On 1st March 1698 a petition was laid on the Table of the House of Commons, in the third session of the third Parliament of King William III. It was from the inhabitants of Giggleswick, Settle, Langcliffe and Rathmell, and concerned a Bill which was then making its way through the processes of the House. The subject was the freedom with which salmon and their fry, a highly beneficial resource for riverside dwellers, could make their way up and down the kingdom's rivers, and the hindrance caused by weirs and dams.
Salmon fisheries had exercised the mind of government as far back as the 1200's. Statutes of Edward I and later Richard II defined rules about the taking of the fish and fry in rivers including the "Lone, Wyre, Mersee and Ribbill" and the overseeing of these by Justices of the Peace, who were empowered to destroy nets or imprison offenders. There were a number of religious houses in the Ribble valley and many had fishing rights. They, the local populace and large towns such as Preston relied heavily on fish for sustenance and there were frequent disputes, watermills and weirs being foremost amongst the causes. Weirs were used for catching fish, but at the same time prevented spawning fish passing higher up and young fry passing down. After the Reformation rights passed to others, for example Thomas Langton, Baron of Newton, in the area just east of Preston. There was another Act in the first year of Queen Elizabeth I, defining close seasons and net mesh size. About 1580 an inquiry was made into the fisheries on the Rivers Ribble and Wyre and the destruction of salmon and fry. Sir Richard Shireburne reported that the Commission had "reformed" unlawful engines and nets, and viewed all weirs and calls (dams) and objected to two. Attempts were made in the mid-1600's to demolish one weir just east of Preston, when it was stated that "a certain caul, Kiddell (a kiddle is a weir with an opening fitted with nets) and fish garth (in tidal water)" had been heightened in spite of several orders to lower or demolish. All this activity low down the River Ribble of course affected those higher up.
The subject arose again in January 1697, in the second session of William III's third Parliament, when leave was given to bring in a Bill "for the better Relief of the Subject against unlawful Weirs and Dams, which take and destroy Fish, and the Fry of Fish, within the Rivers of this Kingdom". Sir William Bowes (MP for Durham County) and Sir William Hustler (MP for Northallerton) were to prepare and bring in the Bill. On 22nd February 1697 it was presented to the House, minus the word "unlawful". It was read a first time, then a second time on 4th March, when it was sent to Committee stage, the Committee comprising 43 persons.
This Bill gave rise to a number of Petitions against its provisions. In the same parliamentary session John Taylor of Bristol, ironmonger, petitioned that his iron works (a major local employer of the poor) on the River Usk would become useless and valueless if the Bill were passed (i.e. if the weirs were to be lowered or destroyed). The Grand Jury for the County of Monmouth and the Freeholders and Inhabitants of the County made a similar petition adding that without the ironworks the County "cannot profitably dispose of their Wood".
Nearer home, Thomas Foster of Preston, Gentleman, petitioned that "time out of Mind" there had been a piscary (fishery) and weirs and dams for the taking of fish and belonging to two mills on the River Loyne (Lune) near to Lancaster. These had been expensively bought from the Crown by Foster, and the weirs were of a height settled by the Court of Chancery. If the Bill were to go forward, both Lancaster and Foster would lose out without recompense. Foster petitioned that either the piscary and mills be preserved or compensated for. Similarly, the Mayor, Bailiff and Burgesses of Preston petitioned that the borough owned a part of a piscary in the River Ribble, and a dam over a small branch of the river was absolutely necessary for preserving the piscary and a ford, part of the Preston-Liverpool highway. There was also another dam a mile away plentifully supplying Preston and the area twenty miles around with fish. If the Bill were to go forward, the above should not be prejudiced.
On the other hand, an opposing view was presented by petitioners from County Durham (Deputy-Lieutenants, Justices of the Peace, Gentlemen and Freeholders). They said that formerly they had had much benefit from plentiful salmon and other fish, but now because of the many high weirs existing on their rivers "the Fish are obstructed in their free Course; and the Spawn and Fry thereof shamefully destroyed; to the Prejudice of the whole County: and praying such Redress of those great Abuses as the House shall think fit".
The Bill lapsed following the prorogation of Parliament in April, but in January 1698, in the new session, leave was given for Sir William Bowes and two others to prepare and bring in a (retitled) Bill for the "Increase and Preservation of Salmon, and the Fry of Salmon, in the several Rivers of this Kingdom". The Bill was read for the first and second times and in February sent to Committee, along with the several petitions relating to the Bill. Sir Gervase Elwes (a holder of high office in the Duchy of Lancaster administration at Preston) and all the members that served for the County of Lancaster were ordered to be added to the Committee.
More petitions were now forthcoming. In March a further one against the Bill's provisions came from Sir William Lowther of Holker, County of Lancaster. He was "seised of an ancient Salmon-fishery in the River Leven .... managed by a Weir constantly open, and so wide, as is directed by the Statute of the 13th of Richard the IId, touching Salmon-fisheries, without Damage to any person". He would lose his freehold and be liable to pay rent due to the Crown. He prayed that the "Bill might not pass, or that he may have a particular Saving therein".
In this new parliamentary session more people who were in favour of the Bill's provisions for the free passage of salmon and fry became aware of the petitions against the Bill. The Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council of Durham City and others complained that twenty five years ago salmon in the River Wear were plentiful, but weirs and dams were now so high that fish were taken at dams, or put back, driving up the price of fish. Ribble valley residents were even more vociferous. Clitheroe's Bailiffs, Recorder, Burgesses and Freemen, and others nearby, petitioned that they received notice of the Bill with great joy, "but afterwards hearing a Petition was presented to exclude the River Ribble .... for the private interest of Two or three Gentlemen" prayed that "many hundred families may not be hindered from a common Good", and that the Bill might pass into law. The "Bow-bearers, Officers, Gentlemen, and others the inhabitants within the Seven Towns of the Forest and Liberty of Bolland" had heard similar rumours of a petition against the Bill, "which is only for some private Ends". They averred that the weirs and locks on the River Ribble greatly impeded the breeding and spawning of salmon to the detriment of themselves and those living between the Rivers Ribble and Hodder, and wanted this petition disregarded. The inhabitants of Great Mitton, Aighton, Baley and Chaigeley petitioned that though they lived conveniently near the River Ribble they had no benefit from it, as "the Locks and Weirs, near the Fall of the River, are built so high, that they hinder the Passage of the Fish; which is a great Prejudice to the Petitioners, and many Towns of good Note". They wanted the Bill to pass into law. The "Gentlemen, Freeholders, and other chief Inhabitants" of Bolton and Sawley had heard that the Bill to "suppress and lower all Fish-locks and Weirs" had been petitioned against by "some Persons, for their own private Interest" and they prayed that these petitions be rejected and the Bill passed. The "Gentlemen, Freeholders, Copyholders, and other the Inhabitants .... of Calburne (Chatburn?), Downham and Worston, in the County of Lancaster" similarly petitioned that the "Bill may pass, it being for a common Good".
At this point the petition of the inhabitants of Giggleswick, Settle, Langcliffe and Rathmell "was presented to the House, and read: setting forth, That there is a Bill depending in the House for the increase and Preservation of Salmon, and the Fry of Salmon, within the Rivers of this Kingdom; which is for a general Advantage to all the Subjects of England: And praying, That the same may pass, notwithstanding Two or Three private Gentlemen, for their own Benefit, have petitioned this House against it".
On 9th March 1698 Sir William Bowes reported from the Committee that they had considered the Bill and petitions, and made amendments. These were agreed by the House with the exception of one clause: "That the Bill shall not extend to any Weir or Dam upon the Rivers of Levin, Steerspoole, Loine (Lune), Wyre or Ribble .... nor any Water running into any of the said Rivers". This was not agreed, nor did the House agree to the addition of a similar clause relating to Cornwall, Devon and Southampton.
"Then the Question being put, That the Bill, with the Amendments, be ingrossed; The House divided". There were 106 for the Yeas, and 143 for the Noes. So, despite the best efforts of Sir William Bowes, for which he was well esteemed and acclaimed at the time the Bill was rejected, "it being made a general Bill, whereas it could only have been advantageous in the northern counties and prejudicial everywhere else, by destroying the weirs and dams and invading property". The interests of the weir and dam owners had proved paramount.