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Managing Space, Managing People: constables and highways in seventeenth century Sowerby
Report of talk given by Murray Seccombe on 9 February 2022

Murray Seccombe, a member of Hebden Bridge Local History Society, has been exploring seventeenth century records to discover more about the ways that townships and manors organised and administered the highway networks as part of his PhD studies. Updating members of the society in Hebden Bridge, he described the chance survival of a very rare document – the notebook of the accounts of the Constables of Sowerby from 1628 to 1695.

The Constable was a township official whose duties included law and order, but also the upkeep of the highways. Areas like Halifax, with its thriving textile trade, depended on having good connections and safe roads for the transport of cloth to markets across the Pennines and beyond.

The upkeep of roads was in theory the responsibility of the citizens of good standing – a statute duty which required them to give six days unpaid labour to keep the roads in good order. In reality, the eminent landowners took on responsibility for the highways which bordered their land, providing the necessary carts horses and men from their own work-force. In default of providing the means to do the work, they would be liable to pay a fine, which in time probably became a subscription or local rate.

Sowerby was a large township which in terms of administration included the township of Soyland, though the two areas looked in different directions at parish level; Sowerby towards Halifax and Soyland tied closely to Elland. It was bounded by eight other townships, including Rochdale, because part of its area, the 'Sowerby Ramble,' stretched around Erringden towards modern Hebden Bridge. Court records show that Sowerby township had concern for roads outside its own boundaries, where failure to keep up the roads had a big impact on the ability to trade effectively. At this point the roads needed to be viable for pack horses rather than carts, and there is emphasis in the litigation on the failure to cut back hedges: sharp branches would have caused a threat to the precious cargo of cloth.

The Constables' account books recorded the whole gamut of the official's duties, from controlling the movement of poor people such as vagrants, who needed to be ushered out of the township and towards their recognised place of settlement, so that they didn't become a financial burden on Sowerby ratepayers. Constables were also responsible for collecting national and local taxes, and for administering military duties of local citizens. The details of the record keeping reveal the origins and destinations of travellers across the township, which included a number of far flung places such as Germany, the Low Countries and even North America. But it was the maintenance of highways, keeping the infrastructure efficient, that was one of their chief duties.

One of the interesting things to see from these records is the development of a stronger civic society, with the Vestry as its focus as a kind of proto local council. There was nothing approaching popular democracy of course - the vestrymen were a small coterie of relatively wealthy and educated men who were pursuing their shared interests in enabling the growth of trade and an efficiently managed administration of the township. The accounts detail the amount spent on getting and carting stone, building new bridges and setting stones for new or improved highways. By the 1670s there was a move to making the roads more suitable for wheeled vehicles, even with some references to cartways. The beneficiaries of the economic recovery in the second half of society were men of some wealth and education, and these were the ones who dominated the decision making and administration of the townships. Constables were held to account by Justices of the Peace, and had to answer for their performance in key duties, known as the Fourteen Articles. Some powerful characters emerge from the written records. John Dearden of Sowerby, for example, who lived at the magnificent Wood Lane Hall was a key mover in the Vestry. Joshua Horton of Howroyd in Barkisland was a powerful JP who dominated the administration of Sowerby.

The big picture that emerges from this jigsaw of details is of a state entity being formed organically, rather than a top down imposition of government. The Constables control of the space and the movement of people and goods was at the heart of this local governance. Key taxes were a response to local needs, and vestry government was a dynamic force driven by local elites and concerned primarily with local infrastructure. This bottom up approach to organising society was based on sharing jobs and responsibilities for the general good of all those with a financial stake, the first steps towards local government.

The next meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society is at Hebdenroyd Methodist Church at 7.30 on Wednesday 23rd February. Janet Senior will share the Yorkshire success story in the history of William Morrison's. Non-members are welcome - £4.

Details of the talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on this website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

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