IN the second half of the twelfth century several English monastic houses installed their own water supply systems. The spread of the idea and the technology was done by Benedictine houses such as Christchurch Canterbury and by the newer offshoot order, the Cistercians, for example at Fountains Abbey. Identifying and enclosing freshwater springs was not, of course, a new idea; the technological novelty was the construction of a conduit-head near the spring or springs to provide a constant head of water, and the ability to cast and shape lead into long, narrow-bore pipes to transport the water from conduit-head to abbey. In the developing monastic tradition, monks required sweet and clean water at regular intervals for spiritual and physical cleansing – before celebrating the services of the Divine Office – as well as for drinking. In the second quarter of the thirteenth century, several such piped water supplies were being developed in and around London. The Augustinian canons at Waltham Abbey were planning and installing one in the 1220s and ‘30s and the City authorities were installing a civic system between the 1230s and 1250s. The London Franciscans and Dominicans planned and installed their systems around this time too, beginning with the Franciscans in the 1240s and the Dominicans a decade later. It seems very likely that there was some cooperation and shared technical expertise in the creation of these four systems in and around London.
The Grey Friars water supply
The four larger London friaries – Grey Friars, Black Friars, White Friars and Austin Friars – established their own water systems, of which by far the best documented is the Franciscan system. Here, a rare combination of archaeological excavation, medieval documents and a surviving medieval conduit-head building allow us to reconstruct the water supply network. Taking the accounts of the donation and the course of the water supply given in the sixteenth-century Grey Friars Register, the early twentieth-century archaeologist Philip Norman carried out a remarkable investigation, mapping the probable course of the underground pipe network and discovering the remains of the two conduit-heads that fed the piped system.
In the second quarter of the thirteenth century, probably in the 1240s, William Taylour granted the Franciscans a spring in rural Bloomsbury, nearly a mile to the north-west of the friary.