4 August 2020

The lost and forgotten fountains of Wellington

Our public fountains are part of Wellington’s visual identity. The Bucket Fountain is top of many visitors’ bucket lists. Oriental Bay’s Carter Fountain lends magic to a walk around the waterfront. And the Water Whirler is fascinating – when it’s not broken. 

But some of the city’s most interesting water features have been demolished, recycled, or overlooked; as the memory of their benefactors has faded, they are increasingly obscure footnotes to our city’s history. Which is a pity, because they all help tell the story of how our city was shaped. So here are four fountains that you probably hadn’t heard of, and all but one still exist in some form.

John Martin's Fountain

Lambton Quay & Featherston Street / Oriental Parade

Built 1875; moved circa 1909; scrapped 1938 

The Martin fountain on Lambton Quay was built by one of Wellington’s rags-to-riches millionaires, Irishman John Martin, who arrived in Wellington in 1841 aged 21. He quickly progressed from manual labour to property development: his projects included the second Government House (on the site of the Beehive) and the creation in the 1880s of Martinborough – one of New Zealand’s few ‘squire towns’ founded by private developers.

Most of all, Martin craved recognition by the establishment. Naming places after his family was one way he sought inclusion – hence the eponymous Martin Square, with Marion Square and Jessie Street nearby for his wife and youngest daughter. The drinking fountain he presented Wellingtonians with was another, conspicuously located amid the imposing bank buildings that had sprung up on the recently reclaimed land at the Willis Street end of Lambton Quay.

Martin’s Fountain became a Wellington landmark. It was around six metres tall, crowned by three large gas lights (a recent innovation). The water spouts supplied safe drinking water – real philanthropy when the Government’s principal scientific advisor had recently warned that ‘no water collected from within the crowded part Wellington, from either wells or house taps, is safe or proper for human consumption’.

True to Martin’s roots, the drinking fountain’s water was laced with whiskey the day it was unveiled in 1875. The roll-out of reticulated water and electric lighting, however, meant the fountain was soon viewed as an anachronism. The magnificent gas lanterns were removed shorty after Martin’s death in 1890, and the fountain was moved to Oriental Bay just before World War One. It was sold for scrap iron in 1938 after being irreparably corroded from salt spray – today the Oriental Terrace bus stop stands in its place.

Centennial Fountain

Centennial Exhibition, Rongotai / Kelburn Park

1939-1940; rebuilt in 1955

The highlight of New Zealand’s 100th anniversary was the Centennial Exhibition in Rongotai. Financed by share purchases from government and local businesses, the 22-hectare site, with shows and pavilions from across the Empire, took two years to build.

At the heart of the exhibition grounds was the magnificent Centennial Fountain, which cost an extraordinary £246,735 ($26 million today). Set in a 30m-diameter pool, the main bowl featured classical figures and towered over the throngs of visitors. Water was pumped high into the air – always risky with Wellington’s wind – with lighting adding to the drama. Architect Edmund Anscombe leaned heavily on the Art Deco look – his Post and Telegraph Building (now the Chaffers Dock Apartments) was completed at the same time in a similar style.

Advertised as ‘six months of fun and pageantry’, the worthy exhibits from around the Empire were overshadowed by rollercoasters and miniature ride-on versions of Britain’s famous steam trains at ‘Playland’, a freakshow with ‘Mexican Rose’ (billed 'the world's fattest girl' at 343kg) and a Shark Pool that boasted ‘a dozen large man-eaters caught off the coast of Australia’ (how this was determined was unclear).

The show attracted over 17,000 people a day, and traffic volumes forced the Council to ban bicycles and horses from the recently opened Mount Victoria tunnel. Gates closed in May 1940, with numbers falling far short of the 4,200,000 expected; anger from shareholders left out of pocket was hushed up as the war situation was looking increasingly bleak. The exhibition buildings burnt down in 1946 after wartime use by the air force; by then the fountain’s motor had been carefully packed up, and was revived in 1955 as the slightly less grand Kelburn Park fountain.

Gibbs Memorial Fountain

Mercer Street / Harris Street

1956-1991; relocated 1990s

Nestled behind the City Art Gallery, and away from the dull roar of Civic Square’s infinity-edge water features, are the charming gargoyles of the Gibbs Memorial Fountain. 

Relatively little is known about David John Gibbs, whose £1,000 bequest funded the fountain. There is a tantalisingly brief glimpse of 25-year-old Lieutenant Gibbs marching his troops down Lambton Quay in archive film of the 1908 Dominion Day parade. He survived the trenches of the Western Front, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the 1918 New Year Honours list. After the war he served as Secretary to the Harbour Board in the 1920s and died in 1946.

The Gibbs Memorial was an early commission by sculptor Jim Allen (whose enormous marble panels were removed from 61 Molesworth Street during its demolition in 2017). It features Neptune with a pair of dolphins similar to those on our city’s coat of arms. Older Wellingtonians will remember the hemispherical pool with underwater lighting in front of the City Council’s 1951 Municipal Office Building, and the adjacent lawn that was a popular spot for lunch on sunny days.

The fountain’s construction predated the renaming of Mercer Street as the ‘Civic Centre’ by a year, but its inscription ‘On becoming soldiers we have not ceased to be citizens’ perfectly anticipated the precinct. The 1974 masterplan for the area retained the pool in situ (the Town Hall was to be demolished and replaced by a brutalist office block); sadly the 1987 Athfield master-plan bolted the ghastly curved Civic Administration Building onto the front of the Municipal Offices, so the fountain had to go. The gargoyles were saved, but their new brick setting, hidden off Harris Street, is a serious downgrade for a generous gift to the city.

Nathan Memorial Fountain

Hobson Street / Queen’s Park

Cast in the 1880s; moved in 1904 & 1951

Alfred de Bathe Brandon, a 31-year-old lawyer, arrived at the New Zealand Company’s fledgling Wellington settlement on the London in December 1840. His practice flourished, despite the challenges of looking after a young family following the death of his first wife shortly after they reached Wellington, and he was made the Provincial Solicitor in 1853.

Thirty years later Brandon’s law firm was passed onto his son (also called Alfred), and Alfred senior turned his focus to building a large family home on Hobson Street, completed in 1880. While settlers could buy luxuries like silver cutlery by mail order from the Mother Country, Alfred de Bathe Brandon’s wealth let him return to England to hunt out the finest garden ornaments from Coalbrookdale. One was a fine romanesque fountain featuring cherubs and a partially robed goddess, which was duly installed in his garden.

The fountain was moved to another Brandon family home on Hobson Street in 1904, where it remained until 1942 when the third Alfred Brandon sold the property and moved to Heretaunga. The Brandons were friendly with the Nathans, who were mourning their son Benson, killed the previous year in a friendly-fire incident during the Battle for Crete, and the fountain was given to George Nathan (Benson’s father) for use as a memorial. Lady Katherine Macalister, the Mayor’s wife, was sympathetic to locating the Nathan Memorial Fountain in Queen’s Park, and the fountain was unveiled in its new setting at the foot of Grant Road in 1951.

The fountain was restored in 2014 – dismantled, water blasted, and given seven coats of paint. Today it is in immaculate condition, as it would have been when Alfred de Bathe Brandon saw it in England 140 years ago.

First published in the April 2020 issue of Capital magazine