Water supply in medieval and post-medieval Gdańsk


Water supply in medieval and post-medieval Gdańsk

Ensuring access to water is one of the most serious challenges when population density increases. Water is needed for drinking, breeding animals, maintaining hygiene, as well as for crafts and manufacturing activities.

The Gdańsk stronghold in the 11th-13th century functioned at the confluence of the Motława River and the Vistula River, while the craft settlement – a later city under the Lübeck law – from the second half of the 12th century developed along the Siedlica River (about 6 m wide and 2 m deep) flowing in place of the contemporary Podwale Staromiejskie Street. Due to free access to river water, Gdańsk inhabitants probably did not have to build wells. To date, archaeologists have found the presence of only one early medieval well of unprecedented stone structure; it was discovered near the Dominican monastery and the Romanesque church of St Nicholas.

The situation changed significantly in the 14th century after the so-called Gdańsk massacre and the city being burned by the Teutonic Knights in 1308, the dynamically growing Main City was created; the number of its inhabitants by 1380 increased fourfold. The intensive development of crafts, including brewing, tanning and dyeing, meant that good, clean water was lacking. Smaller watercourses and reservoirs turned into sewage tanks, and groundwater was polluted by latrines commonly built on urban plots. Most of the city was located in wetlands, which made it difficult to build ground wells. The Motława River, in turn, was periodically salted (due to backwater), hence it could not be the main source of drinking water.

As early as around 1338, the Teutonic Knights brought water to Gdańsk using the 14-kilometres Radunia River canal. For over 500 years it was the basic source of drinking water for Gdańsk inhabitants. In addition, the current propelled mills and sawmills in the reviving Old City area. Water supply from the canal running outside the city walls was organized based on a system of wooden pipes made of hollow pine trunks connected with lead joints. The oldest preserved accounting book of the Main City from 1379–1382 recorded expenses for the production of pipes and lead collars as well as for the construction and cleaning of sumps and wells.

Water from a settling pond located at the height of the Długouliczna Gate supplied a dense network of reservoirs – sumps, which served as municipal wells at the most important streets. Separate sumps were built for public institutions, such as the city hall and city baths. Water from wells was drawn using buckets pulled out using winches or cranes.

As the inhabitants became richer, branches of waterworks for wells built on private plots, most often in the yards of townhouses, were formed. In the 17th and 18th centuries, sumps were also built in basements, from where water could reach higher floors by means of manual pumps.

In 1539, a new water intake from the Lake Jasień, through the Siedlecki Stream to the pond in Krzyżowniki, and then by pipeline to the city wells was constructed. In addition, in the years 1536–1550 the intake from the Radunia River canal was expanded – specialists brought from the Netherlands erected the first water tower in Gdańsk along with a pump station, i.e. the famous Wasserkunst supplying, amongst others, the Neptune fountain.

The functioning of the water supply network required constant supervision of the city services specialists: Kunstmajster (water plant master) and Rurmajster (pipe master). The scale of the work undertaken is evidenced by the design and inventory plans of the Main City water supply network from around 1719, by Michael Wittwerck.

Despite constant efforts to keep the water in Gdańsk clean, epidemics did not spare the city. It was not until 1865-1869 that the situation improved significantly, when the project by Engineer Eduard Wiebe was implemented: Europe’s first complex water supply system, including an efficient water intake, a closed water supply and sewage system, pump station and a sewage treatment plant.


• A copy of the water supply system plan of the Main City of Gdańsk from 1717, by M. Wittwerck (from the collection of the Gdańsk Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences).

• A row of city wells – sumps along the northern frontage of Targ Drzewny (L) and sumps with winches to pull out buckets along ul. Długa (P), by A. Dickmann, 1617.

Poster with illustrations:

• Method of connecting two sections of wooden pipes with lead joint in former Dominican monastery (research from 2001). Photo by R. Krzywdziński.

• Course of pipes and sumps of water supply pipeline discovered under the surface of the former Rajska Street (research from 1999). Photo by G. Goszczyńska.

• Bronze cut off valve from around 1615 on a branch of the water popeline supplying water to the plot at ul. Św. Ducha 44 (research from 2004–2005). Photo by A. Firynowicz.

• Remains of a wooden sump – a public well with water supply service lines in former ul. Rajska (research from 1999). Photo by G. Goszczyńska.

• Pump on sump at the Żuławska Gate. M. Deisch, 1765.

• City well – sump with a crane at the church of St Nicholas. P. Willer, 1687.

• Bronze water supply joint with the Gdańsk coat of arms, date 1695 and initials of Beniamin Wittwerck (from the collection of the Gdańsk Museum).


Edited by Bogdan Kościński, Department of Archaeology of the City of Gdańsk, Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk


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