PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Nottingham water supply porters trade disputes transportation services carters brewers
Subject: Dispute over the services of water porters
Original source: Nottinghamshire Archives, Nottingham borough court roll
Transcription in: W.H. Stevenson, ed. Records of the Borough of Nottingham, (London and Nottingham, 1882), vol.1, 114-16.
Original language: Latin
Location: Nottingham
Date: 1330


Robert de Morewode brings an action of trespass against Henry le Watirleder. Concerning which he complains that Henry is in the service of the community to carry water by the bushel to sell to all Nottingham men wishing to buy water, and that Robert, on 27 September last, in Nottingham, sent a certain Alice, his servant – just as he had often sent other of his servants – to Henry, to ask him if he would transport four horse-loads of water to Robert's house. She offered him a penny, which was his usual price. But Henry was unwilling to transport any water to Robert and completely refused, saying that Robert was a liar and untrustworthy, and alleging that he had punctured his bushel and all other Nottingham bushels with his knife. Furthermore, he persuaded all his associates in the same business not to supply Robert with water, because Robert was unwilling to pay them their fee. As a result, Robert was unable to obtain water for five weeks, neither from Henry nor from any of his fellows; because of which, he lost the meal of two quarters of malt, valued at 10s., to Robert's damage in the amount of 40s., and for that reason he has brought this action. Henry comes and denies the force [and injury] etc., and says that he is in no way guilty; and that this is the case, he submits to a jury. And Robert does likewise.


We know of the presence of water porters in several of the larger or more prosperous English towns, either through their activities or through surname evidence. Even in some small towns such as Godmanchester such surnames can be found. In London this trade existed by at least the early years of Edward I's reign. They were usually known as waterleders or waterladers, the variation in spelling making it difficult to be sure whether the term derives from the transporting (leading) of water or the loading (lading) of water onto carts or horses for delivery; or perhaps there is an association with the term "waterlade" referring to a channel through which water was carried (aqueduct). The name "waterberer" is found (together with waterleder) in London, both as a surname and an occupation; despite London's conduit system, the water-bearers survived occupationally and formed a gild, whose rules were registered by the court in 1496; both men and women belonged to the gild.

Water was sometimes transported manually, perhaps using a yoke with a pail at either end, although in London we hear of barrel-like and tankard (3-gallon) containers – the latter being mounted on the shoulder – as well as leather bags. However, the services of water porters seem to have been targeted mainly at industrial users, and so packhorses or carts would have been as common a way of distributing the larger volumes required. In a London ordinance regulating wages and prices in 1350, the waterleders are described as carters and they were permitted to charge fees ranging from a penny-farthing to twopence-halfpenny, depending on the distance travelled. A case recorded by the coroner in 1339 involved such a cart:

On the aforesaid Monday, about sunrise, Ralph de Mymmes, aged 12 years, a groom of John Absolon, carter, was bringing a water-cart with a cask full of water belonging to his master down Chepe, the same being drawn by two horses, when a wheel of the cart crushed the said John Stolere [beggar, aged 7 years] as he sat in the street relieving nature so that he immediately died.
[R. Sharpe, ed., Calendar of Coroners Rolls of the City of London, A.D. 1300-1378, Lonond, 1913, 220.]

At Lynn too, where too the surname Waterleder is in evidence, we hear in 1449 of water being transported in carts or bogies (possibly a cart low to the ground). An illustration from Exeter shows a a cart-based water distribution operation from a much later period, yet not essentially different from the medieval service. At Hull in the early fifteenth century, water was brought from a ditch on the west side of town, the Bushdike, by "bushmen" using horse-pulled sleds. York, like Hull, had no conduit system in the fifteenth century, and here again we find water porters active. Yet it was not necessarily an either/or situation, for at Bristol there were both conduits and waterleders, the latter evidently dealing with large quantities of water accessible only from major watercourses. At Durham both men and women are again found in this occupation; the monks often hired carriers to bring water from the river to supply their brewing or cooking needs, when their conduit was out of action due to frozen pipes.

The waterleders could perhaps earn a decent living, if they built up their business. The will of one, Geoffrey Penthogg (1348), bequeathed two tenements and two gardens in London to his wife and son; his widow died the following year, bequeathing two carts and five horses, formerly her husband's. Noting that periodic complaints in London of overuse of the conduits, by certain heavy consumers of water, do not target the water porters, Roberta Magnusson [Water Technology in the Middle Ages, 2001, 143] has suggested that at least some continued to find it easier to take water from the river than try to share in the modest flow through conduit pipes. In fact, the fee-setting regulations of 1350 assumed (perhaps over-optimistically) that Cheap, where London's principal conduit was located, would be the normal destination for watercarts, while the gild regulations of 1496 limited the amount that a water porter could take from the conduit at at one time.

Brewers were undoubtedly major clients of the water porters, and Robert de Morewode fits that bill, although brewing may not have been his principal line of business. He was a man of some standing in the community, who served as one of the town bailiffs in 1331/32 and again in 1334/35, and as mayor in 1347/48; as such Henry le Watirleder may have faced an uphill battle in court. A similar case came to court in Nottingham in 1355, when Robert le Waterleder was sued because his wife had entered into an agreement on his behalf, to supply the brewing needs of William Barber for at least a year, but Robert (so it was claimed) had broken the contract. Robert denied having entered into any contract, and an inquisition jury came to the same conclusion. A further case, in 1397, featured a Simon Waterleder, this time plaintiff, suing a client for 5s.5d due him for water delivered; the defendant, who did his best to delay the proceedings, was eventually obliged to appear before the court and acknowledged the debt.

At Leicester, the clientele of brewers is also indicated, in an ordinance of about the late fifteenth century insisting that:

no waterman nor bourneman is to transport water to any kind of common brewer or other persons on a Sunday – neither before noon, nor after – without a there being a reasonable cause by way of necessity, and then with permission being asked of the mayor then in office or the alderman of the quarter in which he lives or else the alderman of the quarter where resides the brewer or other person to whom the water is to be taken, upon penalty of 3s.4d payable to the chamber of the town each time water is transported on a Sunday without licence.
[Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1901), vol.2, 295]

Another occasional demand on their services was construction projects, presumably for mixing mortar; in 1366 a John Waterman supplied water for the Leicester guildhall renovations, and similar items are found in the accounts of the Corpus Christi Gild in 1494 in regard to repairs on its endowment properties. The surname "Waterman" (or Aquarius) appears in lists of Leicester's merchant gild members as early as 1196, suggesting the antiquity of the service.



"in the service of the community"
The original has "communis serviens", a term often used to refer to one of the lesser officers of the town – common sergeant – but here more likely referring to someone simply providing a communal service.

"late fifteenth century"
The clause was inserted in a set of ordinances from 1467 but appears to be a later interpolation, following the division of the town into aldermannic wards (1484).

Derived from an Anglo-Saxon term meaning "stream".

main menu

Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: January 5, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2019