Symbols & Secrets

Walking the City of London

Category: Wellbeing

More fab fountains – one’s a cracker!

Why has this 19th century drinking fountain got a carving on it that looks a bit like a Christmas cracker?

It’s located on the south west side of Finsbury Square and forms part of an elaborate memorial …

The inscription reads …

Erected and presented to the Parish of St Luke by Thomas and Walter Smith (Tom Smith and Co) to commemorate the life of their mother, Martha Smith, 1826 – 1898.

Martha was the widow of Tom Smith and here I would like to relate a little history courtesy of the excellent London Remembers website. In 1847, twenty five year old Tom, an ornamental confectionery retailer in Goswell Road, brought the French idea of a bon-bon wrapped in a twist of paper over to Britain. In 1861, probably inspired by fireworks, he introduced a new product line, ‘le cosaque’, or the ‘Bang of Expectation’, or crackers as we now know them. This successful product, originally used to celebrate any event you care to name, enabled the business to move to larger premises on Finsbury Square, where they stayed until 1953.

Smith and his sons knew a thing or two about advertising and were not modest about their wonderful products. Here’s a typical 19th century example …

I love the instructions to ‘Refuse worthless imitations’ and ‘Make Merriment everywhere’.

There is an example of a Tom Smith’s Cracker and box on display in the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. This picture was taken by The Londonist who has written a very comprehensive blog about the memorial which you can find here

Victorian Christmas crackers were filled with all sorts of trinkets and surprises – first they contained rhymed mottoes or verses, then some sort of fancy-paper hat, bonnet, mob-cap or masks. Considerable artistic talent was introduced in the adornment of these novelties.

And here is an image from the Tom Smith archive where you can also find the 2019 catalogue and order your Christmas supplies!

The company is now owned by Napier Industries and still holds a Royal Warrant.

Here’s the founder himself. He was born 1823 and died, quite young, in 1869 …

We can thank the company for going on to develop cracker contents like the novelty gift and corny joke. You also have to blame one of Tom’s sons for the paper hat we are obliged to wear, often with excruciating British embarrassment, at work Christmas parties.

Crackers never took off in America and it has been claimed that the British liked them because ‘it taught their children how to deal with disappointment at an early age’.

And now for something rather odd. The water fountain was funded by the sons but the daughters went their own way. A few yards away is this horse and cattle trough …

It bears the following inscription (now very faded) …

In remembrance Martha Smith 1898. Erected by her daughters P. L. and L. D.

The sons erect the splendid water fountain and the daughters erect the utilitarian water trough. Does this tell us something about their personalities or about Victorian gender differences?

Researching the origin of the Christmas cracker has been a genuine pleasure and if you want to know more there is a book about the ‘King of Crackers’ – I might just order a copy. You can find a review here.

Next up is the St Lawrence and Mary Magdalene fountain located on Carter Lane opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Created as a joint enterprise between the two parishes that give it its name, the fountain was originally installed in 1866 outside the Church of St Lawrence Jewry …

An engraving from ‘The Builder’ publication 1866.

The location next to St Lawrence Jewry …

A man quenching his thirst in 1911.

It was dismantled in 1970 and put into a city vault for fifteen years, then stored in a barn at a farm in Epping. The pieces were sent to a foundry in Chichester for reassembly in 2009 and it was was moved to the current location the following year …

The work was designed by the architect John Robinson (1829-1912) and sculpted by Joseph Durham (1814-1877), both very famous men in their time.

The fountain takes the form of a niche with carved hood resting on granite columns. Set into the niche is a bronze bas-relief of Moses striking the rock at Horeb (Exodus. XVII. IV-VI) …

Water runs down the face of the bronze from where Moses’ staff strikes. To the left of Moses is the figure of a woman holding a cup of water to her child’s mouth.

Above the fountain is a carved stone statue of St Lawrence holding a gridiron (on which he was martyred) …

In the south-facing niche is a statue of St Mary Magdalene holding a cross, and with a skull at her feet …

The other two niches are empty but are believed to have originally held the names of past benefactors of the churches carved into white marble slabs. Below, a new brass tap has now been fitted which dispenses water when pressed.

I wrote about the City’s water fountains and their fascinating history a few years ago and you can read the blog again here.

The City’s little museums

Would you like to see an authentic signature of Henry VIII? A Hogarth painting on a staircase? A bomb made by the suffragettes? All these fascinating things are there for you to visit for free at some of the City’s smaller and lesser known museums.

First up is my favourite, the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum. Walk through the imposing Henry VIII gate on Giltspur Street and the museum entrance is about 30 metres to your left under the North Wing archway. It is packed with exhibits from the hospital’s 900 year history, so this blog only gives you a taste of what you can see – there is also an introductory film.

You will be greeted by a friendly volunteer and this beautifully turned out nurse …

‘This way for the museum …’

Almost immediately you will come across an impressive document on vellum recording an agreement between Henry VIII and the City of London dated 27 December 1546 (just a month before his death). In it he promises to grant to the City the hospital and the church, in return for which the City will provide care for 100 poor men and women.

The document bears Henry VIII’s seal, the king charging into battle on horseback accompanied by a dog …

And it is signed by Henry as well, in the top left hand corner …

The agreement was prompted by the King having considered ‘… the myserable estate of the poore aged sick sore and ympotent people as well men as women lyinge and goying about Beggyng’.

Another cabinet contains a wide selection of artifacts that make you pleased that surgery and medicine have advanced so profoundly in the last few hundred years …

Included are instruments from the 1820s used for breaking up bladder stones, a wooden head for practicing trepanning (drilling holes in the skull), a surgeon’s amputation kit and a leg prosthesis for a child.

You can skip any gruesome exhibits though, and head for the back of the museum where you can look through the door and see this staircase …

In 1733, when William Hogarth heard that the governors of St Bartholomew’s were considering commissioning the Venetian artist, Jocopo Amigoni, to paint a mural in the newly constructed North Wing of the hospital, he offered his own services free. Many of the people portrayed are suffering from conditions that were treated at the hospital, for example the man Jesus is reaching out to at the Pool of Bethesda has a leg ulcer.

As you head towards the exit a friendly nun will offer you a snack …

The London Police Museum in Guildhall is housed at 2 Aldermanbury …

A fine set of moustaches.

The City of London police have been responsible for looking after the Square Mile since 1839 and this exhibition is a collaboration with the Guildhall Library.

Some exhibits make you smile …

Coat hangers from a police station circa 1930s or 40s.

The joke is that the minimum height for a City of London Police officer was 5 feet 9 inches whereas for the Metropolitan Police it was 5 feet 7 inches.

Other exhibits are more serious …

Cleverly disguised bombs made by Suffragettes.

And finally some police enforcement equipment …

The object with the elaborate crest is a tipstaff dated 1839 – it was a sign of rank and unscrewed to provide a place to carry documents. The handcuffs are 19th century, the earlier one was attached to the wrist of the detained person and the officer would hold the other side. The ‘bullseye’ lamp for night patrol is from the 1880s and the truncheon, with the City emblem, from the same period.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog and that it prompts you to visit these places if you haven’t done so already. Later this year I will be writing about two more small museums – the crypt at All Hallows by the Tower and the museum at the Bank of England.



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.


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