Drinking Fountains and Cattle Troughs in Epsom and Ewell


'The erection of free drinking fountains, yielding pure cold water, would confer a benefit on all classes'. With this resolution the Victorian philanthropist Samuel Gurney founded the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association in 1859. The Earl of Carlisle was founder president and money came from banking and brewing families. The Archbishop of Canterbury's daughter opened the first fountain two weeks later, and soon it was being used by seven thousand people a day.

Drinking fountains were intended for the poor, who would otherwise have depended on beer and spirits or run the risk of polluted urban water supplies. Fountains carried moral and religious values, often literally in the form of statues of Temperance or Charity, or biblical texts that proclaimed 'the fear of the Lord is a fountain of life'.

Opening the Association's first drinking fountain, 1859
Opening the Association's first drinking fountain, 1859

At first the Association had to struggle against local vestries, who regarded every public fountain as an obstruction of the highway and a potential drain on the rates. Originally the water supply, as well as the fountains, came from Association funds; but this was ruinously expensive, and local authorities were persuaded to provide water instead. By 1877, when Queen Victoria paid £100 for a fountain at Esher, the Association had matured from a radical campaign to a public institution.

An appeal to remember 'the intense suffering which is experienced by all kinds of animals from thirst in the streets of London' prompted the society to change its title to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1867. The troughs that were set up in central London - at a time when horses were the only means of urban transport - might refresh three thousand animals a day. Cattle and sheep on their way to market were also given access to water, and so were dogs accompanying their masters to work.

This enlargement of the Association's responsibilities won it support from the RSPCA, and also from temperance groups, who supported the change because the only other drinking troughs were those put out by pubs, and these were reserved for the horses of customers who drank inside. By contrast, the Association liked to portray man, dog and horse drinking from the same pure source in sobriety and harmony. However, by 1936 the Association had to accept that motor transport had become the norm, and no more cattle troughs were set up. By this time its fountains were being largely requested by local authorities for the use of children in their parks. Today the Association divides its work between maintaining the historic drinking fountains and providing new ones for schools and youth organisations.

In 1991 I contacted D.R.W. Randall, the secretary and archivist of the Drinking Fountain Association (as it is now known). He very kindly let me have a printout of Epsom and Ewell entries from the Association's database, and let me look at the files of correspondence relating to each trough and fountain. Notes on these (typed up by Sheila Ross) can be seen here:

Drinking Fountain Association Archives


The two water troughs put up by the Metropolitan Association 'near Epsom station' in 1876 were probably requested by the railway company, for seven years earlier a government order had made it compulsory for them to provide drinking facilities for livestock in transit. These troughs, of the standard design in axed granite, were at the foot of Upper High Street, which led to Epsom Town Station; they supplied cattle, sheep and dogs, and were fed by one of the town's two pumps. Later on they became famous as the scene of Derby morning ablutions, when racegoers and newspaper boys washed themselves with soap and towels provided by the Council.

The Derby morning wash
The Derby morning wash

But the Downs themselves did not have a water supply. Gypsies took water round and sold it for up to a shilling a bucket. In 1906, the year after Cicero won the Derby, his owner Lord Rosebery paid for a trough bearing the horse's name and had it installed by the walls in the Durdans in Chalk Lane. This trough was supplied by the Association and looked after vigilantly by the Council - a boy found washing his bicycle in it received a personal reprimand from the Town Clerk. Fourteen years later the Council received another trough from the Association, who had just removed it from Richmond, and this was connected to the water supply between Downs Road and Rifle Butts Alley.

The horse trough at the east end of the High Street was removed after one of the police's three-wheeled cars crashed into it in 1928. The Ministry of Transport refused permission for them to be re-erected at the Clock Tower. Eventually, as part of the Market Place redevelopment in 1993, the Richmond trough was moved from its location on the downs and set up near the Clock Tower as an ornamental feature. The Cicero trough has also been moved, to the forecourt of the Rubbing House.

By the 1920s the Metropolitan Association was being called on instead to provide drinking places for children in the new local authority parks. Epsom asked for two in 1926 - one for the newly purchased Court Recreation Ground and the other for Rosebery Park, which had been given to the town in 1913. In 1927 another fountain arrived for Rosebery and there was one for Alexandra Recreation Ground, the oldest public space (it had been purchased in 1898). The next year the Council enlarged Court Recreation Ground, and the Association, drawing on their Reardon Bequest, set up three more fountains there, with another two for Rosebery and Alexandra Recreation Ground.

These fountains were all of the same design, made out of an imitation stone called granolithic and manufactured in Millwall. Water ran from the central vase into a basin, where cups were provided, and flowed out into dog troughs at the base. By 1931 the design was already obsolete, 'there being undoubted objection on hygiene grounds to the present system of the cup being used by anyone who may come along. The council started getting rid of the fountains which they had been so anxious to acquire three years before. The one by the lodge in the Court Recreation Ground was replaced by a design where the water bubbled up instead of running down. One of the unwanted designs was moved to the Warren by Epsom Downs, another was left in position at Rosebery Park, a third was transferred by the Association to Dagenham. In the 1990s the remaining fountain at Rosebery Park was taken down, as it was no longer functional and kept needing repairs after vandalism.

The Rosebery Park drinking fountain
The Rosebery Park drinking fountain

Jeremy Harte © 2012





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