Roman Aqueducts - Did they reach Britain?

Photo:Course of the Roman Aqueduct, Dorchester

Course of the Roman Aqueduct, Dorchester

┬ęCopyright: Jim Champion, licensed for re-use

A talk by Anna Magnini, October 2010

Report by Joyce Bunting

This was the question put by Anna Magnini at the October 2010 meeting of the Local History Society. The answer: yes they did.  

Traces of aqueducts were found in Verulamium (St. Albans), as well as cities like Chester, Dorchester, Leicester, Bath, Cirencester, Chichester, Colchester, York, Exeter, Ormstead (on Hadrian’s Wall) etc. Massive water pipes were unearthed at Lincoln.

Anna opined that because Britain’s climate was not so hot as other parts of the Roman Empire the conquerors did not find the need for baths so great as in Italy, Spain and France so fewer aqueducts were built here. But the term “aqueduct” includes the whole water system from collection point in the hills to tunnels, filter chambers, overhead canals, cisterns, public baths, wells, pipes and sewers.  

Mining in Britain was an important industry for the Romans and vast amounts of water essential to the process were brought in. Significant remains of gold mines and associated aqueducts are found in Wales at Dolaucothi – the modern village of Pumsaint near Llandovery.   

The gradient on these water transportation systems did not need to be great – a drop of 3 feet per 1,000 feet of length was enough. In places a siphon was installed to raise water from the filtration tank to a higher level. Stone or clay pipes usually conducted the water but in towns lead pipes were used.  

The round arch was developed by the Romans. It is a very stable form, using self-supporting stones with a central keystone to make the arch. Many aqueducts had two layers of arches, some had three.  

Photo:Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Images of Pont du Gard website

The same building pattern was used throughout the Empire. Anna showed pictures of the remains of Roman aqueducts in other countries. Especially striking for its elegance and state of preservation is the triple arched aqueduct and road bridge at Pont du Gard which supplies Nimes in southern France. It stands 48.8m (160 ft) high and formerly carried an estimated 200 million litres (44 million gallons) of water a day to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens.  

In Rome successive Emperors had aqueducts constructed – which they named after themselves – and took pride in their maintenance. Ten main aqueducts, built over the centuries, were paid for from the profits of military successes. Masses of sections are still standing in Rome today. Parts of the old systems are still in use, including the cloaca maxima (main sewer) and the water channels supplying the Trevi fountain.  

Local stone or bricks fired from local clay were used in the construction of aqueducts. The water channels were lined with special materials to facilitate the free flow of water. Some magnificent arches in Rome were faced with marble.  

Photo:Digswell Viaduct

Digswell Viaduct

Hertfordshire Genealogy website

In modern times William Cubitt designed the Welwyn or Digswell Viaduct after the style of a Roman aqueduct. It is situated just to the south of Welwyn North railway station. It is about 475m (1,560 ft) long and comprises forty arches of 9.1m (30 ft) span and is 30m (100 ft) high. It is built of brick fired from brick clay quarried on site during construction. It was opened by Queen Victoria on 6 August 1850 but she was so frightened by its great height that she refused to travel across it.

Ed. note: The Canal age produced further feats of aquaducts, pre-dating the railway viaducts.

Photo:Chirk aquaduct & viaduct, Llangollen branch of Shropshire Union canal

Chirk aquaduct & viaduct, Llangollen branch of Shropshire Union canal

Ceiriog Valley website

Photo:Pontcysyllte aquaduct, opened 1805.  UNESCO World heritage site

Pontcysyllte aquaduct, opened 1805. UNESCO World heritage site

Ceiriog Valley website


This page was added by John Wassell on 12/11/2011.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.