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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”