The central area of the square was left empty in Gibbs’ original design but now contains a number of features of a later date. The Fountain was erected in 1859, at which time shrubs and flower beds were planted in the Square (these were removed in 1895 when the shelters were built). Since then it has been the focal point of the Square; on hot summer days, people congregate near the Fountain to rest, talk or simply enjoy the pleasant coolness of the water.
Before the construction of the Fountain, its site was occupied by a well, which had been built in 1809 with pumping apparatus to supply additional water to the wards. In 1851, Charles Dickens’ journal Household Words described it as ‘an ugly circular pump, which looks like a slice of a worn-out steam boiler with a lamp on top’. By 1857, however, the hospital was receiving a fully adequate water supply from the New River Company’s works, and the well had fallen out of use. In January 1858, the Governors of the Hospital agreed that the old pump should be sold, and twelve months later their minutes recorded that ‘in consequence of the removal of the pump … the Treasurer was asked to take necessary steps to planting the vacant spot’. A proposal to erect a fountain was put before the Governors in September 1859, ‘Several of the Governors and Medical Staff having expressed a desire to see one placed there’. The decision to construct the Fountain followed a report on the subject by Philip C Hardwick, the Hospital Surveyor. Hardwick estimated the cost of construction at about £220, with a further £40 for the basin and pipes, and £95 for the carving of the figures. He pointed out that the jet of water would have to be high enough to be seen above the shrubs, which had recently been planted in the Square, and that the cost of a figure group would not be very much greater than ‘any merely architectural form of the same height’. The Fountain is Italianate in style but the exact source of Hardwick’s inspiration remains unknown. On 11 October 1859, the Governors accepted his design and resolved that the Fountain be erected. The date of its completion is not recorded.
The Fountain quickly became the appointed meeting place for medical staff and students at the start of a ward round. In the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Journal, July 1930, Archibald Garrod described a typical scene as it occurred daily throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At half past one, the housemen, clinical clerks and dressers would be assembled around the Fountain, awaiting the arrival of the ‘chief’.
‘Presently a brougham drawn by a pair of grey horses would drive into the Square . . . and from it would alight Dr [Samuel] Gee, small and alert, wearing the orthodox frock-coat and tall hat of the Victorian consultant. Then perhaps his private hansom would bring Mr Thomas Smith [Surgeon to the Hospital], and others would arrive in turn. Then students and residents would sort themselves into groups, following their respective chief … and go with him to his ward’.
In 1880, when Garrod was a student, they would have been formally dressed, but by 1930 the white coat had become the normal apparel.
In 1919, a private dining club was established, which still meets under the name of the Fountain Club, and dines around a bronze replica of the Fountain. Round the Fountain is also the name of an anthology of extracts from the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Journal, which ran to seven editions between 1909 and 1977.
In 1988-90 the Fountain underwent substantial repair for the first time since its construction; a new pumping system was installed and damaged stonework was restored. It was restored again in 2013 prior to the refurbishment of the Square as part of the PFI redevelopment of the hospital.
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