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Conduit House

History

(see long history)

At the south-east corner of Albert Park, where Park Road and Park Crescent meet, there stands a small, hexagonal stone building.  This is the Conduit House.

This unusual building supplied the needs of the citizens of Ock Street at a time when water from other sources was not safe to drink. It stands in an area of plentiful natural springs which fed a cistern in the building, and the water was led thence downhill via stone channels.  Its destination was a fountain in Ock Street.

It is not known when the Conduit House was built. It belonged to Abingdon Abbey at the time of the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538, and then it passed to the Crown. In 1553 it, and the surrounding land, passed to the local charity, Christ’s Hospital.  It is mentioned in the Amyce survey of Abingdon of 1554.  

In the eighteenth century, this system for supplying relatively clean water to Ock Street was refurbished and provided with a new fountain through the initiative of leading Abingdon townsmen. It was in use until 1875, when a mains water supply was installed for the whole town. The fountain was moved from Ock Street to Conduit Road in the 1940s and it can still be seen in the wall of Tomkins’ Almshouses.

The Conduit House itself is no longer in use. 

It is not open to the public.

See Glossary for explanations of technical terms.

© AAAHS and contributors 2013

(see short history)

The springs and a small stream in what is now Albert Park had been in casual use long before the Conduit House was built.[1] A thirteenth century reference alludes to ‘the watercourse of Carswell’ (the name Carswell deriving from the watercress which the abundant water caused to grow freely there).[2] There is a similar mention in the Lyell Cartulary of Abingdon Abbey dating from the thirteenth or early fourteenth century, demonstrating that the area was already well known as a source of healthy drinking water.[3]

The area in which the Conduit House stands was originally part of Lacies Court Farm, an estate owned by Abingdon Abbey. When the Abbey was dissolved the Crown took possession of its property, including both the Conduit House and the land on which it stood.[4]  

In turn these formed part of the endowment of the newly founded charity Christ’s Hospital (which still owns them both). When it came to let the farmland site Christ’s Hospital imposed a condition on the leases that the tenants should keep in good repair ‘the waterhouse called Conduite and all the Bancks (sic), Arches and Covering running to the same Conduite and the door to the same Conduite and the lock and key thereunto belonging’.[5]  

In the nineteenth century the area in which the Conduit House stands was turned by Christ’s Hospital into Albert Park, which is open to the public.

© Michael Harrison 2012
The east side of the Conduit House

Of the Conduit House’s six walls, the one facing east contains the entrance. The doorway is square-headed and houses a modern green door, of which the top half is designed to be glazed but is covered with a sheet of metal. A stone step protrudes beyond the line of the walls.

© Michael Harrison 2012

The Conduit House is constructed of ashlar stone.The blocks vary in size as the photograph shows.

© Michael Harrison, 2013

There are some graffiti on the outside of the building,the clearest being the inscription      ‘SA 1851’.

The Conduit House roof is pyramid-shaped and bulges gently round its circumference about halfway up its height. It is covered with stone slates. The bottom course juts out for about 10 cm at an angle of 45 degrees to form eaves along the walls (there is no gutter). The tiles overhang the gable that is over the door, leading rainwater away from the entrance.

At the apex is the finial in the shape of a cross which is set in an iron and stone (or possibly concrete) base; there is a similar, smaller version over the gable.

© Michael Harrison 2013

The roof with its finial cross

The interior is lined with rubble, haphazardly covered with accretions of plaster and paint and evidence of repair. Two of the walls each contain a narrow shaft through the thickness of the wall, presumably to provide ventilation since they do not now let in light. One of the shafts is blocked and there are the remains of white paint inside it, suggesting that at some time in the past it may have let in a little light. The original cistern is no longer visible under the brick-paved floor.

After mains water was brought to Abingdon the Conduit House was no longer needed, nor was it of much use since the waterworks had disturbed the springs which had fed it. During the First World War, the cistern inside having been filled in, the building was used as a temporary store for ammunition belonging to the volunteer movement.[6] The two loose sections of fifteenth century carved stone now inside are thought to have been used to line the channels that conducted the water from the springs to the cistern. It has been suggested that they originally came from the Abbey buildings that were demolished following its dissolution in 1538.[7]

Water from the Conduit House which flowed downhill towards Ock Street was made available to the public by a fountain which came to be known as the Carswell.[8] This was originally sited between two public houses in Ock Street – The Crown and the Warwick Arms. The water was intended for both domestic and industrial use but the lessee of the spinning house past which the stream flowed was not allowed to divert it for his own purposes although he might do so at night through his neighbours’ ditches ‘for their convenience’.[9]  By 1719 it had apparently ceased to be serviceable and a Mr Richard Ely undertook to commission a new one, which was paid for by a combination of his own money and that of the Corporation of Abingdon. In the Corporation minutes of May 19 1719 we find a record reading ‘pay to Mr Richard Ely twelve poundes for his charges (meaning expenses) in erecting and beautifieing a place for the Conduit Stream to run und’r in the Ockstreet, & for making and raileing in a Cestern there.’ Richard Ely had already received an initial £6 for the project earlier in the year.[10] 

 Richard Ely was a Governor of Christ’s Hospital and served as the Master six times. He was also a Burgess of Abingdon and Mayor in 1706-7. He ran a thriving coaching inn, the Lamb, in Ock Street, and by the end of his life was described in borough records as a ‘gentleman’. On the Carswell itself can still be seen a cartouche bearing his name and the date of the building, together with the arms of Abingdon – witness to the joint funding of the enterprise.

The Carswell was moved in 1947 to its present position on the Conduit Road elevation of Tomkin’s Almshouses.[11] It is a brick structure, approximately ten feet tall, comprising a niche for the drinking bowl surmounted by a pediment, and brick pilasters either side. The original copper bowl is missing, having been removed when the Conduit House system was no longer in operation, or possibly stolen.