Wednesday 15 May 2024

Review: The History of the Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust by Percy Laithwaite

 I saw the Lichfield Press’s reprint of Percy Laithwaite’s The History of the Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust in the bookshop in Dr Johnson’s Birthplace and I thought it might provide some useful context for representing the town in the novel I’m currently planning. I didn’t buy it though, finding the little volume a bit too expensive and wondering whether the subject matter might be a little too anoracky, even for me. Then I saw a copy cheaper at the Oxfam bookshop three doors down and got it. (Incidentally, the road between The George Inn and Johnson’s Birthplace is festooned with cheap book-buying options).

I was not expecting this book to be so enjoyable.

On the 3rd of January 1546, the laster master of the Lichfield Guild, Hector Beane gave the guild’s lands and privileges to a group of people who became the Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust. This was done in a document called a feeoffment, and the eight people now in charge of it were called feeoffees. The task given to this group was to secure clean and cheap water to be available for the people of Lichfield and to use any excess money or profits for the good of the city. 

Like a lot of these early charities, there was a physical chest where the money belonged, still in possession of the trust today. The chest has three keyholes, with the keys given out to three officers who needed to be quorate to open the chest. I once had a similar system with a friend when we bought an expensive bottle of whisky. We kept it in his cupboard, which was locked by a key I held, ensuring we could only drink it when we were together.

The first part of the book is about the water conduits themselves. It boasts how quickly Lichfield secured itself with public sources of water, earlier than London even, and how the trust developed the system to ensure that the city had the cleanest, cheapest water of anywhere around. There were a number of conduits around the city, where people collected this clean water. The conduits themselves were decorated and kept in goo repair, being known as “our special ornaments.” Essentially being the civic version of water-coolers, they were where people game to gossip, and sometimes fight. There was even a rhyme about it;

  “At the conduits, striving for their turn

  The quarrel it grows great

  That up in arms they are at last

   And one another beat.”

Another problem was that people used to wash their underwear in the conduits and special laundry points established.

After a while, some people wanted their own private water supply. The first to ask for it was the headmaster of the grammar school in 1707. Creating this private supply was a lot of work, because the house is up a small hill but it was achieved, with the headmaster having to pay for the work. As the eighteenth century went on, private water supplies became more common, with Johnson’s step-daughter, Lucy Porter getting her own tap in 1772. One negative effect of people having access to their own water is that they grew wasteful of it and citizens had to be reminded not to waste water.

The trust did more than look after water though. They were instrumental in shaping Lichfield, paving it, giving it lights, funding its famous grammar school and giving charity. Samuel Johnson’s grandmother was giving charity by the Trust, his father’s apprenticeship was a bookseller was due to the Trust’s charity and Johnson’s own education was free, thanks to the Conduit Trust. Michael was later to serve on the trust as a warden. His job would have been collecting the rents from the lands owned by the trust, as well as checking the pipes and conduits. Every year there was an audit meal, where the accounts were double checked and a slap up meal was held, which he was eligible to attend even when he had retired from it.

The Conduit Lands Trust was very proud of their fire-fighting capacities. Unlike many places, they had a fire-engine nicknamed ‘The Indian’. By 1711 they also had fire engines called ‘The Batchelor’s Engine’, ‘The Great Engine”, “The Force Engine” and “The Virgin’s Engine.” Such was the civic pride, that on the feast days of Holy Thursday, Whit-Monday and the 5th of November, it was a requirement to ‘play’ the fire engines around town. Each engine needed 12 operators and they were paid in beer. The 1741 meal offered; “a round of beef, boiled, a large pudding, 2 geese roasted, 2 fowls boiled with bacon, 2 fowls roasted, 2 couple of ducks roasted and 1 turkey roasted.” This was the small meal, the feeoffees were blessed with even more. 

Also, in the winter, from Michaelmas to Lady Day, there were a group of four watchmen, who went from 11pm, to 4am and who had to wake everybody up twice a night - presumably this was to check that fire was regulated in the house. If the local church bells rang than all able-bodied men in the area were expected to get up and lend a hand.

The Trust also involved itself in law and order, building the guild hall, with it’s cells underneath and, in 1666, buying the city its own scold’s bridal and cucking stool. Considering these were both torture devices used to keep women in line, the charitable status of them is on shaky ground.

The final brilliant story is about the clock tower the Trust had built. There were a number of designs, some of them ridiculous but they settled on a fairly solid four-sided structure with Norma arches. It was a problem from the beginning and later moved from where it had been built and was blocking the streets. The town ordered a clock to be built for the tower. The one they were expected would need to be wound every 8 days, the one they recieved needed to be wound every 5, so they had to double the pay of the person whose job was to wind it. What’s more, the clock wasn’t all that accurate and the clock-keeper had to pop down the train station every day to get an accurate time to fix the town clock with. It seems a very British farce.

While I found this book both useful and entertaining, my favourite element of it was a strange little quirk of the writer. Whenever he wanted to pick a town that Lichfield was cleaner than, safer than, more protected from fire than, less prone to cholera than, better educated that - he always picked Coventry. Each time, it seemed like he was simply picking a town relatively near but as it built up, it felt very much like a running joke and a personal grudge. As a very reluctant four-year resident of Cov, I appreciated it a lot.

The History of the Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust is a surprisingly brilliant book. For a copy you could write to Lichfield Press, who have the email - an email company that sounds like it was created for blackmailers. 

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