Friday, September 12, 2014

A Source of Environmental Concern: The Tyne’s River Court Books, 1644-1834

[Today we have a guest post from Leona Skelton, an environmental historian currently working at the University of Bristol as an AHRC-funded Post-doctoral Research Assistant on the collaborative project, ‘‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures’’. Her doctoral thesis compared waste disposal, environmental regulation, and attitudes towards cleanliness and dirt in York, Edinburgh and several other northern English and lowland Scottish towns, 1560-1700.]

Carmichael, Sandegate Shore at Newcastle on Tyne (1830)
(R. Johnson, The Making of the Tyne (1895), p. 23)
Environmental concern is something most people proudly associate with more recent times. It is true that Newcastle Corporation, which regulated the estuary of north-east England’s River Tyne, would certainly not win a conservation prize for sensitive river management today. However, the records of their weekly river court, extant from 1644 to 1834, held at Tyne and Wear Archives in Newcastle, provide unique, detailed and valuable evidence of early environmental concern and demonstrate that the men who managed the River Tyne were by no means completely ignorant towards protecting the Tyne from ‘harm’, as they defined it to the best of their knowledge. The stereotypical image of early modern people pouring their waste into the river without any consideration of the consequences of their actions is an enduring but an inaccurate one.

The court books show that the disposal of human and industrial waste was highly regulated, especially on riparian property and even more so on wharves or jetties. Open sewers were designed only to carry rainwater and small amounts of other liquid waste to the river, notably not to carry solid waste to the river. The majority of households used dry privy pits, which were dug out periodically and transported by horse and cart to local farms and applied directly to arable fields as fertiliser. The men who managed the River Tyne’s estuary in the pre-modern period did not understand the chemical changes they caused by permitting urban sewers and riparian businesses to discharge their untreated liquid waste into the river water. But they considered in breath taking detail and depth the consequences of each and every structural change to the bed and channel of the river and they expressly forbade the deposition of any solid waste into the river, either directly or indirectly, something which required substantial and sustained effort to regulate. Their motivations were not environmental in a modern-day sense; indeed, I have not seen the words ‘environmental’ or ‘pollution’ in any of the pre-1800 documents I have read. However, Newcastle Corporation was careful and it was concerned about maintaining its own river standard on the Tyne.

Driven, perhaps, primarily to prevent the choking up of their great liquid highway which was crucial to trade and their revenues, they did think carefully about the proposals they sanctioned and they were concerned about the impact of human activity on the River Tyne in a pre-modern context. They were in touch with their environment, they were concerned about hurting the river, damaging the river, spoiling the river, and even potentially destroying the river, all their own words, and they went to considerable lengths to protect the River Tyne as a result of their concerns. In addition to enforcing a substantial list of specific river bylaws, all servants living in ‘Gateshead, Sandgate, and the Close’ had to swear in court annually that they would not cast rubbish into the river. Many bylaws passed at this time have been criticised as merely reactive or exclusively fiscally motivated, but this procedure, in particular, was preventative. Clearly, fines were the means, not the ends.

By the eighteenth century, the River Jurors were also dealing with applications to construct projections into the river, such as wharves, jetties and galleries or weirs. In each case, a committee of jurors visited the site and provided a detailed report to the next court, which ultimately decided whether or not to grant permission for the works to commence. One case, submitted in June 1771, only seven months before a severe flood swept away most edifices in the river, was the application of John Moses, esquire, of Hull, to build up his stone wear on King’s Meadows, a Tyne island which he owned, as it had ‘lately failed by means whereof the depth of water there hath been reduced and the fishery greatly prejudiced’. The next month, after the Jurors had visited the island, they granted permission, having given great consideration to the consequences of their decision.

River Tyne Tide Stone at Hedwin Streams, erected 1785
(Source: A Curtis, 2011)
In the eighteenth century, the River Court began to offer part of the fines extracted to informers to motivate witnesses to report contraventions of river bylaws. Newcastle Corporation continued to act as official conservators, collecting the tolls, appointing the River Jurors and conducting river surveys until 1850, when the Tyne Improvement Commissioners took over the conservancy. Each Ascension Day, the mayor, burgesses and river jurors of Newcastle boarded their barge and, followed by a great number of pleasure boats, sailed between the boundaries of their jurisdiction to observe that the quays were kept in good repair and that no encroachments were made on the river. Newcastle Corporation took full ownership of the pre-modern Tyne’s estuary and certainly considered it to be a resource and a facility with which to generate profit and employment. Even when they used the words damage, destruction, hurt and spoil, they were referring to damage done to the efficiency of the river for trade, first and foremost. However, they clearly understood the river, how it functioned and the physical, if not the chemical, impacts of waste disposal and ballast disposal on its flow speed and tide levels.

Newcastle Corporation and Trinity House worked together to complete detailed surveys of the river and they were able to navigate ships from Shields to Newcastle and back because they understood every inch of the river’s channel and bed. They regulated the disposal of waste relatively tightly, at a court held every week. Contemporaries clearly feared ‘damage’ to the river, ‘hurt’ done to the river and ‘spoiling’ the river, all their own words, but in one bye law they even go as far as to warn against the ‘destruction’ of the river: ‘That all the ballast shores in the river of Tyne be constantly kept in good repair, otherwise a hundred thousand tuns of ballast will fall into the river, to the destruction thereof’. One might say that their systems were basic, their technology rudimentary, and their understanding of river systems was in its infancy, but this is precisely why they acted with so much enthusiasm to protect the river. They relied on it increasingly for trade, shipping and tolls and they feared harm done to the river because they were explicitly aware that they could only reverse such damage very slowly and inefficiently, using shovels powered by the labour of keelmen. Indeed, due to the rudimentary nature of the processes available to them for reversing any damage to the river, they might well have been more careful than their successors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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