Revisiting the now-restored Georgian water pump on Cornhill
Less than two years ago, I blogged about the sorry state of the old Georgian water pump on Cornhill in the City of London. I’m happy to say, it has since been restored and repainted a completely different colour. This post will revisit the history behind the Cornhill pump, which has long stopped providing water, but is now an attractive piece of London’s street furniture and a protected piece of our heritage.
Cornhill is a road in the heart of the City of London, known for its bustling offices and designer boutiques. Located a stone’s throw from the Bank of England, the name Cornhill comes from it being one of the city’s three hills – the others being Tower Hill and Ludgate Hill.
While demand for public wells has ceased over the past 100 years, the staggering history and aesthetics of the City’s old street furniture means many of these pumps can still be seen today. The Cornhill pump is outside the Gucci store at the Royal Exchange, just a minute’s walk up from the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street, the location of ‘The Standard’ – the first mechanically pumped water supply in London. Constructed in 1582 on the site of previous hand-pumped wells, it was discontinued in 1603. As well as being a source for water, The Standard became a meeting place and also the mark from which distances from London were judged, before this later moved to Charing Cross.
Although The Standard pump was discontinued in the early 17th century, back down the hill outside Gucci, the current pump was erected nearly 200 years later. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the rapidly expanding population of the developing city, there was a growing demand for water pumps in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1708, the Government passed the Parish Pump Act, ordering that every parish in London must have a water pump and designate men to extinguish fires.
In the late 18th century, two of the City’s big players of the time, the East India Company and the Bank of England, together with the local fire stations and the bankers and traders who worked in the area, jointly funded the cast iron pump (it is believed adjoining granite trough is likely from a later date). It was designed by architect Nathaniel Wright, who built St Botolph Aldersgate in Postman’s Park and was the surveyor to the north district of the City of London.
The inscription on the road-facing side of the pump reads: ‘On this spot a well was first made and a House of Correction built thereon by Henry Wallis Mayor of London in the year 1282.’ It continues on the Royal Exchange-facing side: ‘The well was discovered much enlarged and this pump erected in the year 1799 by the contributions of the Bank of England, the East India Company, the neighbouring fire offices, together with the bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill.’ As well as the inscriptions, the Grade II-listed pump has fire insurance emblems on each side at the top – Royal Exchange, Sun, Phoenix and County. The base facing the Royal Exchange reads ‘Phillips & Hopwood, Engine makers, fecerunt’, which was practically invisible when it was previously painted in black until the restoration. Philips & Hopwood were a Blackfriars-based firm co-owned by Samuel Philips and James Hopwood, who made pumps and fire engines, which existed between 1797-1811. Fecerunt is a Latin term, meaning ‘to put in place’.
When I first spotted the pump in 2012, it was in a sorry state. It was painted in the City of London’s light blue colour, just like the Old Police Telephone posts. However, the paint was peeling, rust was setting in and it generally looked neglected amid the flashy surrounding buildings of the City. The pump had actually been Grade II-listed by English Heritage in January 1950. Fortunately, at some point in 2013, the pump was restored and repainted. It now stands shiny and bright, in cream and white paint, complementing the nearby boutiques of the Royal Exchange. The inscriptions have been painted black so are now clearer to read. Unfortunately the granite trough has gone and has been replaced by a small wrought iron railing – presumably to protect the pump from potentially bad parking or drivers! However, the missing trough means you can now read the architect’s name across the road-facing base.
As a little side note, the pump in it’s original blue state can be seen in the climax of the first Bridget Jones’s Diary movie, where Renee Zellweger’s Bridget enjoys her first kiss with Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy after he buys her a new diary from the Royal Exchange.
- The Cornhill pump is located on the north side of Cornhill, outside Gucci (9 Change Alley), City of London EC3V. Nearest tube: Bank.
For a Metro Girl post on London police telephone posts, read What’s that small Tardis-looking thing? Story behind London’s police telephone posts.
Or to read about the history of Charing Cross – the ‘centre’ of London after The Standard – click Civil war, centre of London and a memorial to a queen: The story behind Charing Cross
Or for other Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.