London’s very first public drinking fountain dates to 1859 and is set into the railings of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate on Holborn Viaduct, corner Giltspur Street. It was placed there by The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association and paid for by one of the founders, Samuel Gurney, to provide free and clean water to the people of London in the hope that it would encourage them to drink less (or preferably no) alcohol.(1)
But hygiene was also an issue. Drinking water available to the poor, if available at all, was frequently contaminated and held largely responsible for the cholera outbreaks of 1848-49 and 1853-54. It was no wonder that the people turned to alcohol. The cholera outbreaks and the understanding that the water supply was to blame, actually exacerbated the situation, because many wells and pumps were shut down for fear of contamination. The water supply in the city was in the hands of a few private companies who completely failed to provide an adequate supply. Legislation was sluggish, but the Water Act of 1852 forced the New River Company to cover its reservoirs and to filter its water and in 1856, the Southwark Company was forced to move its inlet away from the sewage outfall. But it was a slow process and better water quality did not immediately mean better access to it. Victorian philanthropy, the call for temperance, and the practical accomplishments of the founders came together and the Drinking Fountain Association was set up and quickly produced results. The Association held its inaugural meeting on 10 April 1859 and a resolution was passed that set out the aim:
“That, where 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 styled “The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association”, and that 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; and that it is desirable the water-rates should be paid by local bodies, the Association only erecting or contributing to the erection, and maintaining the mechanical appliances, of the fountains”.
But is was soon realised that humans were not the only creatures suffering from the lack of (clean) water and quickly drinking troughs for dogs were attached to the fountains. But for horses and cattle the situation remained precarious. Pubs usually provided troughs, but the understanding was that the owner of the horse bought himself a drink when watering his horse or pay some money for the water. One pub trough was inscribed “All that water their horses here Must pay a penny or have some beer”. Local vestries sometimes objected to the erection of cattle troughs, often because they feared to become financially responsible for them, sometime just on the grounds that it would be an obstruction to traffic, but the Association steadily ground down the resistance and troughs sprang up all over the place. In 1867, the name of the association was changed to include their work for animal welfare and they became The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association.
By 1870, 140 fountains and 153 troughs had been erected and in 1879 (see illustration from Burke’s Peerage below) the numbers had already reached 575 and 597 respectively. The alternative the fountains provided to beer and stronger spirits greatly appealed to the Temperance Movement, and they became keen supporters of the Fountain Association. Many fountains were set up opposite pubs. The Evangelical Movement was also in favour of fountains, but they preferred them in churchyard in the hope that people would associate the water supply with the support of the church. The extension of the objective of the Association into animal welfare, provided them with a powerful ally, the RSPCA.
The Association began as a philanthropic organisation, depending solely on the money and connections of the founders and donations from private individuals, but from the 1870s onwards, the Association became more and more an established institution attracting legacies and larger donations. Unfortunately, more of these donations were received for special or memorial fountains, often of a highly ornate, Victorian gothic, design. These were more expensive to maintain and the donor of the fountain would usually only pay for the build and not for the maintenance or water supply. The Association developed a standard plain fountain which can still be seen in many London parks, but more elaborate models were built for donors willing to fork out the extra money. At the headquarters of the Association in Victoria Street, a book of designs could be consulted. An example of a privately paid for fountain, is the one on Commercial Road which was erected in 1886 by Harriet Barrett in memory of her brothers.
It unfortunately lost its animal trough sometime between 1886 and now (see here). From the end of the 19th century, more and more local authorities took over the maintenance and water provision for the fountains and troughs in their area, freeing up the Association’s money to finance more watering places.
The Association stopped building troughs in 1936 as the motorcar had taken over from the horse. While fountains are often noticed, the troughs are not, probably because they are not at head height, and these days, no longer contain water but flowers.
The Association may no longer build troughs, but they, now as The Drinking Fountain Association, still build fountains, for instance in schools and in other countries where the provision of clean water is still an issue.
(1) Information on the history of the Association from their website drinkingfountains.org and from Howard Malchow, “Free Water: the Public Drinking Fountain Movement and Victorian London” in London Journal, vol. 4 (1978), pp. 181-203.
** A map of current fountains at Find-A-Fountain.