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Restoring The Leonard Montefiore Fountain

February 19, 2023
by the gentle author

Leonard Montefiore Fountain at Stepney Green 

Sadly, the streets of our capital are punctuated with neglected drinking fountains that have run dry long ago, dismissed mostly as unsanitary relics of another age. Yet thanks to the inspirational work of the Heritage of London Trust, some will now have a new life, restored as refill stations for water bottles, thereby fulfilling an environmental purpose by reducing plastic waste as well as reinstating historic landmarks that enrich the urban landscape.

Over the winter, Contributing Photographer Rachel Ferriman & I followed the restoration of the Leonard Montefiore Fountain in Stepney Green which will be unveiled and switched on by Rabbi Julia Neuberger at a public ceremony at 1:15pm on Sunday 26th February followed by refreshments from Rinkoffs Bakery. All readers are welcome to attend.

Leonard Montefiore (1853 – 1879) who died at the age of just twenty-six was nephew of the famous Sir Moses Montefiore. Leonard counted Oscar Wilde and Arnold Toynbee among his friends, and during his short life was Secretary of the Society for the Extension of University Teaching in Tower Hamlets, a member of the Jewish Board of Guardians and a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement.

In 1878, Leonard moved to America ‘in order to see for himself what could be learned from the political and social condition of the people…’ There he died of rheumatic fever and was mourned as a man of ‘deep thought and energetic action’. The fountain in Stepney that commemorates him bears the inscription, ‘in affectionate remembrance of Leonard Montefiore who loved children and whom all children loved.. with clear brain and sympathetic heart, a spirit on flame with love for man, hands quick to labour, slow to part, if any good since time began, a soul can fashion, such souls can’.

My first sight of the fountain was in pieces at Fisher’s Court, the yard of Taylor Pearce, architecture and sculpture conservators, last October, where the marble and granite blocks were being cleaned to remove the grime of ages, while the lead plumbing was replaced and inset metal lettering restored. We were entertained by the dramatic spectacle of steam cleaning in action and I met Matt Nation, the conservator who is supervising the project.

‘I’ve been working with Taylor Pearce for just over thirty years as a sculpture conservator – we clean, repair and install artefacts,’ Matt explained to me. ‘We have worked in Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum. We have already restored a number of fountains, and stone is robust but the hardest part is the plumbing. We have to take the whole thing apart to get access to the pipes. Most waterworks in London before the sixties were lead and all that has to come out. The working parts were long gone from the Stepney fountain, so we replicated those by looking at old photographs and other fountains. It has a decorative, lily-shaped spout with a push-button mechanism. We cast these bespoke bronze elements and then we machined parts to connect them to modern plumbing. It feels good to get them going again.’

In December, I walked over to Stepney Green to see the obelisk winched back into position on top of the fountain again and watched the mortar put in place to hold it all together. The handsome fountain occupies the apex at the triangular junction of Stepney Green and Redmans Rd sympathetically, creating a pleasing landmark that reflects the form of the war memorial clock nearby and the colour of the industrial dwellings across the road. It is the central element in the landscape at this south end of Stepney Green and, now the water flows again, it animates the place with new life.

The Leonard Montefiore Fountain is one of ten fountains currently under restoration by Heritage of London Trust, including the one at the entrance to Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel, and we live in the hope that we shall see all London’s fountains flowing with water again in years to come.

Matt Nation of Taylor Pearce who supervised the conservation of the fountain

The marble basin under restoration

The central cube that contains the waterworks

Inset lettering commemorating Leonard Montefiore with missing letters replaced

The obelisk prior to cleaning

Kyriacos with the steam cleaner

Cleaning the obelisk

Replacement bronze waterspouts in the form of waterlilies

Toolkit for installing the fountain

Rigging the obelisk to lift it

Winching the obelisk up

Steering the obelisk towards the cube

Setting the obelisk in place

Levelling off the obelisk

Tim, James and Pablo of Taylor Pearce who installed the fountain

T. Heygate Vernon, Architect

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 19, 2023


  2. Mark permalink
    February 19, 2023

    It’s a beautiful concept.
    But London water?
    I’d be worried about contamination.
    After all, we do live in the 1850’s.
    Good on em tho but.

  3. February 19, 2023

    Now THIS is exactly why I enjoy reading Spitalfields Life on a frigid, pre-dawn Sunday
    morning! Not only a story of dedication, restoration, and optimism — but a photo of a
    fantastic tool kit. Wow!

    Well-done, everyone!

  4. Eleanor Bloom permalink
    February 19, 2023

    I feel it important to mention JEECS (JewishEast End CelebrationSociety), in particular Clive Bettington who campaigned and fundraised tirelessly for many years.

    The restoration and long awaited approval of Tower Hamlets Council would never have happened without this involvement.

  5. Claire D permalink
    February 19, 2023

    A bit of good news. Well done to all involved.

  6. Christine Swan permalink
    February 19, 2023

    What a fantastic reuse of a historic landmark for a modern day purpose and far more attractive than modern-day water fountains at stations or public buildings. There is an interesting timeline between the provision of clean, safe, potable water for the population and the development of microbiology. The benefits of chlorination were not discovered until the very end of the 19th century but reservoirs and filtration came earlier allowing sunlight to kill some of the nasties. The early pumps and fountains used local supplies without these benefits which led to some horrible outbreaks of water-borne disease and allowed John Snow to make the link between the two. Some were situated next door to cemeteries so the disease cycle was complete.
    Modern pumps are fed from the water main so we can now drink from these fountains without concern. My Dad worked for the MWB (now Thames Water) and I was a former biologist. Hope I haven’t bored anyone!

  7. Cherub permalink
    February 19, 2023

    A beautiful fountain, but as it’s in London I’m not sure I’d want to drink from it. when I lived in London tap water was pretty disgusting, there was always a film on tea and coffee. White shirts would be grey after 10 washes.

  8. Andy permalink
    February 19, 2023

    Did it have on a religious text about “The Lord being close to those with broken hearts.”.. I remember that statue aa a boy

    Is it the same one?


  9. Frances Borzello permalink
    February 19, 2023

    We went to the fountain unveiling today. It’s next Sunday!!!Frances Borzello

  10. Ann permalink
    February 19, 2023

    Brilliant work, well done everyone ??

  11. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 19, 2023

    Great news that these fountains are being restored and being out back into use. There was a feature on Radio London the other day about a water fountain being restored in Hendon which sounds very similar.

  12. Gail Farrow permalink
    February 19, 2023

    Sounds like Leonard was a superb young man gone far too soon. Who knows what good he would have done for humanity given the chance.

    Well done to all those involved in restoring this fountain commemorating him.

  13. Stephen Watts permalink
    February 19, 2023

    Many thanks for a heart-warming story of lovely & sustainable local ecology : more such needed !!

  14. Peter permalink
    February 20, 2023

    Sterling work by all. Can we have photo of it ‘spouting’ when it is finally switched on please?

  15. May 4, 2023

    I was born in Bethnal Green, but came across the name MONTIFIORE until I went to work at the hospital named for Moses Montifiore in New York City. Since then, I have found all sorts of associations with various family members in different parts of the world. Although I knew Stepney and Stepney Green as a child, I never saw, or do not remember seeing, the Memorial Fountain. It is wonderful that it has been restored and I hope to see it when next I am in London. Wonderful work. Congratulations to all those involved. It would be wonderful if SOMEONE would nudge Tower Hamlets to do SOMETHING about the condition of the memorials along Whitechapel and Mile End Roads, which seem to have been forgotten like the glorious Alms Houses there.

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