Your Home's History

If Street Furniture Could Talk

View from behind of a man carrying a crate of milk bottles, on a cobbled street with black and white painted bollards

Street furniture probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of protected heritage. But our high streets and country lanes would be a poorer place without the milestones, lamp posts, horse troughs and bollards that collectively remind us of how very different from today our streets once were.

As our busy roads are adapted to accommodate modern transport schemes, these small elements can easily be swept away. Significant pieces are protected by listing so they remain to tell their stories.

If our listed street furniture could talk, here’s some of what it would tell us.

How it was once healthier to drink beer than water

Drinking fountain known as St Michael’s Pant, Alnwick, Northumberland. © Historic England Archive. OP05237.

Until the provision of a public supply of drinking water, private companies had a monopoly on a water supply that was often contaminated. Once the connection was made between contaminated water supply and the spread of cholera, the introduction of public drinking fountains was enthusiastically supported.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association was set up in 1859 to provide free drinking water that was filtered to ensure purity. Owing to associations with evangelical Christianity and the temperance movement, the drinking fountains were often placed in church yards or outside pubs to give people an alternative to alcohol.

How nose-to-tail preceded bumper-to-bumper

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Grade II listed Conduit Head and Cattle Trough, Greenwich.

In the 19th century, live cattle, sheep and pigs were transported to town centres to be bought and sold at market, and horses were a vital form of transportation. Charities like the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association and other philanthropic individuals funded public drinking troughs for horses, cattle and dogs. These days, many of the remaining troughs are listed, and have found a new use as planters for public flower displays.

About ‘pay as you go’ roads

A Grade II listed milestone erected by the Ferrybridge and Boroughbridge Turnpike Trust in Yorkshire. © David Rogers via Geograph.

By the 19th century, the Turnpike Trusts’ maintained a network of 30,000 miles of road. Travellers had to stop and pay a toll at around 8,000 toll-gates around England and Wales. This was a time when travel was so arduous that most people walked, few would ever travel further than 14 miles from their own home and any journey by coach included the risk of ending up stuck in mud. In summer, the toll fee went up because the Turnpike Trusts would water the roads to reduce the choking dust kicked up by fast-moving carriages.

In the 18th century, turnpike trusts were required by government to provide milestone markers, many of which remain today and are listed as important historical structures.

How the Royal Navy transformed our streets

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A Grade II listed bollard, Portsmouth. © Paul Shutt.

During Pax Britannia (a period of relative peace in Europe and the world from 1815 to 1915), the Royal Navy transformed its vessels and munitions. Wooden boats were replaced with steel hulls, and sails with steam; cannon that were no longer needed were put up for sale.

There’s an urban myth that many of our iron street bollards are made out of cannon, captured from the French at Waterloo. In reality, most bollards were manufactured for purpose, with the odd exception of a Royal Navy cannon turned bollard, such as in Portsmouth and King’s Lynn, many of which are listed.

About the war effort

The gardens of Hampton Court Palace, 1961. © Historic England Archive. AA064607.

The absence of many of our old railings and signposts points to our fears of invasion and shortage of resources during the Second World War. Many of the elaborate iron gates and railings that bordered townhouses and parks were removed during the 1940s- over a million tonnes by September 1944- in what was a unifying civilian effort and propaganda success. It’s less clear how, or in fact whether, the collected iron was actually used.

The Grade II listed Finger Post. © Rod Allday via Geograph.

Another item of street furniture often removed during the Second World War was signposts. This was done to confuse would-be invaders. Unfortunately, not all signs were reinstated when that risk had passed. Some of the diminishing numbers of ‘finger’ signposts are listed, usually when their design or context is of particular interest.

Is there some unusual street furniture near you? You can now map search the List using your postcode. See which listed structures are nearby; you never know what you might find.

Add your pieces to the big picture
Every snapshot and story you can add to the National Heritage List for England is an important piece of the picture. The more pieces we have, the better we can work together to protect what makes these places special. Make a contribution to the Missing Pieces Project.

Further reading

7 comments on “If Street Furniture Could Talk

  1. A really interesting post, with great photos to illustrate it. A house we bought in the 1980s had had its railings remove during the war. Things like that never get replaced. I’d never heard the idea of cannonballs being used for street bollards, but interesting to know, all the same – and that they weren’t used, of course. I do love to see the old milestones.

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    It’s the things we seldom notice that really matter

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