UNLOCKING THE PAST: Animal lovers leave a legacy in our landscape

Did you know that many humble horse troughs have a fascinating history, the legacy of a couple whose compassion for animals has endured long after their deaths?

English-born George Bills and Annis Swann met in Brisbane after they had both immigrated separately to Australia. They married and businessman George ran a company in Sydney before he and Annis retired to live in Victoria. Both lifelong animal lovers, George became a Life Governor of the RSPCA in 1924.

Annis died in 1910 and George, a very wealthy man, died 17 years later. He made an extraordinary bequest in his will, that a trust fund be set up to: "...construct and erect and pay for horse troughs wherever they may be of the opinion that such horse troughs are desirable for the relief of horse and other dumb animals either in Australasia, in the British Islands or in any other part of the world...".

George left a large amount of money to realise his vision. Each trough cost £13 plus transport and installation and this enabled about 700 horse troughs to be built. They were eventually located both in Australia and in other countries, with our troughs mainly in NSW and Victoria and most constructed during the 1930s. Each of the troughs had a decorative piece at the back with the words 'Donated by Annis & George Bills Australia'.

We are blessed to have three Bills horse troughs locally at Branxton, Greta and Kearsley. In Branxton the horse trough can be found in John Rose Avenue, it has been painted and is now often used as a flower box.

At Greta the trough sits in High Street on the outskirts of town. Its location reflects that this used to be the main street through Greta, before the highway, so therefore the route of horse-drawn vehicles. The Kearsley horse trough has a lovely location in front of the Kearsley Public School, with one ex-pupil recalling it being used, decades ago, to dunk other students in.

Unfortunately many of the troughs have been removed, but it is estimated that worldwide there are still about 300 in existence. The horses may be gone and the water troughs now empty, but these two wonderful animal lovers have left a legacy of their kindness in our local landscape. It's a fitting memory to their compassion. Thank you Annis and George!

DONATION: Cessnock Library's local studies librarian Kimberly O'Sullivan with Gloria Wallace, who donated her mother's National Emergency Services training certificates and textbooks to the library.

DONATION: Cessnock Library's local studies librarian Kimberly O'Sullivan with Gloria Wallace, who donated her mother's National Emergency Services training certificates and textbooks to the library.

A response to last month's column

Last month's Unlocking the Past column, on the outbreak of World War II and the formation of local branches of the National Emergency Services (NES), brought back personal memories for Gloria Wallace.

Her mother, Irene Lillian Forbes (nee Brown) was a member of the NES in Cessnock and Gloria still had her mother's training certificates and textbooks.

She decided that they needed a permanent home, where they will be looked after and made available for researchers to use, so she has donated them to the Local Studies collection at Cessnock Library, who were thrilled to receive them.

PIECE OF HISTORY: Irene Forbes's National Emergency Services first aid certificate, signed May 1942.

PIECE OF HISTORY: Irene Forbes's National Emergency Services first aid certificate, signed May 1942.

  • Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock Library. Contact her on kimberly. osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

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