Standing prominently in the Market Square of Stratford-upon-Avon, is a remarkable piece of masonry - the American Fountain. Whether you are wandering into the town from the railway station, or even just passing through by car or bus, the edifice is practically impossible to miss, and it is certainly worth stopping to take a closer look.
An Historical Monument
The Shakespeare Memorial Fountain and Clock Tower (as it is officially known) was presented to the town of Stratford by American journalist, and some would say philanthropist, George W Childs of Philadelphia in 1887. Built to honour not only William Shakespeare, but also Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the amazing monument was unveiled at the time by actor Sir Henry Irving1. Victorian Gothic in style, the fountain is constructed mostly from Peterhead granite and freestone, resembling a small gothic cathedral of sorts, complete with a set of bells designed by JA Cossin's of Birmingham and a clock above each face of which sits a caricature of a fairy from Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Also prominent on the fountain are carved stone lions and eagles, representing Great Britain and the United States of America respectively, while horse-troughs line each side. However, the fountain no longer provides water, so neither do these, and flowers happily grow in them instead. In 1984, the local council and other benefactors had the clock repaired after a long period of stoppage, and an 'American Fountain Centenary Celebration' was held in 1987.
George W Childs
The man responsible for the Memorial Fountain was George William Childs, a journalist and publisher of note. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 12 May, 1829, he was given a state school education. At the age of thirteen, Childs served a short fifteen months with the United States Navy before making his way to Philadelphia, where in 1843 he became a clerk in a bookshop. A mere two years later, he was a partner in the publishing house of Childs & Peterson. So successful was this publishing business that in 1864 he was able to purchase the Philadelphia Public Ledger, which at the time was a very little-known newspaper.
George Childs was instrumental in changing the newspaper into a respected publication, and it soon became one of the most influential journals in the country. With his newfound wealth, Childs did not become a greedy miser. He gave money freely to support education and charity; and with a deep love of England and its writers, he funded memorial windows to William Cowper and George Herbert in Westminster Abbey in 1877, another window to John Milton in St Margaret's Church, Westminster in 1888, plus other monuments both in England (the Shakespeare Memorial Fountain amongst them) and America (a monument to the writer Edgar Allen Poe one of many). His selflessness continued, along with his love of all things literature-related, right up until his death in Philadelphia on 3 February, 1894.
Meet Me at the Fountain
Despite the importance of the presence of Shakespeare's residence, and the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre by the River Avon, it could safely be argued that the American Fountain is the focal point of the town of Stratford. Situated at the junction of Rother Street and Windsor Street, it's just right as a central meeting place from which you can easily walk to many of the nearby tourist attractions. Also sitting opposite is the White Swan pub, a venue for many jazz bands and visitors, plus a Farmers Market bustles around the fountain every Friday.
There are a plethora of things to buy at these markets, from carrots and tomatoes to old books, from collectable 'antiques' to watch batteries. The fresh foods available are mostly local produce and are not only reasonably priced but very good eating. A lot of locals prefer to get their fresh fruit and vegetables from the market, rather than trekking to the local supermarket. Thus, the American Fountain provides not only a memorial to Shakespeare as intended, but also upholds the ideals of the man who came up with it in the first place, by having people share their wealth.