Exeter's early water supply came from springs that appeared naturally at the surface, allowing the early inhabitants to establish a settlement. The Roman garrison had sourced water from springs in the St Annes Well area of St Sidwells along an aqueduct that entered the city near to the Harlequins Shopping Centre, according to Hoskins.
Five hundred years later, the Saxon Minster was supplied by water from a spring under the present Cathedral which had, over the millenia, cut a little valley down to the Exe, now covered by Coombe Street.
It was the loss of the spring in Cathedral Close when the Norman Cathedral was built, that required a new source of water to be tapped. There had been two springs in St Sidwells, from before the Roman occupation, which appeared through a bed of porous sandstone, known as the Whipton Beds. One of these, near St Sidwell's School was used to supply water to the Cathedral, which was shared between St Nicholas Priory, the city and the Cathedral. It is thought that this supply was through a lead pipe buried in a trench, that skirted the city wall to enter the Cathedral Close near to the Burnett Patch, iron bridge; the pipe ended at a fountain in Cathedral Close that supplied the clergy.
St Nicholas Priory built an elaborate, circular wash-house that dated from circa 1170, which archaeologists believe was fed with a third share of the water from this supply. The earliest reference to the Priory being supplied with water from the Cathedral dates from 1226. This supply was later supplemented by water from a second well in St Sidwells known as the Headwell Mead, or Lion's Holt.
The system was upgraded in the 1340's and a water-house was built at Headwell Mead with a new trench to the Eastgate carrying the pipe up Longbrook Street. The pipe was then taken under the city wall to the side of Eastgate and trenched along Doddehay Strete, now Catherine Street, behind the buildings lining the High Street to Cathedral Close. It became apparent that maintenance was difficult, requiring a large excavation to repair a leak. The Cathedral Authorities decided to build a passage from outside the city wall at Eastgate, under the wall to the garden of St John's Hospital to carry the pipe - this is thought to be the first of the underground passages. Later, a spur carried a supply to Blackfriars Priory, under the new Debenhams.
By the late 13th Century, Headwell Mead was used to give the citizens of the growing city their own supply. In 1420, a new buried pipe system was dug along the High Street to the Carfax at the top of Fore Street. In 1492, this pipe was replaced when sections of passage under Eastgate were tunnelled, as far as St Stephens Church, and a three inch lead pipe laid - it was carried on as far as the Carfax, at Fore Street, in a trench. It is thought that the tunnelled section was constructed by digging a trench in the clay, lining it with cut Heavitree stone and adding capping stones. Access was provided for maintenance. The tunnel was lined with Heavitree stone and was cut through a layer of compacted gravel that some think was a Roman road. Archaeologists have also found shards of Roman pottery, but this does not indicate that the passage was of Roman origin.
By the Civil War, the passage under the wall was thought to be a security risk, so the lead was removed, for casting into bullets, and the passage filled with rubble. After the war, in 1655, the passages were repaired and the water supply restored. However, the water supply for the fast growing city was proving to be inadequate and in 1694 a wheel driven 'water engine' was built just below Head Weir, which pumped water through wooden pipes to a tank at the rear of the Guildhall.
Between 1805 and 1833 James Golsworthy was employed to maintain and improve the system and in 1811, he introduced the first cast iron pipes in England, into the underground passages.
The cholera epidemic of 1832 was a shock to the City Chamber and a more modern water system planned. The Pynes water works opened in 1835, followed by the holding reservoir at Danes Castle in 1852. The passages still supplied water to the city, but in 1857, Headwell Mead was damaged by the new railway cutting for the London and South Western Railway and the supply for the city ceased. The St Sidwells well continued to supply the Cathedral until 1901, by which time, the passages had been virtually forgotten.
When Princesshay was built after the war, an entrance was constructed to allow visitors to inspect the passages. The entrance was removed and replaced by the Exeter Blitz Fountain in 1992, and a new entrance to the passages with an interpretation centre was opened in Roman Gate, next to Boots. In 2007, a new entrance to the Underground Passages was opened in the redeveloped Princesshay, with a new £175,000 interpretation centre. It was opened by Time Team's Tony Robinson.
Sources - www.exeter.gov.uk website article, a Transactions of the Devonshire Association article by Aileen Fox in 1950, Two Thousand Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins. Photos courtesy of Alan H Mazonowicz. This article is © 2004/6 David Cornforth and is not to be used without permission.
The entrance to the underground passages in Paris Street. Photo David Cornforth The entrance to the underground passages before 1990. The underground passage under Princesshay. A section of the main passage under the High Street. Emerging from the underground passage on the corner of Longbrook Street.
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