John Brocbank’s 1875 Lawsuit against Colonel Sandys

The singular fishery rights case

Until I took out my subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, this lawsuit was something of a rumour that my father had found out about quite by accident, decades before. A Hawkshead local mentioned a Brockbank who had taken the “local bigwig” to court over fishing rights on Esthwaite Water, and lost.  I’m amazed that dad was never told about the case by his father or grandfather, although they perhaps resented their inheritance being used to pay the lawyers’ fees.

A newspaper article on John Brockbank’s death in 1915 states that, 40 years prior, he was the defendant in a lawsuit against Colonel Myles Sandys of Graythwaite Hall over fishing rights on Esthwaite Water. This sniff o’ the rag set me on the trail …

Sandys and Brockbank

Colonel Sandys was from a long line of Sandys who lived at Graythwaite Hall near the western shore of Windermere. His ancestor, Edwin Sandys 1519–1588, was Bishop of York and founder of Hawkshead Grammar School, where Wordsworth was educated. A dozen or so generations later, Thomas Myles Sandys was born in 1837, served as an officer in the British Army and from 1885 was Conservative MP for Bootle. He died in 1911 and is buried at Brockwood Cemetery, Surrey, the largest in the UK.

Graythwaite hall

The most detailed account of the trial appears in Soulby’s Ulverson Advertiser 19 August. It seems that John Brockbank had been summoned to court in Hawkshead in 1874 for trespassing by Major Sandys’ bailiff, one Frederick Durham. The case was scheduled to be heard at Lancaster but Sandys (the plaintiff) applied for it to be heard instead at Liverpool:

Lancaster removal to Liverpool
Soulby’s Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer reported in July that the case was to be heard in Liverpool rather than Lancaster because of local bias against Colonel Sandys.

Colonel Sandys felt that a jury from Lancaster would be biased against him. I know nothing about the Morecambe Bay case referred to in the article, but Sandys certainly felt unpopular as a result, and was willing to pay the extra required for a hearing at Liverpool.  

Esthwaite Lake is 2 1/2 miles long, nestling between Windermere and Coniston Water.  John Brockbank claimed that he had a right to row on and fish the lake with rod and line, as his father and grandfather had done before him. Moreover, he asserted that all the “tenants within the manor of Hawkshead” has such rights. 

Bartholemew map Graythwaite and Hannakin
Bartholemew’s half-inch map published 1906, showing Hannakin, Graythwaite Hall and Esthwaite Water

The case was heard at the Liverpool Assizes over two days in August 1875. My great great grandfather claimed that the lake was a public highway owned by the Crown, but council for Sandys pointed out that Esthwaite Estate “did not surround the lake, though it had joined to it to a considerable extent”, and that the acquisition of Graythwaite Estate 150 years previously consolidated Sandys’ claim.

A range of evidence was heard, going right back to the twelfth century when King Stephen gifted the estate – including the lake – to the Monks of Furness Abbey. Of course, at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII distributed church property “among his friends and favourites” one of these being William Sandys.

It seems that Sandys kept a record of fishing licenses granted in a “halfpenny pass-book”, although one witness, whose name was recorded in the book, denied ever having paid for such. Statements were heard from other locals who had  fished unchallenged on the lake – “many of them extremely old people” reports the Bradford Observer.

Sandys’ council Mr Manisty conceded that his client “did not wish to interfere with the pleasure of the defendant [Brockbank], but with that gentleman were connected others who were banded together to deny the plaintiff’s rights over his property.” It looks like my great great grandfather’s friends and neighbours had encouraged him to pursue the case, and that Sandys thought to nip this brazenness in the bud. I wonder if things became stricter on Esthwaite Water as a result?

John Brockbank’s council, a Mr Russell QC, stated eloquently that, if Sandys succeeded, Esthwaite Water:

“would be reduced to the state of a gentleman’s private pond, and the rights of the public would be trodden on; and in that eventuality there was no knowing but that an attempt might be made to claim Windermere and Grasmere lakes as private property.”

The judge Mr Baron Huddleston “cautioned the jury against allowing any prejudice  in favour of the enlargement of popular rights and recreations on the one hand, and the maintenance of  privileges of owners of property on the other, to influence their decision.”

On the second day of the trail, the jury withdrew just after 7pm to discuss the verdict. At 7:45 the court found in favour of the plaintiff (Sandys), who was awarded 40 shillings in damages. In addition Brockbank would have had to pay court fees and lawyers frees to Mr Russell and Mr Crompton. The story that the case ruined him financially has been handed down to the present day.

Nisi prius
Liverpool Daily Post, Monday 16 August 1875

Poignantly, both men lost relatives in World War I, some 40 years after the case: my gg grandfather lost two grandsons and a great-grandson, and Colonel Sandys (who had no children) lost a great-nephew. They are commemorated on the War Memorial at St Michael and All Angels Church in Hawkshead.

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