History of the Drinking Fountain

In the mid 19th century sanitation was sorely lacking. Drinking water was contaminated and the cause of cholera outbreaks. As a result, many water pumps and wells were closed, and the population substituted water for beer and alcohol.

The advent of the Temperance Movement who urged abstinence from alcohol and restraint against public inebriation initiated philanthropic donations for memorial fountains, and ensured that many fountains were erected close to pubs, whilst the Evangelical Movement encouraged installation in churchyards.

In London, The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association was created by Samuel Gurney to provide free and clean water to the people. The first drinking fountain was installed in 1859 and troughs for dogs were added shortly after. In this era, before the invention of the car, transportation of people and product was reliant on horses. Troughs were installed for the welfare of horses and cattle and in 1867, and the name of the association was changed to The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association.

‘The public drinking fountain offers to the thirsty an alternative. It does not affect, it does not aim or even desire to coerce men to be sober; but it gives to all a chance of sobriety. It enables the poor in our cities and towns to choose whether their thirst shall be allayed by its cool stream, or by what the public-house has to offer from its “stores.” It asks no payment for water, if men are willing or desirous to drink water; and it leaves them to determine which is the better, the free draught from the spring, or the costly potations that contain ingredients of a character so dangerous and perchance so destructive. Without drinking fountains, in the great majority of instances, persons in the humbler stations of life are actually compelled to frequent and habitually to spend portions of their small income at public-houses.’ Source: The Art Journal, Volume VI, 1860.

There were many iron foundries producing cast iron memorial drinking fountains, and although not considered the best choice for a monument as it is susceptible to rust and corrosion, it was a cheap alternative to other metals. Two of the most prolific companies were the Saracen Foundry owned by Walter Macfarlane & Co.; and George Smith & Co. Sun Foundry; both companies operating out of Glasgow. The Scottish product was ordered from catalogues and shipped to destinations around the world.

In Britain, many ornamental iron decorations were requisitioned during the war and those that survived have fallen into disrepair. However, municipalities have begun or have already restored these items, and Historic Scotland has issued a booklet identifying the best methods and products to use in the restoration process.

The craftsmanship of the iron workers is outstanding therefore it is disheartening that the medium of cast iron is prone to deterioration. Many of these historic architectural structures have suffered through decades of inclement weather and uneducated attempts to ‘pretty them up’ by slopping on coats of paint and effectively destroying the definition of the engravings. Appreciation of the artistry requires more than a perfunctory glance!

One response to “History

  • Gregg Ten Eyck

    Yes, you may use the picture I posted on Panaromio of the Court House in Savanna La Mar, Jamaica. You are doing a great job of researching and documenting these fountains.

    Best wishes.

    Gregg Ten Eyck

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