Walking the City of London

Month: March 2017

Philanthropic Fountains

It was a nice sunny day when I stood in front of this modest little drinking fountain outside St Sepulchre’s Church on Snow Hill near Holborn Viaduct and recalled a picture of the scene on 20th April 1859 when it was unveiled as the first public drinking fountain in London.

A stern reminder to ‘Replace the Cup’ common on many fountains

To me the fountain represents the coming together of some of the great influences on people’s lives in the 19th Century – the philanthropic initiatives of the Quakers, the gradual recognition that access to clean water was essential if London was to continue to flourish, and the temperance and teetotalism movements striving to combat drunkenness.

In the early 19th century water had become a valuable commodity and by 1860 the supply of drinking water to London was controlled by no fewer than eight private companies. It was generally acknowledged that its quality was unsatisfactory to say the least, as outbreaks of cholera earlier in the century had demonstrated. This, combined with a shortage of availability, contributed to a heavy consumption of beer and spirits, particularly among poorer citizens and the ‘labouring classes’ whose workplace was the London streets. Making available free, safe water was to enable a common cause to be established between those seeking to improve hygiene and reduce disease and the anti-alcohol campaigners.

If you look at the picture of the fountain, you might just be able to make out the inscription on the arch above the scallop shell which reads ‘The Gift of Sam Gurney MP 1859’. Gurney was a Quaker, and although Quakers numbered less than 14,000 people in Britain in 1861 their influence in business and philanthropy was disproportionately great – think, for example, of Cadbury, Fry, Barclay and Rowntree. They believed that good works were a sign of man’s sanctification and their economic and religious philosophies ran parallel to one another.

Gurney was present in spring 1859 for the inauguration of The Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. At the meeting the unveiling in two weeks time of his new fountain was announced along with the intention that it would be the first of many. The Earl of Albermarle got rather carried away and stated his hopes that the fountains would …

Check those habits of intemperance which caused nine-tenths of the pauperism, three-fourths of the crime, one half of the disease, one-third of the insanity, one-third of the suicide, three-fourths of the general depravity and (amazingly) one-third of the shipwrecks that annually occurred.

The opening of the fountain was an incredibly well attended event …

 Copyright Illustrated London News.

‘The Lady’ newspaper’s view was that the fountains would help by ‘providing an alternative to the public house and the low company found in those establishments’. To demonstrate the water’s purity the inaugural first sip at the opening was taken by a Mrs Wilson – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter, no less – who declared the taste excellent. Just for the removal of doubt, however, a final announcement was made that the fountain was for the special use of the working classes and was committed to their care. Incidentally, Mrs Wilson used a specially engraved silver cup which she was presented with after the ceremony.

Over the next six years 85 fountains were built, most using granite in order to keep the water supply cool. In summer 1865 the Association conducted a twenty-four-hour survey, which produced some very satisfying results. For example, 2,647 drinkers were recorded at the St Sepulchre’s site; at London Bridge more than 3000 people visited and at Bishopsgate an extraordinary 6,666. By 1867 it was estimated that up to 400,000 drinkers a day were using the amenities and by 1875 there were 276 fountains across the capital.

Charles Gilpin was another Quaker whose fountain can still be seen at St Botolph Without Bishopsgate

‘The Gift of C. Gilpin Esq. M.P. 1860’

Getting the fountains built was no easy matter with protracted negotiations often needed with, for example, local vestries, and of course the water companies themselves, who had to be paid for the water used unless they could be persuaded to become donors. Also, water was a precious commodity, and some objected on moral grounds to the wastefulness of the water flowing continuously when the idea of using taps was rejected, given the wear and tear involved. Before the end of its first decade the term ‘free’ in the Association’s title had been recognised as a misnomer and it was dropped. About the same time it elongated its name to the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association to embrace public water provision for animals. Previously troughs had been sited outside public houses with free use only for patrons or on payment of a fee, as one poetic sign declared:

All that water their horses here
Must pay a penny or have some beer

At least one of the horse troughs has survived in the City – although many more can be found around London, usually adapted to accommodate flowers.

Trough and fountain for use by the public, and animals large and small, on London Wall

Remarkably, the cup is also still attached to this nice fountain in Love Lane at the junction with Aldermanbury, the gift of Robert H. Rogers, a Ward Deputy.

Robert H. Rogers’s gift dated November 1890



Love Lane fountain cup and chain


If you thirst for more knowledge about London’s water-related history get hold of a copy of the excellent book ‘Parched City’ by Emma M. Jones on which much of this post is based, including the title.


Ship Ahoy!

I really like The Gherkin a.k.a. 30 St Mary Axe and it’s interesting to recall that when it was completed in 2003 it dominated that part of the City. Now it’s sad to see soaring new office developments beginning to surround it so it’s unique shape is gradually being hidden from view. When it was finished it was for a while informally known as The Swiss Re building, after the company that commissioned it for their London headquarters, but some wag said it looked like ‘an erotic gherkin’ and the description stuck. It’s probably a shame for the company that their award-winning building had its name hijacked like this, even though they no longer own it.

Ship’s prow in Bury Street

Anyway, you may be wondering what the connection is with the magnificent Art Deco ship’s prow in the photograph above. Bear with me.

The Gherkin is built on the site of the old Baltic Exchange, which was eventually demolished as a result of an IRA bomb in 1992. The clearing of the area to provide an open space around the Gherkin opened up for the first time a new view of Holland House in Bury Street. This was at one time one of the narrowest streets in the City but the west side was demolished to open up the Gherkin ‘piazzetta’ (the name for a little piazza, I’m told). So the Holland House architect originally designed the building to be viewed obliquely.

Holland House with the Gherkin reflected in its windows

Holland House is fascinating for a number of reasons. For example, it was built in 1916 right in the middle of the First World War and the year of the Somme. The Dutch company Wm. H. Müller who commissioned it were big in shipping, steel and mining. In its feature on the building, the journal Building Design comments as follows: ‘The company thrived in the neutrality of the Netherlands … and there were scarcely any British clients who could, or would, invest in such a large city building. The glazed terracotta bricks (made in Delft) were sent to London in the firm’s ships and given priority over other cargoes’. It is also the only building in London by Hendrik Petrus Bertage, the foremost Dutch architect of the 20th Century and is one of the first in London to have a steel framed structure.
But what about the ship!
Walk around to the south east corner of the building, step back and admire this brave vessel plunging through the waves towards you, the funnel smoking impressively. It’s a granite structure by the Dutch artist J. Mendes da Costa and reflects the company’s main business of shipping.
I love this story about the ship’s positioning.
Apparently the company owner, Helene Kröller-Müller, had wished to buy the whole of the Bury Street corner, but had been thwarted by the adjacent owners who refused to sell. As a consequence, Holland House is broken into two sections, and it has been suggested that the aggressive prow of the ship was intended to ‘cock a snook’ at the neighbours.

The ship’s prow with the Gherkin in the background

A Dead Camel in Eastcheap…

For ten years I walked past this building on the way to work but it was almost as long before I looked up and wondered ‘Why is there a camel train carved above a branch of HSBC?’ HSBC have moved on but thankfully the camels (and their dead companion) are still there. They have a story to tell.

Constructed between 1883 and 1885, the building at 20 Eastcheap was once the headquarters of Peek Brothers & Co, dealers in tea, coffee and spices, whose trademark showed three camels bearing different shaped loads being led by a Bedouin Arab. The firm was particularly well known for its ‘Camel’ brand of tea. When Sir Henry Peek (son of one of the original founders) commissioned this building he wanted the panel over the entrance to replicate the trademark, right down to the dried bones of the dead camel lying in the sand in the foreground.

The Peek Brothers letter heading/trademark – Copyright – British Overprint Society – Mark Matlach

He clearly wanted his prestigious building to be enhanced by a suitably eminent sculptor – preferably one with knowledge of camel anatomy.

The sculptor he picked, William Theed, was indeed an extraordinary choice for such a mundane task. Theed was a great favourite of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and his work can be seen on the Albert Memorial where he sculpted the group Africa the central figure being, of course, a camel. The Queen also liked and trusted him so much that she asked him to take her beloved Albert’s death mask when the Prince died tragically young in 1861.


Theed’s masterpiece – ‘Africa’ at the Albert Memorial

Peeks carried on trading under various names until the 1970s. Another branch of the family ensures that the name lives on by way of the biscuit makers Peek Freans.

Theed died in 1891 at the ripe old age of 87. Although his work had become unfashionable towards the end of his life, he still left an estate valued at £41,000 – about £3.5 million in today’s values.

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