London’s first public drinking-fountain was erected in 1859 in the wall of St. Sepulchre’s church close to Newgate. It was donated by the MP Samuel Gurney who barely ten days before had been instrumental in founding the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. Behind the initiative lay the appalling state of London’s water supplies, the terrible cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854 and “every pestilential exhalation resulting from putrefaction” that permeated the lives of the people in the poorer areas of the metropolis.
During the 1840s and 50s, the appalling state of London’s water supply gradually built up to crisis point. Existing problems were exacerbated by the rapidly rising population, which increased by more than 40,000 persons a year between 1841 and 1855, when it stood at 2,527,807. The squalor in the poorer areas was unimaginably appalling. In the 1840s Dr. Hector Gavin, a Member of the Committee of the Health of Towns undertook a survey of the sanitary state of Bethnal Green. His comprehensive report was published in January 1848, and includes detailed descriptions of the condition of the five individual districts. It does not make easy reading today. For example, here is an extract from his report on Three Colt Lane:-A sewer has at last been just laid down by the late Tower Hamlet’s Commission as far as Hinton-street; the road is in the worst possible condition, being ploughed up, and very filthy. A row of new houses, called Alpha-row, has sprung up on the north side of the Railway; and on the south side of the Railway 22 new houses are nearly completed. It is between these two rows of houses that the filthy and notorious ditch in Lamb’s-fields is situated. The Commissioners, in laying down a new sewer in Three Colt-lane, were chiefly actuated by the outcries which had been raised against them for permitting the continuance of a nuisance in Lamb’s-fields, almost, if not quite, unparalleled, as an outrage against a social community. The following was the state of this nuisance when I visited it on several occasions, about three months ago:- “In place of about 300 square feet, as described by Dr. Southwood Smith nine years ago, being covered with putrid water, I found that all the space enclosed between a boarding on either side of the Eastern Counties Railway, and extending from part of Arch 91, and the half of Arch 92, up to the end of Arch 98, a distance of about 230 feet, and from 40 to 60 feet in width, was one enormous ditch or stagnant lake of thickened putrefying matter; in this Pandora’s box dead cats and dogs were profusedly scattered, exhibiting every stage of disgusting decomposition. Leading into this lake was a foul streamlet, very slowly flowing, and from it another, which widened and expanded into a large ditch before it disappeared in the open end of a sewer. Bubbles of carburetted and sulphuretted hydrogen gas, and every pestilential exhalation resulting from putrefaction, were being most abundantly given off from the ditches and the lake. The ripples on the surface of water occasioned by a shower of rain are not more numerous than were those produced by the bursting of the bubbles of these pestilential gases which were about to produce disease and death. The construction of the Railway has diminished the extent of this lake, but it has concentrated the evil. Now the concentration of such foci of disease has been proved to be deleterious in a geometrically increasing ratio. What, therefore, must be the effect of this lake of putrescency on the health and lives of those who shall inhabit the houses that are rapidly springing up all around it. A row of 22 new houses of two flats, with cesspools in front, are being built parallel to, and within 10 feet of this most disgusting and degrading scene, which is an abomination dangerous even to the casual inspector.”A year, after his report was published, London was hit by a cholera epidemic which claimed the lives of 14,137 people, from all levels of society. Crucially, it was during this epidemic that John Snow, Queen Victoria’s personal physician, first concluded that the disease was water-borne. Although it was not until the epidemic of 1854 that Snow’s professional colleagues finally accepted the fact, this focused minds. The complacency of the parish vestries and the water companies was shaken. The growth of a movement to supply fresh drinking water to the poor can be dated to this epidemic.In 1852, the Metropolis Water Act introduced imperative legislation in matters of sanitation for the first time. A Water Examiner was appointed and filtration systems were forced on all the water supply companies. All reservoirs within five miles of St. Paul’s had to be covered and all intakes from the Thames were compulsorily moved upstream to the non-tidal area above Teddington Lock. This had an immediate impact. In Lambeth, the death rate dropped dramatically from 130 in every thousand to just 37 per thousand. The public drinking-fountain movement was given serious impetus as a result and really took off when, in 1854, John Snow famously and conclusively demonstrated that cholera is a water-borne disease.In 1859, Samuel Gurney, M.P. for Penrhyn and Falmouth, and a nephew of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, joined forces with the barrister Edward Thomas Wakefield to found the Metropolitan Free Drinking fountain Association, which later became known as the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. It held its first meeting at Willis’s Rooms in King Street on April 12 and elected the chair of the meeting, the Earl of Carlisle, as its first President. This meeting resolved:That, whereas the erection of free drinking fountains, yielding pure cold water, would confer a boon on all classes, and especially the poor, an Association be formed for erecting and promoting the erection of such fountains in the Metropolis, to be styles the ‘Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association,’ and that such contributions be received for the purposes of the Association. That no fountain be erected or promoted by the Association which shall not be so constructed as to ensure by filters, or other suitable means, the perfect purity and coldness of the water.Events moved swiftly and the first fountain was opened on April 21, amidst great public rejoicings, by the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The event was fully reported in the Illustrated London News on April 30:“The first drinking fountain in the metropolis, erected by Mr. Samuel Gurney, M.P., at the south-east corner of St. Sepulchre’s churchyard, was duly opened on Thursday week. The ceremony was performed by Mrs. Wilson, he daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A procession was formed from St. Sepulchre’s church to the fountain; water was then drawn from it in an elegant silver goblet (having on it a suitable inscription), and presented to Mrs. Wilson by the Rev. James Jackson M.A., Vicar of the parish, who said –”Mrs Wilson, as vicar of the parish within the shadow of whose church we are now assembled, I have been deputed to place in your hands this cup, that you may take the first draught from the first drinking-fountain erected in this metropolis. In the part which you have kindly consented to take in the ceremony you may have the satisfaction of knowing that you are not committing yourself to a mere experiment, still less to an experiment of doubtful result; for, though this is the first fountain of the kind which has been erected in London, it is not the first that has been erected in England. Other towns have gone before the metropolis in this work of usefulness. Liverpool, Hull, Derby and other places have their fountains for the refreshment of the people, the success of which has exceeded the most sanguine expectations of those who have established them. An association has been formed for the purpose of extending the benefit of this service throughout the metropolis – an association in which his Grace the Archbishop, your father, takes a deep interest, the means of which have been aided to the extent of £500 by the munificent founder of the fountain which we are now about to open. And I doubt not that, under the auspices of this institution, with the blessing of God,, there will be, in due time, no considerable interval in a walk through the streets of London where the weary and thirsty passenger may not be refreshed by a draught from some such fountain as this of pure and wholesome water. And while the material comfort of the poor and hard-working portion of the people will be promoted by this means, it will be foreseen by those who know by what beginnings intemperance, with its attendant miseries, so often arises, that a great help to them in a moral point of view is thus provided for them. In this hope the present fountain has been erected; in this hope it is now given to them, in the further confidence that they will consider it as committed to their keeping, and preserve it inviolate, that it may be a blessing to them and those who may come after them. I have now only to request that you will have the goodness to accept this cup as a memorial to yourself of the part which you take to-day ion inaugurating this benevolent and useful work.””Mrs. Wilson having tasted the water, which she pronounced to be excellent, Mr. Wakefield, the honorary secretary of the association, said he was deputed by Mrs. Wilson to express the hope of his Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury and his family that the fountain now to be opened might be only the first among many of a similar erection, and that the supply thus given of pure water might prove in ever respect as beneficial as it must always be agreeable.”Lord Radstock was requested on behalf of the association to declare the fountain now open. It was erected, he said, for the special use of the working classes and was now committed to their care. He called upon them, in the name of the association, to protect it and the other fountains which would also be erected for their use: the association had done their part and now he called upon the working classes to do theirs.”Mr Wakefield then said – “Perhaps I may be allowed to observe that, besides the eminent personal considerations that induced Mr. Gurney to solicit the honour of Mrs. Wilson thus inaugurating the first free drinking-fountain, there were other considerations of policy which made the association greatly desire it. There are few blank walls in he great London thoroughfares fit for the insertion of mural fountains except churches, and we naturally believed that , if it was generally known (as this ceremony will be the means of making it known) what a lively interest and sympathy his grace takes in this movement, it would tend to incline the metropolitan clergy to lend a favourable ear to future applications to place fountains in similar situations. And I may just observe that it appears to me impossible to devise anything more appropriate than thus to connect the simplest act of charity intended for the relief of the poorest classes with these our most ancient ecclesiastical edifices.2p”The proceedings then terminated.”The fountain is neatly executed. In a recess hewn out of the churchyard wall two small pillars are fixed, from the top of which springs a semicircular arch, neatly moulded: the sides of the recess, with the arch itself, are of polished Aberdeen granite. In the centre is a tastefully wrought shell of white marble, through an orifice in which the water flows into a bowl of white marble, also highly polished. Deeply cut in the cement of the major arch is the inscription “The first drinking-fountain,” and in the granite curve underneath – “The gift of Samuel Gurney M.P.” Upon the plinth immediately below the basin is engraved “Replace the cup,” and upon the base line the words “Filtered water from the New River Company.””Drinking fountains are forthwith to be erected in several parts of London; so that by the agency of this association, aided by the efforts of parochial bodies, there seems every reason to hope, with the Rev. J. Jackson, that “in due time there will be no considerable interval in a walk through the streets of London where the weary and thirsty passenger may not be refreshed by a draught from some such fountain as this of pure and wholesome water.” At a meeting of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields vestry on the same evening it was unanimously carried, on the motion of Mr. Tempany, that a drinking-fountain be erected at Charing Cross. The Islington vestry have determined upon the removal of the police station on Islington-green to a more suitable site, and the erection of a public drinking-fountain in its place. Alderman Hale has offered, at his own expense, to erect a drinking fountain in the locality of Union-street, Southwark.”The central part of the fountain donated by Samuel Gurney can still be seen in the railings of St. Sepulchre’s church, complete with its original pair of iron cups. This, and another drawing from the Illustrated London News, can be seen on our sister site, the Story of London in Pictures.