Cooperative Labour

Dykeland Farming: A co-operative effort

The only surviving “Advocate Dyke Book” View Sample Pages for Advocate Dykeland Farmer Bernard Elliott (1917 – 2006). Also Petitions for Commissioners of Sewers from Advocate dykeland proprietors.

By Kerr Canning

It costs a great deal to prepare the lands which they wish to cultivate. To grow wheat, the marshes which are inundated by the Sea at high tide, must be drained; these are called Lowlands, and they are quite good, but what labour is needed to make them for cultivations! The ebb and flow of the Sea cannot easily be stopped, but the Acadians succeed in doing so by means of great dykes, called aboiteaux.x

As these lands are owned by several Men, the work upon them is done in common; if they belonged to an Individual, he would have to pay the others, or give the Men who had worked for him an equal number of days devoted to some other employment; that is the manner in which it is customary for them to adjust such matters among themselves. – Ross, Sally and Deveau, Alphonse. 1992. The Acadians of Nova Scotia Past and Present. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing Limited. p.31 – 36

The Importance of Cooperative Labour in Dykeland Farming
One of the greatest challenges faced by those wishing to transition from salt marsh farming to dykeland farming is not the mastering the technology of dyke and aboiteau construction, but the “social” difficulties posed by the fact that dykeland farming “depends entirely on co-operative labour” (Ross and Deveau 1992, p.31 – 36). Professor Kimberly Seabold in her publication Transforming the Salt-Marsh Landscape: A Geographic, Economic and Cultural Comparison illustrates the interdependent nature of Dykeland farming, which requires significant collaboration between adjoining salt marsh owners. The need for cooperation is nicely expressed by Professor Seabold:

Land reclamation, the bringing into use all types of unused land … through the removal of surplus water from wet lands, required community action; one person could not afford the expense of draining his land privately nor could he afford to a waterway and the land surrounding it in order to better contain the impact of his drainage efforts. In many instances, one could not keep land drainage contained to his property; when a person upstream altered a water course he affected his neighbors downstream. Furthermore, the person constructing the dyke and digging drainage ditches needed his neighbor’s cooperation; an adjacent parcel of marsh land most likely needed to be drained in order for surrounding drainage projects to be successful. At the least, access to a neighbor’s property was needed in order to do the necessary repairs on the banks or dikes. – Seabold 2008, p.3.

Professor Seabold provides an example from York County, Maine in the (KERR *************give time period) that illustrates the hinderance to reclamation posed by salt marsh owners unwilling to work together:

Isaiah Milliken of Old Orchard, Maine in York County explained that lack of cooperation was the major problem facing those who wanted to dike portions of the salt marsh in the neighboring towns of Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth: [There is] 60 or 80 acres on Sperwink River…that could be diked for about $100 per acre, but two or three peculiar persons are in the way who neither sell nor dike, and they are able to prevent improvement…Such opposition is the great hinderance to reclamation.- Seabold 2008, p.10.

Examples of the challenges to successful dykeland farming posed by a lack of cooperation date much further back, as illustrated by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their book English Local Government: Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes. The Webbs give the following description of the lack of cooperation that occurred in efforts during the Middle Ages to drain and dyke England’s East Anglia Fenlands:

But when each man had raised his bank, or built the bit of river wall that protected his own land, he was often still liable to be flooded out by a high tide or spring freshet, owing to the neglect of his neighbour to keep the bank in repair, or to the want of uniformity in their defences against the common enemy. A small breach at any one point might, any winter, flood not the land of the negligent owner alone but the whole of the neighbouring lowlands – Webb and Webb, 1922, p.16.

To cope with this lack of teamwork, a series of Parliamentary enactments were introduced, between 1427 to 1532, that created a so- called “local governing authority”for each low-lying part of England to administer embanking and land drainage. The last act in this series, passed in the time of King Henry VIII, is known as the “Great Statute of Sewers of 1532”. For any given salt marsh, the Act appointed one or more administrators called Commissioners of Sewers. Their powers were well defined by the 1535 Statute of Sewers and included, for example, the ability to “impress into their service as many carts, horses, oxen, beasts and other instruments,” and also as many “workmen and labourers” as they deemed necessary….” As well they had the power to execute “according to their wisdoms and discretions “the needful works…and to “apportion the estimated cost of the work among all those whose lands benefited. In order to enforce their decisions Commissioners of Sewers were “empowered to hold, when and where they chose, within the area prescribed by their Commission, the so-called Court of Sewers”; verdicts were arrived at by Juries appointed by a Sheriff. (Webb and Webb 1922, p.18-27). England abolished its Commissioners of Sewers method for administrating dykelands in 1930 with the introduction of the Land Drainage Act and their functions were transferred to Internal Drainage Boards.” (Administrative history section of COMMISSIONERS OF SEWERS FOR THE EAST RIDING).

To deal with the problems of cooperation and organization associated with the reclamation of salt marsh land, Maine and New Jersey also passed legislation to create “local governing authorities” to administer the construction of seawalls and tide gates. New Jersey experienced far greater success with its legislation than did Maine. Seabold argues that coastal New Jersey’s reclamation schemes were more successful than Maine’s because of organizational layers that reinforced cooperation and the religious attachment that existed via Quakerism.” (Seabold 2008, p.3)

A Local Governing Authority for the New England Planters

Nova Scotia’s efforts to deal with the cooperation and organizational issues involved in reclamation of salt marshes began in 1760 when the 4th session of the Nova Scotia General Assembly passed “An Act for appointing Commissioners of Sewers”. As indicated by a footnote in this briefly worded four part act titled “Statute 23, Henry VIII, Chapter 5”, a statute dealing with England’s Commissioners of Sewers, their function and powers (Blackstone 1832, p. 56) Nova Scotia’s first legislation for establishing wetland local governing authorities is modeled on the “Great Statute of Sewers of 1532”. The introduction of this act indicates that Governor Lawrence, his Council, and the General Assembly anticipated that the New England Planters would, if they worked cooperatively, could make the transition from salt marsh farmers to dykeland farmers. The act specifically states that the “intent [is] therefore, that the new settlers, and other proprietors of such marshes, meadows and low grounds, may be encouraged and enabled to raise dykes, and remove such obstructions, as prevent these lands from being immediately useful.”

The 1760 “An act for appointing Commissioners of Sewers ” stipulated that

1) The Governor and Council would grant an appropriate number of Commissioners of Sewers for a particular wetland region “upon request of any of the proprietors of such lands”.

2) Once appointed and sworn in the Commissioners were empowered to meet, as occasions require, for consulting and planning methods for building and repairing dykes.

3) As well the Commissioners were empowered to employ workmen and labourers for reasonable wages as may be agreed on.

4) In order to raise funds to cover wages, the Commissioner’s salary and other expenses the Commissioners were, from time to time, to assess and tax the marsh owners an amount that depended on each owner’s quantity of land.

5) The Commissioners were to appoint and swear a collector or collectors the taxes.

6) For those who neglect payment it was lawful for the other proprietors to pay the said assessments and hold the lands of those who neglected payment until rents and profits from those lands provided reimbursement.

7) Persons feeling aggrieved by any procedure made by the commissioners or by any others in pursuance of the act may appeal to the Governor and Council.

The 1760 act did not adequately foresee and cover the most difficult scenarios that can arise when a marsh is owned by a diverse group of landowners attempting to work together to build or repair dykes. However, dykemen and legislators gradually gained experience and were able to identify inadequacies in the 1760 act. As each major problem appeared, the General Assembly made amendments to solve the problem. New additions to the Act included granting Justices of the Peace the power to order the sale of the goods and chattels belonging to proprietors neglected payment of taxes assess by Commissioners or if necessary order the sale by public auction of delinquent proprietors marsh land. Other amendments dealt with compensation for persons who lost portions of their dykeland due to the cutting of sods or to the washing away of considerable pieces of their marshland as a result of dyke building.

Frequently the owners of the largest sections of dykelands were the Commissioners of Sewers. In 1790 the Assembly decided that equal justice for all proprietors could only be achieved if the assessment of dyke taxes was done by the Commissioners with the help of 5 additional assessors elected by proprietors from among themselves.

For the serious case of a person unlawfully destroying a dyke to allow inundated by the sea a separate act called “An act to prevent the cutting or breaking down the Bank of any River, Seabank, or Dykes” was passed in 1766. The penalty for this offence was death without benefit of clergy!

The question of when meetings should be called and who should keep the record books were the concerns of other additions to the Act and in 1823 (In the 4th year of George 4th) the 1760 act and all of the additions to it were combined to form a new and more clearly written twelve part act called “An Act for the appointment of Commissioners of Sewers prescribing their power and authority, and repealing the Acts now in force relating to that Office” (Statutes At Large, 1823, Volume3, 1817 To 1826 , Cap. XIII, p. 155-158). All through the nineteenth century amendments continued to be made to the Commissioners of Sewers act and as well the act remained in effect until 1948. In 1967 the federal government turned over the responsibility of maintenance for the dykes to the province.

Chapter 40 of the 1873 Nova Scotia Revised Statutes has the title “Of Commissioners of Sewers, and of Dyked and Marsh Lands”. The statute presented in this chapter has 47 sections.

The First Commissioners of Sewers to be Appointed

On July 28, 1761″At the request of sundry of the proprietors of lands …and in pursuance of …an Act for appointing Commissioners of Sewers” the Governor Jonathan Belcher and his Council appointed the following Commissioners of Sewers

1) For the Township of Newport: Isaac Deschamps and Joseph Baily Esqrs and Samuel Stanford,Gent

2) For the Township of Horton: Robert Dennison, William Welch, Charles Dixon, and Elisha Lothop Esqrs and Lebbeus Harris Gent.

3) For the Township of Cornwallis: Stephen west, Samuel Willoughby the third and Amos Bill Esqrs and William Wickwire and William Kenedy Gent.

4) For the Township of Falmouth: Henery Denny Denson Esqr, Wignole Cole and Abner Hall Gent.

Office of the Legislative Counsel (Nova Scotia House of Assembly). (1758 to 1835 ). The Statutes at Large of the Province of Nova Scotia, Retrieved 17 April 2011 from

Ross, Sally and Deveau, Alphonse. 1992. The Acadians of Nova Scotia Past and Present. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing Limited.

Sebold, Kimberly R. 2008. Transforming the Salt-Marsh Landscape: A Geographic, Economic and Cultural Comparison. In Association of American Geographers-2008 Annual Meeting. Boston, Massachusetts.

The Statutes at Large of the Province of Nova Scotia (1758 to 1835). Second Session of the Second General Assembly. Chapter 7. (1760). An Act for Appointing Commissioners of Sewers, Retrieved 17 April 2011, from

Webb, Sidney and Beatrice. 1922. English Local Government: Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes. London, New York, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras: Longmans, Green and Co. Available on Google Books.