Cases from the Past: Who owned the Cowpats?

Warwick Stories ‘Cases from the Past’ are brief accounts of court cases heard at the Warwick Assizes about 200 years ago and found in the archives by researchers from Unlocking Warwick.

On April 3rd 1817, a curious case came before Judge Baron Richards at the Warwick Assizes. The argument was about who owned the ‘sweepings’ in Darby Lane in Weddington. It seems the sweepings were cowpats and horse manure left in the lane after cattle had been grazing on the verges and horse-drawn farm vehicles had been using the lane. The landowner had accused the Parish Council of trespass – coming on to his land to take the manure away.

The records show that, ‘the plaintiff in this action is a gentleman of considerable property and the defendant is the Surveyor of Highways’, (employed by the Parish). Was this rich landowner trying to ride roughshod over the local authority. Why did he want the sweepings anyway?

Nothing is quite as it seems. The court heard that the council, represented by the defendant, had recently repaired the road and had it ‘scraped’, gathering the sweepings in piles on the verge to be collected. The plaintiff had sent a ‘team of men’ who removed most of the piles to manure his land. He argued that the manure contained soil from the lane and that the spoil ‘indisputably belonged to him’. It seems that the court hearing about cowpats and horse manure was really abut who owned the lane itself.

The affluent landowner wheeled out ‘a great number of witnesses’ who argued that ‘for many years he had turned out his cattle to eat the herbage on the sides of the road, and had always taken the sweepings to manure his land without interruption’. 

Lawyers for the defendant , the Surveyor of Highways, argued that, ‘he had done no more than his duty required him to do, and that the refuse of those materials which had been placed on the road at the expense of the parish belonged to the parish alone’. They pointed out that the road was a public one.

The judge in his summing up seemed to agree. He noted that the scrapings in question had clearly been on the road rather than the verges, so the notion of trespass was ridiculous. He ruled that the scrapings ‘indisputably belonged to those at whose expense the road was repaired’ – namely the Parish. The jury took no more than half an hour to find for the defendant. 

We can guess that the rich landowner who was trying to take possession of the lane was furious. But he had to accept that the lane and the cowpats dropped on it by his animals belonged to the council!