Early in the last century horses were still used to transport the greater percentage of people and goods wherever they needed to go. By the 1930s, Melbourne's population was around one million and Sydney's around 1.3 million.
Animal welfare was not a top priority at the time and public sources of water were not as plentiful as they are today. Such water authorities as were in existence at the time were mostly concerned with the supply of water to the human population. There was also the great depression and in the later years of the decade, drought. Providing water for animals was logistically difficult.
Enter the Bills. George (Joe) Bills and his wife Annis saw a need and took action. George was born in England and later migrated to New Zealand and then Australia. Benefitting from a successful mattress-making enterprise, the couple supported the SPCA (later the RSPCA) and in the early 1900s began the installation of a number of horse troughs around Melbourne.
These concrete water troughs were produced for the wellbeing of thirsty horses and some provided lower drinking containers on the side for dogs and smaller animals. Probably the local wildlife found them handy as well.
After Joe's death in 1927 (Annis predeceased him) under the terms of his will, a trust was established and hundreds of horse troughs were constructed and installed in Australia (mostly in Victoria and New South Wales) and overseas. Applications could be made to the trust and a trough would be provided for free. The foundation and water source was supplied by the recipient. Each trough noted the donors as Annis & George Bills.
Water lillies grow in this trough at Coal Creek, Korumburra
Ultimately with the move to mechanised transport, the need for the troughs diminished and installation had ceased by the end of the second world war.
There are many of these troughs still in existence and once you become aware of them, you'll start noticing just how many have survived all the changes and population growth of the last 100 odd years. They are a rather unique and interesting piece of Australian history.
For more information and a list of locations of many of the troughs, see this site where author George Gemmill provides some in-depth history and a large collection of photos.