Volume 35 - 'The Gloucestershire Court of Sewers'
The Gloucestershire Court of Sewers held jurisdiction over the maintenance of sea walls and watercourses (sewers) on low-lying coastal land along the Severn. The survival of a sewer court’s records from this early date, and in such detail, is very rare, and this edition thus has national importance. The remarkable flood of January 1607 was just one event in a perennial battle with the powerful tidal waters of the Severn. The burden of sea defence and land drainage fell on local landowners and tenants, generally governed by custom. The periodic job of the courts was to assess compliance, specify remedial work and apportion costs.
The Court’s Records
Family and local historians researching coastal parishes between Slimbridge (on the east bank of the river Severn) and Shirehampton (on the river Avon downstream from Bristol) will find this edited transcription of the minute books rich in the names, of men and women from all walks of life, and in place-names and topographical features. Their arrangement by tithing and hundred enables identification of individual farmsteads; it also demonstrates the continuity of land ownership and tenancies through generations. Court of Sewers records display interdependence between all layers of society since commissioners appointed local men to serve as surveyors and jurors. These were tasked with bringing their presentments of failures in the land drainage systems and sea defences within their tithings to the court. Individual maintenance responsibilities were tied to land ownership and tenancies. The commissioners’ orders for works to be undertaken therefore affected a wide range of people, from substantial landowners down to those who occupied the merest modicum of land.
The cause and effect of the 1607 flood has been hotly debated in recent years. This book of contemporary records opens a window on what actually happened before, during and after the event in terms of sea defence, land drainage and people’s lives and livelihoods on the Gloucestershire Levels.
As is customary in this series, the edition is fully indexed. An informative introductory essay gives a full context for the meticulously edited records themselves, and is complemented by numerous maps and illustrations, showing some of the unique water-management features of the Severnside landscape.
A glossary explains the specialist vocabulary long associated with Severnside drainage. Some words appearing in the edited records are still in use today.
Rose Hewlett is an independent local and family historian, currently preparing a Bristol University PhD thesis on the 1607 Severn Estuary flood. She is an elected member of the Lower Severn (2005) Internal Drainage Board, a lineal descendant of the Gloucestershire Court of Sewers.