Medieval London was a filthy place. A visitor in the c13th would have found its three main rivers, the Thames, Fleet and Walbrook, clogged with animal entrails and human waste. The centre of streets would have been liberally sprinkled with ordure, and rakers, paid to clean cess-pits of houses with no running water, would have offloaded their spoil either at the watery meadows at Moorfields or in the same rivers.
As population and trade expanded, the need for fresh water increased, and overworked rivers – even backed up by private wells – could not supply the answer. The first of several projects to pipe fresh water into the heart of London began in 1237 during the mayoralty of Andrew Buckerel, a Pepperer and Alderman of Cripplegate. The City community seemingly lacked the finance for large engineering schemes, with individuals or interest groups footing the bill, perhaps for reasons other than pure altruism.
The founding of the first outlet, or conduit, on Cheapside was noted in 1245 – ‘fundamentum conductii’ – when in return for special access to the London markets, merchants of Picardie in France (possibly wine merchants) donated £100 to the citizenry of London for the purpose of conducting water from Tyburn (or Tybourne) to a conduit in the City. (Conduit, by the way, referred to the construction at the end rather than the pipe itself.)
This privately-sponsored work was completed by 1261, when an old property on the south side of Cheapside is described, for the first time, as ‘opposite the conduit.’
Apparently popular and successful, the system’s design was the model for several later schemes. Though scant documentation survives, archaeology provides a clearer picture.
Excavations by the Museum of London next to Bond Street tube station’s subway have found a large, stone-lined tank, part of the Tyburn water system. (Evidence suggests that this cistern later had to be replenished by fresh water piped from a spring at Oxleas field, next to Bayswater brook. The City of London acquired the right to do so from the Abbot of Westminster in 1440.)
This Bond Street tank had no bottom, just natural gravel, leading archaeologists to presume that the tank was filled naturally by bubbling up from below.
The collected water was siphoned into sections of 90mm diameter lead pipe, encased in clay. From there it began its journey to the City down South Molton Street, whose unusual 45 degree angle marks the downhill course of the underground pipes, past modern Conduit Street to Piccadilly, behind St James’s church (adjacent, appropriately, to Swallow Street).
The subterranean pipes continued to the site of the royal mews at modern Trafalgar Square, where they turned sharply, conveniently, to pass by the luxurious homes of the Strand. Continuing along Fleet Street the pipes entered the city around Ludgate.
At the end of the pipe, a large stone and wooden structure containing a cistern was raised, with a fountain and taps to draw from. The first of these, the Great Conduit, was built at Poultry, at the eastern end of London’s busiest retail street, Cheapside. This was, according to Stow, of ‘Survey of London’ (1598) fame, ‘a long and low stone building with battlements on the top, enclosing a large leaden cistern, the water of which issued from a cock into a square stone bason at the eastern end.’
The pipe was opened again to add the Little Conduit at the other end of Cheapside, next to the old Folkmoot, outside St Paul’s cathedral. (It’s been suggested that the Bishop of London may even have paid for the project to bring clean water to the doorstep of his seat, the cathedral.)
At some time a standard (essentially something that stands up, somewhat grandly) was also erected near St Mary-le-Bone church. Originally built of wood, in 1443 licence was given to pull down ‘le Standard in Chepe, where divers xecutions of the law have been made hitherto, which is now of wood, weak and old, wherein is a conduit, and to set up a new standard of stone with a conduit therein.’ (By the way, I suppose I could have chosen The Cheapside Conduit as the name for this blog, but the newspaper pun would not have worked quite so well.)
Further water towers followed at Fleet Street (rebuilt around 1438/9 – ‘the newe cunduyt in Fletstrete begonnen to make,’ according to the ‘Chronicle of London’), and elsewhere. Mayor of London Sir William Eastfield brought water from springs at Highbury to north of Cheapside, at St Giles Cripplegate, and from Tyburn again to a conduit constructed near St Mary Aldermanbury church. This was completed posthumously, in accordance with his will.
Visible traces of these projects remain only in street names. Yet it’s still evocative to follow the course of that first water pipe from modern Bond Street to Poultry. In fact, the sight of the island churches in the middle of Strand, St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes, give an idea of how the conduits – wonderful examples of c13th civil engineering – might have looked on Cheapside.
In a future blog I’ll look at how the conduits swiftly became notable City landmarks.