Maybe it’s just me but as you wander around a city like London which has a history stretching further than a Galilean fish supper, you are constantly brought up short by things like the above. For those who can’t read the inscription it is dedicated to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain And Cattle Trough Association.
In the 1850s London had suffered from several cholera outbreaks that eventually led to the rather fabulous sewers we still use today. I’ve written about them before.
But some worthy souls wanted everyone to have clean water as well as removal of sewage and the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association came into being in 1859. Charles Dickens Jr wrote this in 1879…
Until the last few years London was ill-provided with public drinking fountains and cattle troughs. This matter is now well looked after by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, which has erected and is now maintaining nearly 800 fountains and troughs, at which an enormous quantity of water is consumed daily. It is estimated that 300,000 people take advantage of the fountains on a summer’s day, and a single trough has supplied the wants of 1,800 horses in one period of 24 hours. Several ornamental fountains have been provided by private munificence. Amongst these may be instanced the Baroness Burdett Coutts’s beautiful fountains in Victoria-park and Regent’s-park the Maharajah of Vizianagram’s in Hyde-park; Mrs. Brown’s, by Thornycroft, in Hamilton-place, Mr. Wheeler’s at the north of Kew-bridge; and Mr. Buxton’s at Westminster.
The cattle troughs were added and these, one example being shown above began to be distributed around London. Originally these were placed to service the horses and cattle that provided muscle and milk to Londoners, with a tray underneath for dogs. When the automobile appeared, saviour like, to rescue London for disappearing under its own ordure – a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment if ever there was one – these rather lovely if aesthetically functional troughs remained. No one thought to remove them or recycle them. No one broke them up for ballast.
Nowadays they are often used as planters, sprinkling some colour into otherwise dull corners – though the tight uniformity with which they are planted by the local authorities tended to set my mother’s teeth on edge as she described the resulting displays as ‘just so very parks department’. No one is going to remove them now. Given their weight they are unlikely to be lifted to be repurposed as a slimline hot tub in some Essex Man’s residential excrescence.
They don’t seem to weather much. They stand as a granite reminder of a different world, a slower paced, less automated, more dungy world. If you wander around London ever keep an eye out for these little anomalies and give them a pat. They deserve it.