LONG BEFORE LONDONERS began the current fashion of carrying bottle of water wherever they go, the city’s inhabitants had to rely on water sources such as hand-operated street pumps. Although there are still a few functioning public drinking fountains in London, there are no usable pumps to be found. However, a few of them have been kept as historic monuments. One of these is located on the north pavement of Cornhill, a few yards east of the Royal Exchange building.
The pump, which is now kept looking like new – except that it no longer works – was set-up in 1799. On one of its four sides, the manufacturers, Phillips & Hopwood (“Engine Makers”), have included the information that the pump was paid for by the Bank of England, the East India Company, Fire Offices (i.e., insurance companies), and the “bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill”. The inscription on this side of the pump also mentions that the it was erected above a well that had been discovered and enlarged.
On another side of the pump, that facing south, there is a brief history of the well. It was first dug before 1282 when Henry Wallis (aka Henry le Walleis; died 1302), thrice Mayor of London, built a “House of Correction” on the spot. This was a prison for “night walkers” and was known as “The Tun”. Stow writing his “Survey of London” in 1598, noted that the prison was built of stone and (preserving Stow’s spelling) we learn:
“In the yeare 1298. certaine principall Citizens of London, brake vp this prison called the Tunne, and tooke out certain prisoners for the which they were sharply punished by long imprisonment, & great fines, as in another place I haue shewed.
In the yeare 1401. this prison house called the Tunne was made a Cesterne for sweete water conueyed by pipes of Leade frõ the towne of Tyborne, and was from thence forth called the conduite vpon Cornhill: Conduite vpõ Cornhill.Then was the wall planked ouer, and a strong prison made of Timber, called a Cage, with a payre of stockes set vpon it, on the top of which Cage was placed a Pillory for the punishment of Bakers offending in the Assise of Breade: for Millers stealeing of Corne at the Mill: and for baudes Cage, stockes and pillorie vpon Cornhill.and scolds &c.”
By the time the pump was set-up, the prison had long since gone (? demolished). How and why the well was rediscovered, I cannot say, but it was, and its water became accessible by using the pump. The top of the pump serves as an advertisement. At the top of each of the four sides of the pump, there are symbols, which people would have recognised as being the trademarks of four insurance companies in existence at the time that it was established. Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, firefighting services were provided by the insurance companies. The trademarks of insurance companies were placed on buildings so that firefighters of each insurance company could recognise which houses had paid for policies that made them eligible to be saved by the firemen.
Today, firefighting is no longer provided by insurance companies, and water is no longer available from public pumps. So, it is not surprising to see many people wandering around London with their own supplies of drinking water – in plastic bottles and other containers. What does surprise me is that when I was younger, in the 1960s and 1970s, one hardly ever saw people carrying their own drinking water. Now, it is quite common to see people sipping from their personal water carriers. Have people become thirstier recently, or what is it that makes them feel that they should never be without a portable supply of potable water?