By David Pugsley

Transcribed by Nick Savage, and provided here by kind permission of the author.

Cullompton’s old water supply, variously known as the Town Lake or Watercourse, was given to the town on 6 May 1356 by the Abbott of Buckland or Bockland, whose generosity is now commemorated in Bockland Close.

The Town Lake has been a source of frequent conflict and of intermittent attempts by the inhabitants to protect their rights. The earliest recorded possessioning took place on 13 August 1716. Numerous obstructions and diversions were found and their perpetrators threatened with legal prosecution. In 1754 there was another possessioning: a committee was set up to deal with problems, and John Andrews was appointed Water Bailiff.

The nineteenth century was much more fully documented. A possessioning took place on 7 June 1802 and as usual disclosed a large number of abuses. On 9 June a meeting of the inhabitants of the town set up the Collumpton Watercourse Company to protect the interests of the town and prosecute offenders. The Company’s minute book records its activities up to 19 October 1878.

The company started vigorously issuing notices to make the town clean and tidy. For example: “Notice is hereby given that all Pigs, Geese or Ducks found in or about the Streets of this Town after this public Notice will be impounded by the Water Bailiff and will not be released until the sum of One Shilling is paid for every such Pig and One Penny for every such Goose or Duck. Those persons who shall wash their Mops in the Gutter conveying the Pot Water, or by any other Means dirty the same, or shall place or leave in the said Streets any Waggons, Carts, Carriages, or Timber, or any other Thing, to the Annoyance of the Inhabitants, will be forthwith dealt with according to Law. (2 July 1804)

Meetings were held from time to time in the following years, but the situation apparently became serious in 1829. On 20 August that year 200 circulars were published by W T in Church Street. They set out a translation of the original deed of grant of the water course, pointed out its importance for the comfort and cleanliness of the inhabitants and particularly in case of fire, and suggested that a suitable person should be appointed to keep an eye on everything. “The expense would be trifling, and may be defrayed by a quarterly or half-yearly subscription. To accomplish this the town may be divided into four or more districts and a collector for each appointed. Occasionally a procession may walk up by the water course to the spring head, and its proper channel be pointed out to the younger inhabitants. The two principal reservoirs, in the Workhouse garden and in the Rev Mr Sydenham’s orchard, if in proper order and kept full, would supply the town with water on an emergency at the shortest notice.” A general meeting of the inhabitants on 7 October 1829 confirmed the resolutions of 9 June 1802.

A View and Possessioning of the Town Lake was held on Monday 30 May 1831 and revealed the normal catalogue of obstructions and diversions. In July 1831 William Upcott began constructing a reservoir in the Parlour Field above the new Wash House at Shortlands, and thereby started a conflict between the Upcotts and the town that was to last for more than half a century. A public meeting was held on 5 September 1831 and appointed an inspection committee, which reported back the following day. The reservoir was over 150 feet long, 12 feet wide and 2 feet deep. According to the draft minutes, Mr Upcott claimed that he was only exercising his rights, but the dispute seems to have terminated amicably on this occasion. Henry Facey was appointed Water Bailiff.

The next View and Possessioning of the Town Lake was arranged on 3 August 1835. “The procession will assemble near the White Hart precisely at one o’clock and proceed in an orderly manner up the stream to the spring head, where a Hogshead of very prime cider and cakes will be furnished to the party. It is particularly requested that no water be thrown over any gentleman who may attend.”

This is the earliest surviving reference to refreshments, though there is no suggestion that it was an innovation. On this occasion “the whole of the cider was not drunk on this day, and on the following afternoon a party went back to drink what was left.”

It was reported that “on the western side of Shortlands House a reservoir had been formed (this was made in 1831), by excavating the Bed of the Stream and considerably widening it. At the East end of which Reservoir there is a Fender, by means of which the whole stream may be impeded and taken over a Field, called Parlour Field, through a trunk planted in the South bank. There are also two Fenders at some distance westward of the said trunk, each of which is of sufficient dimensions to take the whole of the Stream over the field formerly called Wormshill. These fenders were demolished by the procession.”

As a result Mr Upcott summoned Daniel Luxton, James Gillham and --- Incledon to appear before the Magistrates at the White Hart on 5 August.

A public meeting was held on the 4th which resolved to support the three men. The magistrates dismissed the charge, a decision which was hailed with satisfaction at a further public meeting on the 5th, and Mr Upcott agreed to receive a deputation of respectable inhabitants “that steps may be taken to arrange a business that I fear may, without care, be attended with a breach of the peace, a consequence that I am sure all would deplore.”

Presumably matters were again settled amicably, and on 2 October 1835 the Collumpton Water Course Club was formed to raise money by subscriptions and donations “to maintain inviolate the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of Collumpton to their Water Course for themselves and their posterity.”

Further meetings were held at the Three Mariners on 14 August 1838, summoned by the town crier (this is the first time he appears in this story), and at the Dolphin on 10 August 1840 and 15 June 1842. It was resolved to hold another View and Possessioning of the Town Lake, but there is no evidence that this ever actually took place.

The next possessioning took place on 3 August 1847. Over 100 people took part and were regaled with cider and cakes: 4/6 was spent on cakes, 1/6 on biscuits, and £1-4/- on cider. Another obstruction on Mr Upcott’s land was broken up by the procession.

The next public meeting was held on 21 July 1849. Henry Facey, the Water Bailiff, was paid £2 for cleaning the Water Course from the town to the spring head. The accounts for that year contain a laconic entry: “Sep. 17: cash of Mr Upcott for law expenses in his assault on H Facey: £23. June 1850: paid Hy Facey for Mr Upcott’s assault: £5. Paid Mr Burrow for law charges against Mr upcott: £20. Unfortunately no further details are available.

Further possessionings took place on 28 July 1858 and 18 August 1862. On the latter occasion “they found several diversions of the water from its proper course, particularly at Shortlands,” and arrangements were made to carry out the necessary repairs.

And so it went on. The last possessioning before the 1980’s took place on 12 August 1887. Water seems to have been thrown around very freely, and Charles Brooks and James Pring, of Cullompton, were fined £1 including costs (between the two) for throwing buckets of water over John Dunn, of Kentisbeare.

After that possessioning Mr J S Upcott wrote to the chairman of the Tiverton Rural Sanitary Authority to complain about “the illegal, wild and serious damage he had sustained to his land which adjoined the town stream and for which he claimed compensation for damage done, and the restitution of his rights.” The authority decided to take no action.

At the following meeting of the Authority it received a petition signed by 142 inhabitants of Cullompton complaining inter alia  that “there is at Shortlands a large pond formed by the water of the town leat and used by Mr C J Upcott as a duck pond, from which feathers and filth flow into the town: we therefore respectfully request that the attention of the Sanitary Authority be directed to the said nuisances with a view to their removal.”

That is the last item in the Water Course Company’s minute book.