Snow Hill, EC1A
If you visit this neck of the woods and look carefully at the railings of the church named St Sepulchre without Newgate, you will see a rather nice marble water fountain, bearing the admonitory sign, “Replace the cup”.
In 18th and 19th century London finding drinking water which would not imperil your health was a bit of a challenge. So dirty and polluted was the water supply that beer or gin was the safer option, although that custom brought with it other social malaises. After a series of cholera outbreaks in the early part of the 19th century the authorities decided something needed to be done to impose a greater degree of regulation on the nine companies who had sprung up to supply water to the populace of the metropolis.
The Metropolis Water Act of 1852 made it illegal for water companies to obtain their domestic water supply from the tidal Thames, not least because that was where the sewerage companies deposited their untreated waste.
Even though this piece of legislation was to improve matters, the problem was that the cost of clean water was beyond the purse of many of the indigent Londoners. This is where two philanthropists, Samuel Gurney and Edward Wakefield, stepped in, creating the wonderfully named Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. As its name suggests, its mission was to provide free drinking water to the masses.
The first fountain that was built by the Association was that which can be seen in Snow Hill which still works and has two cups on a chain, or it did when I visited it. It opened on 21st April 1859 and was so popular that it was used by up to 7,000 people a day. It has remained in operation ever since, although it was temporarily relocated in 1867 and reinstated in 1913 when the Holborn Viaduct was being built.
The Association built an additional 85 water fountains over the next six years, mainly funded by a combination of public donations and contributions from Gurney. The Association obtained royal imprimatur when Queen Victoria contributed towards the cost of a fountain in Esher.
In 1867 the Association changed its name to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association and turned its attention in conjunction with the RSPCA to matters of animal welfare. A number of water troughs were built for the use of horses, dogs and cattle and were common around the Smithfield market area and were also used to water the horses which drew the hackney carriages. Maps of the time were extended to show their location and they were known as filling stations.
The Association is still going, although, as is the modern way, its name was abbreviated in 2011 to the Drinking Fountain Association.
Next time you are in the area stop and look at this fascinating example of Victorian philanthropy. The water doesn’t taste bad either, but remember to replace the cup!