A reliable supply of fresh water was essential to a monastic community, otherwise what would they drink, cook and wash with? The Priory of Worcester was no exception to this, it may have been situated on the River Severn, but at the point that the River Severn passes the Priory the river was most likely polluted from the city’s waste. This raises the question as to where they got their water from. There is no doubt that in its early days the water could have been obtained from wells and in Worcester, wells are widely known from excavations of the Roman, medieval, and later periods. There is a reference to a well in the Cathedral cemetery in 1310[i] and there could well have been others around the Cathedral and Priory. The Priory could even have paid for water to be transported from above the city to the Priory, as they did when their supply pipes weren’t working in the C14th and C15th. However, from at least the early C14th, whatever their source of water, it must have proved inadequate for their needs and they built the first of their two aqueducts to supply the Priory with water.
The earliest reference to this aqueduct is from a Cellarer’s account dating to 1344/45[ii]. In this, the Cellarer is accounting for money spent on lead for work on the refectory and dormitory but also includes work on the aqueduct at Henwick. The Annales for Worcester[iii] had earlier reported in 1302 that there was ‘great’ damage done to the dormitory though whether this was as ‘great’ as reported is debatable as there doesn’t seem to have been any repair undertaken until these minor works and no significant work was done on it until the 1370s – 90s when it appears to have been almost rebuilt.
The source for the aqueduct was a spring at Henwick and a charter of protection was issued by the King in 1430[iv] which gives a basic description of the aqueduct’s route from Henwick to the Priory, but unfortunately no detail. For instance, the charter tells us that the aqueduct originates in Henwick, but not where in Henwick. It then describes the route as down Hylton Road and over the bridge, then along the banks of the Severn to the Priory.
The route from the spring to Hylton Road is straightforward, especially as parts of the aqueduct still survive under the houses in the area. From there, the route down Hylton Road and over the bridge is also simple as there is no other course it could take. Once over the bridge, a mention of repair to the pipes at ‘le Keye’ confirms the route is along the banks of the Severn and not through the city. What the charter doesn’t tell us is the actual route from the banks of Severn into the Priory.
The most likely route is through a street which became known as Warmstrey Slip. From here it could have followed Little Fish Street to what was then called Byshoppes Strete, later Palace Row. All of these streets have now been subsumed by modern development. Byshoppes Strete followed the boundary of the Bishop’s Palace before turning east to skirt the edge of the Cathedral cemetery.
In 1326 the then Bishop, Thomas de Cobham, threatened to excommunicate people who were damaging the underground aqueduct at his Palace in the city of Worcester[v]. Therefore, if not the actual aqueduct, a branch of it supplied the Bishop’s Palace. From Byshoppes Strete there are two options, both equally feasible. The aqueduct could have simply continued through the Palace grounds to the ‘Pipe House’ situated by the North Door. This though would have meant the Bishop had control of all the water to the Priory and as relations between the Priory and the Bishop could be a little fractious at times, this may not have been something the Priory wanted to risk. Another option is that there was just a separate feeder pipe to the Palace and the aqueduct could have continued skirting the Palace along Byshoppes Strete and entered the Cathedral precinct through the house or garden of what is now Number 5 College Yard. The wording of a C14th lease[vi] to that house includes the phrase ‘allowing ingress and egress’ from both sides of the property, reproducing the phrasing of the royal charter of protection which allows the Priory ‘ingress and egress’ to properties for purposes of repairs.
From here, it could easily pass along between the boundary wall of the Bishop’s Palace and what are now the back gardens of the properties on the west side of College Yard. In the C14th this area was undeveloped and only occupied by gardens, the first houses in this area being built in the early C16th.
An entry in the Parliamentary Survey[vii] lists the ‘Pipe House’, this being ‘before the great porch or door of the said Cathedral’ and ‘within the cemetery’ making it either alongside or, more likely, where number No. 8 College Yard now stands. This reference to a ‘Pipe House’ may suggest that there was more than one pipe into the Cathedral precincts, adding weight to the theory that the pipe to the Palace may have been a feeder pipe, but equally it suggests there is more than one pipe to supply the Priory buildings.
The next questions to be answered are what buildings and offices were served by this aqueduct and where the internal pipes were situated. This research is still ongoing.
[i] Lib Alb Fol 45b
[iii] H. R. Luard, Annales Prioratus de Wigornia’, Annales Monastici, 5 vols (Rolls Series, London, 1864-9), v.4, pp. 355-564
[iv] WCM/B1675 
[v] E. H. Pearce, The register of Thomas de Cobham, bishop of Worcester, 1317–1327, Worcestershire Historical Society, 1930, p.203
[vi] WCM/B1020. The house is described as between the Court of the Bishop, Byshopesstrete and the cemetery’
[vii] Eds Cave T, Wilson R A. The Parliamentary survey of the lands and possessions of the dean and chapter of Worcester : made in or about the year 1649, in pursuance of an ordinance of Parliamentary for the abolishing of deans and chapters Worcestershire Historical Society.. v. 36 (1924)