Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Great Conduit, High Street

The image above shows what the the Great Conduit might've looked like today had it avoided demolition in the 1770s. The conduit in the image is based on a model below right currently on display in the city's underground passages. The model itself (which only shows 50% of the conduit) is based on a drawing of the conduit by Richard Parker. Fortunately one good contemporary depiction of the conduit survives so many of the details, such as the proportions, the tracery, the niches and crenellations are fairly accurate. I've placed the conduit in the image as closely as possible to its original location using 18th century maps, and its scale is based on Caleb Hedgeland's early 19th century model of Exeter. It might've been larger than shown although its height is limited to some extent by the width of the street. The image shows the view towards the High Street. The entrance into South Street is just beyond the conduit to the right. The entrance into North Street is on the left.

The whole idea of the Great Conduit was to have a place in the centre of the city where people could come and collect fresh water. Some of the citizens would've had access to private wells in the courtyards of their houses but the majority did not. Supplying Exeter with fresh water was a huge logistical issue for the City Chamber which went on for centuries.

From the 12th century onwards, as the city's population increased so did the need for more sources of clean water. The main source for the new supply was a series of natural springs near the head of the Longbrook valley, some 600 metres beyond the city walls at Lions Holt in the suburb of St Sidwell's.

The springs were located on land owned by the Dean and Chapter and they were the first to bring the water into the city via lead pipes buried beneath the ground. The first network of pipes led from Lions Holt to the Cathedral Close (St Peter's Conduit, the building holding the tapped water, was constructed in the Cathedral Close where the pipe terminated). In 1226 the Dean and Chapter granted a third of the supply to the monks at St Nicholas Priory. Another third was later granted for the use of the city. The monks and the city both paid the Dean and Chapter eight shillings a-year for the privilege.

By the middle of the 14th century an improved method of delivering the water was initiated involving the creation of the underground passages left. Deep trenches were dug down the centre of the streets. The sides of the trenches were reinforced with stone blocks and then the passageway was covered either with slabs of stone or vaulting. The pipes lay on the floor of the passages and access points were created at regular intervals allowing the soft lead pipework to be maintained with great ease.

The system continued to be updated throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, at enormous cost, and eventually consisted of approximately a mile of passageways. Despite wartime bombing and major redevelopment around 80% of the network of passages still survives today, unique in England, and one of the most complete medieval underground water systems in Europe. Parts of it can be visited as a fascinating guided tour!

The Great Conduit was the result of major works undertaken by the City Chamber on the water system in the 15th century. Between 1420 and 1429 a new system of passages was laid under the High Street solely for the use of the city. The lead pipes terminated at the Great Conduit which appears to have been constructed between 1441 and 1461. (A smaller conduit was built opposite St Lawrence's Church in 1580s.) In the mid 16th century John Hooker recorded that the conduit "standeth in the middle of the citie, at the meeting of principall streets of the same, and whereof some time it tooke its name, being called the Conduit at Quatrefoix, or Carfor; but now the Great Conduit". The Great Conduit was actually set back slightly into what is now the top of Fore Street. A number of 18th and 19th century sources give an exact date of 1461 for its construction, the result of efforts by a former mayor, William Duke.

The detail right from Hedgeland's model of Exeter shows the Great Conduit highlighted in purple. High Street/Fore Street can be seen running from left to right. South Street/North Street run diagonally from top to bottom.

The Quatrefoix, from the French for 'four ways', was almost at the geographical centre of the city, the crossroads where South Street and North Street met Fore Street and the High Street. It was also called the Carfax or Carfoix and was sometimes used as the site of public executions. Two Royalist supporters, John Penruddock and Hugh Grove, were beheaded at the Carfoix in 1655 for planning an insurrection against the Parliamentarian government. The death warrant was signed by Cromwell himself. Ironically, the Great Conduit was one of the places in the city where Charles II was proclaimed King in 1660 following the Restoration of the Monarchy. The conduit was made to run with wine in celebration. The conduit ran with a hogshead of wine in 1670 when Charles II visited Exeter and lodged overnight at The Deanery. It was also one of places where Anne was proclaimed Queen in 1702.

The Great Conduit was demolished c1770 as both it and the crowds gathered around collecting water were regarded as an obstacle to traffic. It was moved, in some shape or form, to the side of the High Street, close to where MacDonalds is today, before being demolished completely in 1799. The public water conduit was then relocated outside the Hall of the Vicars Choral in South Street.

Fortunately for us in 1806 Alexander Jenkins left a rather fanciful illustration of the Great Conduit left and quite a detailed description which it is worth quoting in full: "The great Conduit at Carfoix, venerable for its antiquity, which had been standing near three hundred years, and had often poured wine to the rejoicing Citizens, now [in 1770] fell a victim to modern improvers. Its situation, in the centre of the High Street, not only intercepted the view, but frequently caused a stoppage of carriages, to the great inconvenience of the neighouring inhabitants, and danger of passengers; for this reason, sentence being passed upon it, it was taken down, and a new building erected, to which the cistern was removed."

Jenkins goes on: "This was originally a very beautiful edifice. It was decorated with pinnacles at the four corners, on which were (anciently) vanes; but they have long since fallen victims to time and weather; there were also niches in the east and west fronts, in which were mutilated statues. On the top of the architrave, at the corners, were two lions and two unicorns. It was likewise adorned with cherubims and armorial bearings, which were so much injured by time that only those of the Courtenay family could be distinguished."

The image left shows a detail from a map of Exeter based on Hooker's 1587 plan of the city. The Great Conduit is in the centre.

The Great Conduit was probably built of limestone in a Perpendicular Gothic style. The stone walls enclosed a vast lead cistern filled with water piped in through the underground passages. The conduit was square in plan (unlike the model shown above), each side measuring about the same length (the exact dimensions are unknown). The east and west walls had a single blind pointed arch divided into eight panels filled with tracery. Above each arch was a niche containing a statue. The side walls had two slightly slimmer blind arches divided into six panels, also filled with tracery. Each corner was supported by a diagonal buttress.

It seems likely that it was designed and built by masons employed at the cathedral. The elaborate, even ostentatious nature of the design indicates in what high regard Exeter's fresh water supply was held. But it also functioned as a public monument on the level of pure display, as a statement about the status of the city and the wealth which allowed it to such lavish treatment upon the conduit. Unfortunately nothing now survives at the site to indicate that the Great Conduit, one of Exeter's finest medieval monuments, ever existed.


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