The Conduit Lands Trust

For our Christmas meeting, Bob White, Chairman of the Conduit Lands Trust, came along to talk to a large audience about the work of the Trust. We all may have heard about it; but what exactly is it? Why was it created? Perhaps these are questions that few could really have answered before the meeting. If we delve into the nooks and crannies of English history we discover all kinds of fascinating charitable foundations, many of which still survive to this day. The Conduit Lands Trust is one such organisation, established to tackle a particular set of circumstances, yet still operating today - albeit with changed priorities.

We can thank Henry VIII for the creation of the Trust. As he single mindedly pursued his aim of dissolving the monasteries and seizing their possessions, Hector Beane, Guildmaster of the Guild of St Mary and St John in Lichfield, saw the writing on the wall. Many charitable foundations associated with religious orders suffered confiscation of lands as a consequence of Henry's actions. So in 1546, to avoid confiscation by the Crown, the Guild conveyed away its lands at Great Wyrley, Little Wyrley, Wall and Norton Canes to six feoffees (that is, Trustees) who were to use the income generated from rents to provide and maintain Lichfield's water supply. Two wardens were appointed to maintain the conduits and six townsmen were also appointed to oversee the management of the duly created Conduits Lands Trust. Any income remaining after maintenance of the water supply was to be used for "the common weal of Lichfield".

When the Trust was created, Lichfield citizens already benefitted from a quite sophisticated system of water supply. The Franciscan Friary had a piped supply from a spring at Aldershawe as early as 1301. In the fifteenth century a public conduit, known as the Crucifix, was erected in Bird Street. The supply was then extended along Bore Street to a conduit at its junction with Conduit Street and thence along Tamworth Street to another conduit at its junction with Lombard Street. A Market Square conduit was served by a branch pipe running along Breadmarket Street.

There were other piped supplies, serving wealthy private homes and especially those of the clergy. The Cathedral Close was supplied by a pipe from a spring at Maple Hayes from the twelfth century. So the Conduit Lands Trust's responsibilities were not insubstantial and grew over the following centuries as the system was extended and maintenance become more sophisticated. What about foul water? Open sewers called soughs flowed along the some of the principal streets, converging to form common cesspools. In the sixteenth century "a muckhill" could apparently be found near Stowe Hill and a further area for the discharge of outflows from the soughs was in Quonians Lane.

The history of the Trust for the next three hundred years can be quickly summed up. It was one of seeking further sources of water as the City's population expanded, whilst ensuring that the supply became more easily available. A new pumping station at Trunkfield was established in the mid nineteenth century to meet growing demand, but closed in the 1930s because of groundwater contamination. Thereafter, the Trust purchased its supplies from South Staffordshire Waterworks Company's Sandfields pumping station. So it was not altogether surprising that in 1963 responsibility for water supply transferred to that Company.

Both before and after its loss of responsibilities for the delivery of water to the citizens of Lichfield, the Trust continued to fulfil its commitments to provide in the wider sense for the "common weal" of Lichfield, particularly promoting educational opportunities. Funds from the Trust went towards the establishment of the Free Grammar School in 1680; to the construction of the Clock Tower; for the purchase of land for public parks; for street paving; for swimming baths; in support of a new hospital; for street lighting; and as assistance to numerous individuals for self improvement. It is a fair assessment to say that for nearly five hundred years, the Trust has been instrumental in promoting improvements to the fabric of the City and the well being of its residents. Its work, albeit on a smaller scale still continues. Meetings of the Trustees currently disburse around 30,000 a year in grant aid, being the interest earned on the Trust's financial investments, currently valued at approximately one million pounds.

For those readers who would like to delve deeper into the history of water supply in Lichfield, try online at: where there is a comprehensive explanation of the topic.

Roger Hockney
December 2012