Barb Drummond

Beyond Bristol History


Published March 2010 "Dead Cats in Conduits - Bristol's Drinking Water"

In 1847 Alfred J. Ellis  opened a boarding house and groggery in Yerba Buena, which became San Francisco. Several days after a  Russian sailor was reported to have fallen into his well, customers complained about his whisky, so he  cleaned out the well and  found the body.  Most locals were his customers, and some of them became very ill and could have died. One of them was the popular Captain John Paty who had used the water as a chaser as well as a mixer but survived to become admiral in the Hawaiian navy and claimed several islands for their king.


History is scattered with incidents that might have changed the course of events, but they usually more dramatic than that of choosing the wrong mixer with your alcoholic beverage. Yet water is essential to human life, and the risk of contamination from dead sailors, animal waste, bad pipes or just stagnant water, has long been a source of human illness and death. Access to  water has determined the sites of settlement, helped found and destroy the greatest empires, created oases from deserts and vice versa.  Access to sources of sufficient quality and quantity is of growing concern to all of us as the world’s population soars and our climate becomes unstable.


This book is about Bristol in England, from the conduits built by friars to their Post Reformation neglect, of pumps and wells, of drinking fountains and the building of the modern system which most of us take for granted. The city’s urbanisation caused problems of access and the neglect of the poor  are relevant beyond the confines of the city and of its history.


It is particularly timely as there is at present a movement to have the old fountains reinstated across the city,so will be a useful aid to this campaign as well as of general interest.

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