For Australians outside the city centres, the number one Australian condition, was the amount of annual rainfall. Pumps, water tanks, windmills and water carts were part of the industrial manufacturing landscape.

When an Australian thinks of water carts, the name of John Furphy and Furphy’s Foundry in Shepparton, Victoria, comes to mind. The name has national resonance: Furphy means water carts, novels (John’s brother, Joseph), and spurious gossip.

But the Furphy Foundry (Still Going Strong) also has great importance as a case study in the history of Australian design.

Furphy’s Foundry carried out market place research through their commercial travellers, they diversified their product lines to meet competition and created a unique brand identity.

Ultimately, the Foundry even faced significant losses over design copyright infringement. In the manufacturing and production of their water carts, they developed Australian manufacturing processes that paid close attention to the pioneering industrial production methods of the small arms, sewing machine and clock industry.

Furphy’s competition

In an era that relied on animal muscle and steam power, water was the critical fuel. A steam engine could run on coal or wood, a bullock could eat grass or grain. But without water, these power sources were useless.

Therefore, the business of carrying water to the stock or the steam engine was essential. Australians, like resource-poor nations everywhere, were quick to adapt any form of container to water cartage.

The natural evolution of the water cart comes from the trade skill of cooperage, the making of a barrel. Barrels are labour intensive but kept wet and handled carefully, they can survive for decades.

Naturally, in a land rich in a timber tradition, barrels are amongst our first water carts. As an indication of the importance of timber in our 19th century economy, the New South Wales Census Listing of Occupations of 1861 records under “Skilled Artificers”, 5550 workers in wood and 3097 artisans in metals.

One of the most popularly-adapted water-carting containers was the shipboard water tank. These iron tanks, riveted at the corners, carried fresh water for sailing and steam ships passengers and provided ballast stability during the voyage.

Returning to their home ports with bulk cargo rather than water ballast, these surplus tanks were sold at local ports and eagerly purchased and shipped throughout the country. They remained a popular trade item well into the 20th century.

For a 19th century mechanic like John Furphy, there must have been something very attractive about the modular dimensions and fabrication of the ship tank. It lends itself to mass production.

When imported British corrugated steel began to be rolled and fabricated into tanks, the corrugated tank soon made its appearance on wheels.

There were many difficulties with these ad hoc water carts. The weight balance between the loaded water tank and the pressure placed on the shafts and harness for the horse was a critical factor.

If the weight was too far forward, the horse and the harness suffered. If the weight was too far back, the load suffered and the cart suffered while the horse lost efficiency.

The Furphy water cart

The success of the Furphy’s Foundry and its Furphy farm water cart dominated the Victorian and southern New South Wales market to such an extent that their trade name became a generic term for a water cart. And during the 1914-18 War, they were even able to reach the Australian manufacturers’ Holy Grail, the defence contract.

Furphy & Sons was founded by John Furphy (1842-1920), a Victorian-born artisan who attended government schools until taking up an apprenticeship with Hutcheson & Walker, a Kyneton, Victoria blacksmith and farm implement maker.

When John moved to Shepparton in 1873, he expanded into wheelwright and foundry work. When he established the Shepparton foundry, it gave him additional design and manufacturing flexibility. He could independently design, cast and mould iron rather than rely on standard ironmongery patterns.

Their well-known cart tank was made up of two convex cast iron discs almost a metre in diameter that were fixed to a rolled cylinder of imported steel by shrink-fitting iron bands. This tank was mounted to a wooden frame and supported by wrought iron wheels. When full, the weight was perfectly poised over the axles.

The wheels, made in wrought iron, would not loosen. Traditional timber wheels dried and loosened with age and wear.

The cast iron convex ends were made to carry considerable advertising, “J. Furphy & Sons, Makers, Shepparton, Vic. Born about 1880 – still going strong”, and a listing of other foundry products such as swingle trees, spike rollers, iron castings, land graders and other agricultural implements. There were many other variations of this text.

Furphy understood the value of piecework assembly. The metal tank had only five essential parts, the two convex ends, the cylinder, the brass tap and the filler cap on the top. As Roger Furphy describes in a 1996 book, Two Brothers, a Bit of a Yarn.

The blacksmith shop made the iron wheels, cart axles and tank bands. He says the casting shop made the famous tank ends, components and the taps and the wood-working section made the shafts and frame, while the assembly area brought the component parts together for fitting and testing.

What John Furphy did not understand, however, was the loss of autonomy and the worker dissatisfaction that results from piecework.

As Roger Furphy narrates in Two Brothers, two of John Furphy’s nephews, employed to make forty water tank castings every four days, soon grew disgruntled with John Furphy’s pace and practices and left the foundry to set up their own tank works in a neighbouring town.

Naturally, these entrepreneurs drew on their Furphy’s Foundry experience and priced their tanks at £12 compared to their Uncle John’s £14 cart.

By 1891, they were producing their first castings of tank ends. Their trading name was “Furphy Bros. Water Tank”. It was at this moment that John Furphy now realised that a Victorian patent application for his tank might be in order.

The design community will be familiar with what followed. Letters from solicitors, “Our Client”, “Cease and Desist”, “Evoke the Crown”, were soon exchanged and the Furphy Bros. stopped assembling their Furphy Bros.

Water Tank in favour of making cast iron tank ends that they sold to independent tank makers. This strategy ultimately failed and the brothers moved to Western Australia and established the Furphy, Newby & Furphy Foundry in 1898.

Form language

The Furphy Foundry’s artisans and designers could visualise and produce the product as they wished. As a result, the elemental form language of a simple tool guided the design of their farm water cart and its imitators.

On analysis, the cart is an object of utility, dedicated to a single purpose like an axe or a hammer. It also replaced the technically restricted wood-based cart with a more efficient iron-based solution.

Their water cart was also developed around a technology that was accessible, affordable and functional. The foundry that cast the convex ends of the Furphy water tank could just as easily produce frying pans and dutch ovens when required. It was an adaptable technology for Australian economic conditions.   

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Making cradle to grave a reality

Making cradle to grave a reality

A New Zealand designer is looking at ‘cradle to grave’ design, literally and practically. Greg Holdsworth has developed the Return to Sender eco-coffin, mindful of environmental concerns and “a more natural approach to death”.


Measuring design value

Professor Dr Peter Zec, president of red dot, and Burkhard Jacob, head of the red dot institute for advanced design studies, have released a book, titled Design Value – A strategy for business success.

Share, Work
Dream team

Dream team

For more than 60 years, sports car enthusiasts around the globe have coveted the iconic Porsche. Powerful yet elegant, the elite vehicles merge sportiness with practicality and cutting-edge engineering with design unlike any other car on the road.

Play, You
Russell Kennedy and the voice of design

Russell Kennedy and the voice of design

Russell Kennedy, discusses his new role as the president of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda), and the organisations’ progression from simply an international network of designers, towards an advocacy role made up of representatives from many smaller groups and government bodies – collectively speaking as a voice of design.