I recently spent a blissful few days on the Isle of Mull, purely for holidaying purposes. We climbed hills, we ate freshly caught crabs and oysters, and we drank Tobermory whisky. Separate posts on Mull and on Iona, which we also visited, will follow over the next few weeks. The whole island is outrageously beautiful, with magical scenery and fantastic wildlife. We managed to spot a Sea Eagle and 5 Golden Eagles, as well as oyster catchers and pheasants. If you like fresh air, good food, and own hiking boots and a waterproof, then Mull is the place for you.
Anyway, as I was wandering down Tobermory harbour (or Balamory as I think of it, I blame my little sister for this…), I happened upon a cast iron Sun Foundry fountain, my History Girl impulses kicked in and I set about photographing it excitedly whilst bemused tourists looked on.
A bit worse for wear, no longer in working order, with rust and peeling paint, this fountain, as well as the French brie and avocados in the supermarket, reminded me that as distant as Mull seems, the mainland is very easily reached by boat.
After some post-holiday googling based on the inscription on the fountain’s paddle, I quickly discovered that it was presented upon the completion of the Strathearn Waterworks which were carried out across the island in 1883. I was a gift to the town of Tobermory from Robert Strathearn’s firm, and no doubt served as a subtle public reminder of just how great a guy he was.
My job as Statues and Monuments Officer for Glasgow City Heritage Trust and Glasgow City Council unsurprisingly entails looking at a lot of statues and monuments, and I have noticed a grand total of four identical cherubs to the Tobermory baby since I returned.
The first is at Govan Cross, and is part of the Aitken Memorial Fountain. This cast iron drinking fountain is dedicated to local boy done good Dr. John Aitken, who died in 1880, aged only 41. Aitken was born in Govan in 1838, and his parents ran the Stag Inn. He later attended the University of Glasgow and studied medicine under the great Dr Joseph Lister. He returned to Govan after graduating and set up his own surgery where he served the ever-increasing population of Govan. As the burgh grew a lack of proper sanitation and overcrowding led to outbreaks of disease and numerous health problems for its hard-working inhabitants. The memorial fountain was unveiled at Govan Cross in 1884.
The fountain is the only known one of its type to be cast be Cruickshanks & Co. Denny Iron Works, although it does include many parts cast by the Sun Foundry in Glasgow. The fountain was completely restored in 2010, and features alligators, a fish scale pattern and the cherub as the central figure. The cherub or ‘Govan Boy’ was actually missing for many years, and a new cherub was going to be recast during the restoration process. However, press coverage meant that the lost cherub was brought forward by a bewildered Glaswegian chap who had purchased the lad at an architectural salvage yard 20 years ago, and it had been a centrepiece in his garden ever since. He was delighted to give the cherub back to the community and it was restored and reinstated into the canopy and overall fountain.
The second cherub in this line-up can be seen in Alexandra Park, as part of a drinking fountain and canopy, similar to, but not as grand as, the fountain in Govan. It was also cast by Cruickshanks & Co Ltd, c.1880, and the third and final lot of cherubs can be seen adorning the stone Stewart memorial Fountain in Kelvingrove Park.
All of the cherubs are painted differently and included in different monuments, but they are nevertheless identical to each other. They were clearly made by Cruickshanks & Co for mass production, and would have been part of a wide selection available for purchase and able to be viewed either in the foundry showroom or through the company’s catalogues. The cast themselves could have been purchased and incorporated into designs by other Scottish foundries. The creation of detailed casts was the most expensive part of cast iron production, so this would make sense. I never expected to find cast iron remotely interesting, but the structures the hygiene obsessed Victorians managed to create, replete with herons, swallows, and perhaps most bizarrely, life-size walruses, as at the recently restored Paisley Fountain.
Cast iron was a revolutionary product, the casting process meant that even intricate designs could be mass produced, and the strong, waterproof and easy to clean qualities of the material itself greatly pleased a society whose population was rapidly expanding and stretching its urban centres infrastructure to the limit. With housing and sanitation increasingly poor, living conditions became squalid for much of Glasgow’s working class population. Scotland, and in particular Walter Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow, became a world leader in cast iron manufacture. You only have to look at the image of the Macfarlane showroom below containing some of their creations to see just how, ahem, inventive the Victorians could be. They made cast iron a colourful art form, something I never thought I’d say, and produced everything from grave monuments to structures like markets, all gilded and painted in searingly vivid colours.
I am pleased that a few cherubs and my history senses have made me become fond of, and interested in, cast iron and I hope that now you are too!