The Aldgate Pump – Quietly Gruesome

As you reach the junction of Leadenhall Street, Fenchurch Street and Aldgate High Street you will notice a rather unusual feature. What you are looking at is a water pump, a rather historic one at that. The pump that is on the site now is relatively new, bring placed there in 1876, but before the pump was installed this was the site of a well, a well that was in existence in the 1500’s and probably a long time before that too. It is a throwback to a bygone age, a time before running water was cleaned and pumped into people’s houses; a time when the only access to clean water was via the wells and pumps that were dotted around the city.

Photo by Andrea Vail
Photo by Andrea Vail

Clean Water

Of course the people that were drawing the water from these wells and pump thought it was clean – they were told it was clean by the authorities, and clean water meant an end to certain illnesses that had plagued the city. However one of the main reasons that the Aldgate pump is so well known today is because of the epidemic that stemmed from its flow of water, taking the lives of several hundred Londoners in the late 1800’s. The Aldgate Epidemic was caused by the people of the surrounding area drinking the polluted water that was being drawn from the pump. At first it was just a foul taste that was noticed in the water, but before long people were falling gravely ill and death became the final consequence.

Population Problems

London was a city that was suffering from overcrowding, the cemeteries in the city were full and unable to take the bodies that were piling up as death and disease stalked the city streets. In order to relieve the numbers in the centre of the city, new residential areas were built and with them new cemeteries to house the dead. When the Aldgate Well was modernised and a pump installed in 1876, it could draw much more water than had previously been available, and it was only after the pump had been installed that people complained that the water tasted off and they began to fall ill.

A subsequent investigation into the epidemic traced the source back to the pump itself. The new ability to draw more water had meant that the pump was pulling in water from the surrounding districts, areas which had recently seen the installation of new cemeteries. The pump was pulling the groundwater from beneath the graves, bringing with it all of the toxins and chemicals that are released when a body decomposes. Hardly surprising then that people were becoming gravely ill.

One other point of interest on the pump is contained in its decoration. If you look you will see that there is the image of a wolf’s head shown on the pump, the reason for this is because this is apparently where the last wolf in the City of London was shot and killed. It seems that death surrounds this pump in many forms.

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