Anyone living in Devon will have been experiencing the misery caused by flooding either directly, or indirectly, in the last week or so. The UK has once again been plagued by especially wet weather, with the South West in particular taking considerable damage and disruption.
Nowadays, of course, we have the Environment Agency monitoring river levels, the Met Office issuing severe weather warnings, and government disaster relief contingency plans to fall back on when the worst should happen and Mother Nature gets testy. In the eighteenth century none of these existed, and as such it fell to the justices of the peace sitting in the courts of Quarter Sessions to keep organising the roads of the counties and to make sure that the bridges were useable.
Having worked with this material on a daily basis for four months, there are things I start to notice about particular sessions in each year, and the way the preoccupations of the court reflect the season’s round. Midsummer and Michaelmas sessions tend to have presentments detailing thefts of cider, for example, while Epiphany and Easter tend to document thefts of food and fuel committed during the long months of winter. Michaelmas also tends to be the point in the year where the justices of the peace had to issue large numbers of highway repair orders, and this makes sense, since it was around this time of year that the roads would have begun to turn to quagmires as the rain fell and what drainage existed became clogged with fallen leaves, and as trees were blown down by the autumnal gales.
Besides the inferences that can be made from the numbers of different types of document being issued by the court of course, there are also more direct indications of the difficulties faced by the Quarter Sessions in keeping Devon’s ways and bridges in good repair, and nature at least to some extent in check. At the Michaelmas session 1739, the inhabitants of Kings Nympton were presented for failing to maintain the river banks in the parish, such that a road was flooded. (QS/4/1739/Michaelmas/PR/19). Often, the headaches for the justices of the peace were caused by local inhabitants. In Easter 1740 Susannah and Sarah Richards of Topsham, spinsters, were presented for having failed to maintain and repair a flood hatch over a road in Woodbury, which had been in place ‘since time immemorial.’ Although the repair or roads was frequently a parochial duty, those who lived or held land near a particular road might also be expected to maintain it, often simply by custom, and in this case the Richards were expected to repair the flood hatch because of their tenure ‘of a certain grist mill’ in the vicinity. (QS/4/1740/EASTER/PR/8).
The flaws in the system of expecting people to repair roads they happened to live by are fairly obvious and often these local customs, where they existed, were just another imposition on a person’s time and resources; the Richards probably didn’t possess the means to repair the flood hatch, and so it was left to decay until such time as it eventually made the road so poor that it provoked the wrath of officialdom. Another way of getting things done was to employ local labour, as reported to the Sessions by John Woolcombe on 12 January 1741. A bridge over the River Meavy, called simply ‘Este Brige’ [East Bridge] the maintenance of which was nominally the responsibility of the county, was in danger of collapsing, and a Mr Cooper struck a bargain with ‘an honest mason’ who lived locally to make repairs, for which he bought 30 bushels of lime and re-laid the paving of the bridge. (QS/4/1741/Epiphany/HI/1).
Further problems for the road network could be cause by nuisances which we would recognise today as fly tipping. In Easter 1739, James Burden of Northam, mariner and James Bond of the same, joiner, were presented for throwing ‘great quantities of rubble’ in the road at Northam, blocking a watercourse and causing flooding to nearby housing. (QS/4/1739/Easter/PR/26, and QS/4/1739/Easter/PR/54). Blocking roads with rubbish, especially heaps of dung and straw, was fairly common, as was enclosing highways without licence to do so, and I even have a presentment against a Mr John Staple of Membury for building “a stable, wringhouse, a linney and a carthouse on part of the king’s common highway in the parish of Membury called Plaistreet Lane” (QS/4/1739/Midsummer/PR/27).
The great beauty of the above documents of course, is that they frequently give enough information for somebody familiar with the locality to be able to pinpoint the whereabouts of the place being referred to in the document. One of my volunteers, a local to Devon who has worked with Quarter Sessions material before, has found a number of documents detailing flooded roads in areas of the county that still flood today. The fact that we’re still battling the same problems 300 years later despite all of our modern equipment, advanced road-building technologies, and planning infrastructure, gives you some idea of the scale of the challenge poor weather caused to the justices of the peace and the inhabitants of Devon long ago!