The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences acknowledges Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the land and gives respect to the Elders – past and present – and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are advised that the MAAS website contains a range of Indigenous Cultural Material. This includes artworks, artifacts, images and recordings of people who may have passed away, and other objects which may be culturally sensitive.
C3846 Water filter, dripstone, limestone, made at Norfolk Island, Australia [1825-1890], used by Captain James Little, Moore Park, New South Wales, Australia. Click to enlarge.

Water filter, Norfolk Island dripstone

Made in Norfolk Island

In 1851 the Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, Sir William Denison, who was also responsible for the administration of Norfolk Island, sent a dripstone made in that tiny remote penal settlement to London. It was displayed at the world’s first international exposition, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Dripstones, the island’s only manufactured export, were used for decades in Australian homes and on board ships to filter drinking water. They were particularly popular bo...


Object No.


Object Statement

Water filter, dripstone, limestone, made at Norfolk Island, Australia [1825-1890], used by Captain James Little, Moore Park, New South Wales, Australia

Physical Description

The dripstone comprises a deep round stone bowl, with oversize square rim that allows it to be supported in a wooden frame with the lower portion of the bowl hanging clear of the frame. The bowl is carved from calcarenite, a form of limestone with a high content (around 50 percent) of sand-sized grains; pores in the stone allow water to percolate through under gravity. In use, water intended for drinking was placed in the bowl and allowed to drip into a vessel sitting below it, leaving sediment behind and so improving the water's clarity and taste. The current timber frame was made by the museum to replace the original louvered wooden frame, whose base had perished by the time it was donated.



Natural stone suitable for this application was quarried in Tenerife, Barbados and Norfolk Island. It is most likely that this object was made on Norfolk Island from stone quarried there, either by convicts between 1825 and 1855 or by the Pitcairn Islanders who settled there after the last convicts were moved to Tasmania. The stone was carved on the island to the required shape and size. This was an onerous and unhealthy occupation, with some of the stone being quarried offshore by men standing in seawater for long periods.

As the dripstone is of similar size to others held by several Australian museums, it was probably the most common size, designed to meet the needs of an average household or the occupants of a ship's cabin. The one on display at Elizabeth Farm, Rosehill, near the Sydney suburb of Parramatta, appears to be suitable for a larger establishment. One held by Augusta Museum in Western Australia was recovered off the nearby coast from the wreck of the sailing ship 'Cumberland'; studies of its fabric, using an optical microscope and a scanning electron microscope, confirmed that the stone was sourced from Norfolk Island. Similar studies could be carried out on this dripstone to confirm its origin.



The dripstone was donated to the Museum in 1902 by David Little from the Sydney suburb of Redfern. It was owned and used by David's father, Captain James Little, at his house in the inner eastern Sydney suburb of Moore Park. That suburb had experienced outbreaks of typhoid in 1885 and 1896, and there was another in 1900, the year that James died.

James Little was born in Ireland in 1820 and came to Sydney in 1845 as a soldier in the 11th Devonshire Regiment of Foot. He might have served for some time on Norfolk Island and acquired the dripstone there. He was discharged from the regiment as a sergeant and remained in Sydney as Quartermaster General Staff NSW Military Forces, with the honorary rank of lieutenant and then captain. In that role, he might have distributed dripstones to military establishments or sold them to individual officers. Of course, he could also have acquired the dripstone second-hand.

In 1851, his first wife, Ann, gave birth to Frances, reputed to be the first child born in Victoria Barracks. Ann died in 1856, and James married Janet Dick in 1862; David Little was one of their children. Janet died in 1896 and James in 1900. As the only family member named as executor, David took responsibility for disposing of his father's minor effects. By that time, it was well known that dripstones harboured microscopic organisms, making the object a useless but interesting one worthy of donation to Sydney's Technological Museum (now the Powerhouse Museum).

The existence of a hand-written label confirms that the object was on display for some time in the Harris Street museum building. From 1988 it has featured in the Powerhouse Museum, in a section of the 'Steam Revolution' exhibition devoted to the history of Sydney's water supply.

Cite this Object


Water filter, Norfolk Island dripstone 2018, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 20 March 2019, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Water filter, Norfolk Island dripstone |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=20 March 2019 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}
This object is currently on display in The Steam Revolution at the Powerhouse Museum.


This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.

Know more about this object?


Have a question about this object?