Parish dikereeves: a conundrum

12/13/2013 in British Isles, landscapes and pilgrimage, officeholding and local government, Parish Research Today

Flooding was a persistent threat to coastal, wetland and riverine parishes in early modern England and Wales. My current PhD research is into how communities responded to this threat at a variety of different levels and in a variety of different ways. I look at how flooding and flood risk was managed politically, socially and culturally – through local and national governance, through communal and familial structures, and how those affected understood and conceptualised flooding. I take two case studies, the Upper and Lower Severnside ‘levels’ of southern Gloucestershire and the Parts of Holland in Lincolnshire, as areas subject to significant flooding, and subsequently significant flood risk management, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The research I am currently undertaking focusses on the various levels of government and administration that dealt with flooding. The parish history element of this current research is both interesting and puzzling. In some coastal regions, particularly in Lincolnshire, but also in Somerset and elsewhere, dikereeves were elected to oversee the maintenance and upkeep of sea walls and drainage ditches. Dikereeves were often a manorial appointment, as at Sutton Holland in Lincolnshire in the 1550s and 1560s, where the manor court elected dikereeves from amongst both freeholders and copyholders. During the 1570s records suggest that the Lincolnshire dikereeve moved from a manorial to a parochial office, with all the Lincolnshire parochial dikereeves accounts I have found beginning post-1570.

So far I have two explanations for this move – one general and one specific, but neither resting on a ‘smoking gun’, and both more than open to challenge. The first is the rise of the parish as a unit of local administration amidst the ‘quickening’ of the ‘pace of local government’ in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century. This would explain the move towards the parish, but not necessarily the move away from the manor. The second more specific reason could be the particularly stormy years around 1570. These included widespread flooding of the East coast in 1570 and 1571. Perhaps given new environmental challenges, parishes required greater flood defence oversight and established parochial dikereeves? Again, such an explanation rests on the parish, rather than the manor, being the most effective unit of local organisation.

Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome.

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