PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London water supply conduits public access warden oath brewers construction charity prisons services revenues expenditures repairs
Subject: The Great Conduit
Original source: 1. Corporation of London Records Office, Letter Books C, f.110, F, f.107, H, f.252; 2. Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Roll A94, m.4
Transcription in: 1. Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Memorials of London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 77-78, 225, 521; 2. Philip Jones, ed. Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London, A.D. 1458-1482, Cambridge: University Press, 1961, 92.
Original language: 1. Latin (translated by Riley); 2. Middle English
Location: London
Date: 14th and 15th centuries


[1a. Oath of the conduit warden, 31 October 1310]

William Hardy came on Saturday the Eve of All Hallows [1 November] in the fourth year, before Sir Richer de Refham, the Mayor, and other Aldermen, and made oath that he will well and trustily, with the greatest diligence, cause the Conduit in Chepe to be kept, so that neither brewers nor fishmongers shall waste the water thereof: nor will he sell the water thereof to any one, by night or day, on peril of losing his freedom, etc.

[1b. Restrictions on use of the conduit, 18 July 1345]

At a Husting of Pleas of Land, holden on the Monday next before the Feast of St. Margaret the Virgin [20 July], in the 19th year of the reign of King Edward the Third etc., it was shown by William de Iford, the Common Serjeant, on behalf of the Commonalty, that whereas of old a certain Conduit was built in the midst of the City of London, that so the rich and middling persons therein might there have water for preparing their food, and the poor for their drink; the water aforesaid was now so wasted by brewers, and persons keeping brewhouses, and making malt, that in these modern times it will no longer suffice for the rich and middling, or for the poor; to the common loss of the whole community.

And for avoiding such common loss, it was by the Mayor and Aldermen agreed, with the assent of the Commonalty thereto, that such brewers, or persons keeping brewhouses, or making malt, shall in future no longer presume to brew or make malt with the water of the Conduit. And if any one shall hereafter presume to make ale with the water of the Conduit, or to make malt with the same, he is to lose the tankard or tyne with which he shall have carried the water from the Conduit, and 40d., the first time, to the use of the Commonalty; the tankard or tyne, and half a mark, the second time; and the third time he is to lose the tankard or tyne, and 10s; and further, he is to be committed to prison, at the discretion of the Mayor and Aldermen there to remain.

It was also agreed at the same Husting, that the fishmongers at the Stokkes, who wash their fish therewith, shall incur the same penalty.

[1c. Permission to build an extension on the existing conduit, 1390]

Forasmuch as the substantial men of the Ward of Farndone Within, and other citizens of the City of London, for the common advantage and easement of the same, at their own costs and charges intended to make and build a water-conduit near to the Church of St. Michael le Quern, in the Westchepe of London, supplied by the great pipe of the Conduit opposite to St. Thomas of Acon, in London, to serve the people for their easement; they therefore asked of William Venour, the Mayor, and the Aldermen of the said City, leave to do as above stated, etc. Whereupon, the said Mayor and Aldermen, desiring the common advantage and easement of the City, granted unto the same reputable men leave to build, as before stated, and so to do, provided that the same work should not be injurious or harmful to the Great Conduit aforesaid.

And hereupon, on the 14th day of July, in the 14th year etc., came before the said Mayor and Aldermen, in the Chamber of the Guildhall, Thomas Pantone, goldsmith, Bartholomew Castre, goldsmith, John de Doncastre, coppersmith, Thomas Bonere, Leonard Nortone, and William atte Gate, and gave security, that if it should be found by the Mayor and Commonalty, at any future time, that the pipes in the said Conduit, near to the Church of St. Michael, to be ordered, raised, and made, should be injurious or harmful to the Great Conduit, opposite to the Church of St. Thomas aforesaid, then the said pipes should be removed, and, at the expense of the persons aforesaid, the whole should be restored to its former state; so that the entirety of the great pipe of the Great Conduit should be renewed and restored, the same as it was on the day of the license being obtained; and that the said pipes near to the Church of St. Michael aforesaid should then cease altogether to convey any water therefrom.

[2. Support for the conduit extension to Newgate prison, 1475]

To all true Christians before whom this document comes, Robert Drope mayor and the aldermen of the city of London send greetings in the name of God. Thanks to the alms of charitable and well-meaning people, various lead pipes have been laid in the ground from Ludgate to Newgate, with the intent of conveying water from the Great Conduit in Ludgate via those same pipes to Newgate gaol, for the relief and refreshment of the prisoners in that gaol at any given time. Know we, the mayor and aldermen, with the intent that the pipes be maintained and repaired in the future and the poor prisoners given charitable relief, have agreed and granted that if hereafter it happens that the pipes are defective or need repairs, they shall be supported and repaired at the cost of the chamber of the city of London. Also, that as long as water comes into the city via the Great Conduit, that water shall not be prevented by ourselves or our successors nor by anyone else in our name, from being conveyed by the said pipes from Ludgate to Newgate. Should it happen hereafter that the water is reduced or diminished by anyone opening any pipe or some other cause, then we shall be liable for correcting that problem, so that the water may continue to flow as is indicated above. In testimony to which document, we have had set to it the seal of our office of the mayoralty of the city. Written at London on 20 July 1475, in the 15th year of the reign of King Edward IV.


As is so often the case, on the subject of conduits we have more evidence from London than from most English towns. Yet although it has been claimed that London's was the earliest documented system for supplying fresh water of any medieval European city, as noted elsewhere this is not true even for the English urban scene. Nor is it correct to claim that it was the secular authorities, not religious institutions, who took the first initiative in that regard at London, again as shown otherwise elsewhere. Even in London, monastic houses and cathedral authorities were pioneering aqueducts in advance of the civic government.

Nonetheless, the interlinked problems of sanitation and fresh water supply must have been that much more acute in heavily populated London, and prompted the authorities to a plan of action. The first public water supply there traces its roots to 1237, when the city acquired from Gilbert de Sandford property (notably springs) near the distant River Tyburn, which emptied into the Thames at Westminster. There they built, with Sandford's permission, a reservoir to collect the water from the springs; the reservoir provided the pressure by which water would be propelled along pipes, to carry it into the intramural area.

Construction of the conduit did not begin until 1245, perhaps because of the need to work out a route with appropriate gradient into the city, to negotiate the rights of way, and to raise funds. Part of the funding came from a large donation by the merchantile communities from three European cities, who were accorded special trading privileges in return. Sandford's grant, gave the city latitude in deciding where it would place the conduit across his lands, and rights of access for maintenance. Whether this was so easily obtained from other owners of lands the conduit crossed remains an unknown. According to Riley [op.cit., 503] the course followed by the conduit was from Sandford's property south to near the present site of Buckingham Palace, then eastwards to Charing Cross, and thence along the Strand and Fleet Street into the city via Ludgate, skirting St. Paul's before being led up to Cheap.

Eastwards along Cheapside ran the Great Conduit, leading to a long, rectangular building, mostly subterranean, at the eastern end of Cheap near the frontage of the house of St. Thomas of Acre. Into this building citizens descended to draw water. This structure was part of the initial thrust in the 1240s, and remains from a later rebuilding (1286) still survive. By the latter date there existed a warden appointed to look after the conduit; by 1292 the number had increased to four. City revenues were allocated to its maintenance, and these funds managed by a small committee. When the occupations of wardens is known, or suggested by their surnames, we notice that many were, appropriately, from metalworking trades. One historian has suggested that, during this period when a more professional form of government was developing in London, "The council's major achievement was the establishment of a civic water-supply ... The management of this public service became a model for all civic enterprise." [Gwyn Williams, Medieval London: from Commune to Capital, rev. ed., London: Athlone Press, 1970, 84].

From these beginnings a conduit system developed, channelling water to several wards, where were located boundary markers, called "standards", housing cisterns to collect the piped-in water. One was at the mid-point in Cheapside, at the western boundary of Cheap Ward. A small charge may have been levied on citizens wishing to carry off water from there. The busy areas of Cheapside as well as the populous and wealthy western suburb of Fleet Street were also served by the close of the fourteenth century, and the system was further extended in the next century. The conduit house in Cheap was lockable; in 1325, the conduit wardens – there now being three – were each given keys when they took their oaths of office. It seems to have been common to lock conduit houses overnight, to prevent unlawful uses of the water and doubtless to discourage people from wandering the streets at night.

By 1350 the number of conduit keepers was two and their financial account for receipts and expenditures during their term of office (seemingly two years) shows on-paper revenues of £3.17s.8d from rents of 10 properties, although several of these had not yet been paid, doubtless due to disruption caused by the Black Death, and of £11.15s.4d from licence fees for tankards. The city had its own supply of tankards for rent, stamped to provide official guarantee of their measure; the wardens hired a building in which to store them. Other of their costs included:

  • cleaning the cistern eight times a year
  • repairs to the Cheapside fountain and the pipes there, as well as to the intermediate outlet and pipes at the Fleet Bridge
  • an examination of the conduit after rumours that the water was corrupted (perhaps a panic response to the outbreak of plague)
  • extension of the water supply into the king's stables near Charing Cross
The revenues were easily sufficient to cover the expenditures at this time.

Overseeing repairs was probably a frequent part of the wardens' tasks. In 1388 a complaint was made by the residents of Fleet Street about frequent breakages of the pipes – whether from effects of weather, accidents, or vandalism was not specified – that resulted in water flowing out into cellars, rotting house-timbers, and damaging trade goods. The city authorities permitted the neighbourhood to construct, at its own cost, an enclosure over the pipes at what may have been the offending location, a tavern (perhaps suggesting the pipes were damaged by drunks and brawlers?). Although the wardens hired workers to repair the pipes, the responsibility could also be placed on householders; in 1379 each householder was ordered to finance one man to work on ditch-cleaning and repair of the conduits and walls.

In 1367 the city tried leasing out the administration of the conduits, for a ten year period, for £13.6s.8d a year. The lessees – evidently attracted by the surplus of revenues over expenditures (if the account of 1350 was typical) – were however required not to increase the fees traditionally paid by citizens for drawing water, and aldermen and sheriffs were not to be charged a fee at all. The lessee was responsible for costs of maintaining any part of the conduit above ground, while the city retained responsibility for maintaining the subterranean portions. After the conclusion of the initial lease, the city authorities decided to take the water-supply back into their own hands. Their demand on the wealthier residents of each ward, in 1378, of an obligatory "donation" towards conduit repair costs suggests that the conduit may not have been well maintained by the lessees, who were either inclined to cut corners or found revenues less equal to expenditures than they had anticipated. Or perhaps the donations were intended for a planned extension of the system into Cornhill. While the city may have been able to fund maintenance of the conduits, even if resorting to special levies, major extensions of the system were normally funded by the beneficiaries or through bequests from wealthy citizens (which became more common in the fifteenth century).

The supply of water brought in by conduits was evidently – not just at London but in other towns, such as Bristol, Coventry and Lynn – insufficient to serve both domestic and industrial needs. The disincentive of line-ups, perhaps combined with difficulty in paying even the small user fee (possibly not applied in the case of on-the-spot imbibing of small quantities), may have been what encouraged poorer residents to continue using the Thames for washing themselves or their clothes, or collecting water for domestic use, as evidenced by records of those who drowned while so doing. One of the wharves, La Lauenderebrigge was so known because of the laundering activities that went on there. The ordinance of 1345 translated above suggests that the conduit was primarily intended to serve householders.

The above oath of the conduit warden is unusual in that its focus is not on the tasks he had to perform, but the abuses he had to prevent. One of these concerned irresponsible use of conduit water by brewers and fishmongers, and these two occupational groups remained a problem for decades to come. As early as 1312 brewers were forbidden to take water from the conduit for their professional needs, but this problem was not so easily overcome, and the city changed its policy periodically: at times it preferred to tolerate access by brewers (and other heavy consumers) in return for special user fees. In 1337 Cheapside residents complained to the city husting that they could not get the same service from the Great Conduit that they had in the past,

"because that men who keep brewhouses in the streets and lanes near the said Conduit, send day after day, and night after night, their brewers to the said Conduit with their vessels, called 'tynes', and make the ale which they sell with the water thereof; and so in like manner they make malt with the same water, to the loss of the commonalty : and they ask that this common damage may be corrected, and that the said Conduit may from henceforth be kept for the public good, as of old it used to be kept."
[Riley, op.cit., 200-01]
The court ordered any such vessels brought to the conduit to be confiscated. This solution was evidently not sufficient to stop the brewers taking more than others perceived as their fair share of the water, and eight years later we have the report of the sergeant, given above, prompting an outright ban on brewers and fishmongers using the conduit.

When disputes and complaints arose, the authorities generally gave preference to domestic needs, requiring heavy users of water – notably brewers and dyers – to obtain their supplies by other means. These prohibitions may not have helped much the poorer Londoners, who continued to trudge down to the river; in 1417 the civic authorities had to forbid owners of wharves and stairs on the Thames from trying to charge those users for access to the riverside. Just two years before, the city again had to clamp down on brewers using the Great Conduit; by that time, however, the city had given up on a total ban and was leasing the "great upper pipe" of the conduit to brewers and others, but it could at least order those persons not to use the "small pipes below" [ibid., 617]. We should not focus too much on the brewer as the villain of the piece, however. Lynn's prohibition in 1390 against over-consumption of water did not single out any particular trade. And at Wells, where pipe-laying had begun in 1448, the next century saw restrictions on anyone collecting water in tubs during hot spells.

A longer-term solution to the high demand on the conduit system was to improve the system itself, by bringing in more water and extending the conduits into other parts of the city. In 1355 the pressure of demand on the conduit ought to have been eased somewhat when Alice Chobham allowed the city to choose any piece of land on her estate at Tyburn from where it could access a further spring. This was at the same period when plague was reducing the population and therefore demand on the water supply.

The complaints heard in the previous two decades are absent in the second half of the century. Yet the permission granted to the men of Farringdon ward to build an extension onto the Great Conduit evidences the Corporation's concern that such extensions risked reducing the flow in the main conduit. The abortive attempt to extend the conduit to Cornhill, after 1378 (for which the executors of Adam Fraunceys, mayor 1352-54, had offered to put up £333.6s.8d) also would have put additional burden on the Great Conduit. During the fifteenth century a new effort was made to serve Cornhill from the Tyburn-fed source, and Fleet Street too, and new sources of water were tapped: springs at Paddington fed one conduit (a project begun in 1439 but not finished until 1471), while another at Highgate had by mid-century been harnessed to serve Cripplegate, a highly-populated ward, partly inside and partly outside the walls. In the same period the existing pipes and heads underwent renovations, and the Cornhill extension was finally achieved.

But the increase in volume must later have been offset by growing demand from householders for a private supply, even though such private pipes were very narrow – usually compared to a swan's or goose's quill. This growth in desire for running water for the private household created the need to police unauthorized tapping into the public pipes; offenders were punished by the usual public humiliation assigned for offences against the community. Thus in 1478 William Campion was discovered, after a suspicious drop in water pressure elsewhere, to have dug through the cellar of his house in Fleet Street and tapped into the conduit pipes for the benefit not only of his own household but those of his neighbours; he was paraded ignominiously through the streets with a model conduit, dripping water, set on his head. Yet the authorities gradually began to give in to such demands, from those prepared to pay licence fees.

A yet more extensive conduit system was created in the sixteenth century, but by the end of the seventeenth – and particularly after the damage caused by the Great Fire – much had been removed, because the conduits, located in the middle of the streets, created a difficulty for traffic.



According to Riley, this was a vessel similar to a large bucket or tub, with a three-gallon capacity.

A large bucket resembling a barrel with a handle.

Part of the line of markets that stretched east-west through London; now remembered in the name "Stockmarket".

"wash their fish"
Roberta Magnusson [Water Technology in the Middle Ages, Baltimore, 2001, 145] observes that the problem was not with pollution, as the water in the cistern in the conduit house was not directly accessible, but only through taps. The objections to the fishmongers would have been that they wasted good drinking water and obstructing other users. The same closed character of the pipes and cistern would have made washing clothing there impractical, and help explain why people continued to resort to the Thames for that; however, the Coventry conduit was evidently differently constructed, as washing clothes was feasible there.

"St. Thomas of Acon"
The hospital of St. Thomas of Acre stood on the north side of West Cheap, near its eastern end, whereas St. Michael Cornmarket was at the west end of West Cheap.

"lock conduit houses"
Magnusson [op.cit, 119] is uncertain if the London conduit house was itself locked, suggesting the keys may have been for a supplies storeroom or the conduit taps. However, evidence from other towns suggest it more likely that it was the conduit houses that were locked.

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: November 27, 2011 © Stephen Alsford, 2011