The Commission of Sewers


During the Middle Ages, low-lying lands and marshland was always in danger of being flooded, as is often the case today, either by the run-off from heavy rainfall or by high tides if close to the sea. Land drainage was basic, relying on ditches, while sea defences or 'dams' consisted of earth or clay banks covered in turf, and sometimes faced with wooden piles or a stone wall.

Low-lying lands, liable to flooding, lay alongside the edges of rivers or bordered the sea. Consequently, it was the the responsibility of local landowners and tenants, bordering such lands, to oversee the maintenance of the banks and ditches. Some of them actually undertook minor reclamation of such low-lying lands on their property, and foremost amongst these early reclaimers were the monastic establishments, who were active in various parts of the country, such as the Isle of Thanet and the Somerset levels.

However, many landowners were too lax and did not look after their banks and ditches, with the fatal result that the river or the sea broke through, flooding their land. If this flooding had been solely limited to their land, there would have been no problem. But in most cases, the flooding spread across other lands belonging to other owners, causing damage to crops and buildings and litigation in the courts.

It was to prevent this physical damage and the consequent legal wrangling that in 1532 an Act of Parliament established the appointment of Commissioners of Sewers throughout England. Before the 19th century, when the word took on its present form, the word 'sewer' referred to an artificial drainage channel such as a trench or an open ditch, that was used to drain land. It derived from the French word essever meaning 'to drain off' and was brought over in the Old Northern French word se(u)wiere, denoting a channel to carry off overflow from a fishpond. The 17th century sense of the word is very much this idea of a drainage ditch.

"Sewer or Sewar, has two significations with us, one applied to him that issues or comes in before the meat of the King or other great Personage, and placeth it upon the Table, [&c.] The other, to such passages or gutters, as carry water into the Sea or River, in Lawyers Latine called Sewera, An. 6. H. 6. ca. 5. And there are Commissions of Sewers usually granted under the Great Seal, authorising certain person, to see Dreins and Ditches well kept and maintained in the Marish and Fen Countries, for better conveyance of the water into the Sea, and preserving the grass for food of Cattle. This word is probably derived from the Fr. (issue) an issue or going forth, as if we [SE] should call them Issuers, because they give issue or passage to the water, | &c"
Thomas Blount (1656). Glossographia: or a Dictionary, Interpreting all such Hard Words. (London: T. Newcomb.)
The word must not be confused with the modern meaning of an enclosed, constructed conduit for the passage of human waste. This sense evolved much later, owing to the habit of using sewers or ditches for the disposal of human and household waste. But that's totally another story.

Their remit was to oversee, manage and police the drainage and the flood and sea defences of low-lying land near rivers or the sea and conducted this business in the Court of Sewers. To this end, they were allowed to levy a "Rate or Assessment" in order to finance their work. The total rate for the parishes of Brading, Yaverland, Newchurch and Arreton was worked out initially and this was the divided into eight parts, each eighth part to be collected when ordered by the court. They were authorised to require or enforce landowners to maintain and repair their banks and ditches. In the Account Books of Sir John Oglander, he records regular payments for repairing and making his marsh walls, usually amounting to 1 or less. However, on one occasion, he was obliged to spend 5 "ffor makinge up ye Brack[break] in my Mearch walles...". A typical entry, recorded in December 1631, reads: "To Payne for my mearch walles 0 - 6 - 6". Similarly, the Worsley account books also record sums of money spent on maintaining the marsh walls or banks protecting their land. It seems the banks were built up using a combination of bushes and timber in clay earth, similar in construction to the marsh banks at Newtown Marsh.

The Commissioners were also empowered to present transgressors before a jury and fine any, who were found guilty of neglect or inadequacy in the provision of sound defences. The work of the court usually consisted of ensuring the landowners had "drawn his trenches"; repaired his "dam" or seawall; or cut down any trees, such as alder and willow, and other plants that were growing out into the waterways, thereby causing obstructions or choking the watercourse. The seemingly mundane task of clearing one's ditches was particularly important in an age that did not have underground drainage system and much of the court's time was taken up in trying to ensure this.
The digging and cleaning of ditches was a constant and crucial task in ensuring the safety of low-lying lands such
as Sandown Level.

"Itm this Court doth order all manner of persons concerned in the sd Levell twice in every year (vizt) at Midsomer and Michaelmas sufficiently to draw and cleanse their trenches and their respective parts of the maine River upon paine that each one making default shall forfeit & pay one shilling per perch for every perch not drawn and cleansed toties quoties respectively & in the first place to doe the same before the next Court on the same paynes"
Court Books, H.M. Commissioners of Sewers for I.W. (Z/193)
On the Island, there were between eight and fourteen Commissioners, usually all members of the local gentry. To run the court and administration, they appointed various officers, such as "Treasurer, Expenditor, Clerke, Bayliff and Collectors", and also provided four Surveyors, who were required to inspect the defences in their local area and present to the court any transgressions at a periodical session of the Court. The bulk of the work of the Commissioners on the Island was concerned with the Sandown Level and Brading Haven, as this was the most substantial area of vulnerable land in the Island.