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The Pumps of Old London

January 10, 2012
by the gentle author

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry” -Thomas Fuller, 1732

Hardly anyone notices this venerable pump of 1832 in Shoreditch churchyard, yet this disregarded artifact may conceal the reason why everything that surrounds it is there. Reverend Turp of St Leonard’s explained to me that the very name of Shoreditch derives from the buried spring beneath this pump, “suer” being the Anglo-Saxon word for stream.

The Romans made their camp at this spot because of the secure water source and laid out four roads which allowed them to control the entire territory from there – one road led West to Bath, one North to York, one East to Colchester and one South to Chichester. In fact, this water source undermined the foundations of the medieval church and caused it to collapse, leading to the construction of the current building by George Dance but, even then, there were still problems with flooding and the land was built up to counteract this, burying the first seven steps out of ten at the front of the church. Later, human remains from the churchyard seeped into this supply (as in some other gruesome examples) and it was switched over to mains water. Today, the sad old pump in Shoreditch has lost its handle, had its nozzle broken and even its basin is filled with concrete, yet a lone primrose flowers – emblematic of the mystic quality that some associate with these wellsprings, as sources of life itself.

Before the introduction of the mains supply in London, the pumps were a defining element of the city, public water sources that permitted settlement and provided a social focus in each parish. Now, where they remain, they are redundant relics unused for generations, either tolerated for their picturesque qualities or ignored by those heedless of their existence. When I began to research this subject, I found that no attention had been paid to these valiant survivors of another age. So I set out West to seek those other pumps that had caught my attention in my walks around the city and make a gallery for you of the last ones standing.

Holborn is an especially good place to look for old pumps, there I found several fine examples contemporary with the stately Georgian squares, and the Inns of Court proved rewarding hunting ground too. At Lincoln’s Inn, the porter told me they still get their water supply untreated from the Fleet river, encouraging me to explore South of Fleet St at the Temple, although to my disappointment Pump Court no longer has a pump to justify its name.

Up in Soho, at Broadwick St, you will find London’s most notorious pump, the conduit that brought a cholera epidemic killing more than five hundred people in 1854. Now it has been resurrected as a monument to the physician who detected the origin of the infection and had the pump handle removed. Today, the nearest pub bears his name, John Snow. The East End’s most famous specimen, the Aldgate Pump – that I have written of elsewhere in these pages – was similarly responsible for a lethal epidemic, underlining the imperative to deliver a safe water supply, an imperative that ultimately rendered these pumps redundant.

Perhaps the most gracious examples I found were by St Paul’s Cathedral, “Erected by St Faith’s Parish, 1819,” and in Gray’s Inn Square. Both possess subtle expressive detail as sculptures that occupy their locations with presence, and in common with all their pitiful fellows they stand upright like tireless flunkies – ever hopeful and eager to serve – quite oblivious to our indifference.

In Shoreditch churchyard, this sad old pump of 1832 has lost its handle, had its nozzle broken and basin filled with concrete, and is attended by a lone primrose.

In Queen’s Sq, Holborn this pump of 1840 has the coats of arms of St Andrew and St George.

In Bedford Row, Holborn, this is contemporary with its colleague in Queens Sq.

In Gray’s Inn Sq – where, in haste, a passing lawyer mislaid a red elastic band.

This appealing old pump in Staple Inn is a pastiche dated 1937.

This is the previous pump in the location above, more utilitarian and less picturesque.

In New Square, Lincoln’s Inn.

Between Paternoster Sq and St Paul’s Churchyard.

Outside the Royal Exchange in Cornhill. The text on the pump reads, “On this spot a well was first made and a house of correction built thereon by Henry Wallis Mayor of London in the year 1282.” Designed by architect Nathaniel Wright and erected in 1799.

Aldgate Pump marks the boundary between the East End and the City of London. The faucet in the shape of a wolf commemorates the last of these beasts to be shot outside the walls of the City.

London’s most notorious pump in Broadwick St, Soho. Five hundred people died in the cholera epidemic occasioned by this pump in 1854. Reinstated in 1992 to commemorate medical research in the service of public health, the nearby pub is today named “John Snow” after the physician who traced the outbreak to this pump. A red granite kerbstone across the road marks the site of the original pump.

Archive image courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like the to read about

The Pump of Death

The Signs of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

In Search of the Relics of Old London

The Manhole Covers of Spitalfields

13 Responses leave one →
  1. January 10, 2012

    Oh! I was hoping that you’d have a shot of the Broadwick St. pump. Last time I was in London, I tried finding it, but ran out of time/light. Next time for sure.

  2. Jennifer permalink
    January 10, 2012

    So fascinating – I love all the history of London that you incorporate. Do you know I don’t recall ever having seen any of these pumps! How unobservant of me, I shall be looking for them now.

  3. aubrey permalink
    January 10, 2012

    With regard to the Soho pump, one should also remember the great Sir Joseph Bazalget civil engineer who designed and implemented the sewage and drainage system of London in the late 1850’s, ridding London of it’s localised and stagnant water supplies. This came about as a result of not only the cholera outbreak but the of ‘the great stink of London’ which appeared to emanate from the River Thames and affected the members of Parliament when the House sat during the hot weather!

  4. Alice permalink
    January 10, 2012

    I wish some of these could be connected to the mains to regain a life as drinking water fountains. I’d be interested to know if there are any working public drinking fountains in London? Like the distinctive green examples in Paris they’d be a real boom on a hot day and would undoubtedly reduce some of the unnecessary waste bottled water causes. Although I imagine it’d take a considerable PR campaign to get people to learn where they are and actually use them.

  5. January 10, 2012

    I spent 3 years splitting my (work) time between the striped building behind the Aldgate Pump – and High Holborn, literally in front of the Bedford Row pump. Another post that’s revealed some incredible hidden history

  6. CornishCockney permalink
    January 10, 2012

    Alice I’ve always wished that too. Carrying a bottle of water is such a pain when just a sip is needed to refresh. now and again.
    I’m sure there used to be some around when I was a nipper, in parks at least.

  7. January 12, 2012

    Amazing!!! i would have walked past these pumps a billion times not realising why they are here or perhaps even that they are pumps!

    Just wondered into your blog and its one of my top lists now! keep it coming! 🙂

  8. Jenny permalink
    January 14, 2012

    Here on the Isle of Wight we have annual well dressing events when the ancient water wells are lavishly decorated with images made from flowers. When I looked at these photos I thought how great they would look decorated and celebrated in the same way.

  9. peter permalink
    February 10, 2012

    I am surpresed you have not included the world famous victoria park drinking fountain paid for angelia burdet coutes the same lady who built or rather paid for the building of columbia road market then apart from LEOPOLD buildings that were built on old temament buildingds
    these also still stand in columbia road columbia road markrt was built on that foul little heap that was known for its burkers and the death of the italian boyLEOPOLD BUILDINGS was built by the lord mayor of londonsir sydney wartolow he also left waterlow park to the people of london and let us not forget the guinness buildings that are now looked after by the
    presant lord eiver who lives in elveden suffolk

  10. peter permalink
    February 10, 2012

    i am at the moment working my way thropugh the census material from 1851 up to 1901
    my family are on the 1871 census living in bird cage walk at that time the farthest end was then called cranbtree row in its early years I have uncovered maps that show the naggs head pub that was the first stop of the london to norwich mail coachstood on land where my tailor had his shop it was called temples but changed its name to david london before it closerd down it was opposite goldsmith row in haggerston the VICTORIA COUNTY History puts the date that the bird cage pubnlic house was built was in the 1700s buit it was first called the red
    many thanks pete

  11. peter permalink
    February 10, 2012

    Chales Dikens is said to advised his frend Angela Burdet Coutes to buld columbia road buildings but he apparently loved fresh air so the buildings had no windows on each floor and the doors were of a loose fit angela burdet coutes leased the land to Sir HENRY WARTERLOW who was owner of waterlow paper manufactuers they did employ many local people my late father new the company very well as he worked for about an age and finished up running his companyin kingsland road they were called the superb box company

  12. April 27, 2015

    I think the Porter at Lincoln’s Inn may well have been pulling your leg. The Fleet is a combined sewer for most of its short length, emptying into several interceptors before finally reaching the Thames, the water is *definitely* not for drinking!

  13. April 2, 2021

    Nice to see the old St Faith’s Parish Pump shown here – it’s just outside the railings of St Paul’s Cathedral – although looking a little tatty.
    My company Richard Quinnell Ltd restored this mainly cast iron pump sometime around the late 1960s – early 1970s – as far as my poor old memory serves.
    After surviving from 1819, including the Blitz, the fasteners holding the panels together (it’s built out of flat panels, like a big box) had rusted away, and it was in danger of falling to bits. We took it off site to our workshops in Leatherhead, and when we took it apart we found quite a lot of odd paperwork had been ‘posted’ through the slot where the pump handle goes through – and was remarkably well-preserved: millinery and corsetry catalogues from the 1920s and 30s – but the most astonishing were a load of Reuters despatches – like telegraph forms (Reuters were one of the earliest international press agencies) – evidently the Reuters messenger boy sent to take these important news-flashes to the major newspaper offices in Fleet Street couldn’t be arsed to run the whole way, so posted them in the slot in the pump! The most remarkable of these documents was from Reuters’ agent in Vigo, the naval port in Western Spain – it described the arrival, in disgrace, of a Spanish Admiral who had been involved in the surrender of Cuba after the defeat of the Battlevof Santiago in the Spanish-American War in 1898 – describing how he had been pelted with oranges by an unsympathetic crowd! So we never knew!

    We restored it to its former appearance – the working pump mechanism innards had disintegrated, and weren’t remade – and we stripped and rustproofed it, and finished it gloss black with gold leaf lettering. It looked very smart. It’s been moved a few yards since, and it would be nice to see it repainted and gilded. I can’t remember who the client was – we worked for the City of London Historic Buildings Dept, and also for the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral on a load of projects around that time. If anyone is particularly interested I can probably find the works records.

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