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Henry VIII's Bathwater

Armada House was purpose built in 1903 to accommodate the established Bristol Water Company who relocated from Small Street in Bristol’s Old City. The building that is Armada House today, tucked away in the dog-leg of Telephone Avenue off Baldwin Street, would have been a regular visit for the local people of Bristol to pay their water bills.

Bristol Waterworks at the time was still quite a new company only establishing in 1846 as an Act of Parliament.  In its early stages, Bristol Waterworks was formed as a growing response for the need for clean water supplies for general public health throughout the city. At the time, as the shift from rural to urban living became more popular with the industrial revolution, towns and cities became cramped and unhealthy.  In Bristol there was not enough water supply to cater for the growing number of people, with only local springs being used and a few private wells in the city. The country, as a whole, had suffered devastating outbreaks of cholera and general bad public health. A survey in 1840 showed Bristol was one of the worst in the country and in 1849 a severe epidemic of cholera spread throughout the city. Originally, Cholera was thought to be an airborne disease, contracted through breath and bad odours, however it was a handful of physicians during this period that began to recognise the link between the spread of disease and dirty water.  One of the early and significant directors of the Bristol Waterworks Company was William Budd, a prominent local physician, who pioneered new ideas to tackle public health and clean drinking water. In 1849 he wrote a paper on the spread of cholera through contaminated water supplies, a theory which didn’t become widely accepted until around the 1860 onwards. One of his announced stipulations before joining the board at Bristol Waterworks was that ‘Water should be drawn from sources beyond possible reach of sewage contamination’. The Bristol Water Company began a major change in operations to provide cleaner and accessible drinking water to the entire population of Bristol, no longer restricting this priveledge to the wealthy areas such as Clifton.


The building that is Armada House accomodated the growing administration of the Bristol Waterworks Company. The large Cabot Room on the ground floor, would have been the main hall for the public to pay their water bills, the doorway of which has now been blocked and replaced with a large window. The entrance that is used today which opens into the spacious lobby and sweeping staircase, would have been the private entrance for the board of directors and administrative body.  The Brunel Room, to the left on the ground floor and the rooms on the second and third floor would have been used as boardrooms and offices. By their relocation to Armada House in 1903, the company had already successfully diverted water from springs and rivers in the Mendips into storage reservoirs.  The water was connected to Bristol via tons of miles of pipes, aqueducts and conduits.

The water used today in Bristol is collected and stored in lakes and reservoirs and transported from a range of places including the Mendips, Chew, Blagdon and Cheddar and from the River Severn via the Sharpness Canal. Although no longer an establishment of the Bristol Water Company’s administration, Armada House often hosts the meetings and events of the Environment Agency, who deal alot with the management of waterworks industry. The water we use today has probably been through several long cycles since Armada House was built, in its filtration from spring water to drinking to tap water and back again.  Its likely to have been flushed down the toilet a few times, evaporated from the sea on a couple of occasions and rained back onto the hilly brow  of the Mendips, to trickle down into our pipes for our daily hydration. It could be that the recycled droplets that make up my glass of water, has effectively got droplets of Henry the VIII’s bathwater in it…

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