A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1936.
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THE MIDDLE LEVEL OF THE FENS AND ITS RECLAMATION
The Middle Level of the Fens is, as its name suggests, the middle division of the Bedford Level, which occupies the southern half of the great Fenland, and which includes the Isle of Ely and portions of Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, and Lincolnshire, as well as several thousand acres in the north-east of Huntingdonshire. The Bedford Level is an entirely artificial unit, created with the Drainage in the 17th century, and divided into three parts for the convenience of its working. The middle of these divisions is bounded on the south-east and north-west by the straight and artificial channels known respectively as the Old Bedford River and Morton's Leam. Its north-eastern boundary is along Well Creek and the bank called New Powdike, while its south-western boundary lies along the edge of the Huntingdonshire uplands. Altogether, this expanse contains 165,000 acres of ground, (fn. 1) and its present appearance is the last phase of a long and varied history of change. Although so artificial a division, it is in many ways not an inconvenient unit to consider; and, of course, it is necessary to deal with the Middle Level as a whole in order to appreciate the problems of the Huntingdonshire Fen.
The condition of the Fenland during the Roman Occupation has aroused considerable discussion from time to time. The Car Dyke, the coastal sea-banks, the Peterborough-Denver causeway, the various scattered finds—all have been productive of speculation and theory. But the whole problem of the Roman Fenland has been placed in an entirely new setting by the development of a new instrument of research—aerial photography. The pioneer work of Mr. O. G. S. Crawford has yielded fruitful results when applied to this area, and the Fenland Research Committee, formed in 1932 to investigate the problems of the Fens, found that a complete aerial survey was a first essential. (fn. 2) By taking a sequence of photographs across a given stretch of country from a given height at a given time, it is possible to fit together a 'mosaic' showing the whole stretch in one complete photograph. Several of these mosaics have been made already for the region; but, until the whole survey is finished, a complete picture of the Roman Fens cannot be given. It is evident, however, that in Romano-British times (50 b.c. to a.d. 450) much of this country was occupied by cultivators who tilled the soil in small rectangular or irregularly shaped fields upon a system of agriculture which is associated with the Celtic fringe of Britain, and which is quite unlike the open-field system of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. All this, of course, stands in great contrast to medieval conditions in the Fenland. To explain the transition is one of the major problems that await a solution. The alternative answers are: (i) that the Romans, with their highly developed political organisation and engineering skill, practised artificial drainage with conspicuous success, (fn. 3) and that their works fell out of repair after their occupation was over; (ii) that the deterioration was the result of natural agencies, a silting-up of watercourses or, more particularly, a basic land subsidence in post-Roman times. Both answers may be correct.
One of the keys to a solution lies in the study of extinct watercourses. The existence of extinct watercourses, called 'roddons,' in the Fens, has been demonstrated by Major Gordon Fowler. (fn. 4) To-day, these watercourses appear in the form of banks of silt meandering above the surface of the peat-fen. Their raised character is the result of 'differential shrinkage or wastage as between the silt which had been deposited in their beds when they were active waterways and the deep peat through which they had once flowed.' It has been definitely established that many 'roddons' were active streams in RomanoBritish times. Until the survey of ancient watercourses has been completed, it would be well to accept with great caution the details which Dugdale (fn. 5) and other writers provide about the original courses of the Fenland rivers.
However rich the Roman Fens, and whatever the cause of their transformation, the fact is that the Anglo-Saxon Fenland showed a startling change. In the 8th century it was represented as a 'wide wilderness,' (fn. 6) a waste untilled, devoid of settled habitation, (fn. 7) a pestilential region 'ofttimes clouded with moist and dark vapours,' (fn. 8) and very unhealthy. An 8th-century monk (fn. 9) tells how:
'There is in Britain a fen of immense size, which begins from the river Granta (Grante) not far from the city, which is named Grantchester (Granteceaster). There are immense marshes, now a black pool of water, now foul running streams, and also many islands, and reeds, and hillocks, and thickets, and with manifold windings wide and long it continues up to the north sea . . . Guthlac . . . inquired of the inhabitants of the land where he might find himself a dwelling place in the wilderness. Whereupon they told him many things about the vastness of the wilderness. There was a man named Tatwine, who said he knew an island especially obscure, which oft-times many men had attempted to inhabit, but no man could do it on account of manifold horrors and fears, and the loneliness of the wide wilderness.'
The size of the Fenland hundreds as compared with those of the upland, and the figures of the 7th-century document known as the 'Tribal Hidage,' (fn. 10) also indicate lightness of settlement in the Fens. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the southern Fenland became a frontier zone between East Anglia and Mercia, the resort of brigands and bandits, with the Isle of Ely set between as a buffer state, subject to, and defended by, one state, though exposed to the ravages of the other. Apparently nothing was done towards the draining of the country for many hundreds of years; a progressive deterioration was inevitable.
There was one ameliorating social influence during these early times. Christianity was replacing paganism in England, and the Fenland benefited greatly by this movement, for 'these marshes afforded to not a few congregations of monks desireable havens of lonely life in which the solitude could not fail the hermits.' (fn. 11) In the monastic revival associated with the reign of Edgar, no fewer than six large religious houses were founded or refounded upon the islands or along the edge of the Fens. It has indeed been often suggested that the unprepossessing nature of the Fenland in the 10th century was one reason why monasteries were founded there. At any rate, the medieval chronicles record how St. Guthlac 'longed for the wilderness' (fn. 12) and established Crowland; how Etheldreda, laying aside 'all worldly cares,' had founded a monastery severed from the pleasures of the world in the isolation of Ely; (fn. 13) and how, in the neighbouring fen, the island of Thorney provided a 'holy refuge' to a band of monks wishing to follow a hermit's life. (fn. 14) In a like manner they record how Peterborough and Chatteris and Ramsey and other religious houses arose; how these in turn established dependent cells; and how, in brief, the Fenland became famed as a home of monastic foundations despite the interruption of the Danish invasions. By the time of the Domesday Survey, many of these were large and wealthy bodies that had acquired between them the greater part of the southern Fenland. Ramsey Abbey, founded in 969, came to play an important part in the life of the fens of eastern Huntingdonshire, and the Cartulary (fn. 15) of the abbey throws considerable light upon Fenland activity.
The Huntingdonshire fens contained many large meres, for instance Whittlesea Mere, Benwick Mere, Ugg Mere and Ramsey Mere. There is extant an early 11th-century account (fn. 16) of Whittlesea Mere which shows the nature of these watery tracts:
'In the north part of the pool is a water by name Merelade going out of the river Nen, where is the northern boundary of the pool itself. This (Merelade) with its marshes, adjoins it (the mere) having at the end one fishery called Aethemuthe. In the east part are two pools called Wellepol and Trendmere. Between these pools is a narrow water two furlongs long, called Trendmere Bece, having in it two fisheries. There is also a narrow water one mile long called Falet, having in it one fishery. In that part between Witlesmere and Kyngesdelf, where is the eastern boundary is a marshy space three miles broad, having in it a narrow water called Thescuf, and a wood called Ragreholt. In the south part is a narrow water three furlongs long, called Scelfremere Bece, having in it two fisheries. At the end of this is a pool called Scelfremere, having at its southern region a narrow water called Ubbe mere-lade, half a mile long. At the head of this, that is at the end of the pool, is one fishery. Halfway in this water, is a place on the opposite side in the marsh called Aldwines Barwe, where is the southern boundary. In the west part is a narrow water two furlongs long called Trendmere Bece, having in it one fishery. At the end of this is a pool called West Trendmere. There is also in that part waters whose names are Dreig mere, Wellepool, Withibusce mere, Langemere, Keninges, and Muscle mere. There is also a water one mile long and up to the land, called Deop Bece, having in it one fishery. At the end of this water is the western boundary of the marshes and waters belonging to Witlesmere.'
This may be compared with the Domesday description entered with the lands of Thorney Abbey: (fn. 17)
'In Witelsmare the abbot of Ramsey has one boat (navis), and the abbot of Peterborough one boat, and the abbot of Thorney two boats. One of these two boats, and two fisheries, and two fishermen, and one virgate of land, the abbot of Peterborough holds of the abbot of Thorney, and for these he gives pasture sufficient for 120 pigs, and if pasture fails he feeds and fattens 60 pigs with corn. Moreover, he finds timber for one house of 60 ft. and rods for the enclosure (curia) round the house. He also repairs the house and the enclosure if they are in decay. This agreement was made between them in King Edward's time.
The first question that naturally suggests itself is: How did people live in this region during these times? Too frequently a graphic picture is drawn of the social consequences of Fenland economy. It is a picture of a roving and lawless existence, of 'a thriftless race whose only strong passion was a love of freedom.' (fn. 18) It is true, of course, that there were certain physical circumstances which permitted the full development of unusual occupations in the Fens but, even as early as the 11th century, the Domesday entries convey the impression of steady and well-ordered industry carried on within the framework of the manorial system. Settlement was prohibited on the peat-fen itself, as the soil provided no stable foundations upon which to build. Consequently not one village was situated on the black soil with the sole exception of Benwick, and there only because a gravel substratum approached near the level of the surface. But upon the islands of solid rock and gravel within the fen, villages were situated. The Domesday entries (fn. 19) relating to the island settlements Doddington and March, right in the Middle Level, will serve to demonstrate their activity:
(1) Manor. Doddington the Bishop of Ely holds for 5 hides. There is land for 8 ploughs. 2½ hides are on the demesne, and there are 1½ ploughs. There are 8 villeins and 4 cottars with 3 ploughs. There are 3 bondmen; meadow for 1 plough; pasture for the cattle of the village; a wood for 250 swine; from the fisheries 27150 eels and 24 shillings as a present. For all dues it is worth 16 pounds; when received 10 pounds; T.R.E. 12 pounds. This manor lies, and always lay in the demesne of the Church of Ely.
(2) The Abbot of St. Edmunds holds in the two hundreds of Ely in Merche 16 acres. There is land for ½ a plough and it is there with 3 bordars; meadows for 4 ploughs or oxen; a wood for 4 swine. It is and always was worth three shillings; and it lies and always lay in the demesne of the Church of St. Edmund.
The undrained Fen of the Middle Ages
Rivers and Drainage.—The main rivers that flowed through the southern Fenland were six in number (fn. 20)—the Nene, which entered at Peterborough; the Ouse, which entered at St. Ives; the Granta, which entered at Cambridge; the Lark, which entered at Mildenhall; the Little Ouse, which entered at Brandon; and the Wissey, which entered at Stoke Ferry. The waters of all six found their way to the sea at Wisbech by complicated courses and with many meanderings. Oftentimes the streams lost their definite channels, or broke their banks and spread out 'into black pools as much as two or three miles in breadth,' (fn. 21) or into 'deep and boggy quagmires in breadth about two bow-shot.' (fn. 22) But whatever these complications and changes, the Wisbech estuary seems to have been the main key to the drainage of the southern Fenland during the earlier Middle Ages; at Lynn, only the Nar and Gay and their little tributaries flowed out to sea. Before the end of the 13th century, however, certain changes had taken place which caused the whole of the fresh waters running through the Middle Level to change their courses. The complications were far-reaching, but the cause may be stated simply—the Wisbech estuary became filled up by silt and sand brought in and deposited by the tides. In 1292, a royal commission ordered that the waters of Ouse and Nene should be stopped at Outwell from their course towards Lynn, and turned again into their old channel through Wisbech. (fn. 23) In other words, the Ouse, carrying with it part of the Nene, had begun to flow from Outwell along Well Creek and out to sea by way of Lynn, causing great damage in Marshland because the channel was not large enough for it. (fn. 24) By 1332, jurors were prepared to swear that 'time out of memory of man' the course of the Nene had been from Peterborough through March to Salter's Lode, and that there had always been a direct navigation from Crowland to Lynn. (fn. 25) On this occasion juries from five counties presented that the efforts made from time to time to restore the original course, (fn. 26) by placing dams in the river in the neighbourhood of Outwell, were injurious to a longestablished navigation and to the safety of the Fens.
Water, if left to itself, will naturally choose a channel with the most effective slope towards the sea. Consequently, the abandonment of Wisbech River in favour of the longer passage to the sea at Lynn is a sufficient indication of the extent to which tidal deposits had raised the bed of the original estuary. All efforts to force the rivers to return to their old outfall proved unavailing. The date at which the course of the eastern branch of the Ouse was diverted at Littleport to flow towards Lynn is quite uncertain. The description of the Episcopal Manor of Ely in 1250 given in the Old Coucher Book of Ely calls the natural course of the main river near Welney the Oldewellenhe, (fn. 27) from which it is obvious that the alteration had been made some time before that date. Reference to the map will show at once that as soon as the Ouse ceased to flow through Wisbech the convenience of a more direct course from Ely to Salter's Lode would be felt.
The consequences of this change of direction were far greater than appeared at the time. The slope in the surface of the Fens is so slight that, under normal conditions, the additional distance would hardly affect the passage of water; but during floods an adverse effect must have been felt very soon after the alteration. The North Level drained into the northern Nene channel, which has never, except very temporarily, failed to find an outlet either through Wisbech or by the Shire Drain. The South Level has always been drained by the Lark, the Little Ouse, and the Wissey, now tributaries of the Great Ouse. But the deflection of the Ouse and the main branch of the Nene could not fail to have a harmful influence on the Middle Level. Instead of finding their outlet in the centre of the northern boundary, the waters of that district were diverted to the extreme north-eastern corner, and so proceeded to the sea through the estuary at Lynn. Moreover, all the minor watercourses, whether natural streams or artificial 'sewers' of obscure origin, were adapted for the Wisbech outfall, and would, in many cases, have to reverse their direction to meet the new circumstances. (fn. 28) There is one other consideration: it is not surprising that the addition of anything up to 50 miles in the passage of water from the uplands to the sea should have increased the danger of inundation. On the contrary, it is surprising that there is not more evidence of distress in the southern parts of the Fenland. The diversion of the main rivers from their natural outfall to the smaller and less convenient estuary of the Nar and the Gay at Lynn must have been a powerful factor working against the efficient drainage of the Great Level.
Another cause of bad drainage was the neglect under which the river banks and smaller watercourses were allowed to suffer. The chief burden of this responsibility fell on the Abbeys and the See of Ely, not through any peculiar anxiety on their part for the welfare of the district, but merely because they were by far the largest landowners. Whole townships, also, were liable because of their rights of common in the fens through which the streams passed. And a few isolated secular landowners were involved too. In Chatteris, Holywell, Slepe, Upwood, (fn. 29) and Somersham, (fn. 30) at any rate, trenchdigging was one of the customary villein services, and the Prior and Convent of Ely are discovered leasing pieces of fenland for an annual rent, on condition that the lessees made the ditches and performed the 'Essewycia' belonging to the said land. (fn. 31)
Over and above these tenurial responsibilities, which were an obligation actually to do the work of repair, there is evidence of the levying of rates or 'agistments' upon various pieces of land for purposes of drainage. Thus the Ramsey Abbey Cartulary contains an undated list of contributions, varying from 6s. 8d. to 40s., levied 'for the clearing out of Welle.' (fn. 32) The compotus rolls of Wisbech Barton, (fn. 33) throughout most of the 14th century and beyond, have an entry headed Custos Fossatorum, under which appears an account of the annual expenditure on ditching, (fn. 34) and of the income raised to defray it. Seven hundred acres of demesne land paid a tallage of ¼d. or ½d. per acre annually for this purpose; and, on several occasions, a further levy was made for some specific purpose connected with the manor. (fn. 35) There is nothing to show whether this was a purely local incident or part of a larger system, and there is no parallel in any other manor in the Middle Level. But certain provisions of the Commissioners of Sewers would lead one to suppose that there existed in certain places machinery whereby rates could be levied over quite extensive areas. In 1340, (fn. 36) for instance, every acre of land in Elm, Welle, and the south side of Wisbech was agisted at two pence, 'and more if need required,' for stopping up a certain injurious stream and making a causey. A year later, every acre of land, from a certain 'new Diche' to Needham Ditch in Elm, was agisted at one penny, 'for the repair of the said New Diche.' (fn. 37) From the circumstances of these two agistments, and from others cited in the same authority, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that rates were only levied by the Commissioners of Sewers to cover operations which were outside the scope of the traditional repairs. Maintenance of the ancient banks and streams itself was an incident of land tenure; the making of new defences, and their future maintenance, needed special arrangement. But the point was that, in one way or another, every stream and bank in the Middle Level had to be repaired by the persons holding 'lands, tenements, common of fishing or pasture, who might have safeguard, defence, or benefit by the making or repair' of them. (fn. 38) Moreover, it was no uncommon thing for ordinances to be made in this connection in the manorial courts. Under Custos Fossatorum in the compotus roll of Wisbech Barton for the year 1408–9 occurs the following entry: 'To the scouring of 400 perches of ditch round various of the lord's fields as it was ordained by inquisition on the day of the leet, 66s. 8d.' (fn. 39) At Ramsey, in 1433, it was ordered that 'Pybakeres Dyche' should be repaired before Michaelmas under penalty of a fine of 12d. for each defaulter. (fn. 40) At Holywell, in 1430, 'le Rawte Dyche' and 'the water-course in Needingworth' were ordered to be put in order within a week, and the 'Fendyche' and the 'Marshdyche' before the feast of the Nativity of St. John. (fn. 41) These latter are but two out of innumerable similar entries in the court-rolls of Ramsey Abbey.
Frequently, ditches and trenches were useful for purposes other than those of draining. Along the waterways of the Fens there was much local traffic. The monks of Sawtry, for instance, were allowed to retain a watercourse called Monks' Lode because it was the most convenient means of transporting stone from the quarry to the site of the abbey. (fn. 42) Ditches were used as boundaries also. When Ramsey and Thorney Abbeys agreed to divide Kingsdelph fen, the boundary ditch was to be made half on Ramsey, half on Thorney land. (fn. 43) Such names as 'new ditch,' 'new lode,' in documents describing fen boundaries are by no means uncommon. But the practice was not popular and, both in court-rolls and in records of higher courts, (fn. 44) one finds decrees that dikes are ordered to be filled in because they are a nuisance. One of the main uses of the fens was common pasture and, obviously, a multiplicity of small ditches interfered with the passage of the village flocks and herds. (fn. 45) In a composition, between the Bishop of Ely and the Abbot of Ramsey, concerning the common fens of Somersham and Holywell, there is a special provision that 'the lode which leads from Needingworth to the great bank shall not be so deep but that the cattle of the bishop and his men and the other commoners may cross it to their pasture towards Holywell without damage.' (fn. 46)
It is, however, one thing to know that detailed arrangements existed and many precautions were taken for keeping the Fens in good order, but it is quite another thing to assume that they were in constant operation. Before the death of Edward I, the central government had been called in to oversee and supplement the local arrangements, and, from 1294 onwards, commissions under the royal seal were appointed one after another at short intervals.
The early Commissions of Sewers, cited at great length by Dugdale, give an interesting picture of the methods employed during the Middle Ages to keep the rivers and 'drains' in a serviceable state. (fn. 47) Sometimes they were appointed for a specific purpose, as in 1330–32, when they heard the vexed question of the Wisbech-Lynn outfall. (fn. 48) More often they were appointed to oversee the ordinary business of repairs, and to arrange for new and necessary 'works.' In this latter connection the juries, summoned on their visits, presented over and over again a dreary tale of obligations neglected. The Ramsey Abbey court-rolls bear this out by numerous presentments of individuals who have obstructed drains for their private benefit and to the common damage. (fn. 49) Whether the obligation lay with an individual or with a community, it was in some cases either heeded or neglected at will and, according to the presentments, very often neglected. (fn. 50) Examples come crowding one after another. In 1438 it was presented that the Abbots of Thorney and Crowland, the Bishop of Ely, William Vernon of Coldham, Sir Thomas Tudenham, William Prior, Esquire, of Ely, the tenants of certain lands in March, and the towns of Wisbech and Elm, had all neglected their obligations. (fn. 51) In the following year, a jury complained that through the neglect of the South Ea, one side of which should have been maintained by the Abbot of Thorney and the Bishop of Ely, and the other by the villages to the north, the whole of Wisbech Fen was drowned. (fn. 52) At the same session, Whittlesea Dike, for which the Bishop of Ely and the township of Whittlesea were jointly responsible, was presented as being in a state of neglect. In short, it would not be too much to say that just when the effects of the loss of the Wisbech outfall were beginning to be felt in the Middle Level, some outside influence became necessary to combat the increasing lethargy and lack of public spirit of the fenlanders. And the repetition visible in the ordinances of the Commissioners is, in itself, an indication of the inefficiency of their efforts.
Economic Activity.—It is difficult, as we look over the broad expanse of arable land and meadow which meets our eye to-day, to think ourselves back to the medieval aspect of the Fenland. The character of the district in early times may best be judged from the words of those who saw it. Hugo Candidus, a monk of Peterborough who wrote about 1150, thus describes the district near which he lived:
'From the flooding of the rivers, or from their overflow, the water, standing on unlevel ground, makes a deep marsh and so renders the land uninhabitable, save on some raised spots of ground, which I think that God set up for the special purpose that they should be the habitations of His servants who have chosen to live there. For within this marshland there live in such spots the monks of Ramsey, of Thorney, of Crowland and many other places, which can be approached in no other way than by water, save Ramsey where on one side a road has been laboriously constructed. Ely is an island in the same district, seven miles long and as many broad, containing twenty-two vills; it is surrounded on all sides by marsh and water, but is distinguished by the possession of three bridges. Brogh (i.e. Peterborough) is founded in the land of the Gyrvii, where is the beginning of the same marsh on its eastern side, extending for sixty miles or more. This marsh, however, is very useful for men; for there are found wood and twigs for fires, hay for the fodder of cattle, thatch for covering houses, and many other useful things. It is, moreover, productive of birds and fishes. For there are various rivers, and very many waters and ponds abounding in fish. In all these things the district is most fertile.' (fn. 53)
Even so, Hugo's list of Fenland activities was not complete, and to it must be added the items of turbaries and salt pans; but still the picture does show us the chief features of the country. The main characteristics of life in the Fens did not change very rapidly. Nearly five hundred years later, the description given by Michael Drayton in his Polyolbion of 1622 (fn. 54) agrees substantially with that of the monk Hugo. During this span of the centuries, physical and topographical features in many parts of England produced considerable variations from the more usual activities of agrarian life; and the Fenland, as much as any district in the English plain, constituted a land of characteristic occupations and peculiar practices arising from the nature of its terrain. Here, regional custom, the consuetudo loci, was of paramount importance in the development of an individual economy and in the maintenance of a local habit of life quite different from that in the normal medieval community.
The Fens themselves were of varying usefulness. Some were quite drowned, and formed great lakes like Whittlesea Mere; others were flooded in winter, but available for pasture in summer; others were fairly dry in ordinary seasons; the islands themselves were but little different from the surrounding upland. Consequently, the activities of the region were varied enough—the gathering of reeds and rushes; fishing and fowling; the cutting of turfs; the grazing of animals; and, finally, the more usual arable farming that took place upon the islands or in the more permanently drained portions of a fen. To the abbeys and the see of Ely, though they did but little to improve the region, the Fens were of the utmost importance even in their natural state. Actually, this usefulness may account, in part, for the fact that the ecclesiastical landowners showed no ambition to attempt any large-scale project of drainage.
In the pre-Domesday foundation charter granted by Edgar to Ramsey Abbey there was much reference to the fisherman 'with his small boat and his assistants and his net.' At Wells, on the border of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, there was a manor of profit to the abbey solely on account of its render of eels; twenty fishermen gave 60,000 eels every year for the use of the brethren. (fn. 55) This grant was confirmed many times afterwards, (fn. 56) and extents of the manor in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries gave great prominence to eel-rents and to fishermen. (fn. 57) Many other fisher-tenants from elsewhere were also mentioned in the Cartulary; Alfgar of Hilgay and Hugh the tenant of Wiggenhall were but two of a large number. (fn. 58) The Cartulary lists the fishers of the abbey itself as 'seven fishermen and their seven assistants together with their seven little ships.' (fn. 59) Of Ramsey Mere, the place of their activity, the chronicler of the abbey wrote:
'in the deeps of which mere there are frequently taken, with several kinds of nets, as well as with baited hooks, and other fishing instruments, pike of extraordinary great size, called Hakedes by the country folk: and though both fishers and fowlers cease neither by day nor night to frequent it, yet is there always no little store of fish.' (fn. 60)
And on the shores of the neighbouring mere of Whittlesea, the fishermen's nets spread out to dry was a familiar sight. (fn. 61)
Everywhere in the Fenland, the activity of the fishermen was evident. Many were the grants of fisheries, or half-fisheries, or quarter-fisheries; many were the divisions of fisheries into nights and half-nights, and even into eighths of a night; many were the negotiations which insisted upon the separation of the common fisheries from those held in severalty; and many more still were the disputes caused by all this array of complicated rights and interlocking interests. (fn. 62)
Eels indeed fulfilled many of the uses of currency in the region. Debts were settled by payments of eels; rentals and tithes were defined in terms of thousands of eels or in 'sticks' or stickes of eels, every stick having twenty-five. The time of the year when these transactions in eels became most frequent was at Lent. (fn. 63) The eel-rents of Wells were to be paid 'ad festum Sancti Benedicti'; (fn. 64) and when, in the middle of the 11th century, Ramsey agreed to pay 4,000 eels a year to the Abbey of Peterborough in return for building-stone at Barnack, (fn. 65) it was during Lent that they were made due. Frequently, the service of presenting the lord of a manor with fish for a Lenten feast was commuted into a customary rent with which he might buy fish. There is definite evidence of the commutation of the Wells rents into money payments before 1130. (fn. 66) On the Ramsey manors it was universally occurring as fish-silver, fissilver, fissylver, phisshesilver, haringsilver, denarii ad pisces emendos, denarius ad piscem. (fn. 67) Such sums were paid, of course, at the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday or on the first Sunday in Lent. (fn. 68) The Ramsey abbots, it would seem, did not fare too badly during the Lenten fast; nor did the abbots of the other Fenland monasteries.
The produce of much of the Fen, particularly in the peat-lands, seems to have consisted exclusively of reeds and rushes and sedge, usually called by the now obsolete word lesch, (fn. 69) which was probably a name used to cover generally all the species of the genus carex. They constituted a valuable building material particularly for thatching, and, naturally, the sale of rushes figures in many account rolls. (fn. 70) On some manors, the cutting and binding of rushes formed part of the services which a villein might be called upon to perform; at Chatteris, a villein was to cut 'eight score bundles for one work.' (fn. 71) This activity was regulated by an array of intricate regulations: in some places, the sale of thatching materials was forbidden outside the limits of the manor; on most manors, rushes and reeds were to be cut only at 'competent and reasonable times of the year,' (fn. 72) and fisheries were in no way to be injured 'by the long standing of the said rushes and reeds.' In all these things, as in many others, the fenmen transgressed the law only too frequently, (fn. 73) and there are indeed very many miscellaneous references to the wrongful cutting and carriage of lesch.
Several requests that were made in the middle of the 13th century to various religious houses remind us of another fen product—wild fowl. In 1249 the abbots of Peterborough, Thorney and Ramsey, and the priors of St. Neots, Barnwell, Spalding and Ely were asked to supply swans, herons, cranes and bitterns for the king's use. (fn. 74) Two years later, in 1251, the abbots of Thorney, Crowland, Ramsey and Peterborough, and the prior of Spalding were again asked to supply swans, cranes and other wild fowl against the feast of Edward. (fn. 75) Turf was another characteristic Fenland commodity, especially important in a region where alternative sources of fuel were limited. The digging of turf was strictly controlled, and was allowed only in certain parts of the common, at certain times of the year. At Doddington, for instance, Weremere moor was common only for pasture, but Echenesmoor was common both for pasture and for fuel. (fn. 76) And there are many other examples of similar arrangements.
But by far the most valuable feature of the Fenland was its unique adaptation for water meadows. Good meadow was always scarce in the medieval village, and the possession of wide expanses of well-watered and well-grassed meadows would more than compensate for the occasional loss of the hay harvest through summer floods. (fn. 77) This, more than any other circumstance, is the real secret of the absence of any demand for reclamation; winter floods made the meadow richer, (fn. 78) and summer floods were too rare to cause much anxiety. Moreover, shortage of pasture in winter was not peculiar to the Fens, and surplus stock was slaughtered at Michaelmas. That injury was done by floods at all times of the year, we know from scattered references; in 1307 the court of Upwood ordered that the whole village should rectify the watercourse at 'Wystowebroke' which had left its right course and was causing damage. (fn. 79) In the compotus roll of Wistow for the year 1324 there occurs the entry: 'For sale of hay nothing, through floods'; (fn. 80) and at Somersham in 1375: 'from the demesne meadow nothing accrues this year owing to a flood of water there in the summer.' (fn. 81) Some meadows were completely surrounded by water, and could only be reached by boat; (fn. 82) to other meadows, the cattle were driven along paths. But whatever their condition, there can be no doubt of their importance. In no part of England were common pasture rights more important than in the region of the fens. It is evident that the most striking feature was the arrangement of villages in groups, governed partly by geographical position and partly by ancient administrative custom; each group of villages intercommoned in the fen which they surrounded or adjoined. One piece of marsh thus served as common pasture for the cattle of a number of different villages; it was held 'pro indiviso,' and over it the cattle wandered 'horn under horn.' (fn. 83) In this way, did the bordering upland villages of Huntingdonshire hold common pasture in the fens to the north. There were some instances of single vills with rights of common in the fens of two different groups of vills. These intercommoning arrangements have been made clear by Miss N. Neilson in the Introduction to her study 'A Terrier of Fleet, Lincolnshire.' (fn. 84) Of them, she writes:
'Such intercommoning was the custom throughout the region, and the groups everywhere were sharply defined and clearly differentiated from one another. Even when in the records of the district the waste is described as already divided and become the several of the neighbouring vills, some reference is usually made to an earlier use of the waste as common fen, preceding the partition among the vills in which it lay. The vills claimed that their right to intercommon in the fen had existed time out of mind, and the inference seems clear that the origin of such arrangements goes back to the early days of settlement. The partition and appropriation of the fen when mentioned in the records is sometimes referred to the twelfth and succeeding centuries: sometimes the use of the fen in common by the vills continued to a much later period.'
The basis of the right to pasture for a village or an individual tenant was not the same in all cases. The vills divide themselves into 'intrinsec' and 'forinsec' vills. The former exercised their right by ancient custom and without payment. At best, the commoners were allowed any number of cattle, at any time of the year to any part of a fen. Naturally, except under very special circumstances, they resisted any attempt at inclosure, sometimes with violence. But this custom of 'common sans nombre' did not prevail everywhere. As time passed, the idea of the rights of the lord developed to the detriment of the commoners, and many forinsec villages pastured their cattle only for a definite rent and sometimes even in restricted numbers. (fn. 85) At Outwell, for instance, by the 15th century, the commoners were restricted to a definite number of 'milch beasts' or else six 'plough beasts.' (fn. 86) There were also regulations controlling procedure. In many places the fens were closed to cattle from early spring until a certain date in summer: some were Lammas meadows, open to common only after the lord's hay had been gathered. (fn. 87) There were sometimes complaints, like the one made at Ramsey in 1384, (fn. 88) that villages had overstocked the commons by importing cattle and sheep from less fortunate manors. Naturally all these arrangements were subject to minute regulation under the supervision of fen reeves and overseers.
One of the most frequent manorial offences was the pasturing of animals from outside vills. The exclusion of the cattle of non-commoners was an important problem, and it was solved only by means of great 'drives' or 'drifts,' fugaciones, as they are called in the rolls. These drives took place once a year or sometimes more frequently, and they produced scenes of great activity. On these occasions the animals were counted, and those not belonging to the rightful commoners in the fen were released only on the payment of a fine; at Ramsey, in 1372, thirteen people were fined sixpence each for 'having depastured with cattle and pigs in Stocking fen where they have no common.' (fn. 89) And in the accounts for the Huntingdonshire manors of the see of Ely there is a frequent item called 'weysilver,' which was the rent levied on those who pastured cattle on the fens without right of common. (fn. 90) A payment additional to the fine was usually enforced if the stranger cattle were left in the pound by their owners for more than a day and a night. The drives were naturally very profitable, and were sometimes made unlawfully and at wrong times. (fn. 91) But the reeves and overseers were not unwary in their watch upon the fen.
These practices continued throughout the Middle Ages; examples from the 16th century show that drives still continued to be made, lawfully and unlawfully. But the span of the Middle Ages did not pass without some changes. During the 12th and 13th centuries there was an increasing self-consciousness about boundaries in the Fenland. How uncertain these boundaries were may be seen from the fact that the boundary between the shires of Cambridge and Huntingdon ran in some of the meres just 'as far as a man might reach with his barge-pole to the shore.' (fn. 92) Now, in the later Middle Ages, bounds were being more accurately established, and commons were being partitioned between their respective vills, and the inevitable result was much dispute. The bitterness of these disagreements serves to measure the vital position occupied by 'pasture rights' in the Fenland economy; many cases were even taken to the King's Courts at Westminster, and there they could only end in a compromise.
For the southern Fenland, the material relating to these disputes is very full. The island monasteries were constantly quarrelling with one another and with their lay neighbours about the profits and limits of their common pastures and turbaries. Their chapter houses must have witnessed many a heated debate upon rights and wrongs 'touching a marsh.' The Spalding Register and the Crowland Chronicle, the numerous and varied Ely documents, the Cartulary of Ramsey Abbey, and the Red Book of Thorney—all contain many references to long and wearisome lawsuits. The two beautiful volumes of the Red Book, preserved in the University Library at Cambridge, record some of the differences between the three lordships of Ely, Ramsey, and Thorney, in the south-western portion of the Fenland. Some time between 1133 and 1169 the bounds between their manors had been settled by men chosen from each lordship, with final reference to another person; (fn. 93) but, early in the following century, the disputants were as violent as ever, and in their discussions the groups of intercommoning vills emerge very clearly. Thus, in 1235, in disputes between Thorney and Ely relating to Leverington, it was stated that Heyefen belonged to the manor of Wisbech and to the villate of Leverington, Newton, Tydd, Elm and Wells, and that the said vills commoned there' horn under horn with their beasts.' (fn. 94) The difficulties of the time and place are well illustrated by another dispute, which began in 1281, concerning 3,800 acres of fen. Ramsey claimed that the tenement lay in the vill of Ramsey and so in Huntingdonshire; Thorney claimed it as part of the vill of Whittlesea in Cambridgeshire; and Ely likewise agreed that it lay in many other vills and places than in Ramsey. (fn. 95) Such declarations, and the strife they caused, could normally end only in a compromise. The form that the compromise might take may be illustrated from another dispute that was proceeding at about the same time. The lordships of Ramsey and Ely adjoined in the fen of Weremeremore; the manors claiming rights of common here were the Ramsey manors of Broughton, Wistow, Warboys, Bury, Upwood, and Raveley, and, on the other hand, those of the Ely soke of Somersham including Pidley, Bluntisham and Fenton. The record declares that the manors intercommoned peacefully until 1270, when the custodes of the fen of Ely impounded the beasts of the Ramsey vills in Weremeremore, and the custodes of the fen of Ramsey impounded the beasts of the Ely manors in Crowlodemore. At length, agreement was reached in 1294 on a compromise, whereby the Ramsey manors were to common in Weremeremore, undisturbed, and the manors of the Ely soke in Crowlodemore. The compromise was extended to include other details; the lode or channel of Fenton was to be common to both groups, and the Abbot of Ramsey agreed to keep the lode of Needingworth shallow enough for the passage of the beasts and commoners of Ely to Holywell. (fn. 96)
However frequent the disputes, the fact remained that division of the intercommonable fens went on. Carried to its logical conclusion, the division could only lead to inclosure; but this was a tendency that never really developed during the Middle Ages; although, at an early date, some pieces of fen began to be inclosed with ditches and held in severalty by individual occupiers. Naturally the lords of manors were the first to appropriate pieces of fen for their own use. In an undated court-roll of Holywell, twenty-one people are amerced 'for trespassing with their horses in the several fen of the lord, viz. Holliwelle fen.' (fn. 97) In 1230, the Bishop of Ely granted out certain land in Doddington 'as it is enclosed with ditches'; (fn. 98) and, before 1233, to one Acelinus de Burgo a grant was made of 'Adelildesholm with the beach and fen as Acelinus himself surrounded it with his ditch.' (fn. 99) Later in the century, in 1279, the Abbot of Ramsey was accused of engrossing common pasture to make a several meadow. (fn. 100) And, in 1294, the men of John Wake of Deeping were complaining that the Prior of Spalding had inclosed tracts of the marsh of 60 or 80 acres, and had surrounded them in an unusual way with a ditch or fosse like a wall, thus keeping the commoners from their common, and so breaking the common law. (fn. 101) In the same year, in one of the manor courts of Ramsey, there was complaint that a certain Robert Stulle had made a separate croft for himself in what had been common pasture, and for this transgression he was fined. (fn. 102) Coming from the same year, too, is yet another record by which Eustace, Bishop of Ely, confirmed to the Prior of Ely 280 acres of 'purprestures of the fen' in Somersham, together with 1,880 acres in Elm. (fn. 103) We know also from another source that there were quite large tracts of meadow in Northee and Kingsdelph, between Whittlesea Dike and Stanground, which were enjoyed solely by the Abbots of Ramsey and Thorney and certain of their tenants. (fn. 104) There are other references, too, to 'nova purpresture' and to the holding of fen in severalty. (fn. 105) When stressing the importance of common rights, we must not forget the existence of a certain amount of inclosure on a small scale.
In some cases, this inclosure but prepared the way for an actual improvement in the condition of the fen. It would create a false impression to say that there was no reclamation during the Middle Ages, but, on the other hand, there is certainly no evidence of large-scale efforts leading to reclamation, nor any sign of a general project of drainage. Any such project would have interfered far too radically with the current manorial economy to find any support amongst the ecclesiastical landowners. At the same time, one can trace a continuous process of encroachment upon the edges of the fen. This movement was quite general. As early as 1196, the Abbot of Ramsey leased Staplewere fen for twelve years, on condition that it should be returned 'with any improvement which shall be made in that fen.' (fn. 106) In the Thorney Abbey cartulary, there is a charter dating from the end of the 12th century granting to Reginald le Moyne a messuage in Yaxley 'in the fen on the other side of the bank.' (fn. 107) Another charter, a few years later, grants to Richard de Frestune a messuage in Whittlesea and 'the toft which Lord Roger sometime our Prior raised from the fen.' (fn. 108) Sawtry Abbey received, about 1220, the gift of a messuage in Ely which Alan, the parson of Bassingbourne, had 'raised from the marsh by his own endeavours.' (fn. 109) The Hundred Rolls, compiled in 1279, mention fiefs in Sawtry and Walton enlarged by additions of from two to fifteen acres of meadow 'de nova acresca marisci'—newly acquired from the fen. (fn. 110) Finally, we hear of a certain Robert de Aula holding nine virgates of land in Over 'ut in pratis et mariscis de vetere conquestu.' (fn. 111) Not unnaturally, disputes were inevitable. In 1294, Hugh de Fenton was fined 6d. at the manor court of Slepe for ploughing up and appropriating a certain fen; (fn. 112) and Simon the Forester was presented at the Ramsey court, in 1295, because he had not given up the selion which he had appropriated the year before. (fn. 113)
But isolated references such as these can hardly be dignified with the title of reclamation. Apart from petty encroachments, which probably consisted of inclosing with a bank during a dry summer so that the winter floods were kept out, the great expanse of fenland in the Middle Level remained in its natural state throughout the Middle Ages.
Towering above such local effort was the work of Bishop Morton shortly before the end of the 15th century. He was head of the commissioners of the district and Lord of the Isle, so that the tortuous streams of the Nene were under his management; and it was clear enough to him that some extensive endeavour was needed. He not only projected but also carried into effect a definite design of drainage. At considerable expense, a cut was made from Stanground near Peterborough to Guyhirne, on the assumption that the upland waters would seek the greater gradient of the direct route, in preference to their circuitous course; this cut yet bears the name of Morton's Leam. It was 12 miles long, 40 ft. broad and 4 ft. deep; and by means of it, and its associated dams, the Nene was conveyed in direct line to Wisbech. At Guyhirne, the bishop built Tower House so that he might see his workmen afar off in the level. This brick tower was often referred to in later Inquisitions and Drainage Acts, and was still standing in 1810 when the Barrier Banks Act was passed. The significance of Bishop Morton's work lay in the fact that he confirmed the practice of straight cuts and artificial rivers; and this practice developed into a system which became the basis for all subsequent drainage work in the fenland. Just before the general reclamation of the 17th century, we learn that the water in this New Leam or Morton's Leam was flowing from Guyhirne by Elm and Outwell to the Ouse, instead of taking its course directly through Wisbech to the sea. (fn. 114) But that his scheme can be criticised is beside the argument. Coming at the close of the century, and at the close of the Middle Ages, it pointed forward to a new regime. But a century of experiment was yet to pass before any general design was to appear.
From this short account of the lowlands before their reclamation, two strong impressions emerge. In the first place, the resources of the Fens were fully utilised, and common rights were a prominent feature of that utilisation. Secondly, the whole district was dominated by the efficient bureaucracy of the powerful religious houses. In no other part of England could the Dissolution of the Monasteries have led to greater changes. An enormous acreage of land was suddenly deprived of its traditional owners, (fn. 115) and their great estates were divided and subdivided. Land changed hands frequently, obscuring and tending to obliterate the defensive obligations, which were, in any case, often confused and neglected. Commissions of Sewers were held at intervals all through the 16th century, but the work of the Commissioners grew increasingly difficult as liability for repairs changed hands and was subdivided. It was a sorry state of affairs when nothing more definite could be said than that 'the landholders of the lands of late belonging to the Cellarer of Bury' (fn. 116) were responsible for the maintenance of a certain lode. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that the presentments were mainly of neglect and decay. In 1549, (fn. 117) the Commissioners were given a dismal picture of the state of what is now the Middle Level, and in their report urged the restoration of the Wisbech outfall. In 1571, a Commission was appointed to view and repair the damage caused by the greatest flood that had been known. (fn. 118) And a suit, in the Exchequer Court, in 1579, between the towns of Whittlesea and Wisbech, was made the occasion for a thorough investigation by the Government of the state of the Nene, and of the possibility of improving it. (fn. 119) An interrogatory was drawn up, and a Commission appointed. Local enquiries were held as to whether there was any other alternative than the Ouse outfall for the almost useless Wisbech River, down which part of the waters of the South Ea and Morton's Leam still found their uncertain way; and at what expense a new outfall could be made effective. The investigation resulted in a strong plea for the improvement of the small existing drain from Clows Cross through Holland into the mouth of the Wisbech River; and we know that this drain, known as the Shire Drain, was improved and opened in 1596. (fn. 120) From this suit, it appears that the Corporation of Wisbech had sent letters to the Privy Council and to influential men in the neighbourhood inviting support in the deepening of Wisbech River—too expensive a project for the town alone. But there had been no response, and the Corporation, at the instigation of the Commissioners, had itself dammed the river, and had started the work unaided. But, in spite of this intermittent concern, no substantial improvement was made in the fens; and much was left undone that would have kept them in a tolerable state. At Elm, landholders were deliberately refusing to acknowledge their responsibilities; (fn. 121) and other pre- sentments show that this tendency was general. Later, when the first schemes of general reclamation excited the criticism of the fenmen, no attempt was made to deny that the Great Level was in a thoroughly unsatisfactory state; but it was asserted that the sole reason for this was the neglect of the 'laws of sewers,' (fn. 122) due in part to the fact that many of the Commissioners were themselves holders of land in the Fens, and were unwilling to perform their duties. (fn. 123)
But the sudden dispersal of the monastic estates, through the very confusion that it produced, paved the way for the introduction of the idea of general reclamation. For into this isolated and distinctive district of the Fens came the Tudor speculator—the commercialist who revolutionised English farming, and overturned the slow and less enterprising methods of the Middle Ages. We find the 'sheep walk' introduced in the common fens of Ely, Chatteris and Holywell, though the keeping of sheep had not been unknown, at least on the Ramsey estates. (fn. 124) Dry pasture is essential for sheep, and the Fens made excellent pasture if the danger of floods could be banished. The lessee of two inclosed fields at Conington brought a suit in Chancery against Sir Robert Cotton for not fulfilling a pledge to drain them so 'as that they should be drayned drye and the downefall of waters which (beside the other waters aforesaid) did annoye one meadowe called the longe hides . . should be dreyned dry and Conveyed away by a great loade and ditch.' (fn. 125) The details of this bargain form an apt illustration of the casual way in which piecemeal drainage was undertaken, with no thought beyond the benefit of a specific inclosure. We also find evidence of this movement for the partition and inclosure of the Fen commons exciting the opposition of the commoners here as elsewhere in England. Henry Cromwell, son of the purchaser of large estates near Ramsey, was in 1586 and 1587 leasing 'fenn closes' and 'closes of pasture,' in the old common fens of Ramsey, Bury, and Higney, to his tenants, at a small annual rent. (fn. 126) In some of these leases there was a clause binding the tenant not to convert any part of the land to tillage; such a suggestion in itself is enough to prove that, even under neglect, the Great Level was by no means merely a marsh.
Above all, there are indications that the new generation of landholders were not content with the gradually deteriorating condition of their property. Coming, in many cases, as strangers, they had no respect for the traditional importance of these lowlands; and numbers of small tenant-farmers, who had taken advantage of the change to increase their holdings, followed their example. They were anxious to recover their purchase money or rent and to make as large a profit as possible out of the lands 'late belonging to' the monasteries. Hence it would not be long before some shrewd individual would begin to consider the feasibility of safeguarding his land from the danger of floods. Local attempts at improvement began to take place all over the Fens. In the survey of Over, made in 1575, there is the story of how, because 'in one moiste somer and an harde wynter followinge they loste more by death and drowning of cattell then they gayned by the fennes in three yeres,' the inhabitants formed a common fund for repairing their banks and dikes. (fn. 127) A deposition from Ely in 1591 mentioned inclosures of fen land which used, until five years previously, to be 'drowned,' and was so no longer. (fn. 128) And, some time before 1616, efforts were made at Elm to improve the sodden condition of the fens there by clearing out and remaking certain internal drains, and these efforts were greatly hampered by the selfish opposition of one individual. (fn. 129) These are local communal efforts, but they demonstrate that the old fen economy was breaking down with the supersession of the traditional system; and they show that some fenmen themselves were no longer content with the state of their lands. In 1601, a philanthropist of Outwell left in his will a sum of money to build a sluice at the end of Ship Lode and to buy lands producing an income of £8 a year for its maintenance. (fn. 130) Strangers were likely to be even less content with the uncertain profits of the Fens. Some time in Elizabeth's reign a large slice of fen south of Outwell was reclaimed by a group of individuals, and known as Londoners' Fen, though London Lode, one of its boundaries, was many years older. Tradition has it that this tract remained in a perfect state of drainage until the end of James I's reign. (fn. 131)
Here was the link between the small encroachments of the Middle Ages on the edge of the fens and the general reclamation of the 17th century. And, individual though these efforts at improvement were, and regardless of the general good of the district, they were definite signs of a growing feeling that the recovery of the Fens, at least from summer floods, was a desirable and an economic proposition. But, at this point, a great difficulty arose. There were few large estates in the Fens; where the land was not common pasture (in which many people had an interest) it was mainly in the hands of small capitalists or innumerable tenant-farmers. Capital was required for extensive operations. No one person in the Great Level had enough wealth; many were totally opposed to any improvement which necessitated the expenditure of money or energy; and the large number of people living largely on the perquisites of the commons resented any suggestion of interference with them. Consequently, that typical product of the 16th century, the 'undertaker,' appeared. By the terms of the General Drainage Act of 1600, (fn. 132) lords of manors and the majority of commoners in any common fen, together with the owners of any 'several fen ground' lying near, might bargain and contract part of such fens to any person or persons who would undertake 'the draining and keeping dry perpetually' of them. In other words, it was recognised that outside financial assistance, upon the security of part of the reclaimed lands, must be procured before the Fens could be improved. The time was ripe for a 'greate designe' in the Fenland.
The drainage and its problems
Very soon after the accession of James I, in 1603, the ambitious scheme for reclaiming the whole of the Great Level in one enterprise was put forward; and, for over twenty years, a struggle raged between the conservative fenmen commoners and the progressive outside speculators. In 1605, the Lord Chief Justice Popham, and a number of others, bargained with the Commissioners of Sewers for the recovery of all the fens between the Ouse and the Peterborough uplands. The undertakers were to maintain for ever any 'works' they made, and any existing watercourses they made use of; and, in return, they were to have 130,000 acres, allotted from the worst part of every fen. Inhabitants who did not contribute in lands were to be rated by the Commissioners towards the expenses of the scheme. (fn. 133) And, in spite of wild outbursts of opposition from the fenlanders, and more reasoned criticism from such eminent persons as the Bishop of Ely, (fn. 134) this scheme was set on foot. But after about three years the work was abandoned, though the Commissioners recommended in 1609 that it should be continued. (fn. 135) The net result of this first project was Popham's Eau, a straight cut from the Nene, four miles east of March, into Well Creek, at Nordelph, just west of Salter's Lode. Discussions in Parliament and in the Privy Council and at Sessions of Sewers continued intermittently; and, in 1619, another scheme was suggested, (fn. 136) but it was not taken up. Finally, since neither private undertakers nor the Commissioners had accomplished anything, the King himself became undertaker for the work, in return for 120,000 acres of the reclaimed lands; (fn. 137) and he summoned Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, to take charge of the proceedings. The introduction of a foreigner only increased the stubborn opposition of the fenmen to the Commissioners of Sewers and all their schemes and activities. But the lethargy which characterised the last few years of James's reign smothered his interest in the Great Level; no part of his grand scheme was accomplished, and Vermuyden spent his energies reclaiming the fens of South Yorkshire.
By this time, some of the inhabitants of the Isle of Ely, and of the villages around, were reluctantly becoming convinced that the draining of their fens was inevitable. The Great Level of the Fens, through continual neglect, was in a worse condition than ever before. From the reports of Sir Clement Edmonds and Mr. Atkyns to the Privy Council in 1618, (fn. 138) we gather that the main rivers had deteriorated to such an extent that any adequate repairs would be too expensive for the inhabitants of the Great Level to undertake; that every scheme for improvement was met by the factious hostility of the fenmen; and that something must be done, but that it was useless to rely on the public spirit of the fen landowners. In 1629, Charles I, in turn, invited Vermuyden to undertake the recovery of the Level. This aroused a fresh outburst of opposition, and the fenlanders decided to take a hand in the matter themselves. Accordingly, they approached the Earl of Bedford, who owned one of the few large estates in the Great Level, round Thorney. At their request, he undertook to free the Level from all but the worst winter floods and, in 1630, concluded a contract with the Commissioners of Sewers. By this agreement, known as the Lynn Law, (fn. 139) the Fens were to be made good 'summer grounds' within six years, with an allowance for delay through floods. The Earl and his associates in the enterprise were to seek a charter of incorporation in order to acquire the powers necessary to carry out the scheme. Highways and byroads were to be made throughout the Level, and bridges to be built where necessary; 95,000 acres of reclaimed land, allotted from every quality of soil, were to be handed over to the undertakers upon completion of the contract; 12,000 acres of this land were to go to the King, and 40,000 were permanently charged with the maintenance of the drainage works. In the following year, the financial side of the undertaking was set on a sound basis by the Indenture of Fourteen Parts. (fn. 140) Under this agreement the whole interest was divided into twenty transferable shares among fourteen partners, each share pledging the owner and his assigns to find a twentieth part of the expenses, with a minimum of £500.
Having settled the preliminaries, the party set to work. A new channel was made for the waters of the Ouse, running in a straight line from Earith to Salter's Lode, seventy feet wide and twenty-one miles long. (fn. 141) Bevill's Leam, from just north of Whittlesea Mere direct to Guyhirne, and Hill's Cut, parallel to Morton's Leam, were made. The South Ea and the Shire Drain were enlarged and repaired, and sluices were set at Salter's Lode, at the 'Horseshoe' just below Wisbech, and at Tydd Gote on the Shire Drain, to prevent the tides from running too far up the rivers. In 1635 the Adventurers were incorporated; in 1636 a detailed survey of the Great Level was taken; (fn. 142) and in the following year, by the St. Ives Law, (fn. 143) the Commissioners decreed that the partners had fulfilled their contract, and assigned to them 95,000 acres of land. But the drainage was by no means perfect, and this first Corporation suffered from the great weakness that it had no power to impose rates towards its expenses, or to enforce payment of the Adventurers' shares. Moreover, the Earl had made a great mistake in enlisting the services of Vermuyden in the undertaking. The fenmen had not been unanimous in approaching the Earl of Bedford, and now their latent hostility broke out afresh. Complaints and petitions were showered on the Privy Council, and these, apparently, gradually swung the pendulum of Court favour against the Corporation. The succeeding events are complicated to follow. The St. Ives Law, which, though premature, had been absolutely essential to relieve the more or less bankrupt Adventurers, was reversed in 1639. Charles I offered to perfect the work himself in consideration of 57,000 acres over and above the land allotted to the Corporation, and the Commissioners accepted his offer. The Adventurers were driven out of possession of their land; and many of them were ruined by the imposition of a heavy tax. But affairs of State led to the shelving of the royal project, though not before one or two new works had been initiated. (fn. 144)
Throughout the period of the Civil War the whole question was in abeyance, and most of the new works were wilfully destroyed or fell into ruin through neglect. But, during these years of alarms and excursions, the fen project had not been forgotten and, as soon as the Commonwealth government was stable, William, son of the former Earl of Bedford, offered to assist any fresh project of reclamation. A number of Adventurers, joining with him, applied to Parliament for sanction and support. Many fenmen still remained unconvinced, and there was fresh opposition; but Cromwell himself was not unacquainted with the Fens, and was in sympathy with the motives of the drainers. The result was the incorporation of a second company by an Act of Parliament in 1649. (fn. 145) The complete drainage of the Great Level was to be perfected by 1656, and the Company was to have the 95,000 acres allotted by the St. Ives Law, to be held in trust for the Adventurers, and to be made liable for the maintenance of their works. The Bedford Level Corporation was to act in future as sole Commission of Sewers within the Great Level, and was to have the power of rating the Adventurers' lands, and of selling them in default of payment. It was amid doubts and fears that work was restarted. Complicated negotiations followed; schemes and plans were discussed and the net result was that Vermuyden was again placed in charge of the work.
These became the North, the Middle and the South Levels, respectively. Work upon the North and Middle Levels was started first. The works of the earlier drainers were restored and, in addition, new banks were made, sluices were built, and channels made secure. In particular, the New Bedford River was cut, running parallel to the Old Bedford River, somewhat to the east; the new cut became known generally as the Hundred Foot River. High 'barrier' banks were raised on the outer side of each of the Bedford Rivers to prevent the floods of the Ouse from spreading beyond the 'Washes,' as the strip of land deliberately left between the cuts was called. The old course of the Ouse was sluiced both at Earith and Denver, so that it became merely the main drain for the fens in the South Level and for the streams that flowed in over the eastern edge of the Fenland, while the New Bedford River became the main channel of the Ouse. The southern branch of the Nene was linked with the Ouse by resuscitating Popham's Eau (fn. 146) and by a new cut, the Forty Foot Drain, stretching from Ramsey to the Old Bedford River. The fens round Chatteris and Doddington were drained by the Sixteen Foot Drain, running to Popham's Eau from just north of the Forty Foot Drain. Finally; Tongs Drain was cut from Nordelph on Well Creek to Lynn River below Downham Bridge, to act as a relief channel when there was great pressure at Salter's Lode, and sluices were built at each end of the drain. Other new sluices included that erected at Salter's Lode, at the mouth of the Old Bedford River, for the convenience of drainage and navigation, and to prevent an influx of tidal waters into the Middle Level. Welches Dam, named after one of the Company's engineers, was built to turn the Forty Foot into the lower course of the Old Bedford River, and so to the outfall near Salter's Lode. The upper part of the Old Bedford River, from Welches Dam to Earith, became abandoned, and, wrote S. Wells in 1830, 'has been since used only for the purpose of private and district drainages.' (fn. 147) These were the main arterial works attempted for the Middle Level, and only one important addition has since been made. Similar works were undertaken in the other two Levels, and the whole area was honeycombed with high roads, which had formerly, perforce, been few and uncertain. Bridges were made, and every care was taken to provide an adequate water-level for navigation in the Ouse, the Cam, and the Nene. On 26 March 1651, the first warrant of adjudication was given at Peterborough which 'adjudged all that part of the said Great Levell of the Fennes lying on the north-west part of the Bedford River to be dreyned in such sort as by the acts of parliament is appointed to be dreyned.' (fn. 148) In this way began the evolution of the complicated organisation whose analysis occupies the greater part of Samuel Wells's two volumes on the Bedford Level, published in 1830.
The constitution of the Corporation was settled by an Act of 1663. (fn. 149) Without expressly re-enacting the 'Pretended Act,' as the Act of 1649 was called after the Restoration, this measure tacitly approved its provisions; in particular, it confirmed the statutory powers of taxation and distraint, and of the Sewers Commission. During the passage of the Bill, long and acrimonious disputes took place between the existing Adventurers and the representatives of the parties to the Indenture of Fourteen Parts, (fn. 150) who claimed land under the St. Ives Law. But the Privy Council decided in favour of the new company, and the Bedford Level Corporation became the sole owners of 95,000 acres of land and of the new cuts, sluices, banks, roads and bridges. The control of the Corporation was vested in a board consisting of a Governor, six bailiffs and twenty-four Conservators, to be elected annually at a public meeting of the owners of 100 acres, or more, of corporation land. Officers were provided for under the Act—surveyor, register, treasurer, auditor, engineer and superintendents. And this constitution remained virtually unchanged until the disappearance of the Corporation in 1914. In addition to rates levied on the Adventurers' lands, tolls could be levied on the roads, bridges and navigation; and the pasture on the banks and 'washlands' was to be let out for an annual rent. By an Act of 1667 a system of fixed graduated rating was introduced, based on the quality of the soil; a 'whole tax' was fixed at 4d. per acre for soil of the worst quality, and this rose by 4d. through eleven different grades. This system continued until an Act in 1862 swept away, as far as the Middle Level was concerned, all distinction between corporation and private land. Moreover, as Commissioners of Sewers, the Board could tax the whole, or any part, of the Bedford Level for special drainage purposes, subject only to the provision in the Statute of Sewers of 1532 that direct benefit should be the criterion for liability to any rate.
For some forty years, the reclaimed Bedford Level was in fairly satisfactory condition. Cultivation was introduced on lands which had never before known a plough, and the faith of the speculators in the economic value of the late fens was amply justified. As Fuller wrote in 1655, 'the best argument to prove that a thing may be done, is actually to do it.' (fn. 151)
But despite many praises, it was soon evident that all was not well in the Bedford Level. The immediate consequences of the draining held forth a promise that was not to be fulfilled for many a long year. Some of the complaints of the time were summarised by the General Drainage Act of 1663; that the draining of one place had made worse the lands in other places; that there were many discrepancies in the allotments of land between owners, commoners, and townships; and that the future maintenance of the Level involved a clash with the interests responsible for navigation. But, as the 17th century drew to a close, these legal and administrative difficulties were being overshadowed by natural difficulties which brought the very success of the drainers near to disaster. Without some idea of the nature and magnitude of these physical difficulties, it is impossible to understand the rapid deterioration of every scheme of drainage, and to appreciate the controversy that has raged round the Bedford Level from the Restoration up to the present day.
For purposes of land drainage the principal feature in any river is its natural gradient or 'fall.' Together with the volume of the water, this controls the speed of the current and its power of scouring out the river-bed. The greater the gradient, the more rapid the passage of water, and the better the channel. The 'fall' of any river can be artificially increased by shortening its course from one level of land to another, by embanking it, or by dredging. Normally, the natural gradient is sufficient to insure a satisfactory outfall; the force of the current can grind a bed for the waters, and so keep the channel clear. But in the Fens, conditions were far from normal. For forty miles from the mouths of the rivers, the gradient was very slight, and, therefore, the current and the resulting 'scour' were sluggish, so that the natural riverbeds were wide and shallow, and winding. Finally, there were strong tides to be reckoned with, bringing in unusual quantities of silt. In the Ouse, the tide penetrated as far as Earith and beyond; and in the Nene, its influence was felt as far up as Guyhirne, when the Horseshoe Sluice was open. The downward force of the fresh waters was thus no match for the strong tidal flow. The river-beds were only large enough to contain both fresh and tidal waters in dry seasons, (fn. 152) and the slow ebb-tides and slower fresh-water currents lacked the necessary force to dislodge the immense quantities of silt deposited at every tide. Consequently, the beds of the estuaries were continually being raised, and the fresh waters found greater and greater difficulty in forcing their way to sea. At the time of the general reclamation, the outfalls of the Welland and the Nene were very bad; and the state of the Ouse above and below Lynn was anything but satisfactory.
About the general scheme of the drainage there had been two principal schools of thought among the Adventurers; one party, headed by Vermuyden, was in favour of shortening the courses of the main rivers by straight cuts, thus increasing their gradient; the other party advocated the deepening, clearing and embanking of existing water-courses. With the triumph of Vermuyden, the former plan was adopted; and the principle was established that the old natural channels should be abandoned, where expedient, in favour of new straight cuts. (fn. 153) The basis of Vermuyden's plan, set out in his Discourse Touching the Drayning, of 1642, was, briefly, this: that distinction should be made between the upland waters and the water actually falling upon the Fens. The former were to be conveyed through the Level in wide, straight cuts, embanked to prevent overflow, to the nearest outfall; the downfall water was to be conveyed, as far as possible, in separate drains to a separate outfall. This separation was intended to prevent the swifter upland waters from overriding the more sluggish fen waters in the main drains and rivers, and so causing floods in the minor drains. As far as the separation was concerned, the plan was carried out: the upland waters were, in the main, confined to Morton's Leam and the Hundred Foot River. But, unfortunately, all the waters of the Middle and South Levels were each directed to a single outfall towards the King's Lynn estuary, via the sluice at Salter's Lode and Denver Sluice respectively; and, moreover, they were organised in such a way that the waters of the Hundred Foot River had precedence of outflow. (fn. 154) Further, there have always been a number of brooks running down from the edge of the upland into the Fens, and overflowing easily in wet seasons, to become a source of local damage. No attempt was made to intercept these streamlets by an adequate catchwater drain to convey their contents into one or other of the main channels; consequently, even the severance of upland and fen waters was only partially effected. (fn. 155)
A much more serious criticism, however, was the fact that Vermuyden's scheme, and the subsequent reclamation, stopped short at Salter's Lode and Guyhirne, and did not extend into the zone of outfalls. Long before the project of general reclamation had been mooted, the decline of the river outfalls was known to be the chief reason for the flooding of the Fens; and, from 1579 onwards, every proposal emphasised the need of starting improvement at the sea and working upwards. The Commissioners of Sewers, in 1579, advocated the opening of the Shire Drain by working from the sea up to Clows Cross; (fn. 156) and, again, in 1609, it was decided that Popham's scheme should be abandoned and all energies concentrated upon improving the Wisbech outfall. (fn. 157) A pamphlet of much the same date stated that the neglect of the 'laws of sewers' had led to the silting of Wisbech River, which in turn prevented any improvement of the internal drainage. (fn. 158) And Sir William Ayloffe, in 1619, expressly undertook to improve the outfall as a primary part of his project of reclamation. (fn. 159) Vermuyden himself laid down most emphatically in his Discourse that, if the Middle Level was to be immune from floods of the Nene, Wisbech River must be widened and deepened. Finally, Colonel Dodson, who, in 1665, commented on the completed drainage of the Bedford Level, confined himself to the subject of the outfall, with the remark: 'in all draining we have respect to our outfall, for if we cannot be master there, all other endeavours signifie nothing.' (fn. 160)
But, in 1665, the omission of adequate outfall works had not yet been revealed in all its weaknesses. For a time, while the drains were in their first state of perfection, the increased speed of the waters passing down to Lynn and Wisbech did improve the estuaries of the Ouse and the Nene. But, in a disturbingly short time, a rapid deterioration was noticed. The waters of the Middle Level, collecting into the Old Bedford River and Well Creek, were liable to be overridden by the Hundred Foot River in times of pressure. (fn. 161) This obstruction of the outfall caused a high level of water in the internal drains, placing a great strain on the defences of the Middle Level just when it was essential that the waters should get away as quickly as possible. The bed of the Hundred Foot River had been laid eight feet higher than that of the old Ouse with a vertical drop at the northern end. Combined with the sluices at Denver, and with those at the mouths of the Old Bedford River and Well Creek, this difference of level meant that, for several hours each day, the tidal waters stood stationary on the very threshold of the Level, depositing vast quantities of silt. The high Hundred Foot bed prevented the tide from rising as far as it had done in the Ouse, and part of the ebb-tide 'scour' was thus forfeited. Increased deposits of silt in Lynn River more than counterbalanced the swifter upland current and, within a short time, the drop from the bed of the Hundred Foot to the outfall channel had disappeared; and there were several feet of silt lying against the sluice sills.
There were further difficulties. The large and powerful navigation interests involved in the Fens always insisted on the maintenance of adequate levels of water in the arterial drains for the uninterrupted passage of boats and barges. When the ideal of every fenland engineer was to keep the level of water in the internal drains low enough to contain a sudden flood at any time, this compulsory height of water became a severe, and a rather unnecessary, handicap. (fn. 162) Until 1753, the navigation interests paid no tolls to the authority which maintained its channels; and these interests always opposed, in the most stubborn way, any proposals for the improvement of the Bedford Level. Denver Sluice in particular caused great dispute between those interested in navigation and those interested in draining. It was viewed with great hostility by the merchants of King's Lynn; the vigilance of the Bedford Level officers alone prevented it from being damaged.
But there were yet other difficulties of a more fundamental nature. Neither Vermuyden nor any of the other drainage engineers foresaw, when they planned and executed the schemes, that, as soon as they started to drain the Level, the surface of the peat-fen would become rapidly lower in level. This lowering was due, in part, to the shrinkage of the peat as it dried, but also to the wasting away of the drying peat-surface owing to bacteriological decomposition. (fn. 163) Indeed, the better the drainage, the faster the wastage. The result of this disconcerting characteristic was that, within a comparatively short time from the completion of the reclamation, many of the main channels flowed at a higher level than the land adjoining; and so the Fenland waterways got shallower and less efficient. This extraordinary paradox can still be seen along most of the Fen rivers, where the height of the barrier bank is far greater from the outside than from the beds of the rivers. The spongy nature of the banks, always a problem in such light porous soil, became, as a result, a constant menace to the efficiency of the drainage; and the subsidence of land endangered the security of buildings and embankments. Moreover, the beds of the outfall channels, never very low, were soon almost as high as the lowest parts of the Fens. (fn. 164) The minor drains, too, lost depth. Thus the difficulty of getting rid of the downfall water increased annually.
There were other difficulties also. Factions on the Board, and large arrears of taxes, meant that essential works of maintenance were not undertaken. Owing to the nature of the soil, the banks along the new cuts crumbled away very rapidly, and constant supervision was necessary to prevent rushes and weeds from choking the drains. Silt and gravels soon formed in their beds, combining with the first signs of land sinkage to render them even less effective. Above all, the individual owners of reclaimed land were very slow in providing minor drains to carry the water off their fields into the old natural streams or the new drains. The responsibilities of the Corporation did not extend beyond the maintenance of the two great upland channels with their 'wash lands,' (fn. 165) and the main internal drains; and these alone could not suffice for perfect drainage. Even where minor drains were made, they soon flowed at a lower level than the channels into which they discharged.
The only remedy for such conditions was to pump the water from dike
to drain, and from drain to river. In fact, the introduction of pumping engines
was the critical factor that saved most of the Fens from re-inundation. Some
such engine may have been in use before 1600 (fn. 166) and, at any rate during the
early part of the 17th century, there were notices (fn. 167) of patents for engines 'for
raising water and draining surrounded grounds.' In Hayward's Survey of
the Fens in 1635–6, reference was made to an 'Ingine bank at Oxney' which
is mentioned again in the St. Ives Law of Sewers in 1638. (fn. 168) Walter Blith, in his
treatise, (fn. 169) instructed:
'that having well provided against the waters of bordering Fens, find out the lowest part of all thy Lands, and thither draw a good substantial Master-drain through all thy lands, and there plant a water-Engine, which may either be wrought by the wind, or by the strength of horse, yeen possibly by the strength of two or three men.'
Ashmole, in 1657, observed that 'the Windmills about Wisbech stand upon
Tumuli'; (fn. 170) these were hardly drainage mills, but it is also evident that mills
were being increasingly used for drainage purposes. In the April meetings
of 1679, at Ely, the attention of the Corporation of the Level was directed (fn. 171)
to such artificial drainage:
'Ordered, that for the better and speedier cleansing and scouring of draynes, the four surveyors of the Level do forthwith buy each of them a mill, made for that purpose, and pay for the same out of money allotted for their respective Levels.'
Whether these particular 'mills' were engines for raising water or for clearing
weeds and mud, the fact remains that pumping was becoming increasingly
common. Nor did such expedients pass without exciting opposition, for a mill
sometimes worked to the prejudice and drowning of neighbouring country.
At the Board meetings of the Corporation, discussion about the setting up of
mills became more and more frequent. The Corporation frequently resented
the employment of such pumps because, in throwing up water, they endangered the banks of the drains, or caused an overflow. For some years, they
were frequently condemned and ordered to be pulled down. On 28 May
1696, (fn. 172) at the Fen Office in the Inner Temple,
'this Court being informed by Mr. Wakelyn that a Mill is intended to be sett up by Toyes Foster to drayne the Lady Portland's Lands, doe hereby declare that they will assist Madam Coventry against his setting up such a Mill for that the same will be very prejudiciall to ye Adventurers Lands thereabouts, And also to Eldernell Farme.'
Yet, despite such complaints, the fact was that mills provided the only means of clearing the water and, as the 17th passed into the 18th century, mill drainage became more and more prevalent. By 1726, the state of the rivers and interior drains had become so bad that the Corporation found it impolitic to resist local efforts at improvement any longer; and, in the following year, the first sub-district was established at Haddenham in the South Level. A private Act of Parliament authorised this district to set up a pump, and to raise funds by rates within its boundaries for securing and maintaining immunity from floods. This precedent was followed at intervals through the next 150 years by other groups of landowners supplementing the work of the Bedford Level Corporation in looking after the main drains. In this way, did the whole of the Middle Level, like the other Levels, come to consist, almost entirely, of small sub-districts, each dependent for its internal drainage upon small cuts leading to a central drain which discharged its water by pumping into one of the larger arterial cuts.
Each of these statutory districts had its own authority, with full control over the internal drainage of the area, with wide powers of local taxation, and with limited powers of negotiation with adjacent bodies over matters of mutual concern. These bodies were a product of the laissez-faire attitude prevailing at the time of their creation; (fn. 173) and no attempt was made, until 1914, to correlate them with each other or with a wider authority. Liability to a district drainage rate in no way freed land from liability to the general rates levied by the larger authorities. At first, the Corporation only levied rates from the Adventurers' lands, but gradually the burden of the low lands grew so heavy that it became necessary for every acre in the area to contribute to the maintenance of the main drainage works. The cost of the reclamation and of subsequent improvements has been far greater than is generally realised. Most of the members of the first reclamation company went bankrupt; and the shares in the second Corporation were divided and subdivided to meet the demands for capital. Large debts were contracted from time to time after the initial reclamation for extensive operations; the interest on them added further to the demands on the income of the Corporation. Moreover, from the nature of the soil, the expense of maintenance, accruing almost from the date of completion of any work, has been a very heavy responsibility for the Corporation and other bodies within the Bedford Level. (fn. 174) Rates were constantly in arrears, in spite of drastic penalties, and the difficulty of guaranteeing a revenue, at once adequate and certain, did much to produce the long period of inactivity with which the history of the Bedford Level Corporation closed. Yet its finances were on the soundest of all bases—the possession of a large amount of landed property, extremely rich, exceptionally fertile, exceedingly valuable. The key to the history of the Middle Level since 1700 is that it grew increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain the value of that property, dependent as it was upon an adequate system of drainage, and this difficulty was associated not the least with the continued lowering of the fen surface.
In the meantime, other difficulties had arisen. The Bedford Level Corporation had been successful in retaining the Denver Sluice against much opposition from those interested in navigation, particularly from the townsfolk of King's Lynn. But its destruction came by the hand of nature, for, in 1713, a combination of a high tide and violent floods undermined the sluice and wrecked it. It remained in this condition for some years; the obstruction to navigation was thus demolished, but the effect of that abolition upon the South Level and, indirectly, upon Middle Level, was critical. As a result, the whole confluence of waters near Denver flowed with the tide up the old course of the Ouse, which had not yet silted to the height of the Hundred Foot River. The South Level was reduced at times almost to a lake; and this state of affairs continued at every unusually high spring tide. (fn. 175) Denver Sluice, which had caused so much discussion during its lifetime, was to cause even more after its disappearance. There were petitions and applications and memoranda between the Bedford Level Corporation, the individual proprietors, and the Corporation of Lynn.
The renewed deterioration of the Ouse estuary produced the great outfall controversy which, after the lapse of two centuries, is still full of vigour. The gauntlet was thrown down by Bridgman. In 1724, he published a report on the state of the Great Level, declaring that the system of sluices had not been carried far enough. He advocated the exclusion of the tidal flow from the river above Lynn by the erection of a new sluice at the upper end of the harbour; and he suggested a straight wide cut above the sluice, to act as a receptacle for the fresh waters during the highest part of the tide. This unexpected proposition roused the fears of the Corporation of King's Lynn for the maintenance of their harbour. On their behalf, the challenge was taken up by Armstrong, who was ably seconded by Badeslade. (fn. 176) Both these engineers condemned the erection of sluices anywhere on a tidal river; and they urged a return to the old system of a free tidal influx in the Ouse, on the principle that the ebb-tide assisted the scouring power of the fresh waters. (fn. 177) Here are the two sides of the controversy—sluices or not. 'All parties acknow- ledge the misfortune, for they all suffer; but all do not agree in the Cause of this general Calamity, nor in the Method that must be put in practice to relieve them; but all agree and declare that if something be not done, this Country will be rendered uninhabitable.' (fn. 178) And, all the time, the real factor in the situation was the continued wastage of the peat-surface.
No effective measures seemed to result from these discussions and proceedings. At length, in 1740, John Leaford published Some observations made of the frequent drowned condition of the South Level of the Fenns, which proposed a scheme for relieving the situation. This was never carried out; but, some years later, Charles Labelye, a Swiss engineer, was asked to give an opinion on Leaford's ideas and to make a 'report upon the fens.' The result of his observation was a pamphlet in 1745, Result of a View of the Great Level. The plan outlined by Labelye was adopted; and, between 1748 and 1750, Denver Sluice was rebuilt. In the following year, however, Nathaniel Kinderley's State of the Navigation of the Towns of Lynn, Wisbech, Spalding and Boston, 1751, introduced a new element into the dispute. Kinderley's theory was that the primary cause for the unsatisfactory result of Vermuyden's enterprise was not Denver Sluice, nor the height of the Hundred Foot River, but the wide, shallow, circuitous river below Salter's Lode. He therefore suggested the cutting of a new channel from the Eau Brink near St. German's to the lower end of Lynn harbour. This would cut out a seven-mile detour, thus improving both the gradient and the scour of the river; and the greater velocity so obtained would enable more water to be run off from the Fens. (fn. 179) Elstobb supported this scheme in 1776, (fn. 180) but coupled it with the reopening of the old tidal channels and the closing of the Hundred Foot River, except for navigation. This amended project was, in turn, approved by Thomas Hyde Page in 1777. (fn. 181) The Board of the Bedford Level Corporation would consider no interference with their sluices, but decided that the Eau Brink Cut was a worthy experiment, and spent twenty years discussing plans for it. The result, based upon an optimistic report by Golborne (fn. 182) on the probable effect of the cut, was the first Eau Brink Act, passed in 1795. By this, the Corporation was empowered to levy an annual rate of 6d. per acre on all those lands in the Bedford Level draining by the estuary of the Ouse; and it was intended that the maintenance of the completed cut was to be in the hands of a special body of Commissioners and defrayed by a 3d. rate. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars interfered with the progress of the work, and the expense proved far greater than had been anticipated. In 1809, John Rennie issued a report (fn. 183) giving a detailed account of the defects in the current system of drainage and suggesting improvement. The obstructed state of the outfall, the incapacity of the neglected drains and rivers to contain the fresh waters, the height of the main rivers above the fen,—these were the main weaknesses in the Middle and South Levels. The Eau Brink Cut, a catchwater drain from Stanground round the edge of the uplands to Mildenhall to intercept the brooks, (fn. 184) and the thorough reconditioning of the internal drains,—these were his remedies. The first, at least, was accomplished after numerous additional Acts had been passed; in 1821, seventy years after it was first proposed, the Eau Brink Cut was opened. It had an immediately beneficial effect on the two Levels, but was not sufficient by itself to perfect the drainage. (fn. 185) With the continued wastage of the peat, how could it?
During this time, the state of the Nene outfall was also causing anxiety; and attention was repeatedly drawn to the condition of the estuary below Wisbech. The river terminated about four miles below the town, after running very irregularly through salt marshes, changing its direction frequently, and sometimes splitting into two or three branches. Charles Kinderley, about 1720, urged that embankments be made to confine the stream to one course through the sands as far as Peter's Point, (fn. 186) seven miles below Wisbech. He hoped that by these means a fall of something over five feet would be obtained. His suggestions were adopted by the Bedford Level Corporation, which entered into an agreement about the matter with the town of Wisbech. The work was started; but, before its completion, the Wisbech authorities, fearful for their harbour and its navigation, filed a petition in the Chancery Court and obtained an injunction to stop the undertaking. Considerable litigation followed, and the work remained suspended for 50 years. The project was revived in 1751 (fn. 187) by Nathaniel Kinderley, the son of the original proposer, but it was not until 1773 that the abandoned work was extended. The finished channel was called Kinderley's Cut in memory of its first proposer. Its effects were immediately beneficial, but the drainage was still far from being perfect. Wastage of the peat-surface continued unceasingly.
What was the condition of the Middle Level during the period of outfall controversies and improvements? On the south-east and north-west it was protected only by barrier banks from the whole force of the Hundred Foot River and from the Nene in flood. A considerable depth of water has been known to stand on the 'washlands' for days together. Its outfall at Salter's Lode was regulated by a sluice and obstructed by the defective state of the river below Denver. Even the efficiency of the Tongs Drain, constructed expressly as an emergency outlet, was soon impaired by deposits of silt against the gates into Lynn River. And numbers of brooks running from the uplands towards the meres, overflowing at every opportunity, completed the hemming-in of this wide expanse of reclaimed fenland.
A view of the state in the Middle Level halfway through the 18th century is provided by a pamphlet published by Thomas Neale in 1748 dealing with The ruinous state of the parish of Manea, in the Isle of Ely, and the causes and remedy of it. A great number of mills had recently been erected in the Level:
'There are now no less than two hundred and fifty in the Middle Level. In Whittlesea parish alone, I was told by some of the principal inhabitants there are more than fifty mills, and there are, I believe, as many in Donnington with its members. I myself, riding very lately from Ramsey to Holme, about six miles across the Fens, counted forty in my view; there are between Ramsey and Old Bedford Bank, and upon the forty-feet, sixteen-feet and twenty-feet, and to Salter's Load in Well parish (surrounding Manea), fifty-seven. A great number of these mills throw their water directly upon Manea. This is the first cause of the ruinous state of Manea. Secondly, a large tunnel, above four feet wide and more than three deep, was laid down in 1712 under the forty-feet, both bank and drain. The visible design of this bank was to defend the lower parts of the level from the waters of the upper parts; but by this tunnel the waters of a large tract of land above us (near ten thousand acres) have been continually poured into the twenty-feet, the only drain that Manea has to carry off its waters. And a third cause is the decay of the general outfall of the Ouse since Denver Sluice fell. Of this, I have many witnesses to produce, as well as my own experience. I have heard ancient people say, that if Manea heretofore were drowned two feet deep in February by a breach of banks, for it was never drowned otherwise, they could plow and sow those lands with oats that same year; but now it is too well known, if it be drowned but one foot deep at that time, it can scarce be got dry all that summer.'
The tale of woe continued; two to three thousand sheep reduced to scarce three hundred; fifteen or sixteen comb of oats per acre to none at all; tithes of £100 per annum fallen to a value hardly worth collecting. The remedy Neale suggested was to obtain a Drainage Act and erect mills as the other proprietors of the Level had done. That this was successful can be seen from an entry (fn. 188) in the Order Book of the Drainage Commissioners.
From these proceedings it may be gathered that, although the parish of Manea was unfortunate, conditions generally in the Middle Level were considerably better than those in the South Level. But there were other difficulties; for the Nene, which ran through the Middle Level, was an important link in the traffic that passed to and fro between Lynn and Huntingdonshire; and, in many places, the channel was filled up and decayed. Both those who used it for transport and those who used it as a master-drain made application to the Corporation of the Bedford Level that it should be scoured and deepened. Plans, discussions, and arguments followed, until the several parties agreed upon the main outline for an Act of Parliament and, in 1753, the Nene Act was passed. (fn. 189) By it, all traffic along the streams was subjected to tolls, which provided a fund to scour and deepen the river for the mutual benefit of navigation and draining. To guard against any future demands of the drainers, a clause was inserted which caused much dispute, and which many regarded as being responsible for a considerable share of the defects of the Middle Level Drainage. The clause enacted 'that the drain called Marshland Cut, or the Tongs Drain, shall not at any Time be run, unless upon a Breach of Bank, or in case of imminent Danger thereof, or unless the Water in the said Rivers be raised more than one Foot above the level Soil of the lowest Lands in the Fens, nor, in any of the said Cases, without an Order in Writing signed by ten of the said Commissioners; whereof five to be Commissioners for the said Corporation of the Great Level of the Fens, or for the Borough of Kings Lynn; and the other five to be Commissioners for the City of Peterborough, or the Places aforesaid.'
As the Tongs Sluice gave considerable relief to the Level, this injunction prevented the Fens from benefiting until the damage had been done. And, in any case, the proviso was indefinite and unsatisfactory. Further, it soon became evident that the resources of the Commissioners were unequal to the expenses incurred in the execution of those works absolutely necessary. A large debt was contracted, but the country still remained subject to inundations; nor did the complaints cease. In 1775, a meeting was held at the George Inn, Ramsey, by the proprietors of lands in the Middle Level, to consider a proposal for a general outfall to the sea and the prospect of a better drainage. How bad conditions had become may be gauged from the fact 'that a respectable alderman of Lynn facetiously observed that he regularly attended the River Nene Meetings, until he saw, on his way thither, persons making hay in the bed of the river; after which he thought such attendance perfectly unnecessary.' (fn. 190) But the Middle Level River Act did not come until 1810. It is sufficient to say that for the latter half of the 18th century landowners in the Middle Level were at any rate able to live as much in hope as in fear.
At a Board Meeting of the Corporation, held on March 10th, 1697, the three divisions of the Bedford Level, though remaining under the general control of the Corporation, had become separate entities, each responsible for its own government, for the raising of its own taxes, and for the control of its own internal works of drainage. (fn. 191) This state of affairs continued during the eighteenth century. But by the Middle Level Act, the policy of separation was carried still further. In 1810, a separate body of Commissioners was created to superintend the clearing and deepening of the rivers in the Middle Level, and of the various streams flowing from the uplands. The Commissioners were empowered to lay an annual rate of 1s. per acre on all lands in the Level liable to taxation under the Eau Brink Acts, together with an annual maintenance rate of 3d. per acre after the completion of the work. This Act is significant in that it removed the control of the main internal waterways of the Middle Level from the Bedford Level Corporation and put it into the hands of Commissioners, all of whom were, under the provisions of the Act, landholders in the Level. The Corporation was still responsible for the banks of these waterways, but gradually the smaller authorities took them over as the efficiency of the Corporation grew weaker and its active periods became fewer. (fn. 192) From 1810 onwards the Middle Level ceased, in practice, to be part of the Corporation.
But the new century brought no satisfactory solution to the problem of the outfalls. Throughout the 19th century there were reports advocating remedies for the Wisbech River, (fn. 193) and various improvements were carried out in the outfall after the opening of Kinderley's Cut. But the same pernicious system of subdividing responsibilities between unassociated bodies was established on the Nene as on the Ouse, with the same negative results. In the years 1848 and 1862, there were Acts passed for improving the river; but a Report, drawn up in 1909, still spoke in no measured terms of the neglected state of the river between Peterborough and the sea: 'The River over which the Nene Navigation Commissioners of the third division exercise control (i.e. between Peterborough Bridge and Bevis Hall, above Wisbech) has been allowed to get into such a condition that it has become virtually derelict so far as navigation is concerned.' (fn. 194)
The Eau Brink Cut did not produce as great an improvement in the Middle Level as had been expected; and the problem of running off surplus water remained very pressing. (fn. 195) In 1836, Sir John Rennie proposed that the western half of the Level should drain by Bevill's Leam and the Twenty Foot Drain into the Nene at Guyhirne, to reduce the volume of water requiring passage at Salter's Lode, (fn. 196) but though this sounds reasonable it was not acted upon. Sir John Rennie's scheme, despite its rejection, roused the Middle Level Proprietors. From 1836 onwards, there was really active agitation within the Middle Level for a radical alteration in the outfall. At first, it was based on Rennie's report of 1836; but the correspondence, which is still preserved in the Fen Office at Ely, reveals a deep-seated clash of interests between various parties; and this plan was abandoned. In 1841, an extensive scheme for widening the internal drains was proposed, with the approval of an expert; (fn. 197) and a Bill was prepared and circulated. The proposals, which included the drainage of Whittlesea Mere, the last remaining reservoir for surplus waters, met with much opposition. (fn. 198)
In 1849, Walker and Craddock (fn. 199) reviewed the confusion of these years in strong terms: 'The employments of men not scientifically educated in engineering had emboldened many others to believe themselves as capable of devising a perfect plan of drainage. Several, therefore, now propagated independent schemes, and each securing his party thought only of hunting the rest out of the field.' Thus the disputants 'were swallowed up by one another, and nothing seemed likely to be done.' The winter of 1841–2 brought with it an admonition that none could disregard. 'Almost all the Middle Level was under water, the rivers were swollen with freshes which could not subside, the mills could not make head against the flood, the water rose to fourteen feet above zero at the Old Bedford Sluice, Denver Sluice was in danger, and banks were torn down by the violence of the torrent. This desolation, sent just at the time when folly most needed such advice, was not unheeded.' Mr. James Walker was called in to advise.
Walker, in 1842, propounded an ingenious scheme for the total separation of the navigation and the drainage, so that the level of water in the drainage channels should not be interfered with by navigation purposes. (fn. 200) By this scheme a specified height of water was to be maintained only in certain waterways, and the remaining channels were to run as low as possible. The key was to be a new cut from Whittlesea Mere to the head of the Eau Brink Cut, with a large sluice at its mouth, and with a bottom level well below the surface of the Fens. The result, it was expected, would be an adequate gravitation drainage within the Middle Level; and, as the high-water mark at St. German's was considerably lower than at Salter's Lode, (fn. 201) more water could be discharged at every tide. Sir John Rennie approved of the new cut, but he considered that the separation of the navigation was unnecessary, and urged the catchwater drains proposed by his father in 1809. (fn. 202) In any case the plan was rejected by a large majority. Throughout these reports great emphasis was laid on the importance of procuring the greatest possible gradient for the fen waters. Indeed, this consideration has held chief place in every report published since 1770, and has been the basic reason for every straight cut that has ever been made in the Fen district.
Finally, the landowners of the Level held a public meeting, in which it was decided to postpone draining Whittlesea Mere. Before 1842, a certain Mr. Laurence had brought forward a plan for abandoning the existing outfall entirely, and for cutting a new main drain from the Sixteen Foot River to the head of the Eau Brink Cut, through Marshland. Samuel Wells, the Registrar of the Corporation, published a modification of this scheme, whereby all the waters of the Middle Level were to reach Lynn River through Tongs Drain, and the Old Bedford River was to connect with Well Creek; (fn. 203) the Sixteen Foot Drain, extended to meet the Forty Foot Drain, was to be the main internal artery. Now, the Middle Level owners proposed to incorporate in their plans the new cut proposed by Laurence, and to apply for Parliamentary sanction. The Bill was introduced in 1843. After some hesitation the Bedford Level Corporation decided to oppose it on the ground that the withdrawal of a large volume of water from Salter's Lode would accelerate the deterioration of the river-bed between Denver and St. German's. The various Marshland authorities objected to the new cut because the passage of so great a volume of water through the centre of Marshland might endanger the safety of the adjoining districts. But, in spite of fierce opposition, the Bill passed; (fn. 204) and the Middle Level River Commissioners received a fresh accession of power at the expense of the declining Corporation. The new outfall drain and other works were authorised. (fn. 205) The Commissioners were empowered to levy rates, including a very heavy rate on the acreage of Whittlesea Mere; and the Bedford Level Corporation itself was to make an annual contribution in respect of ceasing to maintain Tongs Drain. The new Marshland Cut was completed by 1846, and the reconditioning of the rivers proceeded steadily. For some years the Middle Level had a thoroughly adequate system of drainage, and the value of the old fenlands greatly increased. In 1851 the condition of the main drains made it possible once more to complete the draining of Whittlesea Mere.
A great factor in the increasing security of the fenland during the 19th century was the advent of the steam engine. The windmill has been but a wayward co-operator, at the mercy of wind and gale and frost and calm; at its best it was never powerful, and it had never provided a satisfactory solution to the problem of clearing water from the drains. And as the peat-surface continued to shrink and waste away, the windmill became increasingly ineffective. It is true that there had been improvements in the wind engines, but, even so, wind-driven pumps were proving inadequate. In 1820 the first Watt engine had been applied to work a scoop-wheel upon Bottisham Fen, and others followed soon after. One of the pioneers in the application of steam engines to fen drainage was Joseph Glynn, (fn. 206) who wrote, in 1838, summing up his work: 'I have not only caused "two blades of grass to grow where but one grew before" but I have had the pleasure to see abundant crops of wheat take the place of the sedge and the bullrush.' Thus was 'the swamp or marsh exhaling malaria, disease and death' 'converted into fruitful cornfields and verdant pastures.' During the years that followed, his example spread and, with that spread, one of the most characteristic features in the landscape of the fenland, which arose with the draining of the Bedford Level, was doomed to disappear.
Ever since the 17th century the scoop-wheel had been used for drainage purposes in the fenland. Massive in size, simple in construction and easily repaired, it had indeed done good service. It had disadvantages, however, especially with a high and variable 'lift.' Moreover, 'as generally constructed, scoop-wheels are wasteful of power, and badly adapted to meet the alterations in the level of the water due to the falling of the level on the inside, as the water is pumped out of the drains; or on the outside, due to the rise and fall of the tide; or of flood waters in non-tidal rivers.' (fn. 207)
One of the great sights of the Great Exhibition of 1851 which 'astonished the visitors' was Appold's Centrifugal Pump. 'Its light disc running rapidly with but little friction will most probably supplant the scoop-wheel, which slowly revolves with many tons weight upon its axle.' (fn. 208) Its application to fen problems was immediately realised. The project of draining Whittlesea Mere was being discussed at the time, and the inventor was commissioned to make a pump for this purpose.
'The wheel 4½ feet in diameter, worked by a 25 horse power engine, lifts 74½ tons of water 5 feet high, or 101 tons per minute between 2 and 3 feet high.' (fn. 209)
In this way there disappeared the last remaining large stretch of water in the Fenland; 'the wind, which, in the autumn of 1851, was curling the blue water of the lake, in the autumn of 1853 was blowing in the same place over fields of yellow corn.' (fn. 210) It was a disappearance that marked the final stages in the passing away of the older economy of the Fens and the complete triumph of the steam-driven mill. But neither the application of steam nor any improvement in technique could stay the unceasing lowering of the peat-surface.
It must be remembered that the Middle Level was still nominally under the control of the Bedford Level Corporation, which drew a large revenue from property there and which, incidentally, spent very little of it outside the South Level. This anomalous position was altered by the Separation Act of 1862, which entirely abolished the jurisdiction of the Corporation west of the Old Bedford River. The Middle Level Commissioners took over the Corporation property, including the Old Bedford Barrier Bank (together with the responsibility for maintaining it). With it they secured any powers of control and taxation which they had not previously acquired. Further, the abolition of all distinction between Adventurers' and private land was incorporated in the Act. The Middle Level has been a self-governing drainage unit ever since. The Separation Act really brings to a close the history of the reclamation of the Middle Level. In 1862 the sluice at St. German's blew up through the pressure of water upon it, causing a serious flood in Marshland; but it was replaced by a larger and more modern contrivance, (fn. 211) and there were no subsequent accidents. Railway construction progressed in the Fens as elsewhere, originating in a series of local Acts. The whole district became intersected with branch lines, and at least one main line pursued a straight embanked course above the old common fens and water-meadows.
The twentieth century brought with it further difficulties. For many years anxiety was caused by a gradual loss of 'fall' in the outfall drain through land sinkage and the unsatisfactory state of the Ouse. Moreover, the arterial drains now received a larger and more regular volume of water than they were constructed to cope with, owing to improvements in the district pumps. Consequently, a greater discharge at St. German's was essential. Even in 1846 it was predicted that 'machinery will be indispensable for by far the greater portion of the Middle Level; the cases where it may not be required being rather exceptions to the general rule.' (fn. 212) The recent attempt to solve these difficulties is summarised in a report that appeared in Nature (fn. 213) for 6 October 1934:
'A significant event in the long history, covering a period of 300 years, of the struggle to master the problem of the drainage of the Fens, took place on September 28, when Mr. Walter Elliot, Minister of Agriculture, inaugurated the new sluice and pumping station at St. Germans, Norfolk, which by its ability to discharge up to 3,000 tons of water per minute will materially relieve the difficulties which have hitherto attended the drainage of the Middle Level, an area of 173,000 acres lying between the Rivers Nene and Ouse. The greater part of the Fen district consists of peat and, by reason of its reclamation and adaptation to agriculture, the soil has dried and shrunk, causing settlement averaging half an inch per annum, but attaining as much as 6 ft. in some places during the last fifty years. Simultaneously, the River Ouse has been gradually silting up, making it impossible in times of flood for inland water to gravitate to the sea, and necessitating the employment of pumps to raise the water to enable it to escape. The new sluice is the third of its kind which has been installed, its predecessors, the first of which dates back to 1848, having proved insufficient to cope with the volume of tidal water to be excluded. Advocated after the disastrous flood of 1912, the present scheme, which has cost about £224,000, did not take shape until 1929, when, on the advice of their chief engineer, Major R. G. Clark, the Middle Level Commissioners decided to proceed with the work to his design, which incorporated a pumping system of three units. Mr. Elliot described the pumping machinery as "the biggest in the world—more powerful than anything in Holland, the great land of dams, engineers, and water pumps." The four sluice gates provided are designed to withstand and operate against a maximum difference of head of 30 ft. from the Ouse side and of 17 ft. from the drain side. The weight of each gate is approximately 28 tons.'
That is the story up to date, and it is apparent that fen drainage is by no means an easy subject to study. Moreover, the Bedford Level and its Corporation, in particular, have had a complicated and controversial legal history. There is an immense amount of material on the subject, much of it lying in out-ofthe-way places or in private hands; a considerable amount of it lies unclassed, uncatalogued, unread. The omission of criticism and comment on the changes suggested or effected since the Reformation, and the exclusion of illustrative statistics from this account, have been deliberate. The arguments in the many reports and pamphlets are for the most part highly technical, and criticism except by an engineer would be worthless, if not actually pernicious. Almost every collection of statistics hitherto published has been called in question, so that it is difficult to judge of the accuracy of figures.
Among the many drainage problems, two stand out conspicuously—one a technical problem, the other an administrative one. The technical difficulty is associated with the continued lowering of the level of the Fens. This depends largely upon the thickness of the peat as well as upon the intensity of the drainage operations. In places, as upon the site of Whittlesea Mere, it has amounted to as much as two inches per annum. From one year to another this amount may be viewed with equanimity, but the result, after a period of time, becomes critical. The banks, straining unevenly towards the fen, are weakened; and the difficulty of pumping water up into the high-riding drains is increased. Thus it is that the works of one generation have become inadequate for the needs of the next. And, all the time, attention has been directed not so much to this fundamental phenomenon as to the rival merits of different schemes. Some of these schemes may have brought relief for a time, but, ultimately, like a powerful medicine in a threatening disease, they have left the Fens weaker against the changes of subsequent years. Because the more satisfactory the drainage has become, the more rapid has been the shrinkage and wastage of the peat. To combat this seemingly inevitable evil, we can only look with hope towards the increasing triumphs of engineering skill.
No less a legacy from the past is the administrative difficulty. A cursory glance at a map of the Bedford Level shows a tangled network of drains, leams, eaus, and rivers—all running apparently at random. The confusion of the streams on the map has been, alas, paralleled by a confusion in their administration. Everywhere there has been a multiplicity of authorities without any real authority; everywhere, a mutual dependence without a complete co-operation. Both nature and man, by many intersecting channels, have made interdependent all portions of the Level; indeed, all portions of the whole Fenland. Yet even before the initial Bedford Level schemes had been completed, the beginnings of separate interests were already apparent. This fact has been of no little importance in the failure of successive generations to arrive at, and to carry out, a satisfactory programme of draining. And it may well be doubted whether any system of drainage in the Fens can be permanently successful unless it is based upon some enlarged and comprehensive scheme.
I am grateful to many people for much kindness, and especially to the following who read through the proof-sheets and made some useful suggestions: Major Gordon Fowler, of Ely; Mr. C. F. Tebbutt, of St. Neots; Mr. C. P. Burling, the Secretary of the Middle Level Commissioners; and Mr. S. Inskip Ladds.