In 1847 Captain John Paty, future admiral of the Hawaiian navy and one of the most successful captains in history, became ill after a night drinking in his local hostelry in what was to become San Francisco. A few days later, a Russian sailor who had been missing for some days was found in the well that had supplied the drinking water for the hostelry.
History books are littered with minor incidents and near misses that could have changed the course of history, but few are as banal as that of having the wrong mixer with an alcoholic beverage. Yet water is essential to human life, and the battle to ensure safe, secure sources is one that has run throughout human history and of course continues today. Water determines the site of settlements and controls their size over time. Its supply involves local and international governments, biologists, engineers, diplomats, lawyers and more, so is a major source of employment and potential friction between countries as our populations soar.
For many years I have been a historian in Bristol, England, a town known as the place of the bridge as it was a major crossing place on the tidal River Avon. The town used the river for defense, for travel, and as a source of water for drinking, washing and driving its mills. There was also a castle, which had wells to supply its inhabitants in times of war.
England has been called ‘a green and pleasant land’ and much of the time it is so, but it is a land without tall mountains, so there is no snow to melt and feed the rivers and streams in summer, so it is a country that has long struggled with water shortages in summer. This was especially a problem for travellers, as roads were often impassable in the winter due to muddy roads and flooded streams, so travel was mostly in the summer when there was often a shortage of water, not just for people but also for the horses and oxen pulling carts, and for animals being driven to markets.
From the 12th century, various monastic houses were drawn to the area, and they built watercourses from springs in the surrounding hills that supplied themselves and some of their wealthy patrons with private water supplies. They also built conduit outlets for the public, which could be very ornate stone structures, and which became places for women – it was always the women – to gather and chat whilst waiting their turn. Water is, of course, very heavy, so water use was kept to a minimum, hence the generally poor hygiene in those times.
When Henry VIII closed the monastic houses, the skills and funding to maintain these watercourses were lost, so many of the water pipes fell into decay. Bristol was a very wealthy city, so it had been well supplied by water from surrounding hills. Most of these no longer run, but their courses can still be traced, and the water is still useable. In World War II, the modern water supply to the city was bombed, so the only source of water for the old city became the ancient pipe at St John’s church, fed by a pipe from Brandon Hill to the west of the city. This was used for domestic supplies and for fighting fires during The Blitz.
In the countryside, some towns have the ending -bourne in their names, which means the street running through it became a stream in winter, so women could collect water on their doorsteps. In the dry summer months they had to resort to digging a well or travelling to a permanent stream. In some towns, such as Salisbury, Bristol and Cheltenham, local rivers were diverted through the main street to flush away the human and animal waste in the streets. The streets were made of stepping stones to help the water flow, but this also meant that all the waste went into streams, which caused problems with pollution for anyone living downstream.
Britain is a maritime nation, and providing clean water for ships was a huge problem. By the 18th century, most urban rivers had become so polluted that people preferred to drink beer and spirits. Sailors mostly lived on salted pork and dry biscuits, which, combined with their hard work, made them very thirsty. But the water in barrels often went mouldy, so rum was often added to make it more palatable. Water from London’s Thames River was often so full of sewage that when it decayed, it killed the mould which actually improved with time. Beer was popular at the time, but it was often open fermented, so it could carry germs such as Salmonella which could make the barrels explode or cause illnesses when in the tropics. In Bristol, there was a special conduit outlet on the quay so ships could stock up on clean water before departure. They could also stop part way down the river at a spring on the riverbank, to fill their barrels.
The growth of cities, the enclosure of open spaces and soaring population meant there was far more traffic on the roads, but fewer ponds and streams for beasts and humans to drink from. Local inns provided animal troughs, which were free to use on condition that the humans paid to drink inside. The rising consumption of alcohol, especially in the wake of the first cholera outbreaks in the 1830s led to the founding of many Christian groups campaigning against alcohol consumption, which led to campaigns for free, safe drinking water.
The national government allowed local governments to take over the many small water companies, in 1847. The city of Liverpool was the first to do so, and in 1859 the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association was founded in London by a group of mostly Quakers. There was a huge celebration when they opened their first public drinking fountain against the wall of St. Sepulchre’s church. It was used by 7,000 people on its first day. They promoted “high” standards in hygiene, “with cups on chains.” They later included animal troughs and bowls for dogs in their fountains, and the organization is still in existence today. Building drinking fountains – sometimes very ornate, and designed by famous architects – became incredibly popular with 19th century benefactors. Some were built to commemorate important events, others as memorials to the departed. Some survive, often damaged and lacking their water supply but visitors to London can drink a piece of history by using the fountains that are on Trafalgar Square, which are now movement activated. It is time more of these fountains were brought back into use, to encourage the healthy benefits of drinking of water, to save declining resources, and as a reminder of all those who fought for our right for such an apparently simple public amenity.