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By Richard Jones

Symbolically and traditionally, the Aldgate Pump marks the spot at which the City of London gives way to the East End, or, at which the East End gives way to the City of London, depending on which direction you happen to be approaching it from, and the structure that passers by now flock in their droves to ignore was once a far-famed landmark that is a mish mash of different eras - part 18th, part 19th, part 20th century, with a little bit of 21st century cosmetic repair thrown in for good measure.

Sadly, the majority of people who today plod their weary way along Fenchurch Street or Leadenhall Street and on into Aldgate; or along Aldgate and on into Leadenhall Street or Fenchurch Street, if they happen to plodding their weary way from the opposite direction, are seemingly oblivious to the existence of this historic artefact.

After all, it's a bit like your average politician; it's there but what its actual purpose is, nobody seems to know or care.


However, not all those who encounter it fail to notice it, as is evidenced by the fact that it has managed to amass an impressive fifty reviews on google, with an average rating of 4.2, albeit some reviewers haven’t been too impressed by it and have shown their disappointment by awarding it a measly two stars, including this gem from one, whose name I shall withhold, who wrote:-

"Be aware, this pump is broken! If you have a flat tyre or an Inflatable lilo, do not come here to fill it. I put four 20ps in before I realised it doesn't even have an air hose attached. Rip Off!!!"

I can't help feeling that the aforementioned reviewer, whose tongue was, I hope, firmly in his cheek, is being a tad harsh on what is, when all's said and done, a venerable London antiquity.


Admittedly, at first glance It doesn't strike you as being anything that special. I mean, you can’t actually draw water from it anymore - which, if you think about it, is the primary function of a water pump.

But you can at least sup deep on its history and folklore.

The Aldgate Pump seen from Leadenhall Street 2023.


Historically, this was the point to which distances to London from Essex were measured. So, if, perchance, you happen to spot an old milestone in said county telling you how far it is to London, then this is the spot to which it is referring and directing you.


"Past Aldgate Pump" was once a well-known saying that meant you were going into the East End of London, and people throughout the country would have understood the reference, and seen it as an indication that whoever was passing the pump was venturing into a dangerous and lawless territory from which a traveller might not return, or, if they did, they certainly wouldn’t do so with their possessions and dignity intact.


Looking at the Aldgate Pump today, you are seeing it following a 2019 restoration that gave it a much needed sprucing up. The stonework, if not pristine, at least gleams a good deal more than it did a few years ago when the foul air of the metropolis had taken a visible toll on the old relic.

The restoration also re-added the lamp that once crowned the pump, but which had disappeared by the early 20th century.


A noticeable feature is the splendid wolf's head spout, which dates from the 19th century, and which commemorates the last wolf killed in the City of London, a slaying which reputedly took place on this spot, although the various accounts disagree as to exactly when this act of lupuside actually occurred.

The Wolf's head sput on the pump.


As to how long there has been a pump on or near this site there is no definitive answer.

There is mention of a well called the "Alegate Well" being in the vicinity in the reign of King John, so there was certainly a water source around here by the 13th century.

As with many of London's wells, it was fed by one of the capital's subterranean streams.

John Stow, in his 1598 Survey of London, mentions a "fair well where now a pump is placed."

So we can ascertain that a pump had been placed over the well by the 16th century.


Stow also recounts an inglorious event in the vicinity, when the bailiff of Romford - "a man very well beloved", according to Stow - was executed "near the well within Aldgate" on a specially constructed gibbet that had been erected on the pavement directly outside Stow's front door.

Although Stow doesn't actually mention the year, it was 1549, during a tumultuous period which became known as "the commotion time."

The government, headed by the Duke of Somerset, who was acting as "Protector" on behalf of the boy King, Edward VI, had passed the enclosure act, which allowed wealthy landowners to fence off large tracts of public land for their own use.


On the 8th of July, protesters in Norfolk began tearing down the fences, including those erected by wealthy local landowner Robert Kett.

However, far from resisting the rebels, Kett agreed to their demands and offered to become their leader.

What became known as "Kett's Rebellion"then snowballed, as recruits from Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex rallied to the cause and the rebel army, by then numbering some 16,000 men, set up camp near Norwich.

In London, Protector Somerset gave orders for the "suppression of rumours." Martial law was imposed, and, according to Stow, "divers person were apprehended and executed."


It was against this background that the well beloved bailiff of Romford, in Essex, arrived in London on the evening of Thursday July the 21st, where he happened to meet with the curate and preacher of the parish, Sir Stephen, who asked him what the news was from the country.

The bailiff told him that it was, &qot;heavy news".

"Why?" enquired Sir Stephen.

The bailiff replied that, "It is said that many men be up in Essex, but, thanks be to God, all is in good quiet about us."


Unbeknownst to the well beloved bailiff of Romford, he had, quite literally, talked his neck into a noose.

The curate reported their conversation, the Sheriffs took the bailiff into custody later that night, and, early the next morning, which happened to be the feast day of St Mary Magdalen and, therefore, a public holiday, he was marched by the Sheriffs and the Knight-marshal to the well within Aldgate, where he was forced to ascend the ladder of a specially constructed gibbet that had, even earlier that morning, been erected outside John Stow's front door.

Stow watched him mount the ladder, and heard the bailiff's final words, which were addressed to the assembled crowd, all of whom had taken advantage of the holiday to enjoy the spectacle of public execution.

'Good people, I am come hither to die," began the very well beloved bailiff, continuing, "but know not for what offence, except for words by me spoken yesternight to Sir Stephen, curate and preacher of this parish."

He then repeated the conversation between him and the preacher, insisted that, "this was all, as God be my judge", and, so saying, he was hanged. We don't even know his name.

"Upon these words of the Prisoner," Stow recounted forty-nine years later, "Sir Stephen, to avoid reproach of the people, left the city, and was never heard of since amongst them to my knowledge."

The execution took place here because this was the point at which the route from Essex entered London, and travellers from the county, and especially from Romford, would be confronted by the spectacle of the bailiff’s rotting corpse upon their arrival, a grisly reminder of the fate awaiting those who spread rumours of insurrection, no matter how unintentionally.


In the 18th century, the pump's casing was replaced by a new one of portland stone, much of which you can still admire, should you happen to notice it!

It was around this time that the saying "a draft on the Aldgate Pump" began to be used as slang for a worthless bank note, cheque, or money order; the saying being a play on the difference between a draught of water (having no financial value) and a banker's draft.

Quite why the Aldgate Pump was chosen is unclear, but the saying soon caught on.

On Thursday the 24th of October, 1824, The Morning Herald, reporting on a new company that was seeking investment to provide pure water for the wealthier citizens of London, warned its readers that:-

"Should the scheme fail, which seems likely enough to be the case, it may happen that those who have embarked their money in it, may get no better return for it than what is commonly known by a draught on the Aldgate Pump."

The Satirist or The Censor Of The Times, on Sunday the 5th of December 1847 featured the following exchange; which takes a little thinking about before, if you will forgive the expression, the penny drops:-

"How would you get cash for a draught upon the Aldgate Pump?", said the relentless Sir James to Peter Borthwick.

"Why," replied Peter, blandly, but readily, "I think I should have to go up the spout for it."

So, by the 19th century, "a draught on the Aldgate Pump" had become common parlance for bouncing cheques and bad money orders, and Gentlemen wishing to delay their creditors would promise to repay their debts by offerring them, "a draft on the Aldgate pump."

Conversely, "better than the Aldgate Pump" meant that a business or an individual was financially stable.

There was also the saying, "as old as the Aldgate Pump," the meaning of which, I hope, is self-explanatory.

The Aldgate Pump seen from Leadenhall Street 2023.


By the 1850s, it was such a well known landmark that businesses would advertise their locations by their proximity to it - and "next door to the Aldgate Pump", "opposite the Aldgate Pump", or "near to the Aldgate Pump", crop up over and over again in the newspaper small ads of the age.


Inevitably, that inexhaustible chronicler of the streets of the Victorian metropolis, Charles Dickens, mentioned the pump several times in his works, references to it appearing in , Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and in an essay on Wapping Workhouse in The Uncommercial Traveller, in which he mentioned going past the Aldgate Pump as he ventured into the East End of London.


Literary offerings aside, however, all was not well with the water that the citizens of London were drawing from the pumps across their City.

The discovery and eventual acceptance that cholera, epidemics of which had plagued London since the first major outbreaks in the 1830s, was a waterborne disease, had led to officialdom taking a keener interest in the water that people drank.

In his annual report for 1861, Dr. Letherby, the Officer Of Health to the City Sewers Commision revealed that the foulest pump water in London was that which came from the Bishopsgate Street without pump, closely followed by that from the Aldgate Pump.

But the majority of the Victorian metropolis's water pumps weren't far behind.

As The Times commented in January 1862:-

"Most of these waters are bright and sparkling, and they have a cool and agreeable taste. They are, therefore, much sought after for drinking purposes; but the coolness of the beverage and the briskness of its appearance are dangerous fascinations, for they are both derived from organic decay. Dead and decomposing matters have accumulated in the soil, and have been partially changed by its wonderful power of oxidation, and thus converted into carbolic acid and nitre. These have given to the water the agreeable qualities which are so deceptive."


And, just in case readers hadn’t yet grasped the reality of what it was that was giving their drinking water its deceptively agreeable taste, The Times spelt out in stomach churning detail exactly what was to be found in each flavour-filled drop:-

"The existence of so large a quantity of common salt is suggestive of the filthiest impurities as, for example, the fluid matter discharged from the human body, and the percolations from cesspools and sewers. Many of the pumps are in close proximity to the fat graveyards of the City, and it is more than probable that all of them derive their water chiefly from these sources, for they are the principle gathering grounds for the surface springs; in fact, they are the only open spaces through which the rain can percolate to reach the shallow wells."

In other words, not only were those who drew their water from the City's pumps gulping down the bodily emissions of their fellow citizens, but they were also consuming the remaining particles of citizens from days of yore as well.

If you would just excuse me for one moment - ewwwwwwwwwwwwww.

Right, back to the pump.

The Aldgate Pump 1899.


There is an oft repeated story about the pump that at some stage in the Victorian era it became the source of a dreadful local calamity.

Nobody seems to be quite sure exactly when this calamity actually occurred - some websites say that it was in the 1860s, others date it to the 1870s - but all agree that hundreds, if not thousands, of people died in the so called "Aldgate Pump Epidemic" when an outbreak of cholera was traced to the water from the pump.

Several websites even go so far as to make the startling claim that, as a result of the epidemic, the pump became known as. "the pump of death."

"The Chilling story behind the epidemic that killed thousands in East London who all drank water from one place", runs the dramatic headline above one article on the supposed Aldgate Pump epidemic.

It must have been a truly traumatic experience for those who lived through it.


The only problem is, there never was an Aldgate Pump Epidemic. The whole calamity is an internet myth resulting from one website mixing the Aldgate Pump up with the Broad Street Pump in Soho, which did cause a cholera epidemic in 1854, and other websites simply copying the story.

Even that vast repository of internet knowledge, Wikipedia, finds itself stumped on the subject.

Its entry on the pump mentions the fact that, "several hundred people died in what became known as the Aldgate Pump Epidemic."

It even highlights it, but, when you click on the link, up pops the message, "Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name."

Further delving brings up the statement that, "the Aldgate Pump Epidemic article" - like the epidemic itself - "does not exist"


That is not to say that there wasn't a cholera epidemic in London around the time.

Indeed, in 1866, the fourth cholera pandemic swept across Europe, and the first cases of it were reported in London at the end of June that year.

By the end of July, a surge in cases was causing grave concern.

According to The Carlow Post, in its edition of Saturday the 28th of July, of 846 fatal cases in the metropolis, 308 had occurred in the eastern districts.

On Thursday the 2nd of August, The Fife Herald reported that:-

"Deplorable ravages are being made by cholera in the district of Whitechapel, London. At the end of some of the streets in which the disease has gained most head a black flag is hung, that there might be as little traffic as possible through them, and that people may be warned of the infection."

Something, it appeared, was very amiss with the water supply there.


However, epidemiologist William Farr traced the source of the outbreak to the River Lea, from which the East London Water Company drew its supply, and it was noted that:- "the greatest number of fatal cases have occurred adjacent to its banks."

Somewhat miffed at the impugnation of his company's water, the Secretary of the East London Water Company wrote to the newspapers claiming that their water was pure, and that any pollution must be coming from the surroundings of the cisterns from which the residents were drawing their water.


As the outbreak began to abate towards the end of August, the medical journal The Lancet set up a commission to investigate the source of the outbreak in the East End of London.

Its findings were not exactly music to the ears of the water company's directors, nor, for that matter, for those of the Eastenders who depended on the company for their water supply.

It turned out that the sewage from Hertford, 32 miles to the north of East London, was being discharged into the River Lea.

Carried by the current, it drifted past Ware, proving highly offensive to its citizens, although their offence didn't stop them pumping their sewage into the river, where it continued its journey towards the eastern border of London.

As the committee reported:-

"Nearly the whole of Hertfordshire, it will be seen, besides the western border of Essex, drains into the River Lea, which receives excrementitious matters from 150,000 to 200,000 persons before it reaches Enfield, below which is taken the supply of drinking water for the East of London."


Several newspapers observed that the surprise wasn't that five or so thousand Eastenders had died as a result of drinking the contaminated river water, but rather that the death toll hadn't been considerably higher.

It certainly makes you glad to live in the 21st century when private water companies wouldn’t dream of discharging vast quantities of raw sewage into our rivers, streams, lakes and seas.

There can be no doubt that some of the cholera cases could be attributed to people drinking water from the City's pumps, but it is noticeable that at no stage was the Aldgate Pump singled out as the main contributor to the epidemic.

Perhaps the East London Water Company started the myth of the Aldgate Pump Epidemic to distract people from their negligence. Just saying.


Although the Aldgate Pump Epidemic is a myth, concern was expressed about the purity of the water obtained from the far-famed pump, and warnings were most certainly given that, if people continued to drink from it, then it might well cause an outbreak of cholera.

Indeed, following Dr. Letherby's 1861 report on the foulness of the water from the pumps of London, some people began to look askance at the Aldgate Pump, albeit the enthusiasm of aficionados for its water remained largely undiminished by the revelations.

On Saturday the 16th of October 1875, The East Wind noted that:-

"The purity of the water of Aldgate pump is a firmly-rooted tradition in the minds of many of the citizens, and especially of the poorer denizens of the East-end. So great a hold, indeed, has this belief, that a great many of them consider that a morning draught of spring water from Aldgate pump is a sovereign remedy for many ailments, and send for the water very religiously when they feel "out of sorts."

There is much in the flavour and appearance of the water which explains this belief. It is clear, sparkling, and has that cool saline flavour which is so very agreeable to the palate."


Around this time, Canon Samuel Barnett, the vicar of St Jude's Church on Commercial Street, had embarked upon a mission to clean up as much of the district around his church as he could.

Nearby Aldgate High Street was the butchers quarter, and one section of it was even known as "Butchers Row".

Across the road from it was St Botolph's Church, which also had a water pump outside it.

Not only was the meat sold on Butchers Row, but the animals were slaughtered here as well.

"Around the slaughter-houses, where the sheep were dragged in backwards by their legs," recalled Canon Barnnett's wife, Henrietta, in her biography of her husband, written after his death, "the children would stand eager for fresh sights of blood, excited by the horror and danger of the scenes."

They didn't have to look too hard, as it happens, as the gutters and roads ran red with the blood of the slaughtered beasts.

This in turn drained into the subsoil, via which it found its way into the water supply.


As part of his campaign to rid the area of the slaughterhouses, Samuel Barnett took a sample of pump water, and sent it off to The Sanitary Review who passed it to public analyst Dr. Wanklyn for analysis.

Given the previous revelations about contamination at the City's water pumps, you didn't exactly need a degree in chemical analysis to predict what Dr Wanklyn's findings would be; but the good doctor nonetheless set to work and concluded that the water was a public health hazard and advised that the Aldgate pump should be sealed up without further delay.

The Sanitary Record reported that:-

"The cool refreshing flavour is due to the impregnation of the water with salts derived from decomposing sewage which evidently finds its way into the well, partially filtered and decomposed by the surrounding soil.

We may state, without going into unpleasant detail, that the water drawn from Aldgate pump is a filthily polluted water, one which is always a source of danger, and might at any moment become a centre of infection and a means of spreading fatal disease."


However, it then transpired that Dr. Wanklyn might actually have analysed the water from the wrong pump.

No less a person than the Reverend Barnett himself came to the defence of the maligned Aldgate Pump, and he wrote to The Sanitary Record to protest that the sample he had sent them had come from the pump at St Botolph's.

But The Sanitary Record was having none of it, and pointed out that the handle had been removed and the spout broken off from the St Botolph's pump, so that couldn't have been the source of the sample.

"It is Aldgate water and no other that we have analysed", declared the journal, "not once but twice, and it is quite unfit to drink."

"The world is surely coming to an end," lamented The Liverpool Daily Post, on Saturday the 16th of October 1875, "when anyone dares to insinuate that its sparkle is but sewage in disguise, and its exhilarating freshness due to ammonia."


In April 1876, the City Commissioners of Sewers announced that they were about to take steps to close the Aldgate Pump once and for all.

However, as it happened the pump was reprieved, although its water supply was switched to the healthier and cleaner mains offering from the New River Company, and soon the far-famed Aldgate pump was once more spewing out its liquid nectar for the delectation of passersby.


The pump remained popular with Londoners as the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, and any lingering memories of its less than salubrious past appear to have dissipated by1920 when Hugh Whittard, son of Walter Whittard, whose Whittard's Tea emporium was located on Mansell Street, started work in the family business and was given the job of filling the kettles at the Aldgate Pump every morning to ensure that only the purest water was used for tea tastings.

Then, on the evening of Saturday the 5th of November, 1927, an all too real calamity, quite literally, struck the pump when a bus, having swerved to avoid another vehicle, skidded across the road, and smashed into the revered landmark, knocking off two upper portions of the stonework.

But it was repaired, and was soon gushing profusely once gain, albeit, as more and more households and offices were connected to their own water supply, the necessity for public water pumps declined significantly, and it wasn't long before the Aldgate Pump was deemed surplus to requirements, and its operational days were numbered.


Soon its waters had ceased to flow, and no longer could children come to cool themselves at it, or thirsty travellers and locals slake their thirsts as they passed it.

Its former importance was, at least, acknowledged in 1951, when it was given grade two listed status, so its future as a landmark is at least secured, and the recent renovation has spruced it up considerably.

You can still marvel at the wolf's head spout looking out towards the East End; there is still a mighty fine handle protruding from its side, and there is even a grate through which its surplus waters can drain away.

The only thing missing is any water, but, I suppose you can't have it all.


Given all the history that swirls around the Aldgate Pump, and its importance to the locality in which it stands, it is surprising that more people don't stop to admire it.

But for those who do, it has achieved a certain mythical status, and has become a sort of grand old man of the water pump world.

So, the next time you find yourself in these parts, be sure to pay the Aldgate Pump a visit, and spend a few moments in quiet contemplation reflecting on the history that it has witnessed.

Just be sure not to bring a flat tyre or a lilo with you and expect to inflate them, and, more importantly, don't go putting 20ps into it.