It might be hard for us to think that public access to clean drinking water wasn’t available to the masses until the middle of the 19th century. That was when The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was established in London, and they did something that nobody had done before. They opened the First Public Drinking Fountain in the world, and you can still visit it today.
This is what I did back in February 2017 when I visited London for the first time in five years. I was in the city for a week, but I knew that I wouldn’t have much free time so I decided to use in a way that would fit my tastes in the best way possible. That is why I ended up looking for the smallest police station in Great Britain and the First Public Drinking Fountain in the World. I visited both on the same Sunday, and you can read more about it now.
I never thought about public drinking fountains until a couple of years ago when I listened to an episode of 99% Invisible where they talk about Fountain Drinks. I was struck with this idea that there was no way to clean water for a fair price in the 19th century. I had never thought about this but, after listening to the podcast, I found out where the first public drinking fountain was located in London and saved for future use.
But why the first public drinking fountain is so important?
I never thought about the mass appeal of a public drinking fountain. But I live in Berlin in the 21st century, and I don’t need to think about cholera and other diseases. But London was not like this in the 19th century. The life of the poorer classes was a nightmare back then. If you wanted to drink water, you couldn’t open the tap in your kitchen. Most people didn’t have access to water in their homes, so the alternative was to go to the Thames River and get some from there. But the Thames was so dirty that it wasn’t considered clean water anymore. The river was essentially an open sewer in the middle of London, filled with chemicals from the Industrial Revolution and feces from all the people living in the city. Everything was dumped in the river, without any treatment.
In 1854, London was hit with a cholera outburst that became known as The Broad Street Cholera Outbreak. After that, a movement started growing for regulations and public access to water. This led the British government to buy out all the private water companies that existed. The first public baths came to exist in Liverpool, and drinking fountains came along.
In April 21st, 1859, there was an incredible moment in London. Thousands of people came to celebrate. Men came in suits and top hats, women wore their finest clothing and for what? The celebration was the opening of the first public drinking fountain, and they had Philanthropist Samuel Gurney to thank for that. He is the person that built the first fountain on Holborn Hill in the shape of granite basin, attached to the walls of the St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church. The design also comes with two cups attached to the fountain by chains.
That fountain became an instant hit, and it was used for 7,000 people, every day. The demand for clean water was so high that Samuel Gurney paid for 85 new fountains in the next six years.
I was alone when I went to the first public drinking fountain in London and could see people walking by me wondering why I was there taking pictures of it. The cups are still there, chained to the fountain. But there was no water there when I visited the place. Something that disappointed me since I wanted to taste a part of history and join all the people that, since 1859, had a sip of clean water in this corner of London.
If you want to do like I did and visit the first public drinking fountain, you have to find your way to the Holborn Viaduct and follow the map above to the St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church. There, on the corner of Giltspur Street, you will find what you are looking for.
The First Public Drinking Fountain at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church
Snow Hill, London EC1A 2DH, UK
The engraved image here came from the Illustrated London News from 1859, and we found it on drinkingfountains.org. All the pictures here were edited on an iPhone so we could try it out and see how would they look like.