Water, Water, Everywhere…

Many grand Victorian public drinking fountains live on as park ornaments. increasingly funds are being found for restoration. Story and photos by HAZELLE JACKSON

Baroness Burdett-Coutts's drinking fountain in Victoria ParkLONDON in the mid nineteenth century was a very unhealthy place. Water was in short supply and drinking water so heavily polluted that most of the working population drank beer instead. Disease and alcoholism were rife: cholera outbreaks in 1847 and 1858 killed over 58,000 people.

In 1859 the MP Samuel Gurney, a nephew of the social reformer Elizabeth Fry, was inspired by public drinking fountains newly installed by civic authorities in northern cities like Liverpool and Hull, to found the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association.

Baroness Burdett-Coutts's drinking fountain in Regent's ParkThe Association's first fountain was opened on 1859 on the boundary railings of St Sepulchre's in Snow Hill, paid for entirely by Gurney himself. Within a short space of time it was being used by 7,000 people a day and by 1865 over 85 fountains had been erected. By 1867 provision of drinking troughs for animals was being included and the Society changed its name to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. The cost of the clean water supply was met in some cases by the Association, in others by the local parish.

800 Fountains & Troughs

The Greek Boy in St James's ParkIn 1879Charles Dickens wrote in his Dictionary of London "...the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association has erected and is now maintaining nearly 800 fountains and troughs, at which an enormous quantity of water is consumed daily. It is estimated that 300,000 people take advantage of the fountains on a summer's day, and a single trough has supplied the wants of 1,800 horses in one period of 24 hours.

“Several ornamental fountains have been provided by private munificence. Amongst these may be instanced the Baroness Burdett Coutts's beautiful fountains in Victoria Park and Regent's Park, the Maharajah of Vizianagram's in Hyde Park, Mrs Brown's, by Thornycroft, in Hamilton Place, Mr Wheeler's at the north of Kew Bridge, and Mr Buxton's at Westminster."

Such drinking fountains were typically built in granite or other stone and carved by professional stonemasons. The result is that many have survived to the present day, although sadly neglected and without water supply or drinking cups. Slowly and increasingly the will and the means are becoming available for restoration, though in some cases it has been impossible to reconnect the water.

There isn't space in this issue to detail work recently done, but further information about your local drinking fountains would be eagerly received by London Landscapes for possible inclusion in a future edition.