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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.