Drinking Water

There is a widespread belief that our ancestors didn’t drink water as it was contaminated but this was true only for a short time. Humans settled beside water sources, whether rivers or springs. Some settlements end in -bourne which means their Main Street became a stream in winter and they relied on wells in summer. The meaning seems to have been most as a village near Bristol is called Winterbourne, so is a tautology.

Many evangelical groups objected to this encouragement of drinking so they funded public water fountains, which often included animal troughs. When dogs used them, they frightened other animals so bowls for dogs were added. Churches built fountains in their walls, often claiming Jesus was the water of life. Many evangelicals condemned alcohol and are now seen as misguided or patronising. But many working men struggled to feed their families, so their drinking could lead to their families starving.

Travellers and their animals could drink from streams but enclosures led to many being fenced off so people driving animals to markets were forced to use animal troughs that were provided by wayside inns. But inns were not charities so drovers and shepherds had to buy a drink or three to be allowed to water their beasts.

The shape of horse troughs, the long rectangles are also significant and seem to date to the time of Elizabeth 1 who was so enraged at the revival of Roman practices under Queen Mary she ordered all coffins into horse troughs and baptismal font into pig feeders.

The many religious houses built systems of reservoirs pipes and conduit heads to provide themselves and local people with clean water. But following the Reformation many were neglected and/or forgotten so urban centres increasingly relied on wells.

But in crowded centres they often became contaminated by nearby cesspits or crowded graveyards. Some people were drinking their deceased friends and relatives. The arrival of Cholera finally forced the government to pass Health in Towns Acts from 1854 which closed many inner city graveyards and the provision of clean water and the building of sewers, most famously by Bazalgette in London. The problem had been so bad that for many decades London and other large urban centres were unable to maintain their populations, relying on healthy young immigrants from the countryside.

Ships sailed with barrels of water but this often became stagnant on long voyages. Bristol ships used water from a conduit on the quay or paused on their way downstream to fill barrels with water from Black Rock or the Hotwells as they were believed to be cleaner. At sea they added rum to kill the slime in the water. They also drank beer but this was open fermented to obtain yeast but it often also included bacteria such as salmonella which made barrels explode in hot weather.