Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 01, 2018
Webpage updated: June 28, 2021




Plymouth's early water supply came from streams and wells.  Many of Plymouth's old street names recalled those wells, viz. Finewell, Holywell, Ladywell and Westwell.

But as Plymouth became a busy trading port and the population grew, Plymouth Corporation realised there was a need for a greater supply of fresh water, especially to supply the various vessels, civilian and naval, visiting the Port.  In 1559-60 a Mr Forsland of Bovey, near Newton Abbot, was asked by the Corporation to carry out a preliminary survey for the purpose of bringing fresh water to the Town.  However, the Corporation already had some important financial commitments for the defence of the Town, so the proposal was shelved.

Sixteen years were to pass before, in 1576, the idea was revived and a local man by the name of Mr Robert Lampen from the Ancient Parish of Saint Budeaux took a team of surveyors out on to Dartmoor to look at the most likely route for a leat.  It was decided that the River Meavy and its surrounding watershed provided the ideal source.

A Water Bill was submitted to Parliament in 1584 and it was passed into the hands of a committee which included Sir Francis Drake.  This was the first documentary evidence of his association with the Leat that would later bear his name.   The Bill received the Royal Assent on March 29th 1585.

Construction of the Leat began in 1589 and a contract is thought to have been made between the Corporation and Sir Francis, who became the contractor for the scheme.  The Leat ran for roughly 17 miles from a weir on the River Meavy down to the sea at the edge of Sutton Pool.  It is said that on April 24th 1591 the sluice at Head Weir was opened and the water started to flow down the Leat towards the sea at Plymouth.  Legend has it that Drake rode ahead of the water on a fine white horse all the way into Plymouth.  As part of the contract, Drake was granted a 67-years lease of six water mills along its course, the Widey Mills (2) and the Town Mills (4). 

From 1592 onwards public 'conduits' were constructed to supply the water free of charge to the population.  Sir Walter Elford, on whose land the Head Weir was situated, was compensated for his land with a gift of 100 deal boards worth 4 13 shillings while the owners of the Whitleigh, Manadon and Ham Estates were granted a free supply of water  from the Leat.  But Drake's six Mills angered the owners of the Priory Mills at Plympton Saint Mary and other mill owners on the rivers Meavy and Plym.  In 1593 they submitted a Plymouth Leat Mills Removal Bill to Parliament because the Mills were taking so much water that their own Mills could not operate.  Unfortunately for them, Drake was the chairman of the committee that was considering it, and not surprisingly the Bill failed to be enacted.  Sir Francis Drake died in 1596, his brother Thomas having to deal with the problem created by the Lord of the Manor of Buckland Monachorum, William Crymes, diverting the waters of the Leat for his own use a few years later.

Within the following two hundred  years the number of consumers went from thirty-eight to more than 800 and various improvements were made and the Leat cleared of rubbish.  In 1757 the wooden launder that carried the water through Burrator Gorge was replaced by a normal channel and around the same time a moorstone channel was provided on Yennadon Down.  In 1752 a new pipe was laid down Butchers Lane in Plymouth to the Great Tree.  Illegal diversions of the Leat continued, particularly within the Parish of Stoke Damerel, and the Corporation were forced to offer rewards for information leading to the conviction of the offenders.

The upper portion of the Leat, from Head Weir to Roborough, was maintained by members of the Shillibeer family, of the Parish of Sheepstor.  Mr George Shillibeer (1758-1833) was the first to be appointed by the Corporation as Superintendent of the Leat in around 1793.  Following his death in 1833, he was succeeded in turn by Mr William Shillibeer (1788-1869), Mr Amos Shillibeer (1849-1939), Mr George Shillibeer (1874-1944) and finally Mr William Harold Shillibeer (1882-1948).

Drake's Place Reservoir with the Tavistock Road.

The 1891 reconstructed Drake's Place Reservoir
showing the colonnade, with the Tavistock Road.
From a postcard.

The southern of the two reservoirs at Drake's Place was constructed in 1823 during the mayoralty of Mr Edmund Lockyer.  Five years later, in 1828, the northern one was built, the Mayor at that time being Mr Richard Pridham.   In between, in 1825, a further small reservoir had been constructed at No Place Lane, now known as North Road.  The Leat within the Town was at this time covered over to prevent pollution and to reduce the danger to pedestrians, especially children.  In 1826 the Corporation laid new iron pipes to facilitate supply, an event that is commemorated by a plaque on the West Pier of the Barbican.  Knackersknowle Reservoir was built in 1852, Hartley Reservoir in 1861, Roborough Reservoir in 1885 and the small Yelverton Reservoir, which was actually at Burrator, in 1898.

On Friday December 21st 1860 the supplying of water to ships moored at the Barbican was auctioned by Mr W Skardon at the Plymouth Guildhall.  It was knocked down to a Mr Edge for 92, 10 less than he leased it for the previous year.

On July 15th 1867 the Plymouth Corporation Water and Markets Act received the Royal Assent.  This provided for the water supply to be piped to domestic and commercial accommodation at yearly rates varying between 4 shillings and 2.  Bath houses, hospitals and other charity establishments were to get a free supply. As a result the Leat was deepened and repaved and in some places received a concrete bottom to aid the flow of water. 

In the autumn of 1890 work started on the reconstruction and enlargement of the Drake's Place Reservoirs.  The new Reservoir was officially opened by the Mayor, Mr J T Bond, in a small ceremony on Wednesday July 22nd 1891 on his way to the Head Weir to take part in the "Fyshinge Feast".

The Plymouth Corporation Act of 1893 authorised the construction of an impounding reservoir at Burrator Gorge, from where the water would be piped to the Roborough service reservoir.  Burrator Dam and Sheepstor Dam were constructed to create Burrator Reservoir.  The Plymouth Leat (Drake's Leat) remained as a mainly dry course from Burratopr Reservoir in to Plymouth.

During 1908 a 24-inch diameter water main was laid from Roborough Reservoir to Crownhill Reservoir to supplement the existing means of supply.  The work was carried out by the Borough water engineer, Mr F Howarth, and was completed within the estimate of 13,317.

Between November 1915 and October 1917 a new 33-inch water main was installed between Burrator Reservoir and the Roborough Reservoir.  This was capable of delivering 14 million gallons a day as compared with the average daily consumption of 11 million gallons.  The work cost 60,000 and used 4,613 tons of cast iron pipes and 28 tons of steel pipes.

Plymouth Leat (Drake's Leat) and its associated reservoirs were taken over by the South West Water Authority in 1973 and were privatised in 1989.