In 1237, at the request of the king, the citizens of London were granted the springs and waters at Tyburn near the highway leading to London, with the right to bring the water to the city by means of a conduit. From the terms of the grant, it seems that there was already a conduit head at this spot, which probably lay in the neighbourhood of the modern Stratford Place on the N. side of Oxford Street. Later, in the 1440s, water from springs near the modern Paddington Station was fed into the same system. The water was conveyed by pipes of timber and lead past the royal mews near Charing Cross, along the Strand and Fleet Street, through Ludgate, towards Newgate, and then to the Great Conduit at the E. end of Cheapside. The site of the Great Conduit, in the middle of the street and opposite the Mitre tavern (105/19), is shown on John Leake's survey of the city drawn up immediately after the Great Fire. (fn. 1) The Great Conduit was the first and the most important of the public water fountains in the city. No other conduits appear to have been erected until the latter part of the 14th century. The Great Conduit did not acquire its distinctive name until after 1389-90, when a second Cheapside conduit, which came to be known as the Little Conduit and used the same supply of piped water, was set up at the E. end of the church of St. Michael le Querne. Midway between the Great Conduit and the Little Conduit, marking the spot where the wards of Bread Street, Cheap, Cordwainer, and Cripplegate met, was a monument known as the Standard, which by 1443, and possibly from an earlier date, included a conduit, presumably supplied from the same pipe as the two other Cheapside conduits. (fn. 2)
Work on the city's new water supply almost certainly began in 1237, since in that year, in return for a grant of trading privileges in London, the merchants of Picardy gave the citizens £100 towards the conduit bringing water from the Tyburn spring to the city. The date at which the Great Conduit in Cheapside was constructed is uncertain. An entry in the London annals under the year 1245 states that in that year the foundation of the conduit (fundamentum conducti) was begun. (fn. 3) This is probably a reference to the Great Conduit itself, but could concern some other part of the system which brought water to Cheapside. Certainly, the Great Conduit was in existence by 1261, when a property on the S. side of the street (105/10) was said to be 'opposite the Conduit'. In an earlier, but not closely dateable, reference the same property was said to be opposite a house on the N. side of Cheapside (105/19), as if at that time the Conduit had not yet been built. The Conduit quickly became established as a major landmark. In 1268 the house of St. Thomas of Acre was said to be prope Conductum, (fn. 4) and by the early 14th century the properties in the immediate neighbourhood were frequently described in relation to the Conduit (105/2, 9, 10, 19, 25, 26; 145/39). In 1286 an upper room in a house to the E. of the Conduit was said to be encontre le frount de Condut de Lond', a statement which implies that the late 13th-century Conduit was a substantial structure, possibly rising some way above ground level. Stow notes that the Great Conduit 'was begun to be made' in about 1285, a statement presumably drived from those 15th- and early 16th-century chronicles which attribute its construction to 1283 or 1283-4. (fn. 5) The Conduit may have been rebuilt at about this date, but the similarity of phrasing between some of these references and the London annal for 1245 suggests that they may be based on a garbled and misdated version of that annal rather than on an actual event.
By about 1270 people dwelling near the Conduit had begun to take their names from it. In 1271 a vintner, Gilbert Cusin, was dwelling apud Conductum, and in 1271 another vintner was known as 'of the Conduit'. (fn. 6) Several of these late 13th-century neighbours were vintners or kept taverns. In 1279 Elias de Conductu kept a tavern at the house opposite the Conduit on the N. side (105/19) which in the early 14th century was known as the 'tavern of the Conduit'.
Until the 1360s the management of the Conduit was in the hands of a small group of men, up to about 4 in number, known as keepers or wardens (custodes) of the Conduit. (fn. 7) These men, first recorded in 1292, can generally be identified as householders in the vicinity and include cutlers, ironmongers, chandlers, mercers, a pewterer, and a tailor, all common local trades. The wardens were elected by the good men of the vicinity of the Conduit and admitted and sworn before the mayor and aldermen. From time to time they rendered accounts which were audited by a pair of aldermen or by others acting on behalf of the mayor and aldermen. On one occasion the wardens included a clerk from the Guildhall. The wardens were responsible for the upkeep of the Conduit from Tyburn to Cheapside and for turning the flow of water on and off. On taking up their office the keys of the Conduit were delivered to them. From time to time the brass keys of the Conduit were repaired. The term 'key' (clavus) in this context could denote a tap, but it seems likely that the wardens held keys by which the taps on the Conduit itself could be opened and closed. Little is known of the structure in Cheapside at this time. It probably included one or more lead cisterns from which the water was drawn off. A reference to the sink (puteum) of the Conduit, which was broken one night in 1355, suggests that there was a trough beneath the taps to receive the overflow, or possibly that there was a soakaway to receive the spilled water. Early in the 16th century an investigation was ordered into the means of disposing of the waste water from the Great Conduit. (fn. 8)
Initially, it appears to have been intended that the water at the Conduit in Cheapside was to be available to all without charge, and in 1345 it was stated that the Conduit had been built so that rich and middling persons might have water for preparing food and the poor for their drink. By the early 14th century, however, commercial demands were threatening the domestic supply. In 1310 the warden of the Conduit had to swear that he would prevent brewers and fishmongers from using the water, and that he would not sell the water by night or day. Soon after this, however, a charge was levied on those who used the water in the pursuit of their trade, and in 1312 the wardens swore to collect the sums assessed on brewers, cooks, and fishmongers for the use of the water, and to spend the money on the maintenance of the Conduit. By the 1330s these assessments took the form of quit-rents charged for the use of the tynes and tankards in which water was carried away. There is no evidence at this period for professional waterbearers in the vicinity, and in most cases the water was probably collected by the servants of the households near by. In 1305 a boy carrying water from the Conduit in a tankard was the victim of an assault. Complaints continued against the excessive use of the water, particularly by the neighbouring brewers. In 1337 an attempt was made to limit the brewers' consumption by ordering the wardens to retain in their possession for the use of the Conduit such tynes and other vessels as were brought to be filled there. From then on it seems that each household entitled to use the Conduit had a tyne or tankard for which a rent was paid to the wardens, and that each of these vessels had branded on to it a mark denoting ownership by the Conduit. In 1350 the wardens accounted for receipts of £3. 17s. 8d. from 10 named householders, each paying for one or two years, mostly at the rate of 5s. or 6s. 8d. a year, and £11. 5s. 4d. for the tankards of persons whose names were not known. In addition 6 persons in Poultry and Cheapside were named who had not paid that year. These figures perhaps mean that about 45 households regularly took their water supplies from the Conduit at this time. Consumption by brewers continued to be a problem. Several of those who paid in 1350 were brewers, and in 1345 brewers were forbidden to use the water for their business on pain of losing their tankards and a fine. By 1415, however, this system had been changed, so that brewers were now entitled, for the payment of rent, to draw water for brewing and maltmaking from the 'great water pipe' of the Conduit, while ordinary householders drew water from the smaller pipes below. (fn. 9)
This apparently new arrangement of pipes may have been created in the course of the repairs to the Conduit in Cheapside and the extension of the system into Cornhill, which the city authorities decided to undertake in 1378-9, using money provided by the executors of Adam Fraunceys. Two 15th-century repairs or reconstructions of the Great Conduit are also on record. Stow notes that Thomas Ilam, sheriff (1479-80), rebuilt the Conduit at his own expense, and in another chronicle the old pipes of the Great Conduit were said to have been newly made and laid in 1493-4, when the system was extended to Gracechurch Street. No work at the Great Conduit is recorded in connection with the feeding of additional springs into the system in the 1440s (cf. above). The Great Conduit described by Stow was probably that improved by Thomas Ilam, who seems to have lived near by in Ironmonger Lane (95/4-5). This was a stone battlemented ('castellated') structure containing a lead cistern. To judge from Leake's survey of 1667 it measured about 45 ft. E./W. by about 20 ft. N./S. (13.72 m. by 6.10 m.), although this survey does sometimes exaggerate the size of individual monuments. This large structure is shown on the mid 16th-century 'copperplate' map of London, as are the tynes or tankards standing in the street immediately to the W. This drawing may also show a small, tower-like structure forming part of the western end of the Conduit. The crude drawing of the Conduit in Hugh Alley's 'A Caveatt for the City of London' of 1598, likewise shows a battlemented structure, with taps or similar features around the lower parts of the walls and possibly a small tower and a gable on the roof. (fn. 10)
In addition to the rents paid for the tankards, the Conduit, as a public utility, attracted occasional gifts or legacies in cash from charitable citizens. It also acquired at least one endowment of rent, charged on a house in Ironmonger Lane (95/4) under a will proved in 1328. This rent continued to be paid into the 17th century, but neither at that time nor in the 14th century does it appear to have been received directly by the Conduit wardens. Little is known about the day to day management of the Great Conduit from the 1360s onwards. In 1368 the mayor, aldermen, and commonalty leased the custody of the Conduit for a term of ten years to two citizens, who were to maintain the structure above ground while the lessors were responsible for work below ground. The lessors were to receive the accustomed payments from those who used the water, except that aldermen and sheriffs were to have water free of charge. It is not known how long this practice of leasing the Conduit continued. By the 1580s each of the conduits in the city was in the care of a keeper who received an annual payment out of the city's cash, while another salaried officer oversaw the conduits as a whole. (fn. 11)
The Great Conduit marked the eastern end of Cheapside and played a special role as a public monument on ceremonial occasions, particularly during those royal processions which progressed through the city from the Tower or London Bridge to St. Paul's or Westminster. On the occasion of the royal procession to Westminster for the marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1382, the Conduit was decorated with shields bearing the arms of the king and the emperor. When Henry VI processed through Cheapside in 1432 on his return from France, the Conduit was made to run with wine, as it was on a number of other such occasions, and a pageant of wells was staged there. Pageants were also staged at the Great Conduit during the coronation procession of Queen Margaret in 1445, the wedding procession of Prince Arthur and Katharine of Aragon in 1501, the procession of the emperor Charles V in 1522, the wedding procession of Anne Boleyn in 1533, and Queen Mary's coronation procession in 1553. At Edward VI's coronation procession in 1547 the Cheapside pageants of 1432 were reenacted in a modified form, but the contemporary painting of the procession, while depicting a number of Cheapside landmarks in a clearly recognizable fashion, shows neither the conduit nor the pageants. (fn. 12)
The Great Conduit was also the scene of more everyday activities apart from the drawing of water. The Genoese who bought arms at the Conduit in 1339 probably made his purchase at one of the armourers' shops near by rather than from a trader at the Conduit itself. In the later 14th century, however, there was a close association between the Conduit and the trade in fish, for those who sold fish caught in the Thames upstream of the Bridge were to stand in Cheapside near the Conduit. By the later 16th century, however, this part of Cheapside, between the Great Conduit and the Cross, was reserved for out-of-town traders in victuals, and those who brought oatmeal to the market were to be grouped near the Great Conduit so that they could be distinguished from other country people. Hugh Alley's 'Caveatt' shows a group of male traders with baskets near the Great Conduit. (fn. 13)
The Great Conduit was ruined by the Great Fire of 1666, and in 1669, as a 'hindrance to the neighbourhood' it was ordered to be removed. The materials were to be sold, apart from the cistern which was to be taken to the Guildhall. (fn. 14) By this date the Conduit was perhaps no longer greatly used, since many, if not most, of the houses in the neighbourhood enjoyed their own piped running water, supplied from the New River.