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The Pump of Death

March 9, 2011
by the gentle author

See these people come and go at the junction of Fenchurch St and Leadenhall St in the City of London in 1927. Observe the boy idling in the flat cap. They all seem unaware they are in the presence of the notorious “Pump of Death” – that switched to mains supply fifty years earlier in 1876, when the water began to taste strange and was found to contain liquid human remains which had seeped into the underground stream from cemeteries.

Several hundred people died in the resultant Aldgate Pump Epidemic as a result of drinking polluted water – though this was obviously a distant memory by the nineteen twenties when Whittard’s tea merchants used to “always get the kettles filled at the Aldgate Pump so that only the purest water was used for tea tasting.”

Yet before it transferred to a supply from the New River Company of Islington, the spring water of the Aldgate Pump was appreciated by many for its abundant health-giving mineral salts, until – in an unexpectedly horrific development – it was discovered that the calcium in the water had leached from human bones.

This bizarre phenomenon quickly entered popular lore, so that a bouncing cheque was referred to as “a draught upon Aldgate Pump,” and in rhyming slang “Aldgate Pump” meant to be annoyed – “to get the hump.” The terrible revelation confirmed widespread morbid prejudice about the East End, of which Aldgate Pump was a landmark defining the beginning of the territory. The “Pump of Death” became emblematic of the perceived degradation of life in East London and it was once declared with superlative partiality that “East of Aldgate Pump, people cared for nothing but drink, vice and crime.”

Today this sturdy late-eighteenth century stone pump stands sentinel as the battered reminder of a former world, no longer functional, and lost amongst the traffic and recent developments of the modern City. No-one notices it anymore and its fearsome history is almost forgotten, despite the impressive provenance of this dignified ancient landmark, where all mileages East of London are calculated. Even in the old photographs you can trace how the venerable pump became marginalised, cut down and ultimately ignored.

Aldgate Well was first mentioned in the thirteenth century – in the reign of King John – and referred to by sixteenth century historian, John Stowe, who described the execution of the Bailiff of Romford on the gibbet “near the well within Aldgate.” In “The Uncommercial Traveller,” Charles Dickens wrote, “My day’s business beckoned me to the East End of London, I had turned my face to that part of the compass… and had got past Aldgate Pump.” And before the “Pump of Death” incident, Music Hall composer Edgar Bateman nicknamed “The Shakespeare of Aldgate Pump,” wrote a comic song in celebration of Aldgate Pump – including the lyric line “I never shall forget the gal I met near Aldgate Pump…”

The pump was first installed upon the well head in the sixteenth century, and subsequently replaced in the eighteenth century by the gracefully tapered and rusticated Portland stone obelisk that stands today with a nineteenth century gabled capping. The most remarkable detail to survive to our day is the elegant brass spout in the form of a wolf’s head – still snarling ferociously in a vain attempt to maintain its “Pump of Death” reputation – put there to signify the last of these creatures to be shot outside the City of London.

In the photo from 1927,  you can see two metal drinking cups that have gone now, leaving just the stubs where the chains attaching them were fixed. Tantalisingly, the brass button that controls the water outlet is still there, yet, although it is irresistible to press it, the water ceased flowing in the last century. A drain remains beneath the spout where the stone is weathered from the action of water over centuries and there is an elegant wrought iron pump handle – enough details to convince me that the water might return one day.

Looking towards Aldgate.

The water head, reputed to be an image of the last wolf shot in London.

The pump was closed in 1876 and the outlet switched to mains water supply.

Archive photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

13 Responses leave one →
  1. March 9, 2011

    Particularly interesting as my former office overlooks the pump. I shall waste no time in reminding my former colleagues of its fearsome reputation.

    What marvellous old photographs!

  2. Gillian permalink
    March 9, 2011

    Reading this reminded me of Doctor John Snow and his work on a cholera outbreak in Victorian London. I’ve listened to a very good dramatisation of the event with Bill Nighy as John Snow on BBC 7 . I believe it was called the Medical Detectives. BBC 7 are so fond of repeating the repeats it’s bound to be on again soon! It was absolutely fascinating, well anything with Bill Nighy in it is…

  3. John _F permalink
    March 9, 2011

    Further to Gillian’s comment, here’s a link to Dr Snow and the ‘Broad Street’ Pump:

  4. March 9, 2011

    Wow – I absolutely loved reading about this! I always look forward to ‘Spitalfields Life’ feed email coming through with more captivating information on East End life.

    The old photographs are great – but I always particularly love it when a post contains also a ‘then’ and ‘now’ shot for us non-Londoners.

    I wonder how many people actually walk by this every day and not know the story behind it!?

    Best – Houdini

  5. March 10, 2011

    By coincidence, I was at the Aldgate, a pub in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, for the first time on Saturday. The pumped beverages were veritably potable, but I almost choked on the prices…

  6. March 15, 2011

    fascinating, what a gruesome story. it would be wonderful to see it working again. i love the images.

  7. Maryellen Johnston permalink
    January 10, 2012

    Totally amazing – and what a sense of horror it invokes!

  8. Shawdian permalink
    June 2, 2017

    Poor old pump! Was only put there to serve and do good, makes one almost feel sorry for it :)) Is this one of the most photographed pumps in London..

  9. Ron Bunting permalink
    February 13, 2019

    And now the lord mayor is putting in more drinking fountains in an effort to reduce plastic bottle use in London….

  10. February 13, 2019

    Lovely piece. You mention Aldgate Well. It’s believed Chaucer collected his daily water from there when living in Aldgate – literally in the gate – in the 1370s-80s.

  11. Max Reeves permalink
    February 18, 2019

    Does anyone know what underground stream would have fed the pump origionally?

    Great Story thanks

  12. March 4, 2023

    Very entertaining. Much more interesting over the pond!!

  13. Filipe Baruzzi permalink
    March 5, 2023

    Great history! Glad to know that it had been restored in 2019!

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