London’s oldest public drinking fountain on Holborn Viaduct
The history of the water fountain outside St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church.
With water taps now in every home and bottled waters on sale everywhere, there isn’t such a high demand for public drinking fountains these days. While public fountains are still found to be popular in places such as parks, leisure centres and museums, ones outside on the street… not so much.
Although these days we expect drinking fountains to be free and clean, back in the first half of the 19th century, it wasn’t so simple. Private companies had a monopoly on water so there wasn’t much regulation on quality, often providing contaminated water to the public. As a result, many people used to drink beer, which was considered a safer alternative to water. It was thanks to the work of physician John Snow (1813-1858), who traced the beginning of a cholera outbreak to a water pump in Soho, that authorities began to prioritise water quality. Following the passing of the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers Act 1848, it was made compulsory that water had to be filtrated. In 1859, MP Samuel Gurney (1816-1882) and barrister Edward Thomas Wakefield (1821-1896) joined forces to set up the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association, with the aim to provide free drinking water to the public. This later changed its name to Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1867, to also include cattle troughs.
The first public drinking fountain was built into the railings of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church on Holborn Hill. It opened in April 1859 and was funded by Gurney. The fountain is made of marble and stone, with two cups on chains to drink out of. It features three inscriptions, the top reading: ‘The gift of Sam Gurney MP 1859’. The bottom reminds users to ‘replace the cup’, while inside under where the water used to flow reads: ‘The first Metropolitan drinking fountain erected on Holborn Hill 1859 and removed when the Viaduct was constructed in 1867.’ Just eight years later after being installed, the fountain was relocated while the Holburn Viaduct was built, before finally being reinstated in its original setting in 1913.
The fountain was incredibly popular with hundreds of people using it daily – which I’m sure caused quite a queue of thirsty Londoners! As a result, the society built 85 more fountains around the city over the next six years. Public drinking fountains were heavily supported by the church and Temperance movement, and as a result many were situated near churches and opposite public houses. Now, the fountain still exists, but the water appears to have been turned off.
- The drinking fountain is set in the southern gates around St Sepulchre’s Church on the eastern end of Holborn Viaduct (near the junction with Giltspur Street), City of London, EC1A 2DQ. Nearest stations: City Thameslink, St Paul’s or Farringdon.
Related history posts
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
Posted on 20 Aug 2015, in History, London and tagged 19th century, Holborn, street furniture, Victorian. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on London’s oldest public drinking fountain on Holborn Viaduct.