Fresh Drinking Water

Today, we think nothing about turning a tap, to get clean running water. Hundreds of years ago, things weren't so straight forward. Clean water was a scarcity, resulting in outbreaks of fatal diseases, such as smallpox, cholera, etc.

Walls of houses were whitewashed (with lime) to kill disease. Homes were cleaned with vinegar. The Trustees employed workers to scavenge, pave, sewer and cleanse the streets, and to levy rates to defray the expense of such works. In addition to the scavengers carts there two night soil carts belonging to the Trustees, and one belonging to a private individual.

However, it wasn't enough to combat disease. Correct sanitation was required to rid Whitehaven of deadly diseases. It might seem obvious today, on how to fight disease, but back then, the public wasn't so keen, due to the long held principle of laissez faire ‘let alone’ which stated the government should not interfere with the public. As a result builders were not required to provide sewerage systems or clean water.

In 1848, when The Public Health Act was made law, the Times Newspaper reported: "We prefer to take our chance with cholera than be bullied into health".

Cholera outbreaks of the mid 19th century led to an understanding that clean water meant good health. When the link between clean water and good health had finally made, clean water was installed up and down the country. At one time, Whitehaven boasted several fine drinking fountains. Evidence of some can still be seen today.

In 1859 a Miss Rosina Murray, who had seen "the good effects of the fountains in Liverpool" contacted one J. B. Wilson Esq, the chairman of the Water Committee and a member of the Whitehaven Town and Harbour Trustees Board, and urged him to consider installing such to benefit local people. By the end of April that year both the Water Committee and the Trustees had reached an agreement and six fountains had been ordered, via Mr Burrell, the water engineer.

The first fountain to open in Whitehaven, on May 12, was gifted to the town. The fountain was erected in the centre of the Green Market, opposite a shop occupied by Mr. Wilkinson, woollen draper. The fountain was described as: "a handsome upright, of cast iron, painted dark olive green, the upper part being ornamented with a variety of griffin-like faces, of tragical mould and expression from the expanded mouth of one which flows a sparkling jet of fresh mountain water all the way from Ennerdale."

A white metal ladle, of shell pattern, was hung either side of the fountain by chain. The fountain was procured by Mr. J. Whittle, of Roper Street, from Glasgow, and altogether cost the Order of Rechabites approximately £10.

The Order of Rechabites was a Friendly Society founded in England in 1835 as part of the temperance movement to promote total abstinence from alcoholic beverages. Always well connected in upper society and involved in financial matters, it gradually transformed into a financial institution which still exists, and still promotes abstinence. From the late 18th century a number of Friendly Societies had been set up across the UK to help working class people with such things as health insurance, death benefits, etc.

The location of the fountain in Whitehaven was chosen, because it was “one of the most frequented parts of the town where it will doubtless be a great boon to those classes who are so constantly occupied in our streets and to whom a drink of pure water during the summer season is highly acceptable."

The opening ceremony took place on the evening of Thursday May 12. A large crowd had gathered - so much so, that a circle of police, around the Green Market was required, to keep the peace!

The Rechabites, along with the Trustees Board members and the Miners Band stood by at the ceremony. The Rechabites requested Mr Bateman Wilson, chairman of the Water Committee, that his wife be the first to sample the water from the fountain.

Mr John Walker introduced Mrs Wilson to the crowd by declaring: "that the fingers of a lady should be the first to draw the water, and that the lips of a lady should be the first to taste the cup containing the first water, from the first drinking fountain erected in Whitehaven; and who so fitting to do this as Mrs Bateman Wilson, to whom we have now the pleasure of handing the first cup."

A silver cup, was now drawn, and offered, on a silver salver, amidst cheers from the crowd, to Mrs Wilson, by Mr John Jackson (who is believed to have suggested the fountain to the Rechabites.

On tasting the water, Mrs Wilson passed the cup to the ladies who had offered their support to her in accepting the first drinking fountain on behalf of the trustees of the town and harbour, and the people of Whitehaven.

Whitehaven was one of the first towns in the Kingdom to have fresh, clean drinking water available to the public. Liverpool was the first to possess drinking fountains - London had acquired theirs three weeks prior to Whitehavens. But, the Whitehaven water was declared as being purer than is supplied almost anywhere. The water of most other towns, even when filtered is not so pure as the unfiltered water of the  River Ehen.

Fountains were subsequently installed  at the following places: At the top of Lowther Street, at Newtown (near the foundry), at George Street (Church Street end), at Sugar Tongue, at Bransty Arch and at Queen Street. The first one, at Lowther Street, is the only one that still remains. It was refurbished in the mid 1990s and embellished with a bronze statue of a miner and his dog.

The fountain at the top of Lowther Street still carries the six rings of the Lowther Coat of Arms, in their familiar 3-2-1 formation. It is believed these symbols come from as far back as the 13th century when the Veterponte family, who were granted the Barony of Appleby by King John, bore arms of six red rings on a gold shield. The family name later evolved from Veterponte to Viponts from six (VI) “pointe’’, pointe being the Norman-French word for amulet (ring). The seal of John-De-Lowther 1338 also showed six rings, revealing a connection to the Viponts family.

In 1898, due to a massive increase in demand for clean, fresh drinking water at Whitehaven, plans were submitted to Parliament, by the Water Committee and the Trustees, for the construction of a waterworks at Ennerdale, and the taking of water from, Ennerdale Lake. Plans included:

"The construction of a weir or overfall across the River Ehen, and the impounding, storing up, taking, and diversion thereby of additional water from Ennerdale Lake."

A new and enlarged weir or overfall was to be situated at or near the existing weir or overfall across the River Ehen, at the place at which Ennerdale Lake discharges its waters into the river. The plans also specified that: "Together with all necessary and proper embankments, channels, basins, bye-washes, gauges, weirs, culverts, cuts, drains, sluices, filtering beds, meters, engines, engine-houses, and other buildings, pumps, conduits, catchwaters, tanks, mains, pipes, and other apparatus as may be necessary for the effectual construction, maintenance, and use of the existing waterworks of the Corporation, and of the said new and enlarged weir or overfall or incidental thereto. And to confirm the construction of any pipes or other works which the Corporation or their predecessors may have laid, and to authorise them to continue to maintain the same as part of their waterworks undertaking."

In 1899, the Bill put before Parliament, was given right of passage through the house. In 1913, the first drinking fountain to be installed in Whitehaven was removed from the Marketplace, because it was described as: "neither use, nor ornament"

Whitehaven's First Drinking Fountain
Whitehaven's First Drinking Fountain - Beneath the Awning


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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