‘Pumps have their histories no less than rivers’ proclaims the York Herald in October 1875. ‘They have always yielded a good supply of fresh water, pleasant to drink, free from organic impurities, and notable for their brewing results, in the making of tea no less than in the making of beer.’
On the corner of Aldgate High Street stands a pump. No surprise in itself, the City had many of them and it was one of the key meeting places and areas of day to day living in city life- local residents filling up pots, pans and kettles to enable ablutions, cooking and cleaning to be observed throughout the day.
The pump, from architecural descriptions, appears to be a mash-up of mid 18th and 19th century styles. Vermiculated stone blocks are topped with a Victorian pediment; a stern wolf erupting from the stone at groin height; supposedly this beast represents the last Wolf killed in the City of London.
Picture the scene. It’s 1875 and Aldgate is a hive of activity. Children playing in the gutter. Horse and carriage clattering around like a Dickensian Brookwood race track. The ancient Church of St Botolph without Aldgate, encircled by Prostitutes so active in their patrolling its boundary that it’s amazing that the Church isn’t ripped from its foundations into a hurricane Wizard of Oz style and carried away in a vortex of wind.
Two burly men attend the pump nearby and seize the brass cups attached to the stone pier of this old water provider, eagerly swallowing the water that spurts from the Wolf’s mouth to quench a sizable thirst. Immediately, something isn’t right.
“Ugh, blimey – Mick (Mick? Did they have Mick’s back then? Let’s roll with this) – you tasted this water? It’s like it’s gone off’
Mick, contorting his face like a consumptive Mr. Bean – ‘Yeah this isn’t right. It tastes bleedin’ awful’.
People kept drinking from the fountain, though – this was before most homes had an indoor water supply – and very soon, drinkers from the Wolf’s head began to feel unwell. Very unwell, actually. To the point of death.
Alarm bells began to ring and the Pump of Death was implicated.
Taking lead from the York Herald, the pump (and Well from which it drew its water) is mentioned during the time of King John. It’s also shown on Braun and Hogenburg’s map of the area in 1572. It was more than a source of water, it was also a place of pilgrimage. This was one of the most important religious districts in the City – the Nunnery down Minories and the Priory of the Holy Trinity, the richest Priory in England all being nearby.
Celebrated antiquarian, Londoner and chronicler John Stow mentioned ‘a fair well where a pump is now placed’, recounting that a gibbet was nearby, which saw the execution of the Bailiff of Romford, to whom he heard speak as he kept a house close to the site.
By the mid 19th Century the pump was servicing a part of London that was amongst one of the most densely populated conurbations in Europe. It’s taste was praised for its mineral salts and the perceived beneficial effect it would have upon the drinker.
When emminent Chemist Professor James Alfred Wanklyn (behave) tested a sample in October 1875, it was found to contain a dangerous amount of stuff that frankly shouldn’t be in drinkable liquid. The water source was being polluted from sewage, the waste of industry but largely through the leeching of the bones and tissue of corpses from the newer cemeteries in North London, whose putrefying remains were feeding into the water tables that shared the same source for the Aldgate Well.
Despite being presented with this information – most were rightly up in arms about the dead contaminating a vital resource for the living – (suddenly it was the 1830’s again and memories of those overcrowded Churchyards, like Dicken’s St Ghastly Grim, which was doing the exact same thing all those years ago) meant decisive action needed to be taken.
A few however bemoaned the fact the historic pump would have to be cut off – surely there must be a more local reason, they suggested – ‘”one by one love’s links are broken” and one by one our landmarks of the past removed…it may wound the susceptibilities of those who love old things because they are old, abolish it’. The fact the water ran clear from Wolf’s mouth too – unlike other parts of London where the water was black and full of Tadpoles, the Aldgate Pump’s deadly water had the appearance of being normal – however, ‘mechanical filtration’ through the soil of London had cast a great deception on the true nature of this vile H20.
The next year the pump was instead connected to fresh water supplies provided by the New River Company of Islington. As the intervening years have passed, the pump has remained whilst its surroundings – the Midland Bank, many of the children who once swung on its handle, the two men wanting a drink, even its own water- are now all gone, and is now nothing more than a surplus, marooned curiosity at the junctions of Leadenhall and Fenchurch Street as it meets Aldgate High Street.
‘Pumps have their histories no less than rivers‘ are the words I started this blog post with. Let’s not forget the gruesome history of the London pump guarded by the Wolf.
Last two images © Sheldon K Goodman, 2016.
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