Britain's first drinking fountains - gifts of a Liverpool merchant


Britain's first drinking fountains - gifts of a Liverpool merchant

The first free drinking fountains in Britain were installed in Liverpool in the 1850s by Anglo-Swiss cotton merchant Charles Pierre Melly. Soon other cities, including London, were following his lead. Between 1750 and 1900 the population of Great Britain increased four and half times from 9 million to 41 million.

By 1850, more people in Britain were living in towns and cities than in the countryside in an exodus prompted by the industrial revolution that saw labour move from the agricultural economy to mills and factories.

Where village wells had met the needs of most working people for a drinkable water supply, urban areas lacked such sources of free clean drinking water. Private water companies supplied those households who could afford it, leaving those who couldn’t to rely on a few street pumps whose output was often contaminated with sewage and the source of outbreaks of typhoid and cholera.

Charles Pierre Melly was a Liverpool cotton merchant of Swiss ancestry. On a visit to Geneva in 1852, he admired the free drinking fountains that could be found all over the city. He contrasted it with the situation in Liverpool's docks, where the working man could not quench his thirst without going into a public house where they would be expected to pay for a stronger and less healthy drink. 

Melly determined to rectify this situation, and paid for the installation of the first fountain, made of polished pink granite, at Prince’s Dock in 1854. Three months later it was found that more than 2000 people drank from it over a twelve-hour period. 

Prompted by this popularity, by 1858, the number of fountains in Liverpool had reached forty-three, and other cities were keen to embrace the idea., ‘Fountain Melly’, as he was now nicknamed, helped fund drinking fountains in Norwich, Plymouth and Douglas on the Isle of Man.

Melly also had water piped to troughs, for the relief of city horses and cattle being driven to market, and was instrumental in the creation of the municipal Sefton Park and other wholesome pleasures such as playgrounds and wayside seating.

Nine of the original Liverpool Melly fountains still remain. One is pictured.

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