The Restoration of the Aldgate Pump of Death!

I’ve no doubt included photos and mentioned in passing the old Aldgate water pump which used to be right next to an eastern gate of the old Roman wall surrounding the city of London.

Aldgate Well was first mentioned all the way back in the thirteenth century during the reign of King John.  It possibly draws on the same water source that I discovered a year or so ago in Aldgate Priory – the medieval ruins inside a 21st century office block. which is only a few feet away.

The pump was referred to by sixteenth century historian, John Stowe, who described the execution of the Bailiff of Romford on the gibbet “near the well within Aldgate.”  It later entered popular culture and was the subject of everything from music hall songs to mentions in the works of Charles Dickens.

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Arthur Lloyds ‘Aldgate Pump’ song.

The pump was first installed upon the well head in the sixteenth century, and subsequently replaced in the eighteenth century by the gracefully tapered and rusticated Portland stone obelisk that stands today.

 

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Wolf head spout on Aldgate Pump

On the front of the stone obelisk is a beautifully preserved brass spout which takes the form of a wolf’s head and it signifies the last such wolf to be shot outside the City of London.  It still has a somewhat vicious snarl perhaps to maintain its  “Pump of Death” reputation.

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For all this time the water used to be drawn from a well but then in 1876 it was switched to a modern mains supply.  Just why was it?  The well had long been praised for its mineral properties and it’s distinctive and apparently health-giving pure qualities.  However in an entirely unexpected and typically Victorian London chain of events, it was discovered that horrifically the mineral qualities including plentiful amounts of calcium was in fact seeping from human bones (possibly like these human remains ) which had seeped into the underground stream from cemeteries, possibly the very one that my unfortunate but brave Liddell died in just 2 minutes walk away.

Several hundred people died in the resultant Aldgate Pump Epidemic as a result of drinking polluted water though by the 1920’s this must have been forgotten about as Whittard’s tea merchants used to “always get the kettles filled at the Aldgate Pump so that only the purest water was used for tea tasting.”

This dreadful event quickly entered popular folk lore with a bouncing cheque referred to as “a draught upon Aldgate Pump,” and in rhyming slang “Aldgate Pump” meant to be annoyed – “to get the hump.”

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Two boys drawing water at the Aldgate Pump in the early 20th Century.

The terrible revelation confirmed widespread morbid prejudice about the East End, of which Aldgate Pump was a landmark defining the beginning of the territory. The “Pump of Death” became emblematic of the perceived degradation of life in East London and it was once declared with superlative partiality that “East of Aldgate Pump, people cared for nothing but drink, vice and crime.”

Sadly for a century or so the pump has fallen into ever increasing disrepair; water long ago stopped flowing from the pump and an ornate gas lantern that sat on top of the stonework vanished at the dawn of the 20th Century.

As a Listed Monument however, it was offered some level or protection from being completely erased from history and in recent months the pump has been blocked off behind wooden hoardings only to re-appear at the end of August 2019.

Fantastically the old gas lamp has been restored albeit with new low-energy lighting and there is now a modern style push button on the stonework which will hopefully allow pedestrians to drink to their hearts content once more at the Aldgate Pump of Death.

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The restored Aldgate Pump

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
This entry was posted in Architecture, history, Life, London and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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