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.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.