Chris Sladen peers into the murky story of Oxford's water.

Oxford owes its existence, its name and its shape to the rivers that flow through it': so begins Philip Opher's new pocket guide, Oxford Waterways (2006, Heritage Tours). Of course, all human settlements depend on water. But waterways large and small have, over the centuries, seeped into the very fabric of the Oxford 'myth': think, for example, of eights on the Isis ('All rowed hard, but none so hard as stroke') or punting on the Cherwell with Elizabeth Jennings - 'In the dark green streams / Where the punts glide / And the willows fall' (surprisingly, an Oxford-published history of punting says that punting became popular only in the 1860s). And then there's the stripling Thames at Bablockhythe, and the Christ Church maths tutor sculling up-stream, telling tales to the Dean's pre-pubescent daughter.

Even the minor streams and rivulets which criss-cross the city, some almost completely hidden from view, can have literary associations: T E Lawrence and a companion, for instance, punting through the Trill Mill stream, mostly culverted since Victorian times, emerging to astound the citizens of Oxford on Christ Church Meadow. Nor should we forget the Oxford Canal, opened to great acclaim in 1790. Today it is primarily used for leisure (although an increasing number of low-paid Oxford workers find a converted narrow boat the only kind of dwelling they can afford). For over 50 years, however, before the belated arrival of the railway, the canal contributed significantly to Oxford's economy; canal-borne coal was not only cheaper than 'seacoal', which came up the Thames from London, but, said the local paper, needed 'no stirring, as is necessary for seacoal, but ... makes an exceedingly cheerful fire'.

The Vice-Chancellor and several colleges were among the canal's backers. Coincidentally or not, the University battled for years against the railway, the Warden of Wadham leading opposition to the 1843 Great Western Railway Act, which eventually ushered in the branch to Oxford. The dons argued that undergraduates would desert their studies in favour of London's bright lights. Maybe they were right: an OT correspondent (19.1) remembered travelling back to Oxford on the late-night 'Flying Fornicator'.

Despite the city's watery surroundings, however, and 1,200 years of continuous human habitation, Oxford's citizens still suffer both water shortages and occasions when there is too much of the stuff for comfort. Bans on garden hosepipes and similar uses may be no more than irritants; repetitive flooding of hundreds of homes and businesses in the town is more serious. Oxfordshire County Council calculates that this (and other climate-related incidents) has cost more than £16 million over 10 years, excluding the costs of individual house-owners.

So long as the economy remained primarily agricultural, water supply may not have seemed such a problem. Apart from the rivers and streams, thirsty citizens sank wells, hoping that something potable could be found; during the 1930s building work for Bodley's New Library, around 20 were unearthed. Having driven your oxen across Grandpont (or the ford which preceded it), you could water them conveniently in Stockwell Street, handily placed for the market that opened on Gloucester Green in 1601. Until, that is, Worcester College enclosed the eponymous well inside its garden. Adding, the peasantry might think, insult to injury, the college then renamed the street after itself.

Other colleges also sank (or acquired) their own wells. In 1573, Robert Hovenden, Warden of All Souls, decided to lay out a garden for his own use on the site of the Rose Inn on the High Street, which the college had bought some 40 years earlier (not the last inn to be snatched by 'gown' from 'town'). In one corner, he found a well 'whereof it was said the fellows of Allsoln wasshed everie day in rose water'. How they laughed!

Other colleges found various ways of bringing water within their walls. Magdalen built an aqueduct from a spring in nearby Holywell. In 1279, Merton invested in a series of ditches and gutters to take water from the Cherwell. Christ Church, like St Frideswide's priory before it, got its water from Osney. Then, around 1615, Otho Nicholson, a wealthy London lawyer, decided to benefit both college and city, financing a scheme to take water from springs on Cumnor Hill to a stone conduit at Carfax. This was a substantial structure, based on a Renaissance arch. Among the images carved into the fabric were the royal arms of England, the badges of the four kingdoms (somewhat ambitiously still including France) and figures representing cardinal virtues and classical 'worthies'; images of Queen Matilda and an ox were added later.

A late seventeenth-century manuscript in Bodley says that 'the water which comes from the fountain head ... near Hinksey ... is conveyed into the body of the carved ox and thereby the city is supplied with good and wholesome water, issuing from his pizzle, which continually pisses into the cistern underneath.' Royalist Oxford celebrated the Restoration of the monarchy by tipping a hogshead of claret into the conduit. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, conduit and customers had become a serious traffic hazard. The conduit was dismantled (it was for a time replaced by a more modest cistern on the north side of Carfax) and shipped off to Nuneham Park, where it gently decayed for nearly two centuries before being restored through the Oxford Historic Buildings Fund.

More prosaically, from the seventeenth century onwards, a succession of private or municipal companies was set up, at first drawing water from the Thames at Folly Bridge. As Oxford grew both in population and industry, the technicalities of water supply were swept up in the Victorian debate on public health. In the light of continuing piecemeal arrangements (many citizens still reliant on wells, often in horrifying proximity to drains and cesspools), it was hardly surprising that Oxford, like other English towns, suffered recurrent outbreaks of cholera.

In 1848 Oxford's doctors reported that the water supply was 'intermittent and deficient ... the works are at the lowest level of the city and below nearly all the sewers'. The state of those sewers, and Victorian engineers' reconstruction of them, deserve a separate article, but readers may judge the flavour, as it were, of the problem from an 1832 report: 'Open sewers and cesspits in Holywell and ... St Giles' ... pig dung in the public road, dunghills in Fisher's Row and New Inn Lane, horses being killed in St Ebbe's, stacks of bones and filth, a necessary house [privy] in Friar's Lane, very offensive, nauseous drains, stagnant gutters, buckets of horse blood being thrown into the public street.'

Although individual dons, notably Henry Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine, were tireless in campaigning for clean water, some colleges were unenthusiastic, reluctant to contribute to the cost of municipal improvements and suspicious of new-fangled bureaucrats like sanitary inspectors (because they might meddle in the running of student lodgings). Up to the 1880s, the local press carried regular reports and letters about the state of the water supply, the poor ventilation of the sewers and the risk of further outbreaks of cholera, but by the end of the century all houses in the city were at least sure of a continuous supply of water (as were the colleges). All Souls installed a mighty wooden cistern in the top of one of Hawksmoor's towers, guaranteeing its Fellows a dependable head of water (now sadly replaced by a humdrum plastic tank).

What the customers could do with this water is yet another story. As late as 1963, a survey found some 5,000 Oxford houses without fixed baths. Even All Souls, which had converted its 'Necessaries' to water closets by 1836, had no plumbed-in bath until well into the twentieth century. In the winter of 1914, undergraduates at Balliol were warned to expect only cold baths in wartime, perhaps indicating that hot ones were normally available. At Christ Church, however, cleanliness plainly came second not only to godliness, but also to illumination: although electric light was installed as early as 1901, another 30 years went by before Peckwater Quad was equipped with baths.

In what were still the men's colleges, plumbing remained a bit of a joke until the mid-twentieth century; a Cherwell cartoon featured an embarrassed undergraduate, asked to direct visitors to the nearest 'facilities', stammering: 'Well, of course we are only here for eight weeks at a time, you know.' The age of austerity, however, was ending: 'By the winter of 1958 no man in Keble any longer needed to walk in the open air to reach a bath', boasted the college record. Over the following decades, desegregation and growing dependence on the conference trade ushered in the en-suite and dependable heating.

Until comparatively recently, town and gown have also been poorly served in respect of 'bathing' in its recreational rather than its ablutionary sense. By Victorian times there were - suitably segregated - bathing-places: 'gown' on the Cherwell (Parson's Pleasure, Dames' Delight); 'town' on the Thames. Dedicated facilities for University swimmers had to wait until the present century and the generosity of American Rhodes Scholar Lief D Rosenblatt. Thanks to this, what Director of Sport Jon Roycroft calls 'a fantastic facility' now has a regular membership of around 1,800 - students, University staff and some family members. The 25-metre Rosenblatt Pool is also used by local schools on weekday mornings.

Oxford's first indoor swimming baths actually opened in Merton Street in 1869, followed by Temple Cowley, Ferry Pool, Blackbird Leys, Peers and Barton in the twentieth century. The open-air Hinksey Park baths, opened in 1934, were refurbished a few years ago; recent globally warmed summers have resulted in a steady increase in use of this 'lido'-style facility, with week-end queues of would-be bathers stretching across the park.

This popularity has not, however, been without its problems; today's security and safety requirements are vastly different from and more costly than those of the 1930s, and the City Council is said to want to privatise management of the pools. Meanwhile, Thames Water, against fierce local opposition, says that it needs a new reservoir half the capacity of Lake Windermere to cope with Oxfordshire's demand. In Oxford, at least, it seems that, like true love, the course of water never does run smooth.

Chris Sladen Christ Church 1953

Special thanks to Norma Aubertin-Potter, All Souls librarian, and Judith Curthoys, Christ Church archivist, for detail in this article.