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The Ewell Bank Manager and the roads

2001/02 pp4–5


The Ewell bank manager and the roads


Jeremy Harte, the Curator of Bourne Hall Museum, has drawn our attention to a reference to Epsom and Ewell in a book Hanged by a Comma: The Discovery of the Statute Book by E. Stewart Fay, published in 1937, from which the following is an extract:


The first Highway Act was passed under Philip and Mary in 1555 and for nearly three hundred years it governed the majority of the roads of England – and even now its dead hand cumbers the law. But it must be allowed that in its day it was practical enough. For the first time it brought the reluctant gaze of the law down from the spirit to the substance, and dealt with not the right to pass, but the surface upon which to pass. It was commendably simple. Every parish, it said, must repair its roads; two parishioners must be elected as surveyors of highways; every parishioner must work free for four days in the year in repairing the roads; the richer inhabitants must furnish wagons for the same purpose.


It was a practical measure for a simple age. What is extraordinary about it is that its principles still form the basis of the liability to repair roads today. The duty to repair is still a duty cast upon the inhabitants of every parish in England (though they now execute it by paying rates instead of rendering service), and there are still bodies whose duties are those of acting as parish surveyor. This leads to a result which may be termed a fantastic anachronism. It arises in this way. In the case of default it was thought desirable to punish the master rather than the servant. Now when a road goes unrepaired there has been a default in the surveyor; but the surveyor is the servant of the parishioners; therefore the parishioners should be made to suffer, not the surveyor. Accordingly, one of the methods today of securing the repair of a road is to indict the inhabitants of the parish. They are then tried at Quarter Sessions or Assizes, and if found guilty may be fined. You might think that a process so ludicrous was from its very nature obsolete; but no, there have been such trials in recent years: in 1921, for instance, a bank manager named Thomas Oswald Masters and a magistrate named Edward Waterer Martin appeared in the dock at the Surrey Assizes and were convicted of the crime of having failed, as inhabitants of the parish of Ewell, to repair a certain Firtree Road leading to Epsom race course. For this delinquency they were solemnly bound over.


Every reader of this book living in England is liable, if his local highways fall into disrepair, to find himself in the dock in the plight of the bank manager and the magistrate of Ewell.


Thomas Oswald Masters lived at 31 High Street, Ewell, now part of the Star public house, where the London & Provincial Bank was. Edward Waterer Martin owned Nonsuch Court Farm and was Chairman of the Sutton and District Water Company for many years.


Charles Abdy

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