Water water everywhere

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association

It can get pretty hot in London during the summer (though perhaps not this summer). It's easy to forget in these days of Evian and Buxton in every newsagents that clean drinking water was once a rare commodity in the capital. That's where the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association came in. Their beautiful monuments are still dotted around the city.

Water water everywhere

The 1850s saw a massive increase in awareness of the dangers associated with unclean water. The physician John Snow had worked out that Soho's 1854 cholera outbreak was due to infected H2O, and had campaigned for the provision of fresh supplies. (You can celebrate this Victorian hero by having a a drink - water or something stronger - at the pub that bears his name on Broadwick Street.)

In the wake of this, 1859 saw the establishment of the ‘Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association'. It raised funds for ‘the erection of free drinking fountains, yielding pure cold water', which would ‘confer a boon on all classes, and especially the poor'. The first fountain was opened in the boundary wall of St Sepulchre-Without-Newgate church. Soon 7000 people a day were using it. It's still there today, with the inscription asking you to replace the cup (on a chain) after use. Sadly the cup has gone and the fountain no longer works, but it's still a thing of beauty. A very fitting place, too - it bears the name of Samuel Gurney MP (the Association's founder), meaning he's over the road from his prison-reforming aunt Elizabeth Fry (there's a statue of her in the Old Bailey - the only statue of a woman anywhere in the precincts of an English court.)

Within a couple of years 85 fountains had been established. The Association then turned its attention to our four-legged friends. Dog troughs were attached to the fountains, and huge stone ones put in place so that horses and cows (then a common sight on London's streets) could drink their fill. ‘The sufferings which were endured by parched and wearied animals in our streets before this ... must have been past all imagination,' said the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, as they now called themselves.

The animal troughs tended to be outside pubs, so that the publicans could keep them filled with water. They weren't expected to do this for nothing. ‘All that water their horses here, must pay a penny or have some beer' went a typical notice.

The gospel of clean water soon spread, and as early as the 1860s fountains were being sent to Ilfracombe, Dundee, New York and Sydney. Queen Victoria (who'd given £100 to the association) presented a trough and fountain to Esher in Surrey.

Back in the empire's capital city so many troughs had been established that a map was produced telling people where they could water their horses. (What is it about London and maps? Just about every aspect of the city's life has received cartographical attention.) In 1912, a newspaper reported that the fountain at the base of Gladstone's statue in the Strand was so busy ‘drivers had to exercise considerable skill to avoid collision and to allow their charges to drink as long and as deeply as they desired.' A 1931 survey found that at one fountain the number of horses taking a drink between 9am and 5pm was just over a thousand. A cartoon from the time has a driver saying: ‘This weather I can't get Bessie to do more than 2 miles to the gallon.'

Gradually, of course, as reliable mains water supplies spread, the fountains slipped out of use. And as horses became rarer on London's streets, so did the troughs. A 1951 picture shows toddlers skinny-dipping in one in Hampstead. These days many troughs have been planted with flowers (like the one pictured, near St Bart's hospital). Reinvention is perhaps London's greatest habit, the quality that keeps the city truly great - it's nice to see the troughs playing their part.

Not that it's all change. An original Association fountain stands behind the Compton Stand at Lord's. Whenever I'm there I use it to refill my bottle, so avoiding having to queue and pay ridiculous sports-ground prices for a new one. You like to think Samuel Gurney would have approved.

 


 

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