History Of Bristol's Water Supply


Bristol has always been noted for its water supply. Today if we look below the surface of the streets, we will find countless streams flowing down from the surrounding hills, and finding their way into the rivers.

In the early days of our history, these streams were conveyed in lead and wooden pipes for considerable distances, to what were called conduits. These conduits were often the property of the monasteries, who shared the water supply with the towns, and therefore were built in the walls of the Monasteries or Churches. It was customary for the monastery to issue a parchment agreement to the users of the water and attached to it, would be their great seal together with a portion of piping which would indicate the size of the conduit and the amount of water that could be obtained.

One of the oldest of these water supplies comes from a spring at Knowle, which was given by Lord Robert Berkeley, in 1207, to the Churchwardens of St. Mary Redcliffe for the use of parishioners and the Bretheren of the hospital of St. John the Baptist. This spring rises in a field at Lower Knowle, and is conveyed in lead pipes to Redcliffe Hill, where it could be seen in the wall of the main street beneath the steps of an approach to the church, but owing to road re-planning, it has now been taken away.





There was an old custom to preserve the rights of this spring which was called "walking the pipe". The citizens followed the spring, and as they went, they placed stones to mark its course. Another conduit, which is very old, is the St. John Conduit, which was in the wall near to St. Johns Arch. The water here belonged to the Carmelite Friars, who had their house on the land of the Red Lodge in Park Row. The spring that supplied their cistern, which was on the land of the Colston Hall, came from the north east of Brandon Hill and flowed down Park Street, through Pipe lane, into the cistern, where it was carried in pipes across the Frome bridge, to the St. John conduit.


Early position of St. Johns Conduit, on the corner of Bond Street.

Not all conduits were controlled by the monasteries. One of the popular water supplies for the city was the "Quay Pipe". It stood near the stone bridge at the top end of the quay, near the Tontine wharehouses, and it was supplied from two springs coming down from Ashley hill. This supply belonged to the City, which was responsible for its upkeep.

The ancient St. Peter's Pump, later removed to the grounds of Stourhead, Wiltshire.


Pumps were very much in use in the 16th and 17th , and even the 18th centuries. One very large pump, which was at the corner of Dolphin Street and Peter Street was an important source of water and was not taken down until 1786, when the structure was taken away and errected at Stourhead by Mr Henry Hoare.

St. Peters Pump as it was errected on the corner of Peter Street and Dolphin Street

The border of Redland and Bishopston districts is divided by the Cutlers Mill brook, this ran down Cranbrook road, but was covered in by a brick chamber. The Horfield brook joins this stream, and together they ran down Cheltenham road; after heavy rain and before the latest "Storm Water" scheme was completed, it would form a minature river in the brick chamber and caused serious flooding - this water is now taken out to the River Frome.

A spring, the name of which is very familiar to most Bristolians, is the St. Vincent Spring, which issues from rocks below the St. Vincent Cliffs above the Avon Gorge. St. Vincent's had been noted for its medicinal qualities since 1480, but it was not until 1695 that it became famous. In this year, it was leased from the Merchant Venturers, who were then the Lords of the Manor, by a company of entertainers, who built a Pump Room and lodging house for the use of those who came to drink the waters, and some London shops opened premises during the season to attract the visitors. The Hotwells, as it became known, became a favourite resort for the aristocracy and fashionable world. Well known poets and artists, as well as leading actors and acrtesses visited the Pump Room and help make it famous. Smollett, the author, refers to the spring in "Humphrey Clinker" and Fanny Burney mentions it in her novel "Evelina". Now all that's left of this once fashionable Spa is a house known as the Colonnade, which stands on the Portway, near the entrance to the Zig-zag leading up to the Downs by Bridge Valley Road.

Further along the cliffs, towards the Sea Walls, was another spring,called the Black Rock Spring. It could only be approached from the top of the Downs by a horse track known as "the Gully". After John Wesley had been cured of consumption through drinking the waters of this spring, a pump room and lodging houses were erected, and it was called the "New Hotwells". However, as this approach was so dangerous it could not compete with the rival St. Vincent Spring and the buildings became derelict.

As the city increased in size and population, it was necessary to conserve a larger supply. In 1841, the Merchant Venturers thought to avail themselves of the waters from St. Vincent and Black Rock springs, by pumping and conserving them in a reservoir for the consumption of Clifton, so they built a Pumping House on the bamnks of the Avon, beneath the Sea Walls. It was soon found that this idea would be quite inadequate for the City's needs, and in 1846, a discussion took place, which resulted in the formation of the Bristol Waterworks Co., and the pumping hose was demolished, the springs were sold to the Water Company for ?18,000. A Drinking fountain was put up to mark the place of the former Pumping Station, but that has now also been removed. There were many of these drinking fountains to be seen in the city and the surrounding districts.


The Water Pumping Engine House, which stood below the Sea Walls, and was removed in 1864

There was one in Queen's Road, on the site of the Art Gallery, another stands at the top of Bridge Valley Road, just past the Zoological Gardens, known as Proctor's fountain, and a very large one on Durdham Downs to commemorate the visit of the Bath and West Show; still standing, also is the fountain at the top of Blackboy Hill, which was erected to the memory of Urijah Thomas, who was a Minister at Redland Park Congregational Church, who was well known in philanthropic and educational circles.

These fountains were supplied by the Waterworks Company, but they have almost disappeared, and we now depend on the water supply which comes direct from the reservoirs.

The first store Reservoir, was at Barrow Gurney, where the water was taken to a tank on Bedminster Down. In 1862, another tank was constructed at Barrow, but as the supply was inadequate, a pumping station was opened at Chelvey. A third tank was then made at Barrow, and these are in use today. They are known as the Barrow Filter beds, and the main source of the water comes from the Springs on the Mendip Hills.

In 1899, the valley through which flowed the River Yeo, and other streams had a large rampard driven across it and this formed the lovely Blagdon Lake, a reservoir, which has become noted as a bird sanctuary and a mecca for trout fishermen. the water from this lake and the small reservoir at Rickford near Blagdon, is pumped up to Barrow tanks and after going through the filter beds is delivered through large mains into the city.

The Company's responsibilities for water piping extend over wide areas throughout the West Country. One of their latest and largest achievements is the Chew Valley Lake in the Mendips, which was opened by the Queen in 1956. This reservoir which is within a short distance of Bristol is a favourite place for picinic parties and sailing enthusiasts, and the cicular drive around the lake gives the visitor an opportunity to admire the beauty of the Mendip countryside.

In the driest weather, Bristol hardly ever has had to be restricted for water, and we are indebted to those far-seeing Engineers, who have harnessed and distributed the wonderful water supply which has been our good fortune to inherit.