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The Gloucestershire Court of Sewers

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May 2021

Just when you thought that Thornbury History and Archaeology Society had managed to elevate itself to the status of a respectable academic institution, it plumbs the depths with its May talk on the subject of sewers. To be fair to Rose Hewlett, her research subject was about land drainage and sea defences along the Severn. In times past (before we had sewers) the word ‘sewer’ was a collective term for any water course, and it’s only relatively recently that we have become so sniffy about the subject.

In 1531, King Henry VIII passed the Act of Sewers, creating Courts of Sewers to oversee the management of coastal marshlands and flood-prone agricultural land. The records of the Gloucestershire Court of Sewers are a rare 16th and 17th century trove of information about people, families, working relationships, land ownership and tenancy amongst the great, and not so great, of the low lying lands alongside the river Severn from Aust to Slimbridge. A record of problems with drains, sea walls, flood gates, bridges, disputes between owners of mills, fish weirs etc. In short, anything that impacts land drainage and sea defences. Research into the records can give useful information about farm and field names and about the succession of land ownership and tenancy.

Nowadays the Environment Agency takes care of it for us, but back then, if you had an itch problem then you had better make sure you did something about it or you would be up before the Court of Sewers. If you didn’t clear up the problem the Court could fine you or send in the bailiffs. An ‘itch’ was a local word for a length of sea wall. Individual land owners and tenants were responsible for the maintenance of sea walls, as well as for that of the rhynes (or rhines, reens or rheenes) that drained the land, and the gates (or sluices, flaps or flappers) that stopped high tides flooding the rhynes. This field is a quagmire of mysterious esoteric terminology, and I understand that Rose is compiling a ditchionary.

The Gloucestershire Court of Sewers usually met in Thornbury (famous at last) in one of the local inns. The Court commissioners had to be approved by the Lord Chancellor, and tended to be people of some status and with some legal knowledge. One such was Sir Thomas Throckmorton of Tortworth, who was summoned before the Privy Council (surely an overseeing body) for ‘divers misdemeanours and outrages’. The Court also used a number of jurors and surveyors. People who really knew their sewers. Commissioners were paid two shillings and jurors one shilling for a Court session. Court expenses were covered by a rate imposed on land owners, something of a drain on the local economy.

In January 1607 the Somerset, Gloucestershire and Gwent levels were completely devastated by a storm surge, with hundreds of square miles of farmland inundated. The Court records prior to this date show just how many problems were outstanding with the sea walls. The Court met to adjudicate on existing problems, not to take pre-emptive action on possible future problems. So we must be grateful to the Environment Agency for the work it does now to protect the Severn margins from future flooding. Besides, it has a much nicer name. But then, a rose would smell as sweet....... Many thanks to Rose for the talk. We were totally immersed.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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