Riparian Rights, Court case

Event Dates:

1875-1883

Spargo’s Cottage at 5 St Judes Street was at the centre of the first Riparian Rights court case in the colony of South Australia.

The cottage is situated on a particularly low area of ground which could be prone to flooding. When Robert Spargo built the cottage in 1855/6, he diverted the outflow from a nearby spring into his land so as to have water available for making the ‘cob’ walls. The spring water was also needed to keep the large vegetable and fruit garden (and duck pond) going so that Robert and his family had enough produce to sell to support themselves when Robert could not find work in the slate quarries or on the farms. However, in wet winters, this spring water was supplemented by large amounts of water running off from the steep foothills, or being diverted from neighbours’ properties. Flooding was a problem. In dry summers, however, there was not enough spring water available to maintain the garden.

The minutes of the Willunga Council reveal that they were constantly trying to act in the community’s best interests by creating drains to divert water to/from neighbouring properties, even in one case diverting water from the Spargo’s land on to the property of a member of the Willunga Council. Disputes about the flow of spring water and flood-water, not enough or too much, the location and impact of Council drains, competing requests for water to be diverted to or from properties, neighbourly disputes about water and watercourses, etc, were very common.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that in May 1875 Grace Spargo, through her solicitors, claimed 100 pounds from the Willunga Council for damages sustained by her as a result of Council having ‘deprived her of the spring water that passed over her land at Willunga by having changed the course of the flood-water from running by Mr Martin’s land to Mr George Sara’s and running it to flow in from off his land’. The Council was probably sympathetic to Grace Spargo’s claim and attempted to appoint Rev. E Miller as a mediator. But this was rejected by Grace and the case proceeded.

The Chief Justice summed up in favour of the Council but, to the astonishment of all present, the Jury found in Grace Spargo’s favour, because, as one of them explained, ‘it would have been very hard to throw the costs of the action on the poor old woman’!!. The Council appealed. It was declared a ‘non-suit’. The Council sold some blocks of land to pay their costs. And Grace had to sell her cottage to pay her solicitor’s fees. The solicitors appear to have bought the cottage and then embarked on further proceedings against Willunga Council (on Grace Spargo’s behalf, presumably to give her the chance to buy her property back), this time for damages of 500 pounds! The records become confusing at this stage. However, Grace never regained the ownership of her cottage, although she lived in it and paid the Council rates until she moved to Adelaide in 1883.

Even today [2002], there is evidence in St Jude’s Street of the drains, channels and culverts that caused such bitterness over 120 years ago. Not accessible or visible from the road, are the remains of the duck pond in Spargo’s garden. The garden and pond were pipe-fed from a spring across the road (which still runs). Although the pipe under the road was cut when deep drainage was introduced, the pond still fills with storm-water from the remnants of this pipe in the creek along the front of the property.

The culvert at the side of Spargo’s cottage was restored in the 1980’s by the District Council of Willunga which recognised its historic importance as one of the few remaining slate box gutters left in the area. However, by 2001 the condition of the slate in the culvert had deteriorated and it was replaced by a large pipe.

At the front of the cottage are several slate pieces embedded in the creek which have been uncovered by the flow of the water. It seems that they may have been placed there some time ago in an attempt to slow down the flow of the water in front of the cottage. After a heavy rain, the water runs past the cottage from four different directions (Bishop’s Street, both sides of St Jude’s St and St Mary’s Street).

References:

Faye Lush Spargo’s Cottage, 5 St Jude’s St, Willunga, 2002.
Geoffrey C Vaudrey, Water under the Bridge: the story of Robert and Grace Spargo. Willunga, 1991.
Margaret Cameron, owner from 1970s to 2009.

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