Fetching Water, Then and Now

Pump It Up
(water pump next to the Pieterskerk)

Jack and Jill went up a hill
to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and Jill came tumbling after.

Now admittedly, there’s little risk of falling down hills here in Utrecht, but if Jack and Jill had been sent to fetch a pail of water, they might have been more likely to fall into a canal. In the middle ages, many homes had their own well or pump from which they got their water, but it was often contaminated by leaking cesspools. The water was often so awful that people preferred to get water from the canals, despite the fact that the canals themselves were often dumping grounds for all sorts of filth and waste.

Fortunately, by the late 1700s/early 1800s, they were able to drill deeper and get fresher water that was better protected. Along the way, these public pumps began to take on a more permanent appearance, as the pumps were encased in stone structures and featured large iron handles and bronze spouts that were highly decorated, often with fanciful animal heads. The tops of the pump structures often had some sort of lamp, as well.

Head in a Head
(detail of the water pump on Breedstraat with the decorative spout)

At one point in the late 1800s, Utrecht had more than 6000 pumps, with 60 of them being public pumps. Today, there are only a handful of old pumps still to be seen around town, and they’re all simply for show now.

One of the most attractive of the water pumps still to be seen is the one at Mariaplaats (a copy of the original). It has a beautiful lion’s head for a spout and sits in a small square shaded by trees. Historically, this pump location was one of the most famous, as well. The water from it was of such good quality that it was shipped to Amsterdam where it was sold by the barrel.

Maria Waterpomp

Shades of Green
(photos of St. Maria Pomp, built in 1844)

Yesterday I wrote about the new water pumps that have been installed around town offering free tap water. They may be useful and a good idea, but they lack the charm of their older counterparts. Many of today’s pumps are located near parks, whereas most of the pumps from the 1800s that remain are located near churches. Changing times, changing needs.

There used to be a grand pump in the middle of Neude, one of the big squares in the center of town, but it was finally removed in 1932. It features multiple lanterns and must have been a bright spot for gathering in the evening. You can see an old postcard image of it here, although the image must have been reversed when the card was printed, as the Domtoren and some of the buildings in front still remain, but should most definitely be on the other side of the picture!

The next time you’re in Utrecht and you see one of these old pumps, take a moment to be grateful for fresh, clean, tasty water that requires little more than an easy shift of a handle, rather than a trek with buckets in hand and a full-body workout. But also be thankful that these interesting pieces of history haven’t been lost and forgotten.

Buurkerk Waterpomp
(classically inspired water pump outside the Buurkerk)
Geertekerk Waterpomp
(Geertekerk water pump)
Breedstraat Waterpomp
(Breedstraat water pump on a Saturday morning amidst the ancient, outdoor fabric market)

6 thoughts on “Fetching Water, Then and Now

  1. Nice post, I love those old pumps. When I pass one by, I sometimes can’t help myself and try and pump the handle, even though it has clearly been “clamped” with iron bars just to prevent people like me doing just that 🙂 I wonder if they still work, they probably do, otherwise why clamp the handles on them? Anyway, they’re a nice little piece of popular history left.

    • I do wish they they still worked (or were allowed to work), since it would be fun to give them a try. Maybe on an Openmonumentendag they should let people try them!

    • I’ve been going around town taking photos of the pumps for months, with the idea of writing this post, but it’s taken me forever to get around to it, which meant I’d forgotten where to find all of the photos! I’m glad it’s been worth the effort!

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