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 Counties, 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 dykeing here and tidewaters 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 dykeland 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 Counties since the 1760s.