Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 19 - Free Drinking Fountains

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TILL lately the London poor had no means of getting water but the pump or the public-house. Of the latter we can have but a poor opinion, nor all the former much better. It appears that "the London pumps can never be otherwise than dangerous sources of supply; the porous soil from which they suck being that into which our cesspools and leaky drains discharge a great part of their fluid - sometimes even a great part of their solid contents, and in which, till very recently, all our interments have taken place. It is a soil which consequently abounds with putrid and putrefiable matter. The water derived from it invariably contains products of organic decomposition, more or less oxidised; and it is a mere chance, beyond the power of water-drinkers to measure or control, whether that oxidation shall at all times be so incomplete as to have left the water still capable of a very dangerous kind of fermentation." We are further told that, "the shallow well water receives the drainage of Highgate Cemetery, of numerous burial grounds, and of innumer-[-194-]able cesspools which percolate the soil on the London side of the Cemetery, and flow towards the Metropolis. . . .  That the pump-water also becomes contaminated with the residual liquors of manufacturing processes. . . . That a man who habitually makes use of London pump-water, lives in perpetual danger of disease."
    But one of the greatest and most unexpected sources of danger is, that the sense of taste or smell fails to warn us of the danger of using such water, since clearness, coolness, and tastelessness, may exist, without being evidences of wholesomeness. We are also told that "the carbonic acid of the decomposed matter makes them sparkling, and the nitrates they contain give them a pleasant coolness to the taste, so that nothing could be better adapted to lure their victims to destruction than the external qualities of these waters-hence the worst of them are most popular for drinking purposes."
    The nitrates with which these waters are charged generally proceed from the decomposition of animal matter, such as the corpses interred in London churchyards; hence the popularity of some pumps near churchyards; and to such an extent are some of these waters charged with this ingredient, that J. B. C. Aldis, M.D., declares the water of a surface-well (though cool and sparkling to the taste) twice exploded during the process of incineration when he was analysing it!
    Under these peculiar circumstances it does seem strange that in London the weary, the thirsty, and the poor have thus practically been driven to the public-[-195-] house, and that they should have been left without an alternative. A man toiling all day, bearing, it may be, heavy burdens in the summer sun, miles it may be from his home, parched with thirst, practically to quench that thirst has been compelled to resort to the beer-shop or the gin-palace. And what has been the consequence, that the man has been led to drink more than was good for him-that he has got into bad company - that he has wasted his time and his money, injured his health, and possibly been led into the commission of vice and crime. Every day the evil has been demonstrated in the most striking, in the most alarming, and in the most abundant manner. A benevolent gentleman at Liverpool was the first to see the evil, and to devise a remedy. He erected fountains, elegant and attractive in character, furnished with pure water, and in one day of about thirteen hours twenty-four thousand seven hundred and two persons drank at the thirteen fountains in that town. Of that twenty- four thousand seven hundred and two persons, many would otherwise have resorted to public-houses or gin-palaces to quench their thirst. In smaller places, where results are easier to ascertain, it has been found that in reality the fountains do keep people from frequenting beer-shops, and, therefore, do keep them sober. A gentleman who largely employs workmen in ironworks in the town of Wednesbury, having recently erected fountains for his workpeople, says that his manager has since observed an improvement in their habits and regularity [-196-] of attendance, attributable to their discarded use of beer, in consequence of the facility of obtaining pure water which time fountains afford. The publicans in London understand this, as it appears from the report of the committee of the Free Drinking Association, held at Willis's Rooms last week, when the drinking cups have been missing they have invariably been found at some neighbouring public-house. The movement, as we have intimated, commenced at Liverpool; it was not long before it reached London. According to Mr. Wakefield, the honorary secretary of the Association, there was a greater need for t his movement in London than elsewhere, owing to the fact that the greater radiation of heat from a larger surface of buildings, less shade, more smoke and dust, and longer street distances, combines to make London a more thirst-exciting place than any provincial town. Mr. Samuel Gurney, M.P., was the first, who, in a letter published in some of the London papers, called attention to the grievous privation which the want of these fountains inflicted on the London poor, and subsequently by his great personal influence and liberal pecuniary contributions, and unwearied exertions founded the Association; the Earl of Shaftesbury, the Earl of Carlisle, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other distinguished noblemen and gentlemen rallied around him. London parishes and vestries have most of them come forward and contributed, and already nearly a hundred drinking fountains have been erected by this Association. It is inferred from the Liverpool [-197-] statistics that at least 400 fountains might be advantageously erected in London ; these could not be constructed and kept in repair at a less cost than 20,000. To gain this sum the Association appeals to the public. Last year the total receipts of the Association amounted to 2,609; much more is required; a very good sign, indicative of the appreciation on the part of Londoners of the boon offered them, is found in the fact that the poor themselves are contributing voluntarily and in an unostentatious manner to defray the expenses of erection. The plan of attaching money-boxes to the fountains for the donations of friends has been adopted, and the first money-box has been placed at the first erected fountain on Snow Hill. So far as the experience of four weeks justifies an opinion, it is very encouraging, and a sum of 8d. a day has been deposited in small coins, varying from farthings to two-shilling pieces. The experiment is to be extended to five other fountains, when, if successful, it is proposed to supply every fountain with a money-box, when the erection will be more than self-supporting. "Of all the efforts I have been called to make," said the Earl of Shaftesbury, "there is none that so strongly commends itself to my feelings and my judgment as time Free Drinking Fountain movement." The Earl of Carlisle says, "Erect drinking fountains, and habits of intemperance will soon show a diminution, and with a diminution of intemperance will be stopped the most prolific of all the sources of crime and misery. Most people will [-198-] say the same, and we look upon these fountains - elegant in character, supplied with pure water - as a grateful acknowledgment by the richer classes of the interest and sympathy they feel for those in less happy circumstances.
    As evidence of the grateful interest elicited by this movement in the humblest classes, let the reader take the following letters. The first was addressed, "for Mr. Samuel Gurney Esquire who bilt the fountaine Newgate Street."

to Mr. Gurney esquire                   July 9
    Kind Sir
                i take liberty to giv you my best thanks fore the butiful fountaine what you wos so kind to giv to us poor men for Newgate Street and i would plese ask you sir to be so kind and giv us 2 more cups extra fore wen in Newgate street i see the squeeging and shovin for water for only the 2 cups of woman and little boys is not enuff this verry hot days and God bless you Sir fore all your goodness what you do
    from a poor man in London.
        Monday June the 20th

Gentlemen of the Committee
                I see by the paper of yesterday time working Men had a large Meeting on the fountain question. I think under your care and good Management the Working Women could also form and do [-199-] much good. Also the Ladies could associate with the working Classes as their Subscriptions could be distinct from ours; as of course our means are very limited; but surely we could most of us become Subscribers at twopence per week in so noble a cause that bids fair to drive the curse of Public Houses from our land - King's Cross wants one much, and there is room in the open Square also at the Portland Road at the end of Euston Road. They ought to be round or Square with 4 or 6 places to Drink from, with something of interest to mark to whose honour they were raised. One Subject could be Prince Edward suppressing the wine houses in Gibraltar, 1792. I think nothing could be better for the purpose as we all feel something must be done to stop this crying evil that is sending thousands to Death and Madness - the other subject could be Alderman Wood who rose from a poor Charity School Boy of Tiverton Devonshire to plead the Duke of Kent's return to England that his child, our present good queen, should be born on British ground; so we as a people have to thank the late Sir Matthew Wood for that. I think the wives and daughters of freemasons will give freely in respect to the late Duke of Kent who spent I may say thousands to raise the standard of that noble order. . . .  Forgive these few remarks of A Soldier and a Mason's Daughter who has her country's interest at heart.
            J. DUNN X 103 Euston Road Euston Sq.
        Gentlemen forgive the intrusion on your time also my [-200-] bad grammar but remember I hear and see every Day the Curse of Drink.
    As evidence of -the filthy nature of London water and of the need of fountains, let the reader take the following letter from Dr. Letheby, the City Medical Officer, addressed to the Honorary Secretary of the Drinking Fountain Association; and let the reader bear in mind that Dr. Letheby's evidence is confirmed by that of upwards of fifty other medical gentlemen. Dr. Letheby says,-
    "From what I know of the habits of the poor within this city, I am led to believe that the erection of drinking fountains would be of especial service to them; for although the average supply of water to the metropolis is abundant, yet the distribution of it is so unequal that the poorer classes do not obtain their proper proportion; in fact, this has become so serious a matter in most of the courts and alleys of this city, that I have great difficulty iii dealing with it. You are, no doubt, aware that the water companies have been obliged to shorten the time of supply ever since they have been compelled by the Act of Parliament to furnish filtered water to the public; amid, as the poor have not the means of altering the present condition of the service, and adapting it to the new arrangement, their receptacles are never filled during time short time that the water is on. Every contrivance is, therefore, [-201-] used to secure as much water as possible while it is flowing; but, partly from the filthy state of the cisterns, and partly from the foetid emanations to which the water is exposed in the over-crowded rooms in which it is kept, it is rarely, if ever, drinkable. The poor, then, would be too glad to avail themselves of the opportunities afforded by the public fountains, and would, I am quite sure, hail them as boons of the greatest value; and when it comes to be known that the water which flows from the fountains is as pure as chemical amid other contrivances can render it, the boon will most assuredly be prized by all.
    "At present, the public wells of this city are largely used by all classes of persons; and, knowing what I do of the composition of these waters, I have looked with much concern at the probable mischief that might be occasioned by them ; for though they are generally grateful to the palate, and deliciously cool, they are rich in all kinds of filthy decomposing products, as the soakage from se4ers and cesspools, and the not less repulsive matters from the over-crowded churchyards. What, therefore, can be of greater importance to the public than the opportunity of drinking water which shall not only be grateful and cool, as that from the city pumps, but which shall have none of its lurking dangers?
    "As to the quality of the water that is now supplied by the public companies I can speak in the fullest confidence, for it is not merely the most available for [-202-] your purposes, but it is in reality the best supply that can be obtained. I need not describe the admirable arrangements that have been employed by the several companies for the purification of the water, but I may state that there is not a city in Europe that has so large a supply of good water as this metropolis, and I do not know where or how you could obtain a better. I say, therefore, without hesitation, that the water supplied by the public companies is the best that can be used for the fountains; and, seeing that it will be twice filtered, and carefully freed from every kind of impurity by the most perfect chemical and mechanical contrivances, there need be no hesitation on the part of the most fastidious in freely drinking at the public fountains."