If you walk between the two main concourses of London’s Victoria train station, you may notice a conspicuous addition: a drinking fountain. As part of a new scheme, National Rail has introduced free drinking fountains to reduce the use of single use plastic water bottles. A deferential note from National Rail on Victoria’s new fountain reads: “With Compliments, Victoria Station”.
These objects have a historical connection with notions of a gift or offering – the philanthropic gesture. If you’re travelling through some of the UK’s other major stations, like in Glasgow Central or Bristol Temple Meads, keep an eye out for these new aquatic features.
A mile or two north of Victoria outside the Wallace Collection is another more archaic oddity, which tells us something of the history of these civic amenities: a Wallace Fountain, or Fontaine Wallace. In the early 1870s, fifty of these ornate yet gaudy neo-classical fountains were given to the city of Paris, after the siege during Franco-Prussian War and political violence during the Commune left the city beleaguered by disease and in ruins. The art collector and philanthropist Richard Wallace paid for the scheme; a Francophile and part-time resident of France, he saw his fountains as an opportunity to give back to the city he adored. The fountains have been a source of fascination and intrigue in the city since, with writers like Simone De Beauvoir and Louis Aragon discussing their symbolic meanings.
A Fontaine Wallace at Montmatre. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Yet beyond personal expression, Wallace’s gift was also part of a wider mid- Victorian obsession with this form of hydro-philanthropy. Outbreaks of cholera in London in the early and mid 19th century – leading to John Snow’s famous discovery in Soho of the disease’s waterborne origin – meant a drive to provide urban infrastructure with clean drinking water, to solve a problem which had killed thousand of London residents.
The remnants of this period still dot our streets and parks, some working, some not. It was often Christian philanthropy that drove the construction of drinking fountains in 19th century Britain. If you look around a Victorian church, you will often find a drinking fountain built into a wall or standing alone on the green. It was church donations that partially funded the establishment of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1859, coinciding with the inauguration of London’s first fountain. Attended by thousands of people at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church in Holborn, Charles Dickens Junior, who was at the inauguration, shared the same passion and fascination for the metropolis as his father. He wrote of drinking fountains in his Dictionary of London:
“London was ill-provided with public drinking fountains and cattle troughs. This matter is now well looked after by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, which has erected and is now maintaining nearly 800 fountains and troughs, at which an enormous quantity of water is consumed daily. It is estimated that 300,000 people take advantage of the fountains on a summer’s day…”
Today, we could say that the UK’s cities are again relatively ill-provided with public drinking fountains. The Victorian enthusiasm waned throughout the 20th century, with infrastructure for household tap water and the explosion of bottled water making the scenes Dickens Jr describes a thing of the past.
But these objects do not inform us only of human attempts at democratisation of public amenities and societal harmony; as is the case today, access to clean drinking water represents social divides as much as it represents unification. For many years prior to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association, London’s wealthy had access to fountains via fresh springs or wells in the wealthier suburbs. It was only following Snow’s discovery and public horror in face of cholera that meant poorer working classes were provided safe water to drink.
In parts of the USA, the Jim Crow laws enforced a system of racial apartheid up until the 1960s. Public spaces in the US became a series of racially demarcated zones, even further marginalising the position of black Americans. Of all images from this period of racist law making, none are starker than images of Americans queuing for and drinking from fountains designated under racial banners. Even acts as simple and mundane as drinking water succumbed to the segregation of the public.
Half a century on from the Civil Rights movement, perhaps these public amenities face an inclusive and greener future. Water companies in the USA and Europe are discussing bringing back public drinking fountains to reduce the use of single-use water bottles. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan announced in October a plan to build 100 new fountains across the city, with the installation of some already completed or underway. Khan wants to end the time of the “neglected” drinking fountain, re-introducing fountains in the capital to suit new trends of filling up re-usable bottles and reducing the use of plastic. With campaigns and activism for more environmental-minded action already beginning, new stories of the drinking fountain will begin to surface again.