DISASTER struck our area in August 1767 when what was described as the greatest flood in living memory struck the West Yorkshire area.

So much rain fell within an hour that roads were rendered impassible for even to strongest horses, writes Robin Longbottom.

Houses were flooded, some in Leeds were swept away and many cattle drowned and crops lost.

In Glusburn and in Sutton the bridges crossing the Holme Beck and Glusburn Beck were totally destroyed.

The old Glusburn bridge had been replaced in 1743 and a new bridge, wide enough to take carts, had been built to replace it.

The earlier bridge, a footbridge, had been maintained at the expense of the township but the new bridge had been constructed some distance upstream and with financial aid from the then County of the West Riding.

With the loss of their bridge the township of Glusburn turned to the Riding for money to replace it, but the Riding steadfastly refused to grant any on the grounds that the township had always been responsible for the maintenance of the old bridge and were therefore responsible for the new one.

The township turned to local lawyers who challenged the decision in court but the Assize Court at York failed to determine the case and referred the matter to the High Court of Justice in London.

The case came before Sir William Blackstone and whilst he was adjudicating the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, happened to wander through Westminster Hall and casually enquired about the nature of the proceedings.

After being given a brief appraisal of the facts Lord Mansfield, one of England’s greatest Lord Chancellors, proffered his opinion and came down firmly on the side of the people of Glusburn.

His view was that it was “ bridge that was useful to the people at large” (that is to say it was on a highway that linked two market towns – Keighley and Colne) and was not for the sole benefit of the village, and therefore the West Riding were should maintain it at public expense.

Blackstone quickly came to the same conclusion and the bridge was designated a County responsibility.

In September 1770 the West Riding placed an advertisement in the Leeds Intelligencer inviting “all Workmen willing to contract for the Re-building of Glusburn-Bridge … to attend Meeting at the House of Mr Slack, being the Sign of the White-Bear at Crosshills near Skipton, on Thursday the 20th of September at ten o’clock in the forenoon to deliver Estimates”.

A new single-span bridge was completed the following year and stood until the mid 1920s when it was demolished and replaced by the present bridge.

Other villages were not so fortunate and Holme bridge at Sutton had to be rebuilt at the cost of the township, albeit with some financial aid from the Riding.

As late as 1886 an application made to the Riding for Cononley Bridge, over the River Aire, to be made a County bridge was refused as a consequence of the Glusburn Bridge Case.

The grounds were simple – the bridge was not on a major highway linking two or more market towns and so unfortunately the cost of any repairs lay in the hands of the township of Cononley.

The action had been hard-fought by the people of Glusburn and was eventually heard in the High Court of Justice in Westminster Hall, the highest court in the country.

It introduced important new case law with regard to the responsibility for the maintenance of bridges along major highways and this case law remained in force until all roads and bridges were taken over in 1889 by the new County Councils.

Following the Glusburn Bridge Case the road managers erected markers at either end of major bridges to indicate where the responsibility for the structure lay.

Many of these markers can still be seen today.

Some are small stone tablets with the letters WR for the West Riding cut into them, those beyond Skipton and into the Dales are simply incised with a large cross, and later ones take the form of a small cast iron pillar marked WR.