A Brief History of the Public Drinking Fountain in the UK
by TRAVIS ELBOROUGH
Between 1750 and 1900 the population of Great Britain increased four and half times from 9 million to 41 million. But already by 1850, the year of William Wordsworth’s death, more people in Britain were, for the first time, living in towns and cities than in the countryside. That exodus was the direct result of the industrial revolution that saw labour move from the land to mills and factories. Where village wells or lacus had met the needs of most working people wanting to slake their thirsts, the ever burgeoning urban environment lacked sources of free clean drinking water. Private water companies supplied water to those households who could afford it, leaving those who couldn’t reliant on a few street pumps whose output was often contaminated with sewage and the source of outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. The latter deadly disease first arrived in the capital from Asia in 1830 via collier ships from Sunderland to the London docks, and in the next year alone claimed the lives of 50,000 Britons. In 1851, at the opening of The Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, a writer in Punch magazine would state that: ‘Whoever’ could ‘produce in London a glass of water fit to drink’ would ‘contribute the best and most universally useful article in the whole exhibition.’ The passing in 1852 of the Metropolis Water Act marked the first step to improving the appalling quality of the water in London.
Yet despite such concerns about the general state of the water in the capital, the first free public drinking fountains in England were erected in Liverpool rather than London. These were the brainchild of Charles Pierre Melly. A prosperous Unitarian merchant and philanthropist, Melly, whose Swiss-born father had settled in Liverpool in 1824 and future, distant descendants would include the jazz musician and art critic George Melly, had seen stone drinking-water fountains in Geneva and believed that Merseysiders, especially those working on the docks, would benefit from access to free water where the alternative more often than not was beer from public houses.
Melly paid for the installation of the first fountain, made of polished pink granite, at Prince’s Dock in 1854. By 1858, the number of fountains in Liverpool had reached forty-three and seeking to encourage other cities to embrace the idea, ‘Fountain Melly’, as he was now nicknamed, helped fund drinking fountains in Norwich, Plymouth and Douglas on the Isle of Man.
The following year, inspired by Melly’s example, Edward Wakefield and Samuel Gurney, a Quaker banker, Member of Parliament for Penryn and Falmouth and nephew of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, founded The Metropolitan Free Drinking Association. A philanthropic society dedicated to building free public fountains across London, the association was closely aligned to the temperance movement. If acting out of a sense of civic duty, its Quaker founders also saw a moral mission in reducing alcohol consumption among the poor by providing free and easy access to drinking water. Excessive beer and spirit drinking along with impure water were even held to have contributed to virulence of two especially lethal outbreaks of cholera in the capital in 1848/9 and 1854.
Gaining the support of Prince Albert and the Archbishop of Canterbury and raising funds by public subscription, the association’s first fountain was installed in the wall of the church of St. Sepulchre Without Newgate in 1859 – an event marked with some fanfare, and with the words ‘THE FIRST PUBLIC DRINKING FOUNTAIN’ chiseled into the stonework beside it unveiled in a ceremony with speeches and its future toasted with cups of its pure, clean water.
In 1867, and in an age of steam and iron that continued to remain largely horse-driven, the association extended its remit to supply water for animals and changed its name to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Within 11 years of its founding there were 140 fountains and 153 cattle troughs available to the public for free use throughout London. The association’s work spread across the country and around the world. Still in existence today, it is calculated to have erected over 2000 fountains and 900 cattle troughs since its establishment in 1859. During its high Victorian heyday, though, its efforts were often matched by private philanthropic bequests by local benefactors. Perhaps the most extraordinary public drinking fountain ever built remains the one donated to Victoria Park in Bow, by Angela Burdett-Coutts. Heir to the Coutts banking fortune and dubbed ‘Queen of the Poor’ for her various charitable ventures, Burdett-Coutts spent £6000 in 1862 on equipping the park’s underprivileged users with a Neo-Gothic cum Moorish edifice in pink marble, granite and stone, decorated with chubby, sculpted cherubs, four clock faces and a grey slate roof. Designed by the architect H. A. Darbishire, the fountain’s bronze cups, were engraved with the phrase ‘Temperance is a bridle of gold’ for good measure. But with the arrival of London Country Council and later the GLC, and municipal authorities levying rates to fund such civic provisions as sanitation and public drinking fountains, the need for such philanthropic gestures waned. But those that remain today stand as architectural monuments to the ambitions of our ancestors and their belief in public duty, and should compel us, in an era of austerity, and cuts to council services, to think more communally about the collective good.