“Centuries of hard work, ingenuity and ceaseless vigilance” – Huntingdonshire’s Vanishing Fens

Derelict Mill at Brograve Fen, although this is actually Norfolk this is a scene which would have been familiar throughout Huntingdonshire.

The lands of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire that we know today have changed beyond all recognition from the dark age landscape, which was “a fen of huge bigness … oft times clouded with moist and dark vapours”. These fen lands stretched from Ramsey to Peterborough, Ramsey to Ely and from the bank of the Great Ouse in Huntingdon as far east as the eye could see. These “vast stretches of reed and sedge covered swamp”, whilst dangerous and inhospitable to outsiders, maintained small close-knit religious communities, villages and individual families. These people lived precariously, each on their own patch of higher land – standing as an island amongst the treacherous waters.

Approximate Size and Scale of the Fens in Huntingdonshire.

Life on the fens prior to drainage had fundamentally not changed in centuries; cattle were kept and grazed on higher land in summer, meadows were harvested for winter hay, willow was farmed to make fish and eel traps and peat was dug for winter fires. With roads all but non-existent between settlements, travel was by boat, stilts or (in winter) skates. The damp conditions caused no end of ill health, not only colds and flus but also “marsh ague”, now known as malaria. The accepted cure was poppyhead tea, a crude kind of opium. Fen dwellers survived to a large extent on the bounty of fish, fowl and, above all, eels, that could be plucked from their surroundings. In a society where the eating of meat was banned by the Catholic church for approximately 130 days of the year, fish was a crucial food source, and exporting fen fish and eels to surrounding counties would have been a major economic boon for the fens.

Even in the 20th century the fens could flood with disastrous consequences for communities and farmers as in 1912 (above) and 1947 (below). Both Courtesy of CCAN.

The fens’ borders were not a settled shoreline by any means; heavy rainfall or freak tides could affect river levels to the extent that banks burst and the fens crept outward. It was common for land along rivers to be inundated with “black pools as much as two or three miles in breadth” and quagmires to appear which were “two bow shots across”. Despite localised efforts by monastic houses to reclaim land and improve drainage, these efforts were small scale, labour intensive and required constant maintenance. This maintenance was the responsibility of the landowner – many contracts required tenants to either physically keep them clear or pay for the upkeep – but this seems to have been widely neglected unless enforced by the ecclesiastical courts who held sway over the fens.

This unpleasant semi-submerged wilderness attracted godly men who wished to set up communities far from comfort and temptation. In the seventh century, Guthlac, son of a Mercian nobleman-turned-monk, came to the area (with “Christ being his guide through the intricacies of this darksome fen”), and founded Crowland Abbey, becoming the first abbot. Four centuries later, the fens had been all but claimed for God. By 1150, Hugo Candidus, a monk at Peterborough Abbey, itself on the edge of the fens, wrote that:

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”.

These religious houses became the owners of vast tracts of fens, with the majority belonging to Peterborough, Ely, Ramsey, Thorney or Crowland. Much of the rent due to these religious communities was paid in either days labouring on monastery lands, often to keep ditches and rivers clear and usable, or else in eels! Eels were the great unofficial currency of the fens; debts were paid in eels, and rents and tithes were paid in “sticks of eels” (a stick being 25 eels). In the eleventh century, Ramsey Abbey paid 4,000 eels a year to Peterborough Abbey for access to Barnack for building stone.

Conjectured layout of Ramsey Abbey, whilst the enclosures and ditches would have been useful to keep animals in and intruders out, they would have doubled up as flood defenses comes winter when the waters rose. Additionally note the “lodes” or waterways which cut through the town.

Unfortunately, the dominion of the church over the fens meant the dissolution of the monasteries would hit the region especially hard. The maintenance done by feudal tenants, without the abbots’ courts to enforce it, all but ceased. As a result of the new absentee landlords’ indifference, many of the rivers and basic drainage systems were neglected, and the waters started to rise.

In winter 1607, a series of floods following torrential rain broke through embankments, drowned farms and villages and killed hundreds in the fens and bordering counties. James I, shocked by the loss of life and revenue, set up a Commission to investigate what could be done to prevent the adjoining counties being “abandoned to the will of the waters”. The commission discovered that 317,242 acres of land outside the existing fens required draining. An ‘Act for Fen Drainage’ was passed by Parliament and the work began. “Gentlemen Adventurers” were found to fund the work, engineers brought from London and two new dykes dug (Popham’s Eau and the Londoner’s Lode) but very little land reclaimed, and lacking funds, the undertaking fizzled out.

The question of why the fens needed to be drained had little to do with the well-being of the people affected; the huge cost would have to be defrayed by huge gains. With the dissolution of the monasteries, new landlords had purchased the monastic holdings. Generally the new owners could find no use for this sodden swamp which came along with the good arable land or rent-paying towns and villages which had formed the monasteries’ domains – but there was gold in those swamps if you had the wherewithal to get it.

Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677) by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, the architect of the fens we know and love today.

The monarchy had already worked closely with several Dutch engineers to drain areas of fen and swamp in Essex, Yorkshire and Kent. In 1630, Charles I, perennially short of money, agreed a contract with Cornelius Vermuyden, a drainage engineer with extensive experience from his work on dykes and drainage in Holland. The king, however, had not reckoned on the backlash from the inhabitants, as the fen dwellers, seeing their loss of livelihood and angry at the interference of “foreigners“, were up in arms. So great was the anger that fearing armed revolt and sabotage of the works, the contract was shelved.

Enter John Russell, Fourth Duke of Bedford. As a man with large tracts of fenland, 17,500 acres previously owned by Thorney Abbey amongst his holdings, he had a vested interest in getting the fens drained, and as a well loved landlord he had the respect of the locals. The Duke laid out an arrangement were he enlisted thirteen other “Gentlemen Adventurers” to fund the work and share the dividend, with some of the drained land also going to the crown. The plan was to turn 95,000 acres of fenland across Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire into reliable summer grazing – they had no intention of stopping the winter floods. In 1637, the land was declared to be officially drained and the dividends awarded to the backers. The next year, the fens flooded again.

The backlash was immense; as well as locals bitterness at the loss of the promised benefits and income, the crown was also losing out on precious income. Charles enforced an annual Royal Tax on the now useless land of £142,500 (over £29 million today). This, on top of the £131,170 expended to drain the fens in the first place, saw the Gentleman Adventurers bankrupted. Charles I, overriding the destitute Duke of Bedford, stepped in as “Undertaker of the Fens” and then promptly had other priorities as the slow-simmering pot of civil unrest came to a boil.

Ten years later, in 1649, the new Earl of Bedford was given permission to drain the fens once more. The intervening years of civil war had not made this any easier; dykes and embankments had been neglected and were now silted up or had burst their banks. Additionally, the fen dwellers, keen to keep their way of life, had deliberately sabotaged such existing works as were in place, cutting through river banks and destroying sluices.

Ouse Washes at Earith in flood showing the “washland” between two waterways for permitted flooding. Photographed by Bill Blake

Cornelius Vermuyden was reengaged to complete the work, and he drew up a complex plan of manmade rivers, sluices and drains for the fen water to be drained into and hence flushed out to sea. He also included areas between two drains which were designed as deliberate flood plains. This “washland” was enclosed by the higher banks of the rivers and thus contained. His planned waterways are still the backbone of the modern fen waterway system.

The work began immediately with drains being dug out of the sodden fens by workers shipped in from elsewhere in the country and even from the Netherlands, as no local workforce would willingly assist with the works. The work was hindered by the locals who, just as feared, attempted to sabotage completed areas, beat up workmen and attacked their camps. Their resistance was ultimately in vain, and by 1652, the work was fundamentally complete.

These drains can still be seen criss-crossing Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire today, you can recognise them by their arrow straight routes and unimaginative names; Sixteen Foot Drain, Twenty Foot Drain and Forty Foot Drain (the number relates to the width of the waterway). The work was deemed a success; the fens as they had been were unrecognisable. The scheme had produced “some of the richest farming land in the world”, and landowners were quick to exploit it, promptly commencing with grazing and arable farming.

East Anglian fens covered with wind-pumps

The fenland drainage would, however, have serious consequences. As peat soil dries out it begins to shrink, at its most extreme this can amount to losing nearly six inches of depth a year. The obvious solution when this happened was to lower the water level still lower in order to have more workable soil, only for this to shrink away too. In short, “the better the drainage the quicker the wastage”. The process was sped up by the blowing away of the fine dry soil by the harsh winds that scour East Anglia.

Steam pump and windmill at Uggmere in the early 20th century

A ‘race to the bottom’ commenced, with mechanical drainage needed to keep lowering the water levels. The first wind-powered drainage mill was set up in 1685, and by the 1730’s there were over 700 over them across the reclaimed land. In Huntingdonshire, there were nine in Woodwalton parish alone. In 1748, Thomas Neale reported “riding very lately from Ramsey to Holme, about six miles across the Fens, [I] counted forty [wind pumps] in my view”. These wind pumps, though effective enough, were not a perfect solution – occasionally freezing in winter, being damaged by high wind and gales, and of course not working at all when there was no wind. Malfunctions and unfortunate weather had caused agricultural losses and even catastrophic localised floods throughout the period (as at Manea in the mid eighteenth century).

The first steam pumps in England were being trialled in the 1820’s and – able to run day and night in any weather and far more efficient – within forty years they had rendered hundreds of wind pumps obsolete. One steam pump exhibited at the Great Exhibition could lift 101 tons of water a height of three foot every minute. It was these new pumps which were the final nail in the coffin for the last great stretch of Huntingdonshire fens based around Whittlesey Mere, finally drained completely in 1852.

The Holme Fen Posts, at the time
it was installed the top
of the right hand post was at ground level!

Despite the success of the steam pumps, nothing had been done about the loss of soil, a problem which continues to effect the fens today. The most famous example of the shrinking fens is at Holme in Huntingdonshire. In 1848, a timber post was driven through 22 foot (6.7m) of peat soil into the underlying clay at Holme. In 1851, the post was replaced with an iron girder from the Crystal Palace in London (home to The Great Exhibition). In 1957 steel guys were added to the original post as it became increasingly unstable, at the same time a second post. Since 1852, the ground level has sunk over 13 feet (4m). Holme is in fact the lowest point in England at 9 feet (2.75m) below sea level.

So what is the solution for the vanishing Fens, the “breadbasket of England”, as current farming activities prove unsustainable and increasing numbers of houses are built in flood risk areas?

Artists Impression of the complete “Great Fen” by Richard Allen, 2011

The Great Fen project was launched in 2001, aiming to link two of the only surviving scraps of original fen at Woodwalton and Holme by restoring 14 square miles of reclaimed farmland back into fenland. This “Great Fen” will be fifty years in the making, and when completed it will offer protection from flooding for adjoining areas as well as capturing 325,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

You can find out all about the Great Fen Project including where to visit and how to support their work on their website:


If you enjoyed this you may also enjoy our Arboreal History of Huntingdonshire which you can find at the link below:


Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

Great Fen, “A Brief History Of Great Fen”, 2020 Via: https://www.greatfen.org.uk/about-great-fen/heritage/brief-history-great-fen, Accessed: 25th May 2020

Great Fen, “Holme Fen Posts”, 2020 Via: https://www.greatfen.org.uk/about-great-fen/heritage/holme-fen-posts, Accessed: 25th May 2020

Hoffman, C. “A brief history of aquatic resource use in medieval Europe”, 2004, Via: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10152-004-0203-5.pdf, Accessed: 28th May 2020

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “The Middle Level of the Fens and its reclamation” in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3, Victoria County History, London, 1936

Patterson, S. “Interpreting the Fens: People, Places and Dialects”, Published by: Cambridgeshire Community Council, 1980.

Tibbs, R “Fenland River: The Story of the Great Ouse and its Tributaries”, Terence Dalton Ltd. , Lavenham, 1969, 1st Edition.

Wentworth-Day, J. “History of the Fens”, S.R. Publishing Ltd, Wakefield, 1970, 2nd Edition

Young, R. “Field Names and Local History”, Records of Huntingdonshire, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1993, Pgs. 15-21

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