The Watering Can, A Refill

A design more recognisable to modern eyes as a watering can, a term first used by Timothy Keeble in his diary in 1692, emerged around the same time. Initially it was jug-shaped with a large hole at the top for receiving water and a handle running from the top to middle of the pot’s back. Instead of holes at the bottom, it had a funnel leading to a perforated spout. This spout, known today a “rose”, a word derived from the French noun arroseur meaning sprinkler, made strong thumbs redundant and reduced the opportunity for mishaps.

By the time Louis Liger D’Auxerre was waxing lyrical about the watering-pot in his The Compleat Florist (1706), its jug-shape had become a canister with a cone on top. “Nothing”, he declared, “is more useful in a Garden than a Watering-Pot, so that a Gardner cannot be without it. It imitates the Rain falling from the Heavens; when being bended down, it spouts forth Water thro’ a thousand holes, in a sort of Head that’s made to it. By this means, it succours the Plants in the most beneficial manner”.

As technology improved, earthenware gave way to copper and from around 1850, iron, brass, and zinc were increasingly deployed. However, the intrinsic design remained the same, that is until John Haws enters our story.

A civil servant posted to Mauritius, Clapton-born Haws, by his own admission an unsuccessful gardener, started to grow vanilla plants as a hobby. He was exasperated by the current design of watering can, as the single large handle arching from front to back made it awkward to balance and manoeuvre, especially when trying to reach those plants on the upper shelves in a greenhouse. In 1884 he decided to see whether he could improve upon the design.

On his return to England, he found that the country was bitten by the gardening bug. Glass was now more widely available and cheaper, making greenhouses more affordable, sparking an interest in growing exotic and delicate plants which were then transferred to ornamental gardens and borders. These delicate plants required regular watering by hand. Seizing the moment, Haws applied for a patent for his new design for a watering can, claiming that “this new invention forms a watering pot that is much easier to carry and tip, and at the same time being much cleaner, and more adapted for use than any other put before the public”.

The Patent Office agreed, awarding Haws his patent in 1886. His design incorporated two significant features, doubling the number of handles so that there was a “carrying” handle at the top and a “tipping” handle at the back, making it easier to manoeuvre and allowing a more even flow of water on to the roots of the plants, and placing the funnel at the bottom of the can to make it easier to reach the higher shelves.

Setting up a factory in Clapton, his take on the watering can soon found favour with leading gardeners, establishing the reputation of Haws for goods of the highest quality. He was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society medal, to be presented at the first ever Chelsea Flower Show in 1913, but, sadly, he died before he could receive it.

Arthur moved the business to Bishops Stortford and maintained his uncle’s attention to detail, even employing a worker whose sole task was to punch every hole into each rose, spaced and tapered to perfection. No wonder the company is still trading and has maintained its reputation for making watering cans of the highest quality.

While Haws is recognised as the father of the modern-day watering can, his design template, which is still used today, was but one step in the development of this most useful of gardeners’ tools.

If you enjoyed this, check out More Curious Questions, available now.

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