Sign of Respect

Dr Pierce’s Memorial Plaque from Maitland’s Fountain

From a prominent place on a public drinking fountain in central West Maitland, this plaque saw many a carthorse approach to lap at the cool water in the trough below and townspeople stop to drink from its bubbling spout. The fountain was installed in 1889 in memory of Dr Robert James Pierce, and the plaque weathered the elements there for five decades. But why was the fountain demolished in 1939? And what happened to the plaque?

Irishman Robert James Pierce (1841-1889) trained in medicine and surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin. After graduating in 1864, Pierce left his homeland, joining the wave of thousands of Irish immigrants sailing to the Australian colonies. In 1875 he settled in West Maitland, gaining widespread respect as a skilled physician and a warm-hearted community figure.

After Pierce’s death, the community raised £150 for a memorial in his honour. One of Macmillan’s Jubilee memorial fountain designs was chosen – an elaborate cast iron circular fountain with a lamp at the top, to be installed at the intersection of High and Hunter Streets.

Dr Pierce probably would have approved of the committee’s choice of a water fountain, providing fresh drinking water for the townspeople. The health benefits of public fountains were recognised by at least one local alderman, who believed that ‘many country people would not be led to go into public houses (pubs) if they could get a drink of water in the streets’.

Pierce’s fountain was well-used for decades, but by the 1930s, slow horse traffic and pedestrians had given way to cars, trucks and buses, making the intersection ‘something of a danger spot’. Before the fountain was demolished, and as a sign of ongoing respect for Maitland’s once well-loved doctor, the plaque was saved to be displayed in the Town Hall vestibule.