The Aldgate Pump
The Aldgate Pump, standing where Aldgate High Street forks left to Fenchurch Street and right to Leadenhall Street, seems innocent enough. But in the 19th century it caused Londoners to die in their hundreds and for grisly reasons.
An Ancient Source
John Stow mentions a pump on this site in his 1598 Survey of London but there’s earlier mentions of an Aldgate Well from the 13th century.
The current design is later, but there’s been a pump here in some form since the 16th century.
As well as providing free water for locals the pump itself became an integral symbol of the area, seen as the start of the sprawling, unquantifiable, East End.
“My day’s business beckoned me to the East End of London, I had turned my face to that part of the compass… and had got past Aldgate Pump.” – Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller (1875)
A photographic board, on display on the railings of a Primary School opposite the pump.
A Funny Taste
Previously admired for it’s purity and freshness, water from the Aldgate Pump started tasting a bit ‘off’.
The pump claimed the lives of hundreds of Londoners in the early 1800s and after an investigation by The City it turned out the rich calcium taste was from water – travelling from Hampstead – which was seeping through new cemeteries, picking up bacteria from buried dead bodies along the way.
As a result the pump was connected to the New River Company’s mains water supply in 1867, ending the epidemic.
The gruesome bit of history soon became East End folklore, even entering the language as rhyming slang for being annoyed; ‘Aldgate Pump’ = “Getting the Hump” which doesn’t really seem to do the tragedy justice!
Today the pump no longer flows and looks little lost, easily going unnoticed.
It mostly dates from the 18th century but with 19th century additions(namely the pedimented top). Happily it’s protected too, receiving a Grade II listed status from 1950.
As for the wolf’s head, we know that was added between 1880 and 1912 because two photos exist with different views. The story goes that it represents the last wolf killed in the City of London, but I’m not sure I believe that one…
As of September 2019 the Aldgate Pump has a had a face lift. I walked past the other day and it looks beautiful!
Starting in July, the Heritage of London has restored the pump, including the replacement of a 1.5m lantern which was lost (or stolen?) between 1900-1907. Looks nice, right?
More London Inspiration
Often listed as one of the greenest cities in the world, London is blessed with 8 Royal Parks and surrounded by woodland. However, I've made a list of the more esoteric green places to visit in central London, spots with an interesting tale or simply in an unexpected place....