Repair of the Parish Roads in Tudor Times.

As the worst of this years crop of pot-holes have been filled in and we start to think of the coming winter it would be of interest to see how such problems were tackled by earlier generations.

The first great Highways Act was passed in the reign of Philip and Mary. In essence the Philip and Mary Act of 1555 said that each parish was to appoint a ‘Surveyor of the Highways’ from among its number to oversee the repair of the roads by the parishioners each working 4 days a year. Materials and draught horses were also to be supplied by the parish.

Things did not always run smoothly with Philip and Mary’s Act. First, it was not easy to find a parishioner willing to take the post of Surveyor. This distinctly unpopular and unpaid post was to be avoided and in some parishes - “ the Surveyors were unable to enforce Statute Labour from farmers who beat them if they approached their houses with obnoxious demand". No doubt an appointment for Brightwell was usually made because the fines on the parish for non-appointment were draconian - and after all he was only required to serve for one year. Once in post the Surveyor would inspect the roads, ditches and their adjacent hedges throughout the parish and where work had to be done it would be announced in church on a Sunday after the sermon. It was a requirement of the Act that the work should be completed in the following 30 days. The material for repairs would wherever possible be dug up from adjacent gravel pits. We have in the Village Archives a map of 1811 identifying the site of one such pit in Mackney. There was a specific requirement that the roads be in order come harvest time and everyone had an interest in achieving this, although some were more willing than others. W.E.Tate in ‘The Parish Chest’ writes “Before the end of the seventeenth century the statute labourers had become a by-word for inefficiency and neglect. The cottagers did almost everything on earth except the unpaid work in which they were supposed to be engaged, and in particular used the occasion for gathering alms from the passers–by”. Highways Acts in the reigns of subsequent monarchs changed little of Philip and Mary’s Act until the time of William IV when responsibility was passed to local authorities by the General Highway Act of 1835.

With our Coalition Government urging us to take responsibility for our own affairs is it not time to resurrect the post of Surveyor of the Highways so that at the end of the coming winter we are ready to fill in our own pot-holes? After all we’re not talking about rocket science here. Volunteers could if they so wished be put on the rota for the even more ancient village post of Ale-taster.

Leon Cobb, Brightwell History Group