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The Pumps Of Old London

April 24, 2020
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

20 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris Webb permalink
    April 24, 2020

    I think those red elastic bands are Royal Mail. To match their pillar boxes maybe?

  2. Alastair McNaughton permalink
    April 24, 2020

    Have you ever done an article on the ‘stink pipes’ of London?

  3. April 24, 2020

    Congratulations Gentle Author on a marvellous piece of detective work which encourages us to keep our eyes open. I was fascinated as a child by the feeding trough at the top of Wimbledon Hill and enjoyed imagining the days when horses stopped there for a drink.

  4. Helen Abbott permalink
    April 24, 2020

    Dear Gentle Author
    Thank you for this very interesting post, and indeed your continuing output.
    I know many of the pumps you feature, and will make an effort to seek out the others once we are released.
    I’m a little puzzled by your reference to “the arms of St Andrew and St George”. Whilst I can recognise those of St Andrew, the other is a white upright cross on a red background, rather then the red cross on a white background that we would normally associate with St George.
    Is this an alternative version, or perhaps one that was used in the past?
    I’d be interested in your views, as I live very close to Queen’s Square, and have often wondered about this.
    Best regards to you

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 24, 2020

    I love the different designs of these pumps – the ones in Holborn are particularly elegant.

    It is also a good reminder of how grateful we should be to have a plentiful and clean supply of water at all times (a recent plumbing emergency really emphasised this!)

  6. April 24, 2020

    this has made me miss London for the first time since the Cronovirus Lockdown.
    Something about those pumps which must have registered subliminally are quintessentially London

  7. April 24, 2020

    Two of them are lit in case anyone needs water in the middle of the night. Great idea. Although I don’t suppose very many people use them nowadays. They’re all beautiful.

  8. April 24, 2020

    An excellent and informative piece, as ever.

  9. Gilbert OBrien permalink
    April 24, 2020


  10. Bernie permalink
    April 24, 2020

    A Londoner until about twenty years old, and given to wandering with a camera, this post like so many here puts me to shame for the things I never thought of looking for. Well done, GA!

  11. April 24, 2020

    ‘The pumps don’t work cos the vandals stole the handles.’
    Zimmerman, R

  12. michael bundy permalink
    April 24, 2020

    I believe the white cross on a red background is the flag of St John. A quick visit to St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell ( another well ! ) will confirm this. Interesting survey. With Thanks Michael Bundy

  13. Pauline Taylor permalink
    April 24, 2020

    When it is pure and untainted there is nothing to compare to fresh well water. All our water, in my home where I grew up, came from our own well apart from the water from the water butt which we used to wash our hair. It is a shame that borough councils do not take better care of these surviving pumps in London, it is a missed opportunity to provide an information board close by which could inform visitors of the significance of a source of water to mediaeval Londoners. Not forgetting information as to the devastation caused by outbreaks of cholera in later times. My own 2xgreat grandfather died in one of those in Lt Paris Street Lambeth when an outbreak raged there 1848-1849. Then of course it was thought that the disease was transmitted through the air in a miasma, it was only realized later that the public water supply had been polluted by foul water extracted from the River Thames. Lt Paris Street adjoined the garden of Lambeth Palace but I don’t think the Archbishop died, perhaps he had his own private supply of water !?!

    Thank you GA for another very interesting reminder of these surviving pumps.

  14. April 24, 2020

    A wonderful and fascinating piece, as usual.

    I posted a blog of my own a few days ago which touched on the famous Soho pump you mention. If anyone is interested here’s a link.

    Happy Friday.

  15. paul loften permalink
    April 24, 2020

    The Victorians were able to produce such inquiring minds as John Snow who came up with an answer to this terrible disease that was sweeping London in 1854 and the pump stands as evidence of this. Yet 166 years on with all our knowledge will we ever have a monument dedicated to the person who discovers the cure for Coronavirus or will we be forever living in fear of it? Are we paying the price for computers making our hands and brains lazy?

    Thankyou GA for reminding us

  16. Saba permalink
    April 24, 2020

    I find myself thinking of all the housewives and servants who must have gone out to the pump in whatever weather to get water for the household.

  17. jennifer newbold permalink
    April 24, 2020

    Dear G.A.,

    Thank you for the photographs of these noble survivors. Sadly they have become little more than street furniture, which I can attest to; because although I have never gone hunting for them, I KNOW that I walked right past the one between St. Paul’s and Paternoster Square in February and didn’t even see it. (Granted, I was on the phone at the time. Intrusive things, phones.)

  18. April 24, 2020

    I wonder if rather than Royal Mail ‘In Gray’s Inn Sq – where, in haste, a passing lawyer mislaid a red elastic band’ might be a substitute for red tape [actually pink]”

  19. April 26, 2020

    I Really Enjoyed these Pictures. Thank You Very Much.???????

  20. David permalink
    April 27, 2020

    The Pump Court pump has fairly recently been replaced – in the last 6 months or so I think. I work nearby and suddenly noticed it one day!

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