UCL News


Think before you drink

13 July 2006

Think about it: when was the last time you saw fresh, free drinking water in a public space? Whereas it's possible to stumble on water fountains, for example, in all manner of places in the US, Canada, and some of continental Europe, you have to go looking for them in Britain, and if you do, you'll often be disappointed.

This wasn't always the case. "The Victorians were quite keen on providing water in public places," says Dr Anne Hardy [Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL], author of 'Health and Medicine in Britain Since 1860'. Domestic water supplies in England were erratic until the 1860s and 70s, and even then water companies would provide water for only about two hours a day. Water fountains were scattered throughout cities mainly "in order to stop people from drinking just anything, and especially too much beer". Thus water provision was partly related to the temperance movement, though it was noticed that men in factories, who drank beer, were far less likely to be felled by diarrhoea than women, who were restricted to water, which at that point was not filtered or chlorinated.

The Victorians were particularly concerned with providing drinking water to the underclass - not the unemployed, who were sent to poorhouses or stayed at home, but the semi-employed: the costermongers and flower-girls, the dock workers and street-sweepers who were more likely to spend their spare time in the pub. But this underclass began to disappear in the Edwardian period, and street life became tidier. Levels of dust dropped with the disappearance of horses, licensing laws controlled drinking, and the spread of Lyons corner houses, which sold cheap tea and coffee and welcomed women, meant that alcohol was no longer the only non-water alternative. Tap water became available in homes, and the spread of tuberculosis, for example, raised worries about the sanitariness of drinking fountains (which was good news for the paper cup). Gradually, they dropped out of sight. For years drinking water became, in a very western, privileged way, a non-issue.

The popular idea that continuous hydration is necessary for health and especially that a specific quantity is required, is, says Hardy, "very, very recent, really appearing only in the past five or six years. Most people wouldn't have thought twice about it before. People have taught themselves to need water. I see that in myself. I never used to drink water except at mealtimes. But nowadays I'm constantly thinking, 'I'm thirsty, must have a glass of water.'" It is also, she notes, "a generational thing: the bottle-clutching classes are mostly the under-30s. People who matured before this fad by and large thought they could do without it. The bottle of water is now a visible symbol of 'I care about my health'."…

Aida Edemariam, 'The Guardian'