They were a beloved feature of London life for more than a century, ever since the first of hundreds of public drinking fountains were opened in 1859 at St Sepulcher-without-Newgate Church in the City.
At its peak, thousands of people a day drank from it, and Charles Dickens noted that “300,000 people tap into fountains on a summer day,” although some preferred to drink beer for fear of contaminated water. But now the few remaining historic fountains in London are under threat, with some city councils filling fountain bowls with cement instead of water, ensuring that no one can quench their thirst at the tap again.
These sources are even more vital today as the climate crisis generates warnings of frequent heat waves, and people are urged to drink more water and reuse water bottles to reduce plastic pollution.
Nicola Stacey, Director of the Heritage of London Trust (Holt), warned that the last remaining drinking water sources in the capital are being restored without function, to save money, despite the clear environmental benefits of offering the public fresh drinking water . She told the Observer: “I am really surprised. Everyone is coming off Covid-19 saying, “London is fantastic, it’s green, the air is fresher, let’s try to move forward with green initiatives.” At the same time, the fountains are being restored without water, and even with cement poured into their bowls, so they are destroyed forever. How is it possible that these things happen at the same time? “
She spoke in a week when temperatures in the UK spiked to 27 ° C and health experts echoed warnings that heat waves could lead to life-threatening health conditions.
Just when drinking fountains are needed, they have become glorified garbage cans, as passersby dump their debris, including plastic bottles, into the concrete bowls. Struggling to understand why anyone would even think to block a fountain, Stacey spoke of an “alarming trend” for city councils “to restore as many permanently disfigured forms as possible.”
She said: “In fact, I think it is being done in such a way that it is as irreversible as possible, so that organizations like ours cannot come knocking on the door, saying that it is necessary to restore the source.”
There were once around 1,000 drinking fountains, most of them Victorian, scattered around the capital. These were beautiful and much loved monuments, often with inspiring stories about people who simply wanted to provide fresh water for the public good. Only 20% of them survive today. Only a few of them work.
Stacey said that an imposing 1880 granite fountain on a paved island near the Royal Free Hospital in North London was recently restored at a cost of over £ 400,000, when, for a few thousand pounds more, the Camden council could have made sure it worked again: “Cement has literally been poured into the container. And it already has rubbish in it. ”The octagonal structure, in the style of the Early English Gothic Revival, was saved from demolition in the 1960s after a campaign by local people, including future Labor leader Michael Foot.
Such fountains were designed with efficient push-button taps, ensuring that the water did not keep running. Maintenance is minimal, with only occasional inspections of the water quality.
Last month, Camden unveiled a fountain on the grounds of St Pancras Church that it said had been “lovingly restored.” Stacey said it had no taps and no function: “When a drinking fountain is dry, it is not lovingly restored.”
Holt is an independent charity, created in 1980 by the Greater London City Council to rescue historic buildings and monuments. He has helped restore six fountains, including that of St Sepulcher, always on the condition that water is included. One of them is a beautiful example at St Paul’s Recreation Ground in Brentford, where Holt collaborated with the Hounslow council, to the delight of the local community, particularly children, who were inspired to create drawings.
Until the 1960s, children could be seen climbing to drink from these fountains, on tiptoe. But, one by one, they were turned off and neglected, vandalized.
Stacey, who previously worked at English Heritage, said: “The younger generation totally sees the point. Why pay for a plastic bottle when you can come over and refill your bottle? Why clog the Thames with nasty discarded bottles? “
Holt is collaborating with councils like Tower Hamlets, who plan to restore fountains with water this year, but Stacey expressed her dismay at Camden’s handling of their fountains: “It would be very easy for them to ask us if they needed additional funding. Specifically, they don’t come to us. “
Holt offered Camden a grant of £ 10,000 to restore a fountain at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, one of the first surviving Victorian examples from London. By the late 1850s, the wells in nearby St Giles parish had become contaminated and a letter from 1860 reads: “A lady residing in the London neighborhood is anxious to be allowed to place a drinking fountain at your expenses “. The beautiful Portland Stone Fountain, erected in 1861, stands at the entrance to the public park. “It’s vulnerable to being restored without water,” Stacey said. “We hope Camden does the right thing. The aesthetics of having fresh water is a fundamental part of a beautiful public space. If you think of Rome, you think of walking down a beautiful street with a wonderfully carved fountain and water, and being able to drink from it on a hot day. “
A spokeswoman for the Camden council said: “Unfortunately, restoring these types of historic drinking fountains can cost considerable sums of money.” She noted that the renovation of the Royal Free fountain cost £ 41,335, but the island it sits on cost £ 400,000. “To make this a potable water version, it would have cost an additional £ 50,000 for internal work, with £ 10,000 a year for maintenance.”
Stacey responded, “Where other districts have restored their sources, the cost is nothing like those figures. The standard reinstallation cost is just £ 2,000. Other municipalities include maintenance as part of the maintenance of their parks and public spaces. “