Aldgate Pump | The story behind the City of London’s historic water pump
There has been a watering hole on the spot since at least the 13th century
Situated at the junction of Aldgate, Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street stands a historic water pump. Although not the first iteration of the pump, the Aldgate Pump has long been symbolic as the start of London’s East End. For years, it was famous for being the starting point for distances between the City of London into Middlesex and Essex. It takes its name from nearby Aldgate, one of the original Roman gates into the City.
There has been a watering spot at the site since at least the 13th century, initially as a well during the latter part of King John’s (1166-1216) reign. Historian John Stow (1524-1605) lived near the Aldgate well in the tumultuous year of 1549 and recalls witnessing from his own doorstep the execution of the Bailiff of Romford for alleged ‘rebellion’. Stow wrote in his 1598 book, ‘Survey of London’: “The Bailiff of Romford, in Essex, was one, a man very well beloved. He was early in the morning of St Magdalene’s Day, brought by the Sheriffs of London and the knight-marshall to the well within Aldgate, to be executed upon a gibbet set up that morning.” The well appears on Braun and Hogenburg’s London map in 1574, as well as on The Agas Map of Early Modern London in 1633.
By the 18th century, developments in engineering meant the Aldgate well had now become a pump to accommodate the booming London population. What is believed to be the first illustration of the Aldgate pump appeared in 1798, depicting it as an obelisk erected on a plinth, topped by a lantern, with further lamps on each side. The pump was served by one of the capital’s many subterranean streams.
Although the water was long enjoyed by the locals, things took a sinister turn as to the source of its flavour in the 1860s. What became known as the Aldgate Pump Epidemic saw hundreds of people die after drinking its waters. The City’s Medical Officer, Dr Henry Letheby (1816-1876) published a report on the City’s pumps: “Most of these waters are bright and sparkling, and have a cool, agreeable taste, they are much sought after for drinking purposes, but the coolness of the beverage and the briskness of its appearance, are dangerous fascinations, for they are both derived from organic decay.” It was discovered that “carbonic acid and nitre” from rotting corpses in nearby graveyards were leaking into the water, prompting the Aldgate Pump’s nickname, ‘the pump of death’.
In 1876, the Aldgate Pump was relocated west to its current location when the road was widened, and with the move, the New River Company wisely changed its supply to mains water. The pump remained in use to some point in the early 20th century.
In 1950, Historic England classified the pump as Grade II listed, estimating the Portland stone pier was constructed in “apparently 18th century”. Although some historians have questioned if it is made of limestone. The spout is topped by a brass wolf head, which signifies the last wolf shot in the City of London, said to be around 1500 during the reign of Henry VII (1457-1509).
During the 20th century, the ornate, wrought iron lantern which topped the pump was removed, but was recreated by the Bottega Prata workshop in Bologna, Italy, during its 2019 restoration by the HOLT (Heritage of London Trust). Unveiled in September 2019, the pump is back to its best, having the old cement mortar and iron rust removed, while the cracks being repointed. The lantern is also powered by electricity, although the pump no longer supplies water.
- The Aldgate Pump is located at the junction of Fenchurch Street and Leadenhall Street, City of London, EC3A 2AD. Nearest station: Fenchurch Street.