26 March 2017

Penarth: Drinking fountains

If you’re a regular to this blog, you’ll know that I’m a fan of drinking fountains and various things cast-iron so imagine my delight when I was walking past St Augustine’s Church, here in Penarth, recently and discovered it has a magnificent old drinking fountain built in to the south-western side of its stone boundary wall. And it’s a cracking fountain!

The church itself was built in 1865-66 but I haven’t been able to discover whether the drinking fountain was also installed around that time or whether it was a later addition. 

This cast-iron scallop-shell beauty was made in Glasgow at the Saracen Foundry, home to Walter MacFarlane & Co Ltd, Scotland’s most important manufacturer of ornamental ironwork.

MacFarlane’s had a catalogue of their cast-iron creations, which include this model, No. 17 Drinking Fountain. I have read that only four examples of this particular pattern still exist but I’m not sure if that’s true. 

It’s certainly a very ornate piece, with a splendid pair of griffins flanking the top arch, a graceful crane standing amongst reeds in the centre medallion, and what looks to me like a stylised peacock, its mouth/beak the tap for the water (but that may be my fertile imagination!).

Penarth also boasts a second old drinking fountain, though you might struggle to recognise it as such these days, as only a table-like pedestal remains. It’s located in Alexandra Park, very near an ornamental fountain and a group of bird cages housing budgies and canaries.

According to the Memorial Drinking Fountains blog (yes, there is someone who loves these artworks even more than I do!), this fountain was another of Walter MacFarlane’s designs, a number 7, and

The original structure was 5 feet 8 inches high, a single pedestal with four decorative columns and descending salamander relief that supported the decorated basin. A central urn with four projecting tendrils offered drinking cups suspended by chains. The terminal was a crane, a symbol of vigilance.

This drinking fountain was apparently purchased in 1911; it was certainly installed prior to 1915 as it can be seen in an old postcard of the park dated that year.

It seems Penarth may once have had more historic drinking fountains which have since been lost as I found this report in The Cardiff Times of 10 July 1886, p.8:

The usual monthly meeting was held on Monday evening, there being present Messrs Edwards (chairman), Forrest, Ingram, Pile, Bevan, Shepherd, Belcher, and Corbett. The Chairman reported that the seats, committee had arranged to place 36 seats in various parts of Penarth (such as the Esplanade, the Dingle, and Beach-hill), one set of ladies' retiring-rooms, two urinals, and two drinking fountains on the Esplanade, one drinking fountain near the police-station, and another near the Ship Hotel.

The Ship Hotel was demolished soon after the Second World War and, though I’ve walked the streets around the other locations named in the newspaper report, unfortunately I’ve found no evidence of those other old fountains. What I have found though is the modern equivalent.

The 21st-century version was installed with much fanfare in September 2013 in Belle Vue Park. The Penarth News blog reports that this modern American-made drinking fountain, ‘the first of its kind in Europe’ (!), was erected to celebrate the centenary of the park. Two councillors turned out, local residents dressed in period costume, and a time capsule was even planted beneath this new-fangled innovation.

It may provide ‘a vertical stream from which people can drink, a bottle filling facility which it’s hoped will encourage the re-use of plastic bottles and a special drinking bowl for dogs at the base’ but, personally, I think it’s ugly, and it’s certainly no match for the wonderful works of art that Walter MacFarlane & Co manufactured back in the good old days!

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