West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History


‘Priming the Town Pump’ is reproduced
with the permission of Dr. Terry Spencer.

Today, when the turn of a tap brings us instant running water, it is hardly surprising that we take water supply for granted and spare little thought for its origin.

But the history of Pontefract’s town pump in Market Place, as revealed in extracts from Richard Holmes’s ‘Book of Entries,’ focuses thought upon public supply and reminds of a more leisurely age when local government depended upon the collective decisions of the local community as expressed by a general public meeting.

Fox, the Pontefract historian, states that the pump was endowed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Work on the conduit commenced in 1571, and was completed the following year. The supply source was a spring in Penny Lane (the present Wakefield Road), which was known as ‘Organn Well.’

For the early decades of its 400 year history the pump adequately served the limited population, but by the mid 17th century public concern about the maintenance of this water supply brought a general meeting at the Moothall, following which came an order!

"That a conduit in the Markett Place with lead pipes leading to water from Organn Well to the said conduit shall bee cleansed and repayred at the charge and contribution of severall inhabitants of the Towne and especially by those tha fetch water from the same conduit. And avvording to the auncient custome of the said Towne, whoe shall not beare theire p’t of the chardge p’portionable to what water they fetch from the same at the discretion of the Majo’ for the time being and his brethren shall be debarred from the beneffit of the said conduit except they shall be poore people."

The meeting also resolved that water be not drawn for brewing ale at such times as it was required for domestic purposes such as cooking and washing.

Wells at St. Ives and Tanshelf were named as age old examples of the custom of providing for the poor townsfolk, whilst evidence of yet another source of water within the town is the mention of a well, known at one time as Clarke Well. This was said to be sited in a meadow to the left of the road between the Swillington Tower of the Castle and Monkhill, now called Denwell.

The disrepair which followed both over-use and neglect of the town pump system led to periodic public meetings to ensure remedial work. In April 1674, a towns meeting ordered that:

"the stepps or staires down to the Towne’s conduit bee amended and repayred with Stapleton Free Stone at the Towne’s charge."

Again in 1676, in Moothall, an agreement for services was reached with one John Oxley. He was to receive payment for work previously executed and undertake regular repair and maintenance of the lead pipes for seven years, to ensure a free-flowing supply from the well to the pump.

In return, Oxley, whose occupation was described as ‘pewtherer’, was to receive annually from the "Field Masters of Pontefract. . . the first year Fourty shillings and the yearly sum of twenty shillings for the six years residue od the s’d terme of seven years."

At another public meeting in 1699, Thomas Bulmer, a plumber, assumed Oxley’s mantle, accepting thirty shillings, then in hand and four nobles yearly from the Corporation for seven years in return for regular servicing.

During the Mayoralty of Ald Hastings Sayle, in 1705, lead pipes between the Market Place and the Castle were taken up in a three stage operation. Stage one, between the Market Place and the Town Hall, was probably executed after the demolition of the castle, for there is no mention of the sale of lead from there. The second stage (Town Hall to Broad Lane) and the third (Broad Lane to the Castle) were completed by 1707. Money left from the sale of lead was used to lay out and pave Micklegate.

By this time a levy was necessary to ensure Bulmer’s "salary and waidges." 2d per quarter being paid by every private household and 6d per quarter by every Public House – no-one who did not use the water being obliged to pay. This led to some dissatisfaction. A body of townsfolk was formed to decide the issue. The outcome approved by yet another public meeting, was the raising of £5 by assessment as the fairest way of obtaining the money.

Vandalism, it would seem, was equally a feature of the late 17th century, for the pipes were wilfully damaged and cut and it was observed at a public meeting that the cost of repairing the damage would be £9. It was ordered that:

"an accon at law bee brought against such persons as cutt. . .the s’d Conduit pipes. . .and that the say’d accon bee brought at the Towne’s charge."

To protect the source, the building of a little house was agreed, in Penny Lane, at the town’s expense, "to secure the Dozell that conveys the water to the conduit."

Regular inspection and estimation of the nature and cost of any further repairs was covered. Between 1713 and 1830, the responsibility for the water supply was vested in the Overseer of the Highways.

A troublesome situation arose when Mr. William Tatham, who owned the Waterhouse site refused access to the Town’s workmen and the Corporation had to secure the right of the public to the customary water supply.

From 1830 the Street Commissioners oversaw water supply until displaced by the more modern authority.

The retention of the pump to this day is a reminder of a time when the citizens of Pontefract thought well of the towns pump. . . 

Terry Spencer.

Priming the Town Pump was one of several articles published as Wakefield District Heritage, Volume II, Kate Taylor (Editor) 1979.

Also by Terry Spencer:

Darrington Hotel: Origins and Early History
Willow Park Dog Track
The Hope and Anchor Inn, Pontefract
Pontefract's Forgotten Man: Thomas J. Sides
A Very Gallant Gentleman: Percy Bentley


Site constructed and maintained by Michael Norfolk
This website is Copyright © 2005-2013 [www.pontefractus.co.uk] All Rights Reserved