North Devon in 100 Objects: 61. Wooden Water Pipes

The tops of two wooden water pipes from the 17th century.

These unprepossessing lengths of wood are remnants of Barnstaple’s first piped water supply from the late 17th century. They were dug up around 1900 in Joy Street.

As with most towns, poor sanitation in Barnstaple combined with a growing population to make the town increasingly smelly and unhealthy.  In 1698 an agreement was reached to erect a waterworks to convey water to inhabitants of the borough for their domestic use. The source of the water was the Port Leat, taking water from the River Yeo at Raleigh to the Town Mill.  After some rudimentary filtering, it would have been conveyed      through pipes formed of hollow elm tree trunks with a six inch bore to cisterns within the town. From these the water was carried through lead pipes to the households that were prepared to pay for it.

Unfortunately the head of water was not high enough above the town to create a strong flow and the supply was only made available two or three times a week. Consequently few people took up the service, preferring to continue to draw from wells or to take water directly from the Yeo. In addition there was a delivery service available with the regular collection of water from the Yeo by donkey cart and delivered on a Saturday night ready for Monday washday!

The supply through wooden pipes continued until 1858, when an act of Parliament brought in a modern water supply.  This was desperately needed: the town had suffered badly from cholera outbreaks throughout the 19th century including in 1853 and 1854.

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