The fifteenth-century Venetian well in Aberlady’s memorial garden

This handsome stone ornament, converted to a fountain, was placed in the Pleasance gardens in 1899, to honour the Countess of Wemyss. It was given by her husband, the tenth Earl, who also played a very significant role in shaping how the village looks today…

The Venetian well today, at the east end of the Memorial Garden next to Aberlady’s parish church.

THE MEMORIAL GARDEN in Aberlady – which, if you’ve never been there, is between the bowling green and the church – contains three monuments. One is the war memorial, originally set up to commemorate the Second Boer War of 1899 to 1902; the second is a modern reconstruction of Aberlady’s Anglo-Saxon high cross, placed here by the local history society in December 2011; and the third is by far the oldest, being a Venetian stone well head of the 15th century.

The well was given to the village as a memorial to Anne Frederica Charteris, née Anson, Countess of Wemyss (born 1823) by her husband, Francis Richard Charteris, the tenth Earl of Wemyss (1818-1914), following her death on July 22, 1896. Local people made contributions to pay for it to be converted into a fountain and mounted on a plinth, and if you climb up the steps and look in, you can see the inscription they commissioned and the jet that made the fountain work.

The memorial was originally positioned among the trees and pathways of the Pleasance, close to the place where the Countess made her last public appearance in May 1896, when she opened the extended bowling green at Aberlady (noted in the Scotsman on July 23, 1896). It took almost three years before the fountain was ready, and its completion was recorded in the Edinburgh Evening News of May 19, 1899.

The well in its original location, on a postcard of about 1900; and the same location today.

The years leading up to Anne’s death had been a time of great change in Aberlady, thanks largely to the efforts of her husband, Francis, originally known as Lord Elcho. He had a parliamentary career spanning more than 70 years, but he also had a keen interest in art and design, and following his father’s death in 1883, he set about an ambitious programme of building, employing William Young as his architect. Together they built the Drill Hall, now the village hall (1884); remodelled Aberlady Kirk, giving it something of the flavour of an English country church (1886); and rebuilt the wings and the southern facade of Gosford House (1890), which, though originally completed in 1800, had never previously been occupied.

According to the brochure for Gosford House, available at the house when it is open for guided tours, Francis met Anne Anson in Naples in 1843. Italian art and the Italianate style – evident in the new wings at Gosford House – had a great influence on them. Together they had ten children.

The Earl remarried in 1900, at the age of 82, and lived until he was 95. He put his longevity down to his genes and his moderate lifestyle, but also to homeopathy, a system of alternative medicine that he had followed since he was 20.

Anne, Countess of Wemyss as the Cumaean Sybil, an ancient priestess from Cumae, near Naples, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1865; and her husband.

It is easy to see why the artistic inclinations of Francis and Anne might have led him to select a Venetian well as her memorial, but it’s perhaps not so clear how he was able to buy such an item. Here we need to turn to a blog written by Lucia, a licensed tour guide in Venice, who is an expert on the curiosities of the city.

Venice, being built on islands in the sea, could not get fresh water from the usual sources, such as streams, or wells that tapped into underground aquifers. Instead, the city collected rainwater flowing into its street drains, filtered it through fine river sand, and stored it in cisterns beneath its squares. Water was drawn from these reservoirs through ornate stone well heads, mostly carved out of red or white Verona marble, or Istrian stone from Croatia. 

In the 1880s, piped mains water was brought to the city from the mainland and the wells were no longer needed. Many well heads were left in situ as ornaments, but some were sold to foreign collectors. The tenth Earl bought several, and there is at least one other in the grounds of Gosford House.

Another of the tenth Earl’s Venetian wells, in the grounds of Gosford House.

The inscription on the Memorial Garden well.

The 25-inch OS map of 1906 clearly shows the fountain in position, and the war memorial in the triangle of ground at the road junction by the church.

The reverse of the fountain postcard, sent from Longniddry to Port Seton in 1905.

The postcard image from about 1900 shows the fountain in its original position within the Pleasance ‘pleasure gardens’. The view is looking towards the main road and the bowling green. A horse-drawn carriage can be seen passing, and two ladies are sitting on a bench beside the road.

After the First World War, it was decided to move both the well and the war memorial, which originally stood at the road junction opposite the church, to their present location. The Scotsman reported on November 5, 1919 that the current Countess of Wemyss, wife of the 11th Earl, had unveiled the repositioned war memorial, which now also bore the names of those lost in the Great War. Subsequently, of course, further names were added after the Second World War.

May 14, 2020 • by Dora Roden


Photograph of Lady Elcho by Julia Margaret Cameron, V&A: item/ O1098336/lady-elcho-as-the-cumaean-photograph-cameron-julia-margaret/

Francis Charteris, 10th Earl of Wemyss, on Wikipedia: wiki/ Francis_Charteris,_ 10th_Earl_of_Wemyss

Francis Richard Charteris, 10th Earl of Wemyss, on The Peerage: p970.htm#i9700

Gosford House, Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes (HES): designation/GDL00200

William Young, Dictionary of Scottish Architects: architect_full.php?id=201358

Water and wells in Venice, Free Walks In Venice blog:

OS 25-inch map, 1906: