PEPPERCORN LEASES, SEWER COMMISSIONERS EXPLAINED (September 14/15)

In a column earlier this summer on old-time words such as wharfinger, wheelwright and draying, I mentioned flint glasses, peppercorn lease and an obscure and odd sounding occupation called the commissioner of sewers.

Several readers responded by telephone when I asked if anyone was familiar with these words and occupations, among them Louis Comeau and Kevin Wood; both are collectors of historical lore and artefacts and they were familiar with the words and terms mentioned in the column.

I received a letter as well.  Carol Dimock of Wolfville wrote to tell me she found references to several of the terms in an old dictionary compiled by Noah Webster, a dictionary that has been in her family for several generations.  Dimock found definitions for peppercorn lease and flint glasses in the dictionary; the latter was defined as the “purest and most beautiful kind of glass, distinguished by it containing oxygen of lead.” As mentioned, I found flint glass listed in the inventory of Henry Magee’s store, which he operated in Kentville starting in 1788, and it probably referred to a type of glassware.

Peppercorn lease is an interesting term since in on sense it refers to the leasing of land for a nominal sum and on the other hand is derogatory.  Noah Webster defined peppercorn lease as “something of inconsiderable value; as lands held at the rent of a peppercorn.”  In other words it is land you rent or lease by paying a tiny sum.  Peppercorn, in one sense, also refers to something insignificant and worthless and used in this way can be derogatory.

Now, on to commissioner of sewers.  First of all, the sewers referred in this term have nothing to do with the disposal or storage of human waste.  Rather, it refers to dykelands and the person in charge of maintaining, repairing and building them.  The “sewers” are the ditches used to drain water from dyked land.

From day one of their arrival here, the dykes were the lifeblood of the Planters.   Legislation providing for the appointment of commissioners of sewers was passed as early as 1760.  It was a position of great responsibility and of great prestige.  And a position of power as well since to carry out their responsibilities, commissioners were given the authority by the courts to impose levies on landowners.  Often the levies were paid in work, or as one historical reference says, “in work, wheat or butter.”

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