A brief account of an excellent talk for the History Society by Max Field
‘The filthiest town in Europe’ said Erasmus the Dutch scholar while living in Queens College in 1511
The main cause of the pollution was the Kings Ditch which formed a semi-circle round the town and was filled with sewage and dead animals. There was no flow of water to flush the sewage into the river and on towards Ely. In the late 1500s, Cambridge was affected by the plague and other fatal
infections. These were thought to be caused by ‘ bad air ’ resulting from the sewage contaminated water in the river and local ditches.
Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse in 1545 sent a letter to the University and the town council complaining that not enough fresh water was available for the College. The Nine Wells springs were a source of clean water and it was suggested that water could be directed from there to Cambridge. The authorities from the town and university collaborated with the Lord of the Manor in Trumpington to create a ‘ new river’ to divert some of this fresh water into Cambridge. The water first flowed in 1614 with the control of the required pressure at the Conduit Head on the corner of Lensfield Rd.
In 1631, Thomas Hobson, whose income came from transporting goods to and from London,
bequeathed land to fund and maintain this public water supply – hence the association with his name. Hobson ’s Conduit Trust is now a registered charity, that was established to have right over the stream and to maintain it in good order for the town and the University.
From Nine Wells the water flows above ground and can best be seen in Trumpington St. alongside
the Botanic Gardens. At the corner of Lensfield Rd. it goes underground in culverts and is
distributed to flow in four gunnels: one along Trumpington St., one directly to the market square,
another diagonally across Lensfield Rd. and then along Hills Rd. and St. Andrew’s St. A fourth
channel has been closed. There were diversions into the colleges and the ponds in Emmanuel
College and an outdoor pool in Christ’s which are still fed by water from the conduit are just two
examples of how the water supplied all of the town and the university. The original fountain in the
picture was in the market square and provided water for the townsfolk. In Victorian times it was
replaced by a Gothic structure and was moved to the corner of Lensfield Rd. The Victorian fountain
has been demolished.
The men who were the main benefactors of the scheme were: Thomas Chaplin ,Lord of the Manor
of Trumpington, Andrew Perne the Master of Peterhouse, Stephen Perse a fellow of Gonville and
Caius and Dr. of Physic and Thomas Hobson. Their names are commemorated on an obelisk at