Urban streams: The forgotten history of Britain’s drinking fountains

The need for clean water in 19th-century Britain led to a new and magnificent genre of street furniture. Kathryn Ferry examines the drinking fountain.

We live in the era of the locomotive, of the electric telegraph, and of the steam press…’ stated the Art Journal in April 1860, yet ‘even now we are not advanced far beyond such experimental efforts as may eventually lead us to provide supplies of pure water… to meet the requirements of our dense populations.’ Victorian workers were forced to spend money on beer and gin because, for all the benefits of industrialisation, water supplies remained erratic and heavily polluted. Temperance campaigners argued that reliance on alcohol was at the root of social problems, including poverty, crime and destitution.

Free public drinking fountains were hailed as an important part of the solution. Indeed, the Art Journalreported how people crossing London and the suburbs, ‘can scarcely avoid noticing the numerous fountains which are everywhere rising, almost as it would seem, by magic, into existence’. These new articles of street furniture were erected by the goodwill of many individual donors, who sought to improve public morality through a fountain’s design, as well as its function. Many styles, decorative symbols, sculptural programmes and materials were marshalled towards this aim, leaving an astonishingly varied legacy.

Fig 1: Liverpool’s pioneering drinking fountains were simple. © Look and Learn / Bridgeman

The earliest philanthropic fountains were relatively simple structures. Unitarian merchant Charles Pierre Melly pioneered the idea in his home town of Liverpool, having seen the benefits of freely available clean drinking water on a visit to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1852. He opened his first fountain at Prince’s Dock in March 1854, selecting polished red Aberdeen granite for its resilience and supplying a continuous flow of water to avoid breakage or malfunction of taps.

Set into the dock wall, this fountain consisted of a projecting basin with drinking cups attached by chains at either side, the whole topped by a pediment (Fig 1). Over the next four years, Melly funded 30 further fountains, spearheading a movement that spread rapidly to other towns, including Leeds, Hull, Preston and Derby.

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Fog 2: Cast iron allowed for more ornate designs, as at Merthyr Tydfil’s St David’’s parish church. This is an 1863 painted cast iron drinking fountain commemorating marriage of Prince of Wales.

London lagged behind. Despite Dr John Snow’s groundbreaking research that traced a cholera outbreak in Soho back to water from the Broad Street pump and the disgraceful sanitary conditions that turned the Thames into a river of filth, creating The Great Stink of1858, London’s nine private water companies remained intransigent. Samuel Gurney MP, nephew of social campaigner Elizabeth Fry, took up the cause, alongside barrister Edward Wakefield. On April 12, 1859, they founded the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association and, two weeks later, opened their first fountain in the wall of St Sepulchre’s churchyard, in the City of London. Water ran from a white marble shell into a basin set within a small granite arch. This structure survives today, albeit without its outer series of Romanesque arches. It was soon being used by more than 7,000 people daily.

Such fountains paled in comparison with the grandest examples they spawned. Yet, as The Building News ruefully observed in 1866: ‘It has been a form of complaint against the promoters of this movement that they have erected the most hideous fountains which could possibly be designed, and certainly some of the most pretentious manifest as little beauty as the less expensive ones.’ This was a problem if they were to compete with what the Art Journal called the ‘gorgeous and glittering decorations’ in which ‘even the most pernicious of the public-houses abound’. Efforts to create an artistic vocabulary that referenced watery themes and struck the right note of moral rectitude were decidedly mixed. The Building News doubted anyone would wish for ‘more spouting lilies, vomiting lions, weeping shells, Moses striking the rock, unamiable heads and ungainly looking vessels. All such vagaries are simply absurd and untruthful, and should be discouraged.’

Fig 4: The Cavendish Memorial Fountain at Bolton Abbey.

Gurney’s charity produced a pattern book, but donors often preferred to appoint their own architect. The behemoth of drinking fountains, erected in Hackney’s Victoria Park by Angela Burdett-Coutts, cost nearly £6,000, a sum that could have paid for about 200 standard models. Burdett-Coutts’s favourite architect, Henry Darbishire, created a landmark that rises to more than 58ft.

Historians have tried to label the structure, completed in 1862, by summarising its stylistic parts as Venetian/Moorish/Gothic/Renaissance, but nothing describes its eclecticism better than the epithet ‘Victorian’. Although extraordinary for the architectural excess it lavished on inhabitants of the East End, it also stands as a monument to its sponsor’s tastes.

Fig 5 below: The Shrigley fountain in Co Down is all that survives of a lost industrial community.

Another sumptuous London fountain is the Buxton Memorial (Fig 8), now in Victoria Tower Gardens. Commissioned by Charles Buxton MP to celebrate his father’s part in the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, it was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon in 1865. To avoid the sombre look of a lead roof or the flatness of slate, Teulon turned to the Skidmore Art Manufacture and Constructive Iron Co, whose new technique employed plaques of iron with raised patterns to give shadow and acid-resistant enamel to provide colour.

The effect is like seeing a page of Owen Jones’s 1856 compendium The Grammar of Ornament wrapped around the spire. The four granite bowls of the fountain itself sit within a miniature cathedral of a space, beneath a thick central pillar that receives the delicate springings of an outer ring of eight shafts of clustered columns. The building’s intermediate tier, between arcade and steeple, is massed with mosaic decoration and Gothic stone carvings from the workshop of Thomas Earp.

Fig 8: The Buxton Memorial Fountain, a spectacular exercise in Victorian Gothic by Teulon.

Variations on Gothic proved popular, as the style was both fashionable and associated with Christian benevolence. Assuming the role of a new communal meeting point, some fountains consciously resembled medieval market crosses with pinnacled and crocketed spires, as at Nailsworth in Gloucester- shire (1862), Great Torrington in Devon (1870) (Fig 7) and Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire (1885). Elsewhere, a more muscular Gothic was brought to bear, seen in the eye-catchingly striped voussoirs of William Dyce’s fountain for Streatham Green in London (1862) and Alderman Proctor’s fountain on Clifton Down in Bristol by George and Henry Godwin (1872). At Shrigley in Co Down, the 1871 Martin memorial fountain (Fig 5) was designed by young Belfast architect Timothy Hevey, who effected a clever transition from octagonal arcade to square clock tower with meaty flying buttresses. As did many ambitious fountains in this idiom, the structure incorporated a complex sculptural iconography, now damaged, representing the Christian virtues. The hexagonal Gothic fountain at Bolton Abbey (Fig 4), raised in memory of Lord Frederick Cavendish in 1886, was the work of Manchester architects T. Worthington and J. G. Elgood. According to the Leeds Mercury, it has ‘a prominent place amid scenery, which not only forms one of the brightest gems in Yorkshire’s crown, but is dear to all by reason of its associations with the statesman whose name the object is intended to recall’.

Fountain-Gothic proved itself a flexible base for public memorials, although it was common for less ornate examples to allude even more closely to funerary monuments. Revivalist styles, including Classical, Tudor, Italianate and Norman, were also mined for inspiration. The architectural extremes can be seen by comparing Philip Webb’s fountain at Shoreditch in East London with James Forsyth’s fountain at Dudley in the West Midlands. The former is unusual for being designed as an integral part of a larger building project; the latter was probably the grandest example outside London.

Fig 6: Only the cast-iron canopy of this fountain remains on Clifton Down, Bristol.

Webb’s design of 1861–63 was part of a terrace of artisans’ dwellings on Worship Street, a project that surely appealed to his socialist principles. As might be expected from a pioneer of the Arts-and-Crafts Movement, Webb’s fountain was of a pared-down form based around a finely moulded capital above a polygonal column. There was no unnecessary ornament. By contrast, the 27ft-high fountain commissioned by the Earl of Dudley in 1867 was ornamented to a nigh grotesque degree, based around an arched opening. The sculptor James Forsyth added semi-circular projections either side with furious- looking dolphins spewing water into cattle troughs. Above these, the front halves of two horses seem to kick out of the structure away from a pyramidal roof topped with an allegorical group representing Industry. The sculpture included festoons of fruit and keystone images of a river god and water nymph. Historic photographs show this Baroque pomposity was once balanced by four cast-iron standard lamps, which not only framed the fountain, but lit it for night-time drinking.

As the wonder material of the age, cast iron was the main alternative to stone drinking fountains (Fig 6). From the early 1860s, Wills Brothers of Euston Road, London partnered with Coalbrookdale Iron Works in Shropshire to establish a reputation for artistically evangelical castings. Mural fountains that survive in Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil (Fig 2) feature Jesus pointing to the instruction ‘Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst’. Coalbrookedale also cast its own designs, such as the combined drinking fountain and cattle trough erected at Somerton in Somerset, to mark Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. The Saracen Foundry of Walter Mac-farlane in Glasgow supplied its distinctive versions (Fig 3) to places as far apart as Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Wight. The patent design, which came in various sizes, consisted of a central basin beneath a perforated iron canopy with cusped arches resting on slender iron columns. The Art Journal considered the overall effect to be ‘rather Alhambresque’ and thus suitable to its function, the style being ‘invariably associated in the mind with the dry sultry East, where the gushing water is more to be desired than the ruby wine’.

Fig 7: The bowls in Great Torrington, Devon, are planted with flowers.

Other iron designs were more derivative. In 1877, Andrew Handyside and Co of Derby supplied a fountain based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens to the London church of St Pancras. The Strand already had a similar-looking fountain, designed by Wills Bros and given by Robert Hanbury, which was relocated to Wimbledon in 1904.

No accurate figure exists for the number of drinking fountains erected countrywide after 1854, but it must be in the high thousands and many survive. The social and public-health impact they had was profound. Over the 20th century, many have suffered serious neglect and it’s important we start to take them more seriously. Hopefully, there is a new chance for this marvellously eccentric building type to be useful once more.