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The water’s run dry: A Georgian pump lanquishing on Cornhill

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Historic: The Georgian water pump outside the Royal Exchange, Cornhill

For a blog update on the Cornhill water pump, which has now been restored, click here.

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 (Tower Hill and Ludgate Hill).

In a world before cars, travelling around on a horse and carriage was the way to get around. Just like today the city is dotted with petrol stations to refuel, in Georgian and Victorian times there were wells, troughs and water pumps to water the horses and refresh the people. With an extensive underground sewer network and piped water supply, thankfully these days we don’t need to grab a bucket and head to the nearest pump for some water.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Joint project: The Bank of England, East India Company and fire offices funded the pump

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. Earlier this autumn, one such pump caught my eye. Located outside the Gucci store in the Royal Exchange, it looks very different to other stone and black ones I’ve seen on the streets. Painted in the City of London’s light blue colour, just like the Old Police Telephone posts, it stands out amongst the bins, post boxes and street lighting. While to some, it looks like a tired piece of old London, the pump actually has a significant tie to the history of London and distances from the old capital. A minute’s walk up to the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street is the location of ‘The Standard’ – the first mechanically-pumped water supply in London. As well as being a source for water, the pump became a meeting place and also the mark from which distances from London were judged (until the marker later became Charing Cross – see Civil war, centre of London and a memorial to a queen: The story behind Charing Cross).

Although The Standard pump was discontinued in 1603, back down the hill outside Gucci (of course it wasn’t Gucci then!), the current pump was erected nearly 200 years later. 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 local bankers and traders who worked in the area, jointly funded the cast iron pump with an adjoining granite trough.

Designed by architect Nathaniel Wright (who built St Botolph Aldersgate in Postman’s Park), the inscription on the road-facing side, it 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 – Royal Exchange, Sun, Phoenix and County. Although the pump is in good condition considering it’s 213 years old, it’s definitely been slightly neglected in recent years and could do a bit of tender loving care.

  • The Cornhill pump is located on the north side of Cornhill, outside Gucci (9 Change Alley), City of London EC3V. Nearest station: Bank.

Metro Girl Likes: While you’re in Cornhill, pop into the Counting House for a drink or pie. Built in 1893 as Prescott’s Bank, the pub has stunning woodwork, paintings and tiling, which helps the venue retain its 19th century charm.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Pump it up: It’s been a while since someone used the pump to water their horse


For more Metro Girl blog posts on London’s street furniture, read about the myth of the Coco Chanel street lights. 

Find out the story behind London’s police telephone posts.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

What’s that small Tardis-looking thing? Story behind London’s police telephone posts

The history behind the blue police telephone posts in the City of London and Westminster.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Police phone post in Queen Victoria Street

One afternoon strolling through the City Of London, I happened upon an old Police Telephone Post, on the junction of Queen Victoria Street and Friday Street outside Bracken House. I had very rarely seen posts and the larger Police Telephone Boxes in the capital – in fact most are so well hidden you may never even notice them. After taking a photo of the well-preserved one near Mansion House tube station, I was intrigued to find out the history of them.

Of course, when most people see a Police Box today they are likely to think of the Tardis from the Doctor Who TV series. While the Time Lord’s Tardis is a huge time travelling machine with lots of space inside to move around (and fictional!), the real things managed to squeeze in a telephone, first aid kit, a stool, fire extinguisher and small heater.

Police boxes and posts were important tools for the Metropolitan Police from the late 1920s until the late 1960s, when they began being phased out with the advent of personal radios. From a peak of 685 in 1953, there aren’t many left in London today. However, some have been left in the city’s streets as a reminder of the world before mobile phones and radios came along and changed modern policing. Generally they remain a light blue – their official colour in the City of London, however some have been painted different colours.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Post in St Martin’s Le Grand, City of London (left) and in Guildhall Yard (right)

Police Telephone Posts and Boxes aren’t unique to London and were actually introduced in Glasgow in 1891. However, while English posts were blue, Scottish ones were red. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that they were introduced in London by the Metropolitan Police.

Posts and boxes were for officers on the beat and the public to use to contact the police – an alternative to 999 when people didn’t have access to their own telephones or mobiles.

At the top of the post is a red lantern, which would flash when police were required to contact their station. It’s thought the square frame surrounding the bulb was inspired by Sir John Soane‘s lantern feature at the top of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Police telephone post on Victoria Embankment (left)
and a rather neglected looking one in Piccadilly Circus (right)

In a bit of nostalgia, a police phone box was erected outside Earl’s Court tube station in 1997… unsurprisingly it attracts more Doctor Who enthusiasts than anyone else.

Earls Court Tardis Telephone Box © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Earl’s Court Telephone Box

All the Police Telephone Boxes I found in the City appeared to be well-preserved, with a sign informing the public they can no longer use them to contact emergency services. It reads: ‘An original police telephone. Free for use of public. The telephone is no longer operational. Please use nearby payphone.’ Given that hardly anyone uses payphones these days, the signs were probably written some time ago.

However, in the City of Westminster, it appeared the council aren’t so bothered about the state of their old posts. The post in Piccadilly Circus – on the junction with the northside of Piccadilly – was looking quite sad. It has been incorrectly painted a wrong shade of blue and due to its location on such a busy thoroughfare in terms of both foot and vehicle traffic, it’s taken a battering over the years.

The telephone post located in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair is also looking rather neglected. Although it’s the same shade of blue as the ones in the City, the black ‘Police Public Call Post’ sign near the top is missing. However, the old sign on the door still suggests you could use it to call for help. It reads: ‘Police telephone free for use of public. Advice and assistance obtainable immediately. Officers and cars respond to urgent calls. Pull to open.’ Perhaps a bit misleading to a visitor from out-of-town… no one is going to come if you try to use this post!

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

Post outside U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

The original sign on the Grosvenor Sq post

A completely different style of telephone box to the Tardis ones appears in London’s iconic Trafalgar Square. Many would have passed the circular box, which has been described as ‘Britain’s smallest police station’. It was built in 1926 out of an existing lamp plinth (the lamp fitting dates back to 1826) so police could keep an eye on demonstrations in the Square. It was created to blend in with the walls of Trafalgar Square after public objections to previous designs. Inside was a phone line direct to Scotland Yard and whenever it was picked up, a flashing light in the ornamental light on top would flash alerting nearby officers to trouble. No longer in use by police, it’s now used to store cleaning equipment for City of Westminster street cleaners.

Trafalgar Square police box © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2012

The police box in Trafalgar Square, described as ‘Britain’s Smallest Police Station’


For Metro Girl’s blog post on another tiny police station in Hyde Park Corner, click here.

To find out more about London’s old Street Furniture, read about a Georgian water pump on Cornhill or The myth of the Coco Chanel street lights.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.