The story of water and its role in the development of Derry: Part 1

Everyone needs it - none of us can live without it - access to clean drinking water, writes Paul Strawbridge.

Tuesday, 29th May 2018, 10:00 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 8:50 am

Many health practitioners would argue that access to clean water and proper sanitation are the single most important public health initiatives in our history.

Nowadays, we take water for granted, it’s simply a case of turning on the tap and there it is, as if by magic. However, that was not always the case.


During the Siege of Derry the city gained an extra 20,000 inhabitants, who were tightly crammed within its walls.

A shortage of clean water literally cost people their lives as they ventured beyond the walls in search of water.

Rev Walker in his contemporary account of the Siege recalls -“the Williamites drink nothing but foul water which we paid dear for, and could not get without great danger; we mixed it with ginger and aniseeds of which we had plenty – one man had a bottle broke at his mouth by a Jacobite sniper”

The Rev Walker was of course referring to Colmcille’s Well near the foot of Fahan Street.

There were actually three wells at this location - St Columb’s, St Martin’s and St Adamnan’s wells.

A number of other wells were also in use at the time e.g. at Pump Street, London Street etc.

These had to be reopened periodically during future periods of drought and right up until the great ‘Water Famine’ of 1911.

17th Century

For centuries, wells and streams were the only water available or necessary.

However, for the city to truly develop, a more reliable source was needed.

In 1803 the Corporation voted to proceed with a £15,583 scheme, whereby reservoirs would be constructed at Corrody and another at Quay Brae Head (Fountain Hill) in order for water to be brought from the Waterside to the Cityside.

These reservoirs were subsequently built around 1808 -1809. Water collected at ‘The Top of the Hill’ was first channelled into Corrody Reservoir using fireclay pipes.

The pipes leading from Corrody to Fountain Hill and from Fountain Hill to the new wooden bridge were made from tree trunks.

These wooden pipes - having a 5” diameter hole bored through the centre, conveyed the water over the wooden bridge at Bridge Street, to a basin at Wapping (later called Fountain St) from there, smaller cast iron pipes were laid to each of the four main streets, with associated stand pipes.

Interestingly, a section of pipe laid below the wooden bridge would be disconnected each time that a barge passed through the bridge on its way to Dock St in Strabane.

Poor Water Quality

During this time Derry was fairly unregulated and in an unsanitary condition.

We did not have Building Control as we know it today and adequate bye-laws were not in place.

Many inhabitants simply emptied their waste onto the streets. Water would not have been tested to today’s exacting standards.

Typically, it would have only been checked for taste, hardness and alkalinity.

Dr Patterson, a leading physician at the time referring to earlier experiments on one source – a mineral water at Rosses Bay, described it as “very limpid , not brisk nor odorous, but communicates to the palate a pretty strong chalybeate (containing iron) water, capable of being converted to useful and medicinal purposes but it will not bear carriage, nor keep long”

Cholera Epidemic

A lack of clean water and inadequate sanitation was one of the reasons for the high mortality rate within the city.

During 1832, there was a serious cholera epidemic in the city; there were 884 cases reported, resulting in 118 deaths.

The areas mainly affected were around Rossville Street and within the Fountain. Surprisingly, not a single case was reported in the Waterside.

John Gwynne, who was himself an orphan, bequeathed a large sum of money which resulted in the construction of Gwynne’s Institute for the purposes of providing for the many orphaned and destitute boys of the city.

In 1849, there was a reoccurrence. This time, the disease found an easy prey in the form of a population already weakened by famine.

The victims were not confined solely to the poor – Bishop Maginn and several priests of the diocese also died of cholera and other famine related diseases whilst ministering to the people.

Waterborne illnesses and diseases e.g. Typhoid, gastro-enteritis and dysentery, were also having a serious effect on the inhabitants of Derry.

The Londonderry Sentinel in September 1848 was again concerned about poor sanitation and the renewed threat of cholera –‘The inhabitants of Pump Street were for some days of the week, dreadfully annoyed by the abominable stench and effluvia which proceeded from the slaughterhouse just behind New-gate’.

Later in 1854, the paper comments on the ‘sickly appearance of those living near the Wapping’ and tells how’ injuriously it affects their health’.

During the early 1800s the city also embarked on a programme to lay municipal sewers.

The main sewers within the walls were laid during the Georgian era – these were ‘egg-shaped’ sewers - constructed using yellow clay bricks, which were produced locally.

Smaller brown coloured ‘earthenware’ sewer pipes were laid from each property to the street. Many of these sewers are still in operation nearly 200 years later.

Derry Journal 1842

On August 23rd 1842, the Derry Journal complained about the insufficient supply of water during a continued drought – ‘a scarcity of this indispensible article.

The public reservoir has afforded no supply; and several families have imported water in barrels and others have had to buy it at the rate of a penny for two canfulls’

Another account, taken from the Sentinel in 1897 was an interview with an elderly gentleman who recalled a time prior to the laying of the wooden pipes in 1808, when families bathed in the Foyle and water was scarce – “we went to a house in Foxes Corner, to a well in Charlie Livingstone’s yard for the full of two kettles - the well never gave up - old Charlie did a good trade at a’ penny a go’ and some families paid Charlie by the quarter”.

See Friday’s paper for the second part of Paul’s examination of sanitation and hydration in Derry through the ages.