Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: July 05, 2017.
Webpage updated: July 05, 2017




Plymouth's early water supply came from purely natural resources like streams and wells.  Many of the names of the wells have been recorded in local streets names, viz. Finewell, Holywell, Ladywell and Westwell.

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 St Budeaux lead a team of surveyors 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 about 17 miles from the River Meavy down to the sea at the edge of Sutton Pool.  It was opened on April 24th 1591, and there is a legend 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.  The "Widey Court Book" in the Plymouth Municipal Records states that three 'Cundytts' were erected in the Mayoralty of Mr John Martyn, 1592-93, and that the water was carried to the Guildhall by means of 'ledd' pipes.  Then in the following year, while Mr William Downeman was Mayor, a conduit was built at Southside, for which the lead pipe was purchased from Mr John Welles of Exeter.  In 1597-98 another conduit was erected at 'Foxehole'.

The Old Town water conduit was incorporated in to the Drake's Place Reservoir

One of the old conduits as illustrated in Worth's History of Plymouth.

Yet another conduit was erected at Bilbury Street in 1602-03 and a large lead cistern was provided for the conduit outside the North Gate.  Over five pounds was expended in having the King's and the Town's coats-of-arms cut in the new conduit but it is not clear exactly which conduit this was.   A former Mayor, Mr Walter Mathew, paid for a conduit to be erected in 1604-05 outside the East Gate, by the Great Tree.  During 1714-15 Mr Charles Abraham was paid 23 8s 4d for rebuilding the Old Town conduit.

One of these conduits is preserved in the walls of Drake's Place Reservoir.  An inscription on it states that it was made in the Mayoralty of John Trelawnye (sic) 1598.  Could this be the one from Bilbury Street that was so expensively carved in 1602?

Drake's Place Reservoir with the Tavistock Road.

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

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.  Other reservoirs were built at Crownhill in 1852, Hartley in 1859-62, Roborough in 1885 and Yelverton 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.

Drake's Place Reservoir with Sherwell Congregational Chapel and the houses of Queen Anne Terrace..

Drake's Place Reservoir, with Sherwell Congregational
Chapel and the houses of Queen Anne Terrace.

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. 

A conduit that had stood at the head of Old Town Street until 1834 was built in to the side of the reservoir in 1874.

In the autumn of 1890 work started on the reconstruction and enlargement of the Drake's Place Reservoirs.  The two old reservoirs, dating from 1823 and 1828, had served about a half of the Town but they had been constructed with sloping banks of stones set on edge in clay and leaked badly.   When the lease expired on the Drake's Place Mill, below the reservoirs, the opportunity was taken to demolish it and incorporate the site into an extended reservoir and new pleasure gardens.

And so it was that in 1890 Messrs Shaddock Brothers commenced work on rebuilding the reservoirs and making them in to one, albeit with a concrete wall between them so that one half could be shut off for maintenance work to be done while the other half was still supplying water.  The new reservoir could hold 3,600,000 gallons of water compared to 1,200,000 in the old ones.  The walls were upright and build of limestone bedded in Portland cement backed with about 14 inches of well puddled clay.  The coping was of granite.  Thus there was practically no leakage at all -- it was claimed.

In addition, a colonnade of 200 feet in length by 9 feet was constructed and a terrace measuring 250 feet by 33 feet was built on top so that people could sit and relax by the water and enjoy the new fountains.  The Dartmoor granite pillars of the colonnade have a history.   They originally formed part of the Shambles outside Saint Andrew's Church.   When this was removed in about 1791 the pillars were re-used in the Market, where they remained until 1890 when Market Avenue was cut through the Market.

The whole reconstruction was designed by Mr G D Bellamy, the Borough Surveyor, while the clerk of works was Mr G H Goodyear.  A cottage for a caretaker was erected at the same time.  The reservoir was 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 Fishing 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.

During 1908 a 24-inch diameter water main was laid from Roborough to Crownhill 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.

At the annual "Fishing Feast", or Mayor's survey of the water supply, a toast is drunk to the memory of Sir Francis Drake with the addition: "May the descendants of him who brought us water never want wine."  This event was very nearly abandoned in 1908 following lengthy discussions in the Council.

Between November 1915 and October 1917 a new 33-inch water main was installed between Burrator and the reservoir at Roborough.  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.