The Cornhill Water Pump

firemanThe Cornhill pump was erected in 1799 with contributions from the Bank of England, the East India Company, the neighbouring fire offices and local bankers and traders of the ward of Cornhill. An inscription on the pump tells us that a well existed here in 1282 and a House of Correction was built by Henry Wallis, mayor of London. A famous pump, the Standard, stood at the junction of Cornhill and Leadenhall Street and was first built in 1583 but discontinued in 1603. This was the first pump to use mechanically pumped water supplied by the waterwheels under London Bridge built by Peter Moritz.

Supplying clean water to London changed substantially over the centuries with a growing population and contamination of water supplies by poor waste management and industry. Cornhill was the Eastern Boundary of the Roman settlement and in the early days water would have been available from the river Walbrook. By the second century the Walbrook had been contaminated and partially filled in and was completely enclosed by mediaeval times. London lies in a shallow gravel basin and prior to the draining of marshland outside the city walls wells could be dug to a depth of 15 feet. In 1237 the city commissioned the Great Conduit which took water from the river Tyburn, another of London’s lost rivers, west of the city running through current day Marylebone and Mayfair. The conduit supplied a large fountain in Cheapside and ended in a large cistern near no1 Poultry. In 1609 Sir Hugh Myddleton started work on the new river. This was an enormous engineering feat bringing water from springs in Chadwell and Amwell in Hertfordshire via a new canal to a large reservoir in Islington. The great fire of London in 1666 ruined most of London’s water supply. The wooden pipes from the great conduit burned as did Moritz’s water wheel. The great conduit was never replaced. Moritz’s grandson rebuilt the waterwheel and added 2 more. Water was supplied by the New River Company to the city in wooden pipes which could lose up to 25% of their contents due to leaks. To conserve water the supply was switched off at night. If fire broke out at night application had to be made to the head of the New River Company to turn the water on again. It is not surprising that the newly formed fire insurance companies would be prepared to sponsor this pump in 1799.

Four fire insurance companies have their marks on the pump, the Sun, Phoenix, London and Royal Exchange. The loss of property during the great fire had prompted the development of small mutually run fire brigades but Nicholas Barbon in 1681 developed the first fire insurance scheme that had offices near the Royal Exchange. It closed in 1710. However, the money that could be made by insuring property rather than charging for services was not lost on other businesses. The Sun fire office started in 1710 with 24 members who paid £20 each. By 1720 they had issued 17,000 policies and claimed to insure property to a value of 10 million pounds. The companies employed their own fire brigades, often formed of watermen from the Thames all clothed in distinctive livery with the Sun emblem on their sleeves. Cast iron fire marks of the company symbol were issued to policy holders to affix to the outside of their properties to enable identification to the brigades and to prove that the claim was genuine if the property burnt down.

The pump has been recently restored but has lost the drinking trough that stood on the road side. The pump was not used for drinking water by the 19th century but provided refreshment to the many horses on London’s streets.

Dilys Cowan

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