London's Water Pumps: Where Strange History Flows Freely

M@
By M@
London's Water Pumps: Where Strange History Flows Freely
A vibrant blue water pump falsely coloured.

Dozens of water pumps survive across London, and many have peculiar histories.

Once upon a time, every corner of London had its own water pump. Before reliable mains supply, the only way to get water was to draw it from the ground, or chance the freshness of a nearby river or pond.

Water pumps were often the central focus of a village; the place were people would gather not only to draw water, but also to share gossip. The notion lives on in our 'watercooler moments'. The more cringeworthy species of middle manager might ask their staff to 'huddle round the proverbial parish pump' for a team meeting.

Dozens of pumps survive across London, both centrally and in the outlying villages. The water supply might have been cut off, but their history still flows freely. Below, we've gathered together some of the more notable examples, and we welcome further notes in the comments.

Aldgate pump

A bronze sculpture of a wolf's head emerges from a stone fountain

Aldgate pump is one of the more famous pumps in central London. It's been the muse of poets, playwrights and (sadly) epidemiologists for centuries. It gushes with history, if not water.

We should start with this fearsome wolf's head, from which water once issued like lupine vomit. The novelty spout isn't a random decoration. According to legend, a wolf was once shot at this spot — the last one seen in the City of London before the species was driven out of England. The story, alas, seems to be a 20th century just-so story.

The pump is a Victorian replacement of an ancient water source, first mentioned in the 1200s. Besides its bad wolf connections, the pump has at least two other claims to fame. It marks the traditional boundary between the Square Mile and the East End (although it now lies a little west of its original location). It was also, in its time, a killer. During the 1870s, numerous locals died after drinking from the pump. Its waters had become tainted from local sewers, enlivened by the ghastly run-off from nearby graveyards. The frequent illnesses and deaths sparked much newspaper comment, including this flippant rhyme from 1875.

From The Star, 26 October 1875. (c) The British Library Board, all rights reserved. Found in the British Newspaper Archive.

The pump was replaced not long after, with its water now coming from the mains.

Bedford Row pump

Via Google Street View (we did stop by to get a photo, but the pump is currently at the centre of some pretty severe road works).

The legal eagles of the Inns of Court are well known for squeezing every drop of testimony out of witnesses. They're also well equipped for drawing out water, as evinced by the number of pumps in the area. The most elegant is surely this one that stands in Bedford Row beside Gray's Inn, which doubles as a gas lamp (a twin can be found in nearby Queen Square, both have been converted to electricity). It sports two separate spouts, as well as the arms of St Andrew and St George, two local churches.

A second pump, topped with a golden crown, can be found within Gray's Inn itself, while simpler survivors can be found in Lincoln's Inn and Staple Inn. Meanwhile, Pump Court is one of the more famous sections of Middle Temple — though it now lacks the pump for which it was named.

Broad Street pump

London's most famous pump, trumping even Aldgate, is surely the Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) pump. This replica (pictured also in our top image, jazzed up in blue) stands outside the John Snow pub in the middle of Soho. The pub is named after a Victorian doctor who noticed that cases of cholera tended to cluster in the houses closest to this pump. He famously removed the handle and the number of cases diminished. That's a very simplified account of a story that deserves a longer telling. Fortunately, it's one of the most retold stories in London's history, and is also covered in detail by the nearby plaque.

Cornhill pump

This thrusting beauty on Cornhill is a true gem of the water-withdrawing arts. Just look at the pump arm — it's got enough leverage to suck up a balrog. We also applaud the three spikes over the spout, which are surely placed to deter drunken City boys from straddling the pipe in an act of anatomical hilarity. This is another ancient pump. It carries the date of 1282, though this version is a more 'recent' installation from 1848. The well actually went missing for many centuries, before its rediscovery (under some planks) in 1799.

The pump carries many absorbing details, such as a silhouette of the previous Royal Exchange. We're also fond of the nougat colour, which almost acts as camouflage against the similarly coloured buildings. That's a recent change from its previous lurid blue livery. The Cornhill water source has everything one might look for in a pump... except the ability to pump up water... but that's a mere detail.

Paternoster pump

If there were an award for most hidden, overlooked pump in central London... then we'd have to start worrying how frivolous society had become. But this pump near Paternoster Square would surely scoop such a prize. You'll find it between Christopher Wren's Chapter House and the subterranean toilets that charge you 50p. It's entirely gated off, though, so you can't inspect this pump close up.

This one's a simple affair, bearing the information that it was erected by St Faith's parish in 1819. That basic inscription will lead you down a rabbit hole, however, if you are inclined to look up the curious history of St Faith — a parish whose church was gobbled up by St Paul's, but carried on regardless.

St Mary's, Upper Street

Looking something like a New York fire hydrant, albeit in black, this lion-fronted pump can be found in the churchyard of St Mary's. As you can see from the photo, the ornate column is still a place of water provision to this day, offering refreshment to passing dogs (or foxes). This is not an ancient pump like others in the round up, but was donated in 2001 by the Brewers' Company, as attested by the sub-leonine plaque.

Beckenham pump

Outer London contains many surviving village pumps, only a handful of which we include here. One of the more unusual can be found in Beckenham. It boasts another lion-headed spout on an attractive green background. But its real interest can be gleaned from the plaque above. We learn that the pump adorns the headquarters of Beckenham's first voluntary fire service, who used "a cart pulled by horses borrowed from nearby residents and traders whenever a fire broke out". The pump itself was used to refresh horses, with water pumped directly from the Thames — quite some distance away.

Ruislip and Ickenham pumps

The neighbouring areas of Ruislip and Ickenham, to the extreme north-west of London, carry a pair of typical village pumps, to be seen across the wider city. Both date from the 1860s. The Ickenham one is housed within a delicious gazebo, topped with a weather vane, all restored in 1991. The combined whole makes for an attractive centrepiece for the village that may no longer be used as a water source, but is surely a common meeting point for locals.

Stanmore pump

Stanmore's village pump, by contrast, is a rather sorry affair. It lacks embellishment or even a handle. In contrast to most of the pumps in this article, which summoned forth ground water, this Victorian pipe drew directly from the adjacent Spring Pond. Stanmore contains a number of such ponds. They are historically significant for they may have given Stanmore its name, which is Old English for 'stony pool' (stan mere).    

And to finish, here's another truly awful poem devoted to Aldgate pump, this time from 1849. Though painful in its rhyming, the verse is a joy to read — particularly for the way it suddenly switches into an advert for a local firm in an early form of sponsored content.

A press cutting.
From the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 3 Feb 1849. (c) The British Library Board, all rights reserved. Found in the British Newspaper Archive.

Got a favourite village pump? Let the comments flow below.

Last Updated 30 November 2021