THERE would be uproar today if every able-bodied man was required to turn out once a year and work for nothing to maintain and repair the roads through his town or village, writes Robin Longbottom.

The Highways Act of 1555 imposed this obligation and although it was originally for four days, it was increased to six in 1562.

Every parish, or in the case of the north of England every township, had to appoint a surveyor whose job was to inspect the roads and bridges and advise on the work that was required to bring them into good repair.

All tools, hammers, picks and shovels and the carts to transport the stone had to be supplied by the yeomen, tenant farmers and the labourers themselves.

The working day was fixed at eight hours, but those villagers who were wealthy enough could, if they wished, pay another to do their share of the work. Free ale was issued to all the labourers, which no doubt went some way to ease the burden of the work.

However, not every traveller was satisfied with the standard of the repairs undertaken and this was certainly the case in 1744 when Robert and James Smith of Cowling indicted the villagers of Sutton for failing to maintain “a horse way from the village of Kighley to the village of Cowling from a place Called High Pole to the Nabacke Stone”.

This section of road ran across the moor from Pole Stoop, on Pole Road, to the crossroads at Four Lane Ends and then below Earls Crag to Cowling. It is likely that the Nabacke Stone is the large stone, incised with a cross, that lies in the field below the Sutton Pinnacle and marked the boundary between the old manors of Sutton and Malsis. The road was once part of an important highway between Keighley and Settle and passed through Cowling, Elslack, West Marton and Long Preston.

The case was heard at the Quarter Sessions Court, but in those days it moved from town to town throughout the year and so the Smiths brought it before the court sitting at Wetherby.

The villagers of Sutton were defended by Mr John Moorhouse, attorney at law, who took with him the surveyor, Thomas Driver, and four other witnesses.

After the court heard all the evidence the case was quashed, but the Smiths were not to be put off by this and took out a further indictment this time before the Skipton Sessions.

Once again following the evidence presented by Mr Moorhouse and his witnesses, the case was similarly dismissed.

However, the Smiths refused to give-up and served a third indictment. This time it was heard at the Knaresborough Sessions where John Moorhouse decided to put an end to the matter once and for all. Therefore, when he appeared before the court he presented not only the surveyor, Thomas Driver, but also Mr John Dixon of Sutton House and 15 other witnesses from the village. Overwhelmed by the weight of evidence, the case was thrown out for a third time and the Smiths threw-in the towel and finally abandoned their cause.

The fees paid to John Moorhouse and entered into the Township Accounts Book amounted to a staggering £19, 14 shillings and 8 pence, the equivalent of over a year’s income for a labouring man at that time.

The village of Sutton continued to maintain its highways for another century, although the practice of issuing free ale to the workforce was stopped in 1768 as it was considered an unnecessary expense.

In 1848 the responsibility for all roads passed to the Local Board of Health and 40 years later to the newly-formed county councils.