The Erskineville Drinking Fountain

Erskineville Drinking Fountain

Today the Erskineville drinking fountain sits on a crumbling brick and concrete plinth in a graveyard. Largely indistinguishable from the surrounding memorials it languishes ignored as visitors pass by, of interest only to children who cannot resist climbing through its arch.

In October 1897 reports of the Erskineville Council meeting record the offer by Mr E. W. Molesworth M.L.A. to erect or contribute a substantial sum to the cost of a drinking fountain:

Fountain for Erskineville

Evening News Wednesday, 24 November 1897

No acknowledgement by the Mayor (Alderman R. Anderson) for the offer of a drinking fountain for the borough by Mr Molesworth? Crafty politics Alderman Robinson, well played…

But then things became awkward for Alderman Robinson…

Aldermans Mistake

Evening News Wednesday, 8 December 1897

The proposed design for Newtown’s very ornate Hatte Fountain (published on 30 October 1897) can be seen here. The foundation stone for the Hatte fountain was laid on Saturday 20 November 1897 in Newtown. The event (and its attendance by Mr Molesworth) is reported here, with the formal unveiling of the completed Hatte fountain a week later on Saturday 27 November 1897 reported here.

Ultimately despite this apparent embarrassment Mr Molesworth still seemed willing to forge ahead with his plan to provide the residents of Erskineville a drinking fountain. However things became sillier still, as with the narrowness of the roads of Erskineville a suitable location for the fountain could not be identified:

No place for fountain

Evening News Tuesday, 4 January 1898

7 Jan meeting minutes

Sydney Morning Herald Friday, 7 January 1898

Just a week later there was progress at last!

Fountain progress

Evening News Tuesday, 11 January 1898

By the start of February the formal hand-over of the completed fountain was announced:

Fountain Feb

Evening News Tuesday, 1 February 1898

So in keeping with the wishes of the fountain’s donor, the presentation of the ‘handsome fountain’ was made ‘with quietness and brevity,’ – in short, the Mayor turned the water on:

7 Feb

Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday, 7 February 1898

Today the inscriptions are weather-worn, but can still be seen on the fountain:

Roadside inscription Erskineville Fountain

Roadside inscription

Footpath-facing inscription Erskineville Fountain

Footpath-facing inscription

Williams - Architect

Inscription on fountain base: Williams – Architect

A separate report the following day in the Evening News re-stated much of what had been reported the previous day, but included a further aspect of the Mayor’s speech. The Mayor it seems took the opportunity to point out that there was plenty of room in the borough for more fountains, and called upon others to imitate the generosity of Mr Molesworth. Following this, the Mayor identified an urgent need for the erection of a free public baths, ‘sure they would be appreciated by bricklayer, railway men, and others, who, after leaving their work needed a bath but had no convenience of the kind at their own homes.’ Speculating as to the cost of the baths, he proposed each of the Aldermen contribute an equal share, saying that he was prepared to give a cheque for his contribution, and made suggestions for Aldermen to raise their contribution should they not have the means:

 8 Feb reportEvening News Tuesday, 8 February 1898

The article of 8 February 1898 was re-published on 26 February 1898 in the Australian Town and Country Journal with the addition of a photograph. Although the image is grainy it can be seen that the finial has been lost from the top of the fountain, and the central basin within the arch has been removed:

Fountain Newspaper photo

Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney) Saturday, 26 February 1898

The niche visible in the lower part of the fountain is the likely subject of the following article:

Fountain niche

Niche at base of fountain

All honour

The Dawn (Sydney) Tuesday, 1 March 1898

In recollections of Erskineville recorded some years later for the Erskineville School Centenery in 1981 the location of the Erskineville drinking fountain was recalled by Thomas Herbert Dicken:

At the Erskineville [tram] termius was a triangular block of land which split the two streets, and on which were three shops; a butcher, a shoe repairer and a newsagent. A sandstone edifice, a memorial to a former local dignitary, that doubled as a drinking fountain complete with tap and iron mug on a chain, also graced the triangle. Built into the memorial was a small trough placed at ground level to receive the overflow from the tap. This was to assuage the thirst of the many itinerant canines that passed by.

Thomas Herbert Dicken Reminices 1913 to 1921
for Erskineville School Centenery in 1981
South Sydney Heritage Society 1998 – with thanks to Gary Luke

Here is an extract of a map published in 1907, with the location of the fountain on the triangular piece of land on the corner of Burren Street and Erskineville Road circled.

Erskineville Map 1907.png

1907 -Map of the city of Sydney and adjacent suburbs compiled from the latest authentic sources, lithographed and published by H. E. C. Robinson

The fountain served the residents (and animals) of Erskineville for the next 38 years. However, 13 years after the passing of Mr Molesworth, and in anticipation of the widening of Erskineville Road in 1936 the Erskineville Fountain was quietly removed to the Camperdown Cemetery, where it remains today:

Fountain removal

Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, 9 May 1936

In 1995 Sue Rosen sat down with Bill Schwebel to record Bill’s recollections of growing up in Erskineville. Bill was born at 28 John Street Erskineville in 1910, and remained in Erskineville until he was married in 1935. In the course of the conversation Bill turns his mind to the area between Burren and Charles Streets:

The trams used to run around there and up the top of there, between Burren Street and Charles Street, was called Five Ways. Five Ways was the building and it was built like that. I suppose it was about twenty four foot here – just to use a figure – twenty four foot here and it’d go to about six foot up the front. Now, on this corner was a newsagent, Pryor(?), and he had a backyard. Next to Pryor was a boot repair shop, say about as big as that, and then on the point here was a butcher shop and outside the butcher shop was a fountain and when I come to think of it I don’t think it was there for horses, although it could’ve been for horses there because outside was a fountain for drinking but I never saw a drop of water in it so it must have been empty or misused before my time at school and that.

The Fountain’s Return – Almost
 In 2013 a couple of articles appeared in relation to a campaign for the restoration of the fountain and its return to Erskineville. There appeared to be a good level of support behind the proposal too, with City of Sydney Councillors voting unanimously for the return of the fountain:

News local I

Inner West Courier – Inner City Edition Thursday, 24 October 2013

News Local II

Inner West Courier – Inner City Edition Tuesday, 19 November 2013

However it was not to be, with an article in early 2015  putting an end to the campaign, the decision having been made for the fountain to remain at its existing location in the grounds of the Camperdown Cemetery:

News local III

Central Sydney Magazine Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Fountain detail

Edmund William Molesworth
An article about Mr. Molesworth published close to the time of the donation of the drinking fountain appeared in the Australian Town and Country Journal on 30 October 1897 (here) providing a brief summary of his political career up to that time, with a photo appearing on the following page:

Molesworth phot

Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney) Saturday, 30 October 1897

A complete summary of Mr Molesworth’s political career can be found on the Parliament of New South Wales website here. More on the life of Edmund Molesworth can be drawn from his obituary, published in June 1923 following his death at 76 years:

Moles Obit

Sydney Morning Herald Monday, 4 June 1923

And so whilst the council’s undertaking in accepting Mr Molesworth’s gift of a fountain to the residents of Erskineville ‘to take it under their care for all time’ was not fulfilled, at least something can be taken from its relocation, whether intended or otherwise, to the grounds of the St Stephen’s Church and Camperdown Cemetery with which Mr Molesworth had held such long associations.

This entry was posted in 1890-1899, 1930-1939, Burren Street, Erskineville Road and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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