A short history of the drinking fountain

A drinking fountain, dating to 1897, in Patcham, north of Brighton, Sussex. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

 
 
 
 

17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.


14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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