Whitechapel Drinking Fountain
Restoration of the Whitechapel Drinking Fountain
The Whitechapel Fountain stands upon the original site of the ‘white chapel’ that gave a name to the East London borough. It is the only remaining trace of the church that once stood there. The fountain dates from 1860, but was moved to its present location in the churchyard wall in 1879. The church to which the fountain was attached has a lineage dating back to the 13th century. Known as St Mary Matfelon, the church began as a chapel at ease, rebuilt in the 14th century by the Matfelon family, and again in the 17th century. In 1875, the church was rebuilt in its original 13th century style but was subsequently demolished after war damage in 1952. The adjoining park, known as St Mary’s Park until 1998, was renamed Altab Ali Park in memory of a Bangladeshi leather worker murdered in a racist attack in 1978 – an event which launched Bengali community activism in the area.
The remaining fountain is an interesting example of the Romanesque Revival style, featuring a Norman arch with pink granite colonettes and back panel and set in a gabled ragstone surround, with white marble detail. The ‘shapeless stone lump’ in its centre is unusual, as is the fountain inscription, ‘Erected by one who is known yet unknown’—possibly a reference to the Rev. William Weldon Champneys, Whitechapel’s long-serving and reforming rector who left the parish in 1860.
The fountain was in poor condition. It had been badly repaired in the past, its incongruous cement mortar gave the impression of a recent hasty re-erection despite its continuous position since 1879. The architectural detail is eroded and much of the dog-tooth detail completely lost. The cement mortar had failed in many places and the stone jambs had either shifted out of alignment or cracked. Coping stones were loose or missing, as were all of the drinking fountain components.
The restoration project was completed in May 2023 and included replacing two Portland stone copings, cutting back and defrassing the friable surface and replacing it with new stone, removing the cement pointing and repointing in lime mortar, removing and reinstating the Portland stone jamb which had shifted, poultice cleaning to remove the sulphation crust and staining, general cleaning and the application of biocide. Finally, the fountain’s connection to Thames Water is now re-established, thus restoring its utility as a drinking fountain.