Whitechapel Drinking Fountains

In 1860, drinking fountains were being erected all over London in an endeavour to provide people with fresh water with which to quench their thirsts, and, hopefully, steer them away from alcoholic refreshments.

One of these fountains can still be seen by the wall of the site of St Mary’s Church, Whitechapel.

However, when it was being constructed it was not without controversy, as some people thought that it looked to catholic for a protestant country such as Britain.

Several letters of protest were sent in to The East London Observer decrying the popish style of the fountain.

Then, on Saturday the 11th of February 1860, a reader sent in the following tongue-in-cheek missive, expressing indignant outrage because he saw the fountains as heathen:-


Sir, Your correspondent “A Subscriber from the First,” seems greatly alarmed – indeed, horrified – at having seen in Whitechapel Churchyard what he designates a “Cross Halo.”

As the term is new to me, in stonework, I was curious to ascertain what this peculiar object could be which so affrighted him, as almost the only thing which could be properly described a cross halo is, I conceive, the flame of a candle seen through a piece of coarse canvas, which forms what might be called with some accuracy by that name, and which might have suggested the cruciform nimbus.

The drinking fountain of St Mary's Church.
The Drinking Fountain In Question.


Yesterday I looked through the railings of the churchyard, and although this cross halo was partly covered with matting, I think it may more correctly described a “cross patee formee” interlaced enfiled with a circle, intended as an ornament or finial for the Drinking Fountain now in the course of construction – in fact, a gable cross, such as is usually affixed to a large number of our country churches.

Your correspondent, in his indignation, proceeds to connect this Drinking Fountain with St George’s-in-the-East, Holy water, and genuflections.


But judge, Mr. Editor, what must have been my righteous indignation, when on reaching Jubilee Street – horresco referens – I found that these wicked promoters of so-called Drinking Fountains are bent under that pretence, upon reviving, not Popery but Paganism.

I saw, Sir, with own eyes, a heathen altar erected!

For the moment, ” Obstupui, steteruntque comoe, et vox faucibus hoesit.” I don’t think your correspondent felt half bad as that!


On recovering myself, I surveyed this object carefully, and being somewhat versed in Pagan antiquity I observed that it was the true three-sided Roman altar – an altar in our Protestant streets, mark that – with the veritable rams heads at the angles.

On the top stands the tripod, and in this instance the focus for burning the incense is beneath, formed of concentric circles.

Is not this enough to incense a Protestant?

Then, Sir, attached to a chain is what they pretend to be a drinking cup.

I know better, Mr. Editor, it is a simpulum to be used in the sacrifices.

Besides, this, Sir, there is a stream of water running from the bottom of the tripod for the express purpose of performing the lustrations, a custom alluded to by Virgil in his description of the burial of Misenus.

Those of your readers who arc familiar with the classic authors will know that what I am stating is true in every particular – and if others will look into any illustrated work on Roman antiquities they will see the pretended drinking fountain is the model of a Roman altar.


Depend upon it, Sir, unless you raise your powerful voice in defence of the Protestant faith shall all be perverted to heathenism these sad doings.

I am a timid man, and I don’t wish to see the butchers of Whitechapel lead the mighty bull (ingentem taurum) to the sacrifice.

This altar shows plainly that there is a – what shall I say – Jesuitical design to restore the worship of the Dii Consentes, Selecti, Indigentes, Penates and Lares.


What is your correspondent’s dread of Holy-water in Whitechapel Churchyard, to mine of the lustrations near Jubilee Street? What is his dread at seeing genuflections at that fountain, to mine when the sacerdoses shall bow themselves at this altar (procumbere ad genua) and the Pontifex maximus, and the attendant priests, shall revolve in gyrum?

What is his dread of the cross halo (or even perchance his greater horror of the huge cross on the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral) to mine at the daring elevation of a Pagan altar at the corner of Jubilee Street, Mile-end-road?


Yes, Sir, and with the obvious intention of restoring Paganism in our beloved Protestant country.

If you will not raise your powerful voice in our behalf, we must hope that the stentorian voice of the Rev. Hugh Allen will cry against this altar like the prophet of old.

An Indignant Protestant.