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ONCE, they saved lives; now, they're tourist attractions."I often see visitors having their photograph taken holding the original cups and chains," says Philip Chancellor, former Administrator of St Sepulchre's church in the East End of London, of the Victorian drinking fountain outside the church (opposite, below right). It's a beautiful fountain, and a reminder of an age when a cup of unpolluted H2O was a greater luxury than a glass of beer.

Until the late 1850s, when public drinking fountains first started to appear across the city, Londoners could choose from two main sources for their water supply: they could buy it, bottled, from one of the unregulated water companies, or rely on wells and conduits. Neither was a particularly attractive option. The private companies took their brew directly from the Thames (also the city's dumping ground for sewage and corpses), while water from the wells was often drained from graveyards and slaughterhouses. Not surprisingly, disease was rife, and many drinkers took the view that alcohol was safer.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association was established in 1859 by Samuel Gurney MP (nephew of Elizabeth Fry) with the twin aims of decreasing the number of deaths caused by contaminated water and of tackling the problem of excessive alcohol consumption. Backed by public subscription (the Temperance movement was particularly supportive), the Association built 85 fountains and animal troughs in its first two years. Its first fountain, at St Sepulchre's, was used by more than 7,000 people a day, and there was a dramatic reduction in the incidence of cholera. By the turn of the century the Association had built more than 200 fountains across London.

Many were strategically placed outside public houses, others outside churches; indeed, Evangelism and water often flowed side by side. A fountain built in Hampstead in 1875, for instance, carries this inscription: "Jesus said whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again but whosoever drinketh of the water I shall give him shall never thirst again."

The design of Victorian fountains tended to be utilitarian, but aesthetic considerations sometimes came into play, especially when fountains were built to commemorate a particular event or individual. Some were as inconspicuous as today's cashpoint machines, others as grand as the period's most grandiose memorials.

The fountains continued to be built at an impressive rate in the first half of this century, but improvements in the water quality and the increase in domestic water supplies meant that soon most people had access to safe water without recourse to fountains, and the Association's building programme gradually slowed down. It continued to maintain and restore its earlier creations, but increasingly its labours were labours of love rather than of social necessity. "After the war," acknowledges its current Secretary, Ralph Baber, "the Association's raison d'etre seemed to fall away." But its time may be coming again: "With public spending cutbacks in the Seventies and Eighties, we were restored as a charity, and we continue to build fountains in public places across the UK."

The Victorian fountains that survive in London today are a source of great pride to the Association. Local councils maintain them, and, although attempts to restore them to working order have failed, they are otherwise in good condition. (Shown here are, clockwise from top left, those at Finsbury Square; Westbourne Grove; Chalk Farm; St Sepulchre's; and Rosslyn Hill.) Too often disregarded by the Londoners who daily trickle by, they are, in truth, fascinating: not just for their architectural diversity, but as a reminder of an age when social ills had more obvious cures. !