A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Forty Eight

lamb's conduit

Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1

One of my favourite London boozers, the Lamb, is to be found on Lamb’s Conduit Street which runs between Guildford Street at the north end and Theobald’s Road at the south. The street owes its name to a piece of philanthropy by one William Lamb in 1577.

The maintenance of an abundant supply of water, whether fresh enough to drink by our exalted standards or not, was always a bit of a struggle for a burgeoning city like London. London had a plentiful supply of rivers – part of the reason why the city was built where it was in the first place – like the Walbrook, Tyburn and Fleet, most of which nowadays chart a subterranean course. The problem was getting the water from the rivers to the inhabitants.

To solve the problem a reservoir was built at the head of the spring of the Tyburn and water was then fed via a great conduit – construction started in 1245 – a gently sloping water pipe made of lead and wood, which ran towards Charing Cross, then along the Strand and Fleet Street before making its way to the southern part of the city. The pipes were pretty inefficient, around a quarter of the water would be lost to leaks and the pipes were run above ground so that they could be easily accessed for repair and maintenance. Wardens were appointed to prevent unlawful access to the water supply and to supervise repairs and upkeep and operated from conduit houses.

Bringing a quill into the home – obtaining a personal domestic supply of water from the conduit – was hard to come by and required special permission from the authorities. Normally, water would be carried from the conduit or an adjacent cistern in a pair of 3 gallon tubs, weighing around 60 lbs when full, conveyed to the premises by a professional water carrier or cob.

The temptation to tap into the conduits illegally must have been great for some and if caught, punishment was harsh and humiliating. In 1478 an individual convicted of diverting the supply of water was put on horseback with a conduit-shaped vessel on his head and made to ride to each of the conduit houses where he confessed to his crime to the amusement of the onlookers.

From the 15th century onwards other conduits were built and this is where William Lamb comes in. In 1577 he joined several springs to form a significant head of water which was fed by gravity down a lead pipe from what is now the eponymous street to Snow Hill, south of Smithfield Market where it joined the existing, albeit dilapidated, Snow Hill conduit. Lamb is also said to have provided 120 pails to the poor women of the locality.

The Great Fire consumed most of the conduits – they were after all a mix of wood and lead – including the one at Lamb’s Conduit which was rebuilt in 1667 from a design by Sir Christopher Wren and continued to operate until mechanised water supply companies replaced the conduit system in the early 19th century.

Hard as it is to believe, the area around Lamb’s Conduit Street was fields and herbs and cresses grew in abundance near the spring created by Lamb. They were used by local apothecaries. Today, the street is in the centre of the metropolis and as well as pubs, the Lamb and the Perseverance which used to be the Sun, there are a lot of independent shops jostling for the visitor’s attention. Unusually for a street in the middle of London, there is a funeral directors, A France & Son, which set up there in 1898, although the France family had been undertaking from Pall Mall since 1780.


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