Public water fountains in London

The Metropolitan Water Act of 1852, imposing sanitary legislation upon water companies. Intakes from the Thames were relocated to Teddington in the western suburbs and filtration systems installed, leading to a dramatic improvement in the quality of drinking water. Provision, however, remained inadequate and London suffered a severe outbreak of cholera in 1854.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association was founded in 1858 by Samuel Gurney M.P., emulating a recent scheme in Lancashire, although contemporary newspaper articles refer to more schemes in Liverpool, Hull and Derby. Gurney, a nephew of prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, drew on his banking connections to fund the scheme. Its first aim was to introduce and clear and continuous supply of drinking water to London’s poorest citizens. Their ambition was simply orientated around health and welfare, rather than moral gain, and as such is worth noting that the association had no direct connection to the abstinence movement. Rather, big brewing families such as Hanbury and Buxton became stalwarts of the company, whilst some temperance societies viewed it with distrust. The first free drinking fountain set up in the City was at the top of Holborn Hill (and is now located at the corner of Gilstpur Street and Holborn Viaduct) It was et into the wall of the old graveyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and was opened in 1859 by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter, Mrs Wilson (Fig. 6)

Fig. 6 The opening of the first public drinking fountain, 1859

From an early stage the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recognized the potential or the new Association, and from 1867 it was re-named the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. This was especially important in the City and its eastern region where, in large markets such as Smithfield, increasing numbers of cattle were driven through the city, or horses worked to exhaustion. By 1861 at least 85 public drinking fountains had been erected in London, rising to 140 in 1870, and 500 by 1900. They varied in style and size, with most of the association’s being designed by their consultant architect Roger Keirle, between 1858 and 1895.

Around a third of water fountains were commissioned independently, or with sponsorship, outside of the association. Many of these were memorials, such as the elaborate Venetian-Moorish style Burdett-Coutts fountain in Victoria Park, commissioned by Charles Buxton in 1865 to celebrate his father’s involvement in the emancipation of slaves.