bore a certain resemblance to Grecian temples, with small fountains beneath their shade. These structures were composed of boards covered with clay, which was again overlaid with flowers. The petals only are used in this mosaic work, and the effect is very remarkable. Buttercups, blue-bells, pansies, the blossoms of the gorse, the sharp pointed leaves of the fir, mosses of various colours, geraniums, lilies of the valley, blossoms of the globe amaranthus, and the narcissus, were all impressed into the service.

With these a variety of patterns were formed, the pillars turned with parti-coloured scrolls, crowns and sceptres, lions and unicorns, even texts of scripture were thrown out in the strongest relief by the contrast of the backgrounds. The whole bore evidence of very good workman ship. In all the patterns the lines were carefully drawn, and the edges clearly defined. It may be doubted, whether any one who has not been a spectator could form a correct idea of the effects produced by the fragile materials which are used.

The first prize was adjudged to the representation of Moses, the difficulty of the undertaking probably having some weight in influencing the decision.

Of course it was a general holiday in the neighbourhood. The village mustered in great strength. The gorgeous blue ribbons and stars upon their breasts looked, at a short distance, as magnificent as the order of the garter on the noble owner of Chatsworth.

As they promenaded the streets, two-and-two, with a very fair band playing before them, an eye accustomed to the step of our gallant volunteers, could not but regret that they did not march in time. However, they all seemed to enjoy themselves, even the two leaders who carried the large banner—evidently a work fraught with difficulty and danger—and as the spectacle was not professedly military, its most important end may be considered to have been attained. The young ladies from the neighbouring factories also came out in force, and fine, tall, rosy-cheeked, dark-eyed damsels a great many of them were. A southern spectator might have been surprised that a young lady whose dialect he would have had considerable difficulty in comprehending, should, nevertheless, wear a bonnet trimmed with Rosa Magenta, a new and extremely fashionable colour. The last statement is made on feminine authority.

The cause of water-drinking has lately received a considerable impulse from the erection of drinking-fountains in many of the principal towns. Might it not aid the good cause for which these have been built, if their foundation was commemorated by some ceremony as graceful and as harmless as the tap-dressing at Wirksworth.