It’s a little like Harry Potter: one moment you are strolling through Exeter’s Princesshay shopping centre, little different from retail malls all over the world, with the same bright shop displays tempting you to spend. The next minute, entering an anonymous-looking door – easily missed between the temptations offered by Zara and Next on either side – you descend a few steps, and suddenly find yourself in the claustrophobic world of narrow Medieval passages cut out of the bare rock. Don’t worry, though: you are not going to encounter orcs or Voldemort’s minions. The worst you will suffer, if you are larger than average in height or build, is a loss of dignity as you squeeze and bend in some of the more constricted places.
Many of the people who visit Exeter are unaware of the unique heritage that lies beneath their feet as they hit the shops on the city’s High Street. With the generous support of Exeter City Council, archaeologist and historian Mark Stoyle, Professor of Early Modern History at Southampton University, has written a book that should change all that: telling the story of how the city’s unique public water-supply system evolved.
Tracing the pipes
First, one has to discard the image of Roman-style masonry structures carrying water into the city: Exeter had no Pont du Gard. Instead, in common with many other Medieval cities, Exeter’s first external water-supply was brought into the city using lead pipes buried in pipe trenches. Just to the north-east of the city walls is the parish of St Sidwell. Medieval legend says that pure water gushed out of the ground when St Sidwell was martyred on the spot; geology tells us that the shales of the Culm Measures meet Exeter’s sandstone at this point, creating a spring line.
Archaeological excavations over the last 30 years have now encountered enough sections of pipe trench with puddled yellow clay in the base – commonly used in the Middle Ages for supporting lead pipes – to enable the route to be traced of the first water-supply, which probably dates from the last third of the 12th century. It arrived by a somewhat indirect route, taking the pipes round the city walls to enter through the South Gate, and from there into the cathedral precinct. The aim was to keep, as far as possible, to land under the jurisdiction of the cathedral canons, in order to avoid having to dig up public roads every time the pipes needed repairing. For while burying the pipes provided a certain amount of protection from frost, theft, and deliberate or accidental damage, it also left them prone to corrosion, and whenever a pipe burst or sprang a leak, the ground had to be dug up to carry out maintenance.
Water thus delivered to the cathedral precinct was stored in a stone-lined tank from which the water could be drawn by the canons and their servants. One branch-pipe carried water from the close to St Nicholas Priory, in the south-west of the city, and a second branch carried water to the town well, further south, which was the chief public source of domestic water for the inhabitants of this part of the city. Records show that the civic treasurer paid the cathedral for this water supply, and spent money on repairs to their part of the pipeline.
This first piped water-supply was soon followed by a second, constructed between 1248 and 1259 by the Black Friars to supply their friary in the north-east of the city. This time, the pipe was carried across the town ditch on a timber pipe bridge, and then taken beneath the city wall. This required a section of the city wall be taken down and then made good, but the friars did not want to have to do this every time they needed access to the pipe, so they built a chamber, just big enough for a person to pass through, which was rediscovered during excavations in 1951. Of fine workmanship, and built from the same Northernhay volcanic stone as the city walls, this mid-13th-century arch-vaulted chamber possesses great significance as the forerunner of all the other underground passages that were to be built in the city.
The second such tunnel came a century later, when the cathedral authorities began work on a major new water-supply. This time they brought the water in by a more direct route, but paid a high price: in 1347, it is recorded that the cathedral gave £12 to the city authorities for the repair of the wall close to the East Gate, where the wall had been pulled down to admit the new pipes. Some 750 loads of stone were used to mend the breach, so clearly it was a substantial one. More was to come, because the pipe passed through the grounds of St John’s hospital. After protracted negotiations, compensation was eventually paid to the hospital for the ‘grave damages to the prior and brothers caused by the aqueduct’, mainly as a result of digging deep trenches across the gardens to construct a subterranean stone passage.
Another 1,850 loads of stone went into the construction of these passages, at a cost of £4, and the cathedral masons were paid £6 for their construction work. Such expenditure must have been considered money well-spent: the cathedral authorities had a water-supply that lasted until the Dissolution and beyond; and they did not have to pay further compensation every time the pipes needed to be repaired. Instead, access was gained through a manhole in those same hospital gardens, and though there is no documentary record, archaeological evidence suggests that the prior and brothers of St John’s got the benefit of a water-supply for their own establishment as part of the deal.
Ingenious underground system
Remarkably, the ancient cathedral conduit-head survived until the 1850s, long enough for the antiquary William Dawson to make a detailed record. His diagram shows that the first step in harnessing the water-supply at the spring-head was to dig a large and deep pit over the water source. A hefty circular stone was placed over the spring, with a central hole, and a vertical lead pipe was inserted into the hole to tap the water. The stone and the base of the pit were then lined with puddled clay, in order to seal the pit and encourage the water up through the vertical standpipe, where it gushed into a cistern, set within the stone conduit-house.
From the base of the cistern, another lead pipe descended slowly into Exeter at a gradient that kept the water running at sufficient pressure to be able to cope with the occasional uphill pipe run. When the water arrived at its destination, it was fed into a large storage cistern from which it could be drawn off via a brass tap. At various points along the pipeline, removable plugs enabled trapped air to be released or sediment drawn off that might otherwise cause an airlock or block the pipe.
Once established as a way of dealing with the problem of getting pipes under walls and buildings, this ingenious system of underground passages became something of an Exeter trademark. Their construction is documented in city records that go back to the 1300s, and become voluminous in the 16th and 17th centuries. These records allow us to track the subsequent development and expansion of the system. Even as the new cathedral supply was being built, Grey Friars was given permission to build a subterranean conduit under the South Gate and through the middle of the city. St Nicholas Priory decided that its part-share of the cathedral water-supply was inadequate, and in 1387 the prior entered an agreement with the town governors of Exeter to lay new pipes, promising to compensate any careless citizen who happened to suffer injury by falling into the diggings.
By the late 14th century, Exeter thus had four major gravity-flow systems, but all primarily designed to supply ecclesiastical establishments. Exeter’s citizens depended on their part-share of the cathedral supply; similar arrangements were in place in several other provincial cities – Gloucester, Southampton, Bristol, Coventry, and Ipswich – all of which entered into agreements with local monastic houses in order to secure a share in their supplies. Exeter alone decided that the time had come for its own entirely new aqueduct, partly because two rich and public-spirited citizens, both former mayors, left generous bequests for the provision of a public water-supply.
Water for the people
The ‘New Conduit’, as it came to be known, was constructed between 1420 and 1424. The route mirrored that of the cathedral conduit for much of the way, and was constructed in a similar fashion, with lead pipes sometimes supported on timber bridges, sometimes raised on earthen banks, revetted with stakes or stone walls, sometimes buried in a pipe-trench, and sometimes carried along the base of a stone-lined tunnel. The water terminated at a ‘recever’, or reservoir, probably quite a substantial stone structure with a lead-covered roof, opposite St Stephen’s church. From there, the public could draw water from brass taps.
City records show that John Date was employed from 1425 as ‘plommer’ to maintain the system, which soon proved inadequate for the demand. Consequently, additional sources of water were tapped, and auxiliary pipelines and tunnels were created to boost the supply and to create new reservoirs, standpipes, and taps. Still not adequate, the whole system was remodelled after 1441. The city accounts show that ‘a gallon and a pottle of wine’ was consumed at public expense at a meeting held at Black Friars between ‘the Mayor and his fellows, a priest and a plumber from London’. The location of the meeting is significant because the Black Friars had by then decided to join forces with the citizens to share the costs of a new supply. These were substantial: £150 was spent on the ‘reformation’ of the supply, of which £84 was raised from voluntary donations from the citizens themselves – clearly this was seen as a small price to pay in return for securing a reliable supply of pure water.
Further enhancements were made on an almost continuous basis – until two crises hit Exeter’s flourishing system of aqueducts and tunnels. As the city’s monastic houses were dissolved under Henry VIII, land seizure and property confiscation saw the aqueduct system fall into private hands. None of the new owners wanted the expense of maintaining a private water-supply, so the city authorities were eventually able to purchase all three former monastic systems, but not before the interim owners, Sir Thomas Dennis and John Hull, had robbed out and sold substantial portions of lead piping, which then had to be replaced. Then, during the rebellion against the religious reforms of Henry VIII’s successor, Edward VI, 2,000 insurgents established a camp in the fields to the north of Exeter; they too robbed the conduits of lead pipes to serve for shot and pellets.
The temporary loss of the water-supply in each instance led citizens to fall back on traditional supplies. According to the chronicler John Hooker, writing his History of Exeter in the 1550s, the city was, ‘full of springs… furnished with welles and tyepittes [deep wells]’. Hooker also tells us that the damage to pipes and conduits was rapidly made good, and the opportunity was used to make further improvements to parts of the system that were now ‘of great antiquitie’. He also tells us that the citizens greatly prized their piped supply, being ‘purer and lighter’ than the waters within the city, and ‘more fit for the dressing of meates’, by which he indicates that the water was used for cooking perhaps more than for drinking.
Clearly, too, there was an element of civic pride in the provision of a high-grade water-supply, which was not always easy. Court leet records of the 1550s onwards give a sense of the problems that the civic authorities battled with in trying to keep Exeter’s growing population content. This court enabled citizens to present bills of complaint to a jury of townsmen, and to seek redress for such ‘nuisances’ as the failure of the authorities to maintain the jakes (the public lavatory), ‘whyche is a great nosance unto the comens’. From this we also learn of a chorus of complaints levelled at the city Receiver for failing to maintain pipes, so that one conduit ‘hathe ben dry this quarter & more’. Another common cause for concern was the risk of falling down into the aqueduct tunnels because timber trapdoors over the access shafts had rotted.
An even bigger cause for concern arose as England slid towards Civil War. What if the Royalist army in Cornwall attacked Parliamentary Devon, laying siege to the capital and using the city’s underground passages to gain access or, like Guy Fawkes, to blow the city up? On 25 October 1642, a small group of councillors was instructed to ‘view the vauts’, so these civic dignitaries squeezed into the tunnels, candles in hand, and emerged having decided to give the order for the ‘damps’ to be ‘stopped upp’ with earth and stones. The inevitable result was that, ten years later, a huge amount of money had to be paid out in order to remove large quantities of earth and rubble, and to restore the system to its pre-war condition.
By then, developments were largely in train that would render the Medieval system obsolete. By the time the diarist Celia Fiennes visited Exeter in 1698, water was being drawn from the River Exe, stored in a vast reservoir, and distributed directly to individual houses by means of timber pipes. Those who could not afford to pay for a private supply continued to use the city’s public conduits, but so, surprisingly, did many local people, who preferred the taste of the spring water to that of the river water, and who, right into the 19th century, described it as ‘best for making tea’. It was only in 1832, when England faced a cholera epidemic, that the existing water-supply system was deemed to be inadequate, and an entirely new water-supply created from scratch.
The final death blow to the gravity-flow system came in 1857, when the new railway line connecting London to Exeter was constructed: the line cut through the Medieval pipeline and ‘servants of the railway company’ were tasked with demolishing the ancient structures to stop water flooding the route. Even so, the tunnels remained, and were even used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War. Some of the lead pipes laid along base of the tunnel floors survived until they were stolen in the 1940s. The tunnels were remembered in local folklore: the guides who show visitors round today say that a phantom cyclist rides through on a penny- farthing (presumably a rather diminutive man and bike, given how low the tunnels are). The tunnels are also said to contain hidden treasure, and to have been used at various times in history by people escaping the city.
The flow of life
From a social-history point of view, perhaps more interesting is the role that the city’s conduits have played as places of community gathering, for gossip and the exchange of news, of protest and celebration, of conviviality and of conflict. Court records tell of frequent squabbles between servants queuing for water, ending in fist-fights; of people washing horses, clothes, and ‘filthy vessels’ at the public tap, leaving detritus scattered all around; of people dumping rubbish and the contents of chamber pots, or defecating on the assumption that water overflowing from the cisterns would flush the ‘filth’ away.
People living near the conduits often complained about the noise of ‘disorderly people’ gathering to socialise. Public proclamations were read from Exeter’s public conduits, and this made them symbolic centres of local authority and power: hence protestors would also gather here to make their views known. When Bonfire Night festivities were banned in Exeter in 1657, it was at the ‘Great Cunduit’ on the High Street that Exeter’s youthful protestors gathered to throw ‘divers squibbes and fireballs’ and show the city authorities just what they thought.
Mark Stoyle (2014) Water in the City: the aqueducts and underground passages of Exeter, University of Exeter Press (ISBN 978-0859898775, £45).