Water Fountains – have they always been a place for office politics?

I love to spot quirky things. You know the sort of thing that makes an inquiring mind start to ping? Last summer I travelled to Hyde Park in London to meet a friend for a picnic. She was running late, so I pottered about taking pictures with my aged phone. Despite all the scenic vistas and colourful flowerbeds I shot, it was a solid, granite object that aroused my curiosity and has sown the seeds of a bizarre interest, which I am about to share with you.
Strategically placed, at an intersection of a main thoroughfare and a park gateway, this antique water trough captured my imagination. It is inscribed with the legend “The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association”. The fact that such an association existed intrigued me and I resolved to find out more.
Now, with much gratitude to website of The Drinking Fountain Association *, I now know that this association, was set up by an MP and a Barrister in 1859 to provide free drinking water. This philanthropic movement, which had begun in Liverpool, came in response to the lack of infrastructure for the supply and quality of safe and palatable water for the rapidly swelling population of the Capital. In an era of “self-help” they had to overcome obstruction, cynicism and financial difficulty, but gradually the movement spread and even influenced royalty and changes in the law.
The first fountain was on Holborn Hill and swiftly came to be used by 7000 people a day. 85 more fountains were to come over the following six years and were often sited opposite public houses. As tea and coffee were very expensive, beer was considered a safer way to quench thirst than most water supplies. However, evangelical Christians and the Temperance Movement supported the building of fountains as a more sober alternative.
Soon the great and the good of Victorian London Society began to finance ornamental installations in parks and animal welfare campaigners collaborated in the building of troughs for horses, cattle and dogs. These must have become like today’s motorway service stations, where hansom cabs and cattle drovers pulled in for refreshment for both humans and livestock.
By the 1930’s, great social change and the increase of motor traffic saw cars and lorries gradually take the place of livestock and horse drawn vehicles; the Association had to change its focus. There was an increase in the demand for fountains as that for troughs receded. It has continued to build drinking fountains in schools and parks and draws grants for water related projects in developing countries.

The historic troughs, such as that which initiated my research, are the subject of an attempt to catalogue the various recorded troughs and fountains which have been traced, and continue to be sought, on sites throughout the British Isles.
So next time you pause by the water cooler in a shop or office, or indulge in a bit of “water cooler gossip”, remember you are following in the footsteps of many a Victorian worker, but that there was a lot more effort went into the design, finance and siting of theirs!

*www.drinkingfountains.org

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