DRUNKENNESS was a real problem in Victorian Southampton.

There was a belief that if clean, free drinking water could be provided it would reduce the reliance on alcoholic drink.

The first of Southampton’s drinking fountains in 1859 was the gift of Charles Melly, a Liverpool merchant responding to the campaigning of Edmund Kell, a local Unitarian minister. Today it is in Houndwell Park.

Unlike this and other monuments that have been moved around several times, the elaborate Grade 2 listed fountain gifted by John Ransom has remained almost in place for 155 years. It was moved a little in 1966 for road widening.

Most will speed past its site on Asylum Green on the lower Avenue and not be able to read the inscription carved on the drinking fountain there: “The gift of Councillor Mr. John Ransom to his native town”.

Asylum Green derived its name from the nearby Royal Military Asylum for soldier’s children.

In 1816 it was established in the former cavalry barracks, later the site of the Ordnance Survey Offices in London Road.

John Ransom was Southampton’s biggest ship owner and a colourful character.

Known as “Johnny” he liked to be driven around in his horse carriage wearing his top hat.

Despite little education he was a self-made man starting as an apprentice in the Belvidere yard in Northam.

In 1852 he took over this yard. The largest ship built there was the 699 ton Louisa Malcolm in 1872.

His wooden boats moved coal, timber and building materials around the British coast and further to America, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.

Some of his wood came from the Common. In 1859 he paid the Corporation £281 to take trees from there.

Ransom’s shipyards did repairs for P&O and Royal Mail and by 1860 he employed more than 500 men.

He owned 35 homes off Albert Road and 27 in Blackberry Terrace for his workers. He also invested in farms in Horton Heath, near Bishopstoke and in Bartley.

Ransom became involved in local politics taking the usually Liberal ward of St Mary’s for the Conservatives in 1860 and later becoming an Alderman.

From 1851 until his death he lived at the Hawthorn Cottage on the Common that had been built in 1815.

The Council bought back the lease in 1945 and demolished the dilapidated house.

Today the site is the Hawthorns Urban Wildlife Centre.

The Ransom fountain was officially opened on November 2, 1865 and was designed by the borough surveyor JG Poole and built by Samuel Stevens.

Ransom said he had provided the fountain for the good of man and placed a trough beside it for use of “the poor animals”.

The fountain had water points on all four sides and has the message to “drink but waste not”.

Relief carvings represent the four seasons.

The four armed cross on top perhaps indicates crossroads as it is situated near the site of the former Padwell Cross pond.

This was an old watering place for travellers’ horses and droves of cattle using the main town approach.

The pond had become totally insanitary.

Following a 1849 cholera epidemic in Southampton, Captain W Yolland from the Ordnance Map Office in London Road had written that it had “been a repository in which the bodies of unwanted infants were deposited, and where dogs, cats and other animals were drowned and became exposed in a putrid state”.

The pond was filled in and later Ransom decided to place his fountain there for travellers and horses “as a free gift for the use of the inhabitants forever”.

By Martin Brisland – tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .