23 October 2016

Cardiff’s historic drinking fountains

Given the number of blogs I post about pubs and their signs, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m a bit of a lush but you would be wrong. And just to prove I do sometimes think about other types of liquid than those containing alcohol, today’s post is about water, or, rather, the places where Cardiffians used to be able to drink good quality, free water in public.

Nowadays, drinking or water fountains are typically bland circular stainless-steel creations that resemble shiny bird baths and have taps that either squirt you in the face due to their excessive water pressure or have so little pressure that you almost have to suck the water from the tap, something no hygiene-mindful person would want to do. But, in Victorian times, drinking fountains, though performing the necessary public service of providing clean drinking water to an ever-increasing and thirsty population, were often quite grand and artistic creations.

The earliest drinking fountain I’ve located in Cardiff was not quite so grand, though it was certainly built to last. It dates from 1860, the very early days of the drinking fountain movement in Britain (the first fountain in London was erected in April 1859, in the wall of St Sepulchre’s churchyard in Snow Hill, according to The Welshman newspaper, 1 April 1859). Cardiff’s fountain was originally built into a wall of the Town Hall in St Mary’s Street but was moved when that building was demolished. It now sits in the wall of a bridge over part of the old Glamorgan Canal, and I doubt many of the passers-by even notice it.

The inscription at the top reads: ‘Jesus said unto her, whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall never thirst. John IV.19.14’, and the lower inscription acknowledges that the fountain was donated to the city by William Alexander, Mayor of Cardiff in 1859-60.

The next drinking fountain wins the prize for the most colourful and extravagant decoration. It sits in a wonderful old building that was originally the Free Library but is currently home to the Cardiff Story museum, amongst other things. 

The fountain is ceramic, made by Burmantoffs Pottery in Leeds, in green, brown and buff-coloured faience, with wonderful low-relief female figures flanking the water spout itself. 

The entire corridor in which it’s located is lined with majolica, with printed and painted tiles depicting the time of day and the seasons, the barrel-vaulted ceiling is clad in faience, and the floor is covered with patent mosaic tiles. The whole is a model of flamboyance!

From the ostentatious to the practical; the stone fountain in Llandaff Fields is another that was built to last, and it has certainly outlasted the old tree that was growing behind it when it was first built. The Evening Express of 8 May 1901 reported on its beginnings:

By the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. H. M. Thompson, of Llandaff, there was on Monday fixed beneath the old elm tree in Llandaff Fields a substantially-built ornamental fountain, which will, doubtless, be regarded as a boon by the frequenters of this resort. It is of red Forest stone, of simple, yet effective, design, and is the work of Mr. Clarke, sculptor, &c. of Llandaff. The water has been laid on, and the fountain is now ready for use.

These days the fountain looks rather forlorn, an abandoned relic of another time, and seems often to be in danger of being knocked over by the over-zealous drivers of the lawn-mowing machinery.

The final two drinking fountains date from the early 1900s, the one in Victoria Park from 1908 and the other, in Grange Park, from 1909. There were others in this same design scattered about Cardiff but they have long since disappeared. The fountains were designed by Macfarlanes of Glasgow and made by the Saracen Foundry in Possilpark, Glasgow, a company then considered the most prolific architectural iron foundry in the world. Similar fountain canopies can be seen around Britain (there is one on display in the Grand Hall of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh).

The Cardiff drinking fountains were gifted to the city by the family of Mr Moses Samuel, a well known local watchmaker and jeweller, who passed away in June 1894, in his memory and in memory of other members of the Samuel family.

On 7 August 1908, the Evening Express reported on the unveiling of the Victoria Park Fountain:

Councillor John Chappell, J.P., and the members of the parks committee were present at Victoria. Park, Canton, Cardiff, on Thursday evening, for the purpose of dedicating to the use of the public a drinking fountain, presented to the city by Mr. Isaac Samuel, J.P. There were also present Miss Lena Samuel, Mr. Gertrude Samuel (London), Mr. Percy Samuel, Mr. Isaac Samuel, Mr. M. Lewis, president of the Hebrew congregation; Mr. L. Joseph, and other friends of the family. Mr. Chappell formally accepted the fountain on behalf of the citizens, and spoke very highly of the qualities possessed by the late Mr. Samuel. Mr. Isaac Samuel, in replying, said that he and his brothers were only too pleased to establish a connecting link between their father and the city of Cardiff. The ceremony, which was witnessed by a huge crowd, concluded with votes of thanks to the donor and chairman.

The following month, on 19 September 1908, the Cardiff Times reported the unveiling of a fountain in The Hayes, in central Cardiff, and noted that

Drinking fountains had already been erected in Roath Park to the memory of Mr and Mrs Samuel, parents of the present donors; in Victoria Park, to the memory of Mr Lewin Samuel, and in North-road, to Mr Louis Samuel, and it is intended to erect two more, one in Splott Park and the other in Roath recreation ground, to commemorate the late Mr Arthur Samuel and Mrs Joseph.

I found no mention of the drinking fountain in Grange Park so it’s possible it is one of the ones mentioned above and was later relocated to its present position, where it makes a handsome addition to the structures in the park, in particular the grand old band rotunda.