Businessman’s gift of clean drinking water to early Sydneysiders

A 19th century fountain in Hyde Park that was one of Sydney’s first water bubblers is being restored to its former glory.

The City of Sydney will install a new base, plinth and steps, repair the cracks in the mortar and revitalise the intricate filigree works of the John Frazer fountain, ensuring its continuing place in our city’s rich history.

Commissioned in 1881 and installed in 1882, the fountain was not only a source of clean drinking water, it became one of the park’s most-loved early features.

Gifted to his fellow citizens by John Frazer, a wealthy philanthropist and one of the city’s early entrepreneurs, the fountain, along with its pair, quenched the thirst of many Sydneysiders at a time when sources of clean drinking water were few.

Portrait of John Frazer. Please credit - Australian Men of Mark (italicise) 1889. Charles F Maxwell, Sydney
Portrait of John Frazer. Please credit – Australian Men of Mark (italicise) 1889. Charles F Maxwell, Sydney

 

“John Frazer’s generous donation was a welcome addition to Australia’s earliest park, ensuring all Sydneysiders could access free, safe drinking water,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore said.

“In a time when the city’s piped water supply was unreliable and usually only available to the wealthy, the fountain was an important symbol of health, welfare and social equity.

“The beautiful, Victorian Gothic-era fountain was also a significant landmark and meeting point in Hyde Park, as the Moreton Bay figs had yet to grow into the grand avenue visitors enjoy today.”

Frazer Fountain 1954 Please credit City of Sydney Archives
Frazer Fountain 1954 Please credit City of Sydney Archives

 

The original design of the fountain featured cups dangling from the large water basin for people to take a drink. Every detail in the design was considered, with the taps made of bronze in the shape of dolphins.

Hygiene standards were less stringent in the 1800s, but over time the city council realised the health hazards of communal cups. In 1934 they replaced the basin and taps with the new ‘bubble stream’ design – today’s bubbler.

John Frazer emigrated from Ireland in 1842 as a carpenter and joiner with little wealth. Forward thinking and industrious, he became an extremely successful and influential businessman, owning one of central Sydney’s largest mercantile stores.

Over his life he amassed a fortune of £405,000 – the equivalent of about $47.5 million today.

Frazer Fountain 1932 Please credit City of Sydney Archives
Frazer Fountain 1932 Please credit City of Sydney Archives

 

“John Frazer was an Irish immigrant made good in his adopted home who wanted to give back and share his good fortune in a practical and sustainable way,” Historian Laila Ellmoos from the City’s History Unit said.

“This included donating to causes important to him, such as providing clean water to his fellow citizens and donating to multiple charities.

“He also set up two £2,500 bursaries to enable ‘poor lads from the bush’ to go to the University of Sydney. The John Frazer Travelling Scholarship still exists for students – both men and women – studying history at the university, awarding $10,000 today.”

Frazer Fountain 1932 Please credit City of Sydney Archives
Frazer Fountain 1932 Please credit City of Sydney Archives

 

Bucking the usual trend of importing ready-made structures from overseas, the fountains were designed by Thomas Sapsford, the City Architect who also designed Sydney Town Hall’s Centennial Hall. He worked alongside local sculptor Lawrence Beveridge, who carved both structures using the finest-available Pyrmont sandstone.

First installed at the Hyde Park entrance opposite Oxford Street, the fountain was moved near the Pool of Reflection in 1917 to make way for the Emden Gun.

The gun is from the SMS Emden of the Imperial German Navy that was sunk by the original HMAS Sydney after a 90-minute sea battle during the First World War.

In 1934 the fountain was moved once again to its current location near College Street when Hyde Park South was remodelled.

The Hyde Park fountain is one of a pair of decorative, canopied drinking fountains. Its twin, designed in the Italian renaissance style, was installed on Prince Albert Road in 1884, where it still stands today.

While no longer functional, these fountains are excellent examples of some of Sydney’s early, decorative drinking sources and an important monument to John Frazer.

Restoration work on the fountain will begin early this year.