An an­cient role: sewer com­mis­sion­ers

Valley Journal Advertiser - - COMMUNITY - Ed Cole­man

In 1708 the Par­lia­ment of Great Bri­tain passed what was called the Com­mis­sion of Sew­ers Act. This was leg­is­la­tion deal­ing with land drainage and the pro­tec­tion of ar­eas around marshes, rivers and low-ly­ing ar­eas near the sea. The Act was an up­dated ver­sion known as the Great Statute of Sew­ers, in­tro­duced a cou­ple of cen­turies ear­lier, in 1535.

In ef­fect, this leg­is­la­tion cre­ated Com­mis­sion­ers of Sew­ers, whose main role was to en­sure the pro­tec­tion of any low-ly­ing ar­eas in Eng­land. With the back­ing of Par­lia­ment, the com­mis­sion­ers had the power to im­press into ser­vice “as many carts, horses, oxen …. and also as many work­ers and labour­ers deemed nec­es­sary” to en­sure that this pro­tec­tion was ad­e­quate. The leg­is­la­tion also gave the com­mis­sion­ers the au­thor­ity to force landown­ers un­der the law to not only pro­vide labour­ers but to pay as well for any costs in­volved.

Cen­turies ago the word sewer re­ferred gen­er­ally to streams and wa­ter­courses and had a much broader mean­ing than it does to­day. You may ask at this point what any of this has to do with the usual top­ics of this col­umn, the his­tory of the east­ern Val­ley. Keep in mind that when British colonists ar­rived in the New Eng­land states they brought with them many of the prac­tices and cus­toms they were fa­mil­iar with in Great Bri­tain. Some of the off­spring of the colonists – the Planters - set­tled in Hants and Kings County af­ter the Aca­di­ans were re­moved and with them came the laws and gen­eral reg­u­la­tions that gov­erned ev­ery­day life. They would have been fa­mil­iar, in other words, with Com­mis­sion­ers of Sew­ers and the au­thor­ity they had.

Now, jump for­ward to 1759. The Aca­di­ans had been re­moved and the Planters were yet to ar­rive. The dykes of Hants and Kings County, left un­tended in ar­eas such as Fal­mouth and Grand Pre, were at the mercy of the weather and the tides. A great storm in 1759, to give one ex­am­ple, ripped out some of the ma­jor dyke sys­tems here and tide wa­ters flooded ar­eas the Aca­di­ans had spent decades pro­tect­ing.

Af­ter they set­tled in and one storm af­ter an­other struck, the Planters wisely saw the need for Com­mis­sion­ers of Sew­ers in all ar­eas that had been dyked. These were ap­pointed by the gov­ern­ing body, the Provin­cial Coun­cil, and as I read it, they were life­time ap­point­ments that usu­ally were handed out ar­bi­trar­ily, to friends of the coun­cil but also, in many cases, to re­spon­si­ble landown­ers who were lead­ers in their com­mu­nity. Since main­tain­ing the dykes was vi­tal (the dyked ar­eas rep­re­sented a large part of the land cleared for cul­ti­va­tion) the Com­mis­sioner of Sew­ers held a po­si­tion of great re­spon­si­bil­ity. Like the com­mis­sion­ers orig­i­nally ap­pointed un­der that an­cient Com­mis­sion of Sew­ers Act in 1708, they had the au­thor­ity to force landown­ers, at their own ex­pense, to main­tain and re­pair the dykes.

One of the du­ties of a Com­mis­sioner of Sew­ers was to pa­trol the dykes af­ter high run­ning tides and storms to de­ter­mine dam­age and places that needed strength­en­ing. No more than a year af­ter the Planters ar­rived, in 1761, the Gen­eral Court of Ses­sions ap­pointed Com­mis­sion­ers of Sewer to over­look all the dyked ar­eas. As with the orig­i­nal leg­is­la­tion, landown­ers were charged dyke rates based on the num­ber of acres they owned. Ev­ery pro­pri­etor was also bound to sup­ply men, horses and equip­ment to re­build the dykes.

His­tor­i­cal writ­ers such as Brent Fox and Dou­glas Ea­gles, who wrote about early dyke­ing, tell us that farm­ers who ne­glected to pay dyke rates and sup­ply labour and equip­ment for re­pairs were pe­nal­ized – their land was seized by the provin­cial gov­ern­ment and went up for auc­tion. More than one dyekland holder lost his land for this fail­ure, es­pe­cially when ma­jor re­pairs were re­quired, such as the long drawn out con­struc­tion of the Welling­ton Dyke.

The ages old role of the Com­mis­sioner of Sew­ers was main­tained un­til re­cent times. The era of the Com­mis­sion­ers of Sew­ers ended in 1950 when the Mar­itime Marsh­lands Recla­ma­tion As­so­ci­a­tion was formed. The MMRA took over main­tain­ing and build­ing dykes in 1950, as­sum­ing the role and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties the Com­mis­sion­ers of Sew­ers had held in Kings and Hants County since the 1760s.

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