Above: The pump looking resplendent beside the street. Behind it are small shops built into the exterior of the Royal Exchange. Its a pity about the bags of sand on the far left!
The story of how London gradually acquired its water supply is a long and interesting one. Flowing through the middle of London is the River Thames. In Tudor times its water was still drinkable. However, only those living near the Thames would have used it for drinking. Even less would have used it for washing! Residents living further from the Thames probably found the journey to collect water in a large leather jug was too onerous. Fortunately, by digging down 10 or twenty feet, it was usually possible to find water at the bottom of a well. Most wells were situated in the street – sometimes in the middle of a street and sometimes at the junction of two streets.
It is always surprising how many people still throw their rubbish into the street. That is true today and has been true in London for the past two thousand years. Very often people threw their rubbish into the well. Archaeologists have found ‘rich pickings’ in an ancient well found on a site they have been excavating. Several artefacts on show in the Museum of London were found in that way.
Many wells were still in use in the streets of London in Tudor London. We know this because they are carefully drawn on some of London’s earliest maps of the 1550s and 1560s – usually known as Bird’s Eye Views. People were throwing their rubbish down the well even in those times. How do we know that? History books often mention that a pump was installed over a well so that rubbish could no longer be thrown down the shaft.
That brings us to pumps and, in particular, the matter of the Cornhill Pump. In early times there had been a spring of water which later became a well in the middle of the roadway in Cornhill. In 1405 it is recorded being planked over when the Cornhill Tun was made into a conduit. The name conduit – in the City of London and also in Westminster – arose because, instead of using water in the ground by digging a well, water from a spring was conveyed by pipes (often two or three miles away) to a particular site where many people could benefit from the clean water. Because the pipes were used to ‘lead’ the water, the word ‘conduit’ was used to describe them. A conduit being a channel for conveying water or other fluid.
In 1548 the well was first turned into a pump. The present pump was erected in 1799, sited then in the middle of Cornhill. It was moved on 6 December 1848 from the middle of the road to its present position beside the north side of Cornhill. There it stands today – but, sadly, it is no longer operational. The large handle remains attached at the side and the water-spout faces onto the roadway. For several decades the pump was painted pale blue. The colour never seemed to be right for a City pump and gradually the paint peeled off, leaving it looking rather neglected for a ‘smart part of town’. Because none of us walks around the City as much as we might, the pump was suddenly seen to be painted a pale cream or beige colour which, somehow, seems to suit it better.
Various inscriptions on the pump explain that today’s 19th-century version was financed by several City institutions, including, the Bank of England and the East India Company, with additional financial assistance from the neighbouring fire offices around Cornhill. Before the pump’s recent face-lift, there was a stone trough beside it, at the side of the road. That trough was not part of the original installation and it was presumably removed at the time of the repainting. The spout was intended for people to use to fill buckets or large jugs, not to scoop water from the trough.