21st December 1861.

Water provision in 19th century Britain came from nine private regional companies, but as it only catered for the rich, the rest of the growing urban population had to acquire supplies from any source available.

Today the Illustrated London News reported in 1861 that ‘the village of Tynemouth in the County of Northumberland, can boast through the munificence of Mr. William Scott of London, one of the handsomest clock towers and drinking fountains in the provinces’.

Newcastle-on-Tyne, as other growing towns, began to provide public fountains or standpipes, where the poor without their own water supply, had to pay a farthing for a tub or large pail.(1)

The quality of water had deteriorated as industrialisation took serious hold from the late 18th century onward, through contamination of rivers and wells, with cholera and typhoid outbreaks a regular occurrence.

It was a  decline from the Middle-Ages with slaughterhouses, tanning and bleach works, along with domestic waste of all types, from middens and cess-pits where constructed, finding its way into watercourses and wells.

There was no legislation before 1835 to compel house drains and sewers, so in the early 19th century, household sewage, general animal and large amounts of horse manure accumulated in streets and dung-hills.

The first drinking fountain at Holborn, London

The first drinking fountain at Holborn, London.

In a bid to provide clean drinking water in London, The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was set up in London by Samuel Gurney MP.(2)

The first fountain was erected at Holborn on the railings of St Sepulchre without Newgate, Snow Hill.(3)

Many of these were known as Temperance Fountains as they supplied an alternative to alcoholic drinks; beer had always been safer to drink than water.

The cause of water contamination wasn’t understood until Dr Snow’s campaign in London brought to the attention of the authorities, the notion that the problem was bacterial.

In the process Snow founded the statistical science of epidemiology and in 1849 had advanced the theory in his work, ‘On the mode and communication of cholera’, which stated that cholera was a bacterial infection and spread by contaminated water supplies.

He tested his theory and proved his point by removing the handle of the water-pump in Broad Street, London, now Broadwick Street. The effect was dramatic in the reduction of deaths.

Up until then there were many theories propounded such as that of Dr. William Farr, prevalent in the 19th century, with his Zymotic (Greek for ferment) disease notion, that all the epidemic, endemic and contagious diseases were attributable to the ‘ferment’ caused by yeast in the body.

This theory was said to be the cause of all the chief fever and contagious diseases, such as typhoid, typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever, measles, erysipelas, cholera, whooping cough and diptheria. It was a notion which held sway until the new bacteriology sciences took precedence later in the century.

With new sewerage systems and water cleanliness in the 20th century, matters had improved so much in London that by 1921 the Board of Trade abolished the position of Metropolitan Water Examiner (4). Cholera in Britain was now a thing of the past. Typhoid and gastrointestinal disorders also declined rapidly.

(1a) The cost to the poor, relative to those rich enough to have their own supply from the Water Joint Stock Company, was more expensive, owing to the need to employ a man at the fountain.

(1b) A farthing was a quarter of an old penny (1d) and many commodities were priced 1¼d for instance.

(2) ‘Cattle Troughs’ was added to the name  in 1867, to support animal welfare concerns of the time.

(3) Gurney opened the fountain on 21.4.1859, but it was moved in 1867 when the Viaduct was built. It was re-instated in 1913, where it still can be seen.

(4) Hardy’s Water Provision in England and Wales. 1984. Google Books

ADDENDA: With the growth of recreation grounds, most had a fountain with a great brass cup affixed by a chain, as the Author remembers at Outwards ‘Rec’. Burton-on-Trent.

Ref: History of Water in England and Wales; John Hassan.

Ref: Metropolitan Drinking Fountains & Cattle Troughs Association.

Ref: freepages,genealogy.rootsweb.com/tynesidehistory/ water

Ref: wikipedia.org/metropolitan-drinking-fountains-assoc/also ref. for Pic.

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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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