Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 02, 2018
Webpage updated: August 04, 2018




Plymouth's early water supply came from purely natural resources like streams and wells.  Many of the names of the wells have been recorded in local streets names, viz. Finewell, Holywell, Ladywell and Westwell.

In 1559-60 a Mr Forsland of Bovey, near Newton Abbot, was asked by the Corporation to carry out a preliminary survey for the purpose of bringing fresh water to the Town.  However, the Corporation already had some important financial commitments for the defence of the Town, so the proposal was shelved.

Sixteen years were to pass before, in 1576, the idea was revived and a local man by the name of Mr Robert Lampen from Saint Budeaux lead a team of surveyors to look at the most likely route for a leat.  It was decided that the River Meavy and its surrounding watershed provided the ideal source.  A Water Bill was submitted to Parliament in 1584 and it was passed into the hands of a committee which included Sir Francis Drake.  This was the first documentary evidence of his association with the Leat that would later bear his name.   The Bill received the Royal Assent on March 29th 1585.

Construction of the Plymouth Leat began in 1589 and and it carried its first water towards Sutton Pool on April 24th 1691.  Drake was granted a 67-years lease of six water mills along its course, the Widey Mills (2) and the Town Mills (4). 

From 1592 onwards public 'conduits' were constructed to supply the water free of charge to the population.

In gratitude for the construction of the Plymouth Leat and for bringing fresh drinking water to the Town, the Mayor and Burgesses introduced a ceremony named the "Fyshinge Feast", which was the Mayor's survey of the water supply.  At this annual event held at the Head Weir a toast was drunk to the memory of Sir Francis Drake with the addition: "May the descendants of him who brought us water never want wine."  This event was very nearly abandoned in 1908 following lengthy discussions in the Council.

Drake's Place Reservoir with Sherwell Congregational Chapel and the houses of Queen Anne Terrace..

Drake's Place Reservoir, with Sherwell Congregational
Chapel and the houses of Queen Anne Terrace.
From a postcard.

The first of the two Drake's Place Reservoirs was constructed in 1823 and five years later a second one was added to the north of it.  In between, in 1825, a small reservoir was  built in No Place Lane, later known as North Road.  The Plymouth Leat within the Town was at this time covered over to prevent pollution and to reduce the danger to pedestrians, especially children.  In 1826 the Corporation laid new iron pipes to facilitate supply, an event that is commemorated by a plaque on the West Pier of the Barbican.  Crownhill Reservoir was added in 1852 followed by Hartley Reservoir in 1861.

On Friday December 21st 1860 the supplying of water to ships moored at the Barbican was auctioned by Mr W Skardon at the Plymouth Guildhall.  It was knocked down to a Mr Edge for 92, 10 less than he leased it for the previous year.

On July 15th 1867 the Plymouth Corporation Water and Markets Act received the Royal Assent.  This provided for the water supply to be piped to domestic and commercial accommodation at yearly rates varying between 4 shillings and 2.  Bath houses, hospitals and other charity establishments were to get a free supply. As a result the Leat was deepened and repaved and in some places received a concrete bottom to aid the flow of water.

Roborough Reservoir was built in 1885.

In the autumn of 1890 work started on the reconstruction and enlargement of the Drake's Place Reservoirs.  The reservoir was opened by the Mayor, Mr J T Bond, in a small ceremony on Wednesday July 22nd 1891 on his way to the Head Weir to take part in the "Fyshinge Feast".

The Plymouth Corporation Act of 1893 authorised the construction of an impounding reservoir at Burrator Gorge, from where the water would be piped to the Roborough service reservoir.  Burrator Dam and Sheepstor Dam were constructed to create Burrator Reservoir.  The much smaller Yelverton Reservoir, also at Burrator, was added in 1898.

On November 9th 1914 the Borough of Devonport and Urban District of East Stonehouse were amalgamated with Plymouth and as a result both the Devonport Leat and Stonehouse Leat passed into the new Borough's hands as the Plymouth Corporation Water Works.  The Water Act 1973 authorised the formation of the South West Water Authority, which included not only Plymouth but also the East Cornwall Water Board and the South West Devon Water Board.  The South West Water Authority was privatised in 1989.