I went to The National Archives a few weeks ago, between the 13th and 16th of June. The purpose of my visit was to view assize records that might relate to issues with flooding and waterways in Staffordshire. Ironically it was an extremely hot, dry week, and a friend I met for dinner expressed bafflement at my being dressed in black jeans and carrying a jumper, until I explained how chilly air conditioning in reading rooms sometimes is. The upside was getting to sit in the sun during breaks and watch the ducklings on the pond!

In the Staffordshire Record Office I have been looking at Quarter Sessions (local county courts for minor offences) for cases regarding maintenance and repairs, particularly of bridges. There have been a few other relevant cases that have cropped up as well, such as the maintenance of channels and watercourses or flood damage to property. The bulk of these issues were resolved in local courts, with responsibility for repairs and costs being assigned. However occasionally these issues could become complicated, or responsibility wasn’t clear. When this was the case they were occasionally referred to the assize courts, which were regional and tended to deal with major crimes and disputes.

The records I looked at were the minute books for the Oxford Assize Circuit (which included Staffordshire) from 1658 to 1750. Many of the volumes were mould damaged, in some cases extremely badly and there were some missing years, as well as one volume which still needs mould treatment so I will need to return to look at it. Work was slow and, as I expected, didn’t yield much. However the information I did gather adds extra detail to the data from the Quarter Sessions records.

I have since been able to link some of the cases from the Assizes with the same issue in Quarter Sessions. A particularly interesting one is Hopwas Bridge. In 1654, the proprietors of the Manor of Wigginton were summoned to the Quarter Sessions for failing to repair a bridge over the Tame called Hopwas Bridge (SRO AA01/6/5/1/288/58). Two years later, also at the Quarter Sessions, Richard Floyer gave a presentment stating that the bridge was out of repair and should be mended by the owners of Wigginton Manor (SRO AA01/6/5/1/293/54). By 1657 an order was created summoning John Pinsent of Chantry Lane, London for failure to repair the bridge (SRO AA01/6/5/1/297/45). By 1658 the issue had clearly become serious enough that the case was taken to the Assize court.

In the Lent Assizes in 1658 it was noted that due to his ownership of the land, and as he benefited from “pontage” (tolls), John Pinsent was responsible for the repairs that still had not been carried out. The land had since been purchased by Robert Robotham, however as Pinsent had never carried out the ordered repairs he was still considered responsible. In Pinsent’s absence, the court ordered that Robotham and the County would each pay equal parts to mend the bridge, but that Pinsent would be required to reimburse them if he was ever tracked down (TNA ASSI 2/1, p.19b).

Hopefully as I continue comparing the Assizes and Quarter Sessions I will be able to piece together more cases like this, and create a more complete narrative of events than if I’d looked at the Quarter Sessions alone.

SRO = Staffordshire Record Office
TNA = The National Archives

– Helen