From the mid-1850s onwards, temperance societies in Britain actively promoted the building of water fountains in public places as a potent aid in their mission against drink. In the second half of the nineteenth century many hundreds of fountains were installed in villages, towns and cities across the country. Some were constructed in stone or marble, but many more were provided for (at a lower cost) by the large iron foundries that dominated the industrial landscape of Glasgow, particularly George Smith & Co, and Walter Macfarlane. These companies produced their own designs which embraced the religious and moral language of the temperance societies. In almost identical examples found in Preston, Wallingford, and Bristol (1), Macfarlane’s design for a water fountain exploits the decorative potential of cast iron with a host of elevating aquatic motifs including: a heron standing upon leaves in the bowl of the fountain and repeated in the dome above (2); salamanders crawling on the pillars beneath the bowl (3); and Biblical and moral inscriptions above (4). Winged lions – symbols of civic pride – surmount the corners of the canopy, which in a larger example in Darwen (5), become part of a tour-de-force of naturalistic display, featuring arabesques of leaves and flowers infilled with birds supporting a dome of intertwined garlanded wreaths.
These associations of natural abundance, water, civic pride and religion were interweaving aspects of Britain’s sanitary revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Casting fountains in iron provided a ready means of asserting these values in visual form throughout the country at a cost far lower than the commission of individual designs for each location. They also promoted the work of specialist ornamental founders like Macfarlane and the reputation of cast iron as a material suitable for decorative treatment. Such designs could be selected from a series of examples illustrated in Macfarlane’s increasingly lavish catalogues, issued from 1855 onwards.
Ornamental cast iron was also responsible for another piece of sanitary street furniture in the Victorian period: the urinal. Often located in urban parks in close proximity to water fountains, Victorian urinals (in both male and female versions) still survive in Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and London. Standing beneath the dome of the urinals in Mina Park, Bristol (6), one could be forgiven for imagining oneself to be in a strange wonderland, despite the overpowering stench and rusting surfaces. Manufactured by Macfarlane’s Glasgow rivals, George Smith & Co., these urinals adopt similar motifs to those of fountains, although with an emphasis on naturalistic flora rather than fauna (7). In one sense, this naturalism is suitable to the park environment in which the urinal is located; in another, it refers to the perceived elevating nature of sanitary improvement embodied in public urinals. To perform one’s necessity in this space is no mere vulgar bodily activity; it is, rather, an ennobled act, as much part of the natural as the ornament proclaims. As such it contrasts sharply with the more familiar toilet spaces in public places, characterised by their uniform white tiles and functionalist design, where the acceptability of the excreting body depends only upon its assimilation into a neutral environment devoid of symbolic meaning.