St. John’s Well & the Jubilee (Victoria) Fountain

The settlement at Bo’ness was largely built upon land reclaimed from the Forth and so it was not possible to sink wells in the northern quarter of the town as salt water would inevitably creep in.  It is probable that the first public well was in the old Market Place on South Street at the junction with Schoolyard Brae.  As with many Scottish wells this would seem to have captured water from the higher ground and channelled it down to a cistern or well.  This would have been a stone-lined chamber with a low perimeter wall.  Daniel Defoe published his book entitled “Tour through Great Britain” (1724-26) and wrote:

Borrowstounness consists only of one straggling street, which is extended along the shore close to the water

– that was South Street.

This type of well is clearly indicated in the earliest acts of the Regality Court of Borrowstounness in 1669.  This vital resource was protected by two acts:

“Act anent Welles and Funtanes. — Ordeanes that no persoun or persounes, in any tyme heirafter, hinder or stope any of the running wells, watters, or fountains within the said haill bounds in prejudice of their neighboure, but that they shall have their full course and frie passage of running according to old use and wont ; and that there be no bleitching therat bot at such pleaces allenarlly [only] wher they were in use and wont to bleitch; and that under the paine of ten poimds Scotis.”

“Act anent the Toune Well. — Statuts and ordeanes that no person wash any cloathes within six ells of the comone toune well of the said brught of regalitie of Borroustounes, and that under the paine of fyve pounds Scotis.”

In the market square this well stood adjacent to the mercat cross and was probably called the Cross Well.  The source of the water may have been at the Braehead where a large fountain head or storage tank is shown on the 1855 Ordnance Survey map on the south-east corner of the junction of what are now Braehead Road and Cadzow Lane.

Illus: Extract from the 1856 Ordnance Survey Map showing the site of the old Market Cross and of St John’s Well (National Library of Scotland).

An act of Parliament in 1769 gave the Bo’ness Town Trustees power to contract for springs and build reservoirs, but without the funds little happened.  In 1781 the Trustees had to deal with hot water being pumped out of the Schoolyard Pit which seems to have contaminated that going to the well at the cross.  The town rapidly expanded and in 1818 it was decided to establish another well in the new market square on the south side of North Street.  It was necessary to augment the original source and so additional water was obtained from the vicinity of the hamlet of Borrowstoun 1.2km to the south.  Here there was an ancient well known as St John’s Well.   Trials were made using wooden pipes but the pressure of the water due to the difference in height was too much and so they had to resort to cast iron on the lower ground.   

Illus: The old St John’s Well, c1880, looking west.

On 9 December 1818 the committee charged with the project reported that the pipes were completed to their satisfaction, and that the well was also finished (Salmon 1913, 257).  They were glad to say that the supply of water proved to be fully equal to the wants of the inhabitants.  The well head was also of cast iron – described as an “iron casket on a base of stones, wi’ a’ the corners worn by spielin’ weans.”   The Ordnance Surveyors provided more detail:

A large square iron pillar, about 8 feet high, surmounted by a lamp.  The pillar bears the following inscription “St. John’s Well 1817”.  It is what is termed a self-acting pump.” 

It was manufactured by the New Shotts Iron Company and together with the cistern cost £38 9s 4d.  The greater expense of the iron pipes over wooden ones brought the total due to this company to £218 10s. 4d.

The new well was named St John’s Well and was well used.  It was convenient for the ships calling at the harbour and sailors were often seen filling barrels from it.  Whilst they waited they chatted to the local girls.  Once full, the sailors would lash the barrel to a long pole and then carry it over their shoulders back to the ship, the barrel swaying from side to side as they progressed.  It was also a place where women congregated to fill their stoups and gossip.  For the children it presented a climbing frame:

they climbed the pump handle for the purpose of removing the manhole to enable them to gaze at their faces mirrored in the waters of the well.”

St John’s Well head served faithfully until 1887 when it was decided to replace it with a more ornate example in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.  James Allan of the grain merchants J & J Allan was in his third year as the town’s Chief Commissioner and offered to foot the bill.

The 1887 water fountain is still in place and consists of an ornate cast iron lamp standard set upon a granite base located in the centre of the market square.  The base is of polished grey Argyllshire granite from Craigpoint Quarry with a chamfered plinth course.  Portions of the granite are highly polished, and others are finely dressed – providing a contrast in colour.  There are two small semi-circular red Peterhead granite basins set into opposing sides of the square base supplied with water from is supplied from bronze lions’ heads. 

Illus: The 1887 Fountain Head.

On the front of the fountain is a medallion portrait of Queen Victoria in bronze; and at the back are the Bo’ness Arms, represented by a ship in full sail and the burgh motto “Sine Metu.”  Above this is an arched tier with a pitched top to shed the rain and provide a central support for the lamp standard.  A gas pipe went up the inside of the fountain to the lamp.  The height of the fountain to the top of the globe was 11ft 6ins.  Under the arch of the fountain a jet of water could be thrown up, returning to a basin underneath, by which it was conveyed to a dog trough in the basement.  The Allan Memorial Fountain was designed by Ebenezer Simpson of Stirling and sculpted by J & G Mossman of Glasgow.

Illus: The 1887 Fountain Head on the line of Hope Street.

The old St John’s well head lay in Henry’s yard alongside the electricity works for decades.  In 1894 Mr Jeffrey suggested that it could be reconstructed, perhaps in the vicinity of the station – as it was now viewed as an ancient landmark.  He offered to bear the cost of painting and embellishing it if the Council would put it in place.  Nothing happened.  In 1932 it was temporarily rescued and mounted on a lorry as part of a pageant, but it is not known what then became of it.

In 2006 the Jubilee Fountain was moved a little to the east to place it in the pedestrian zone away from traffic.

The cast iron lamp standard has been changed on several occasions and originally held a single large light on a short shaft in a similar fashion to the White Memorial Fountain at Denny.  It stood 11ft 6ins high, including this Wenham gas lamp, the latest in lighting and technology which was gifted by the Bo’ness Gas-light Company.

On the north side in large letters was inscribed “JUBILEE DRINKING FOUNTAIN//THE GIFT OF JAMES ALLAN/ 1887.”  The name was soon changed to the Jubilee or Victoria Fountain.  By 1926 the water had been disconnected and the light was electric. 

Illus: The Jubilee Fountain with the Edwardian lamppost.
Illus: The Fountain in 2017.

(SMR 1244) – NS 9988 8170

G.B. Bailey, 2022