‘Parched City‘ was an impulse buy from the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) bookshop. The cover featuring the 1859 opening of London’s first public drinking fountain in the wall of St Sepulchre’s Church in the City of London was a magnet for this Whitley Pump correspondent.
The parched city of the title is London. The book documents the capital’s relationship with the public and private sources of its water supply from Roman times to the present day and analyses the challenging landscape of safe drinking water provision.
Ms Jones also tackles drinking water ethics, including the question of whether bottled water, which comes at a high monetary and environmental cost, could be replaced by water from public drinking fountains. London has several examples of refurbished historic fountains and newly erected modern fountains from which the public can drink or refill water bottles when on the move.
“Through whatever combination of fountains, refill stations, or water transported by individuals from their own homes, a permanent drinking water revolution for London could actually eliminate the need for bottled water.” [ref1]
Claiming to be “the first of London’s fully approve drinking fountains in thirty years”, the restored-to-full-working order fountain at Carter Lane Gardens near St Paul’s Cathedral features in the book [ref2]. The original location of the fountain was at the church of St Lawrence Jewry near Guildhall. When Guildhall was redeveloped it was put into storage until re-erected in 2010. This is truly a VIP fountain with its own website documenting the project.
About the same time, other drinking fountain projects had been initiated such as the Freeman Family Fountain in Hyde Park which was unveiled in 2009.
The Victorian drinking fountain movement had its origins in Liverpool. In 1853 Liverpudlian businessman Charles Melly returned from his honeymoon in Geneva and decided to emulate the public fountains of that and other Swiss cities in Liverpool. In 1853 he arranged for two public taps to be installed in the docks and, in 1854, built a granite drinking fountain on Prince’s Dock [ref3].
Other towns and cities followed and in London the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountains Association was formed. The first London fountain at St Sepulchre’s Church in High Holborn was funded by Samuel Gurney MP and was ceremonially opened on 20 April 1859. It is a much more modest fountain than the image in the Illustrated London News pictured on the cover of ‘Parched City’ depicts [ref4]. The fountain was restored to the church wall in 1913 and is still in place close to its original location.
Sponsorship from philanthropists ensured that the number of drinking fountains continued to grow. It is around this time that fountains began to appear in Reading and in the 1860s the King’s Head Pond was filled in and replaced by the Whitley Pump.
There are some fountains in London which have been refurbished and dispense drinking water, but they are certainly the exception. Many that remain are dusty and damaged versions of their former selves.
The maintenance of truly public drinking fountains has always been problematic. As an example, within weeks of opening the fountain next to St Laurence’s church in Reading, the cup had been removed.
Provision of free public drinking water is less challenging within institutions and public buildings and examples are given in the book such as at the British Library and University College Hospital. Many more examples can be found on the ‘Find a Fountain‘ website.
As a holiday read for the Whitley Pump travel correspondent, this book proved unexpectedly pertinent. It raised my awareness of the potential and availability of drinking water sources other than bottled drinking water when on the move.
‘Parched City’ is a thoroughly readable and enjoyable historical survey. Whilst some of the conditions that apply are specific to London, the topic is universal.
- Jones, Emma M. Parched City (2013). Zer0 Books. p282
- ibid p215
- ibid pp58-72
- Illustrated London News 30 April 1859 p24
- Parched City
- St Lawrence Jewry Memorial Fountain
- Charles Melly
- Drinking Fountains Association
- St Sepulchre’s Church
- Image and record for the St Sepulchre Drinking Fountain at mdfcta.org.uk
- Map of Metropolitan Drinking Fountains and Cattle Trough Association fountains and troughs
- Samuel Gurney MP
- The history of the Whitley Pump
- Twinned with the Whitley Pump – St Laurence’s drinking fountain
- Find a Fountain
- Twinned with the Whitley Pump