IX Drainage

The men who in December 1642 opened the newly made sluice gates and flooded large areas of the Isle of Axholme, preventing the king’s army from passing, were directing their hostility both against the drainers, the Dutch Cornelius Vermuyden and his fellow undertakers, and against the king who had given them their commission. Opposition to drainage, and with it enclosure, the passing of common land into private ownership, more than religion or politics motivated their actions; the men of Axholme were in danger of losing their livelihood.

Drainage was the most conspicuous aspect of the trend to improve Lincolnshire’s wastelands. The dry heathlands and the sandy areas near Scunthorpe and on the west face of the Wolds were improved rather later, but the wetlands of Marsh, clay vales and Fens were a more urgent prob­lem; a third of the county’s land surface lay at or below sea level.

Map of Drainage in Lincolnshire
17. Drainage in Lincolnshire

The lands

One third of the English Fens lay in Lincolnshire around the Wash. Five major rivers met here, the Witham, Glen, Welland, Nene and Ouse, and the morass had been built up by inundation from the sea, freshwater floods off the land and the deposit of silt. At the point where the rivers met the sea, a ridge had been built up, marked by a line of villages each with its medieval stone church as at Algarkirk or Gedney. At its nearest point (Donington) where the ridge was no more than five miles/8km from the Kesteven heathlands, a road developed from prehistoric times. To the east of this ridge lay the salt marshes, rich grazing land; to the west lay the inner fens, freshwater peat marshes, most difficult of all to drain. As the sea was pushed back by sea walls, the rivers had to flow longer distances as well as pass through the silt belt; the fall was so little that the slow flow of the water in the rivers meant that the channels were frequently blocked.

Like the Fens, the Marsh between the Wolds and sea fell into two parts, the inner freshwater marshes and the narrower outer salt marshes. The lower Witham valley was a natural extension to the Fens and probably the worst of all the flooded lands of the county, but the Ancholme, Trent and upper Witham valleys and Axholme were almost as bad. All these lands had their own way of life, social structure and agricultural practices (like ‘warping’ on the lower Trent, systematic flooding to secure a deposit of river silt on the land); and they have given Lincolnshire its reputation as ‘a region of fertility without beauty’ – Drayton’s ‘foule and woosie Marsh’ was ‘rich in Come and Pastures’.

The inhabitants of this ‘vast and queachy soil with hosts of wallowing waves’ were equally ‘rude, uncivil and envious to all others whom they call Uplandmen. . . very poor, lazy, given to much fishing and idleness’. The seasonal activities of the fenland exploiters were seen by others as idleness leading to economic and cultural poverty; and their hostility to drainage was fear that ‘their condition should be worse, which truly was impossible’.

They had had a hard struggle over many centuries to occupy these lands. The gains made by the Romans were wiped out in the Anglo-Saxon period, and the early medieval years saw the lands at their most underdeveloped since prehistoric times, the home of hermits, refugees and terrorist bands. The subsequent colonisation and exploitation of the area passed through four main phases, each associated with new technology, dyking, new cuts, windmills and power pumps.

Map of The English Fenlands
18. The English Fenlands

Phase I: Commissions of Sewers

The Middle Ages saw both the erosion of the south Yorkshire and Lincolnshire coastline which deposited sand and silt in the Humber and Wash, and at the same time bursts of frequent and severe floods, especially in 1176-8, 1248-88, 1323-35 and 1404-30. The main enemy was the sea; catchment drains and sea walls were built, co-operative ventures by whole villages. Central government began to encourage and regulate this work, and from 1258 local gentry were appointed to Commissions of Sewers (with new powers from 1427) to keep the channels clear and the banks repaired. But success was limited; local rivalries over grazing rights and boundaries, especially in the Deeping area, leading to law suits and violence, and further floods and silting of the channels combined to undo much of this work.

The disastrous floods of the 16th century which destroyed whole settlements (Skegness 1526, Mablethorpe 1540s, and especially 1571 immortalised by Jean Ingelow’s High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire) led to some new schemes – sea walls in the Marsh (1568), the Maud Foster Drain, the Welland Act (1570) and new drains around the Deepings, Spalding and Pinchbeck (1590s); while in 1529 the 29 parishes with grazing in East, West and Wildmore Fens drew up rules to avoid disputes over common rights.

Phase II: New cuts

Such work called for more capital and more advanced technology than was available locally, and the king, in his need to raise funds indepen­dently of parliament, stepped in. He commissioned the work, raised the money needed from ‘participants’ (groups of courtiers, merchants, no­bility and local gentry) and hired Vermuyden and his skilled engineers. The technique of cutting new short straight channels, thus increasing the flow of water and keeping the rivers from silting up was first tried by the earl of Bedford in the Cambridgeshire Fens. In Lincolnshire work began in Axholme, 1626-36; 60,000 acres were put under contract to the Dutch drainage experts, 40,000 acres to go to the king and the rest to be retained for their labours. The results were impressive – new land was cultivated, Dutch and French Huguenots settled at Sandtoft, industries sprang up and some workers’ wages were doubled. But many people lost their land and riots broke out. Both king and parliament earned the hostility of the dispossessed Islanders and the Levellers joined in; most of the work was undone in the 1640s and 1650s.

Elsewhere in Lincolnshire the drainage schemes were privately rather than government inspired, undertaken by local landowners and court­iers. In 1610 the earl of Exeter started work on 30,000 acres between Deeping and Spalding but floods and malicious activity caused the scheme to be abandoned (1631) and Bedford added this region to his Great Level drainage scheme in 1638. Sir John Monson drained 18,000 acres in the Ancholme valley (1634), Sir Anthony Meres began work in the north Fens (1631-4), and part of the southern Fens (Tydd) were drained in 1632. The courtier family Killigrew, father and son, com­menced the drainage and enclosure of 40,000 acres in East, West and Wildmore Fens from 1635, and the earl of Lindsey attacked the Lindsey levels in 1635-9 and the Holland Fens 1635-8.

All this activity faced bitter opposition from the small freeholders and tenant farmers who had moved into the fens in large numbers in the 17th century, attracted by the availability of land. They relied heavily on pastures for their living, and the drainage schemes made pastures increasingly scarce. The opponents argued that drainage was not necessary for the profitable exploitation of the region. The demand for the produce of the fens was increasing – fish for manure, reeds for thatching and furniture, peat for fuel, ash and willow, cranberries, wild fowl; grazing land supported cattle, sheep, hogs, geese (for food, down and quills) and horses (Wildmore Fen and Boston).

A large population thus lived a way of life alien to those outside the region, ‘a kind of predatory life . . . ; a life of laziness is generally preferred.. . fishing and shooting and catching wild fowl may be called amusement rather than labour’. Petitions in support of the traditional shepherding in summer and fowling and fishing in winter were being presented to the drainage commissioners as late as 1784. It was urged that the new arable crops were alien, that drainage and intensive cultivation would exhaust the soil, that floods kept the land fertile, that drainage only moved the floods to another place (it was alleged that the drainage had caused, not alleviated, floods in 1639-40).

The commoners- of the fens and nearby upland villages which had rights in the fens combined, subscribed to a common purse, went to law and on occasion took direct action, breaking drains and banks. Lawlessness was widespread throughout the fenland areas and this was a further motivation for drainage: the fenmen, wrote an undertaker, lived ‘like the Aborigines of North America, a kind of lawless life, almost in a state of nature, and their ideas, wild as their native Fens. . . not very easily subjected to reason or control’. Riots broke out in Axholme (1627-­34), in East, West and Wildmore Fens (1635-41) and in the Holland Fens (1638-40). Although damage was usually limited and personal injury small, the resistance was persistent and in the end won; by 1649 all the early schemes had been undone. The Restoration saw two half‑hearted revivals, in the Ancholme valley and in the Deeping Fen, but attempts to collect drainage taxes provoked further riots and nothing more was done until the 18th century. The fens reverted to their earlier way of life; instead of corn ‘a great number of fat oxen and sheep are weekly sent to London in droves … great plenty and variety of fowl and fish are usually taken in decoys and sent to London’ (1696).

Phase III: Windmills

Pasture had won; and as population grew and the economy of eastern and midland England expanded, the enclosures of the upland parishes of Lincolnshire for arable created an increased demand for grazing land. Attention thus turned to the inner fens rather than to more sea walls reclaiming the outer salt fens and marshes. There were however major problems. The earlier drainage had caused the peat to shrink so that the inner fens were now lower than the outer fens, lower than the rivers that drained them; and the land was still sinking in relation to the sea, so that the flow of water in the rivers and drainage channels slowed down still further. The rivers had to be raised to cross the silt belt and flow to the now distant sea. Floods, sheep rot and cattle disease, prevalent in the 1730s and 1740s, called, for action.

The answer was found in the windmill, so admired by Defoe in his visit to Lincolnshire, and in the sluice gate. The process this time was largely by Act of Parliament and Drainage Boards. The earliest windmills used to pump water off the land were in the Deeping Fens (1729) but the main onslaught came later. Drainage was now linked to schemes for turnpike roads, enclosure and canals; some parishes sold off undrained areas to help pay for the enclosing of their arable open fields. In 1762 the Witham Act led to the first really successful attempt to drain this valley; in 1765 the new Black Sluice Drainage Board tackled the area between Boston and Bourne, and severe floods in 1763 led to the navigable South Forty Foot drain (1767). More work on the lower Witham (1772-6) was followed by an Act to drain the south Holland Fens near Sutton Bridge (1792).

The costs were high (some £400,000 to drain the north Holland Fens), raised by loans and rates on the occupiers of the new lands, but the profits were great. Arthur Young in 1799 reported that rough grazing land ‘had now become profitable, yielding 11s or even 17s rent per acre instead of Is 6d: ‘this vast work is effected by a moderate embankment and the erection of windmills for throwing out the superfluous water’. Large numbers of windmills were needed – 63 along the South Forty Foot Drain.

There were riots in Holland Fen between 1768 and 1773, and murder, hamstringing and stack burning elsewhere, but this opposition died out; when the last undrained lands, East, West and Wildmore Fens between Boston and the Wolds were improved, 1801-20, the sub-division and alienation of the parochial allotments (land given to upland parishes like Horncastle as compensation for the loss of fenland grazing rights) although bitterly resented, did not lead to violence.

By the 1820s, the main drainage lines had been laid out. Much of the new lands (more than a third in the Lindsey Fen) was sold to pay the costs of drainage and enclosure or for the endowment of churches to serve new settlements like Holbeach St. Matthew or Holbeach St. Mark. Farms were laid out in the reclaimed lands with mathematical precision as at Gedney. The Act of 1812 dealing with East, West and Wildmore Fens resulted in seven new settlements with exotic names like Eastville, Midville, Frithville and Langrickville, while elsewhere names like New York appeared in Lincolnshire.

Phase IV: Engines

But still more effective technology was needed to stop the flooding. In 1799 pamphlets protested that ‘many hundred acres of the harvest were reaped by men in boats [while others] stodd up to their waists in water’ and cut off the heads of corn which showed above the surface. Steam pumps were first used for drainage in place of windmills in the southern fens (Pode Hole near Spalding 1825) and spread northwards. They were in use in the Witham Fen in the 1820s and in the Holland Fen 1848-9. Again there was opposition; it took the severe, floods of 1866 to persuade the northern fenlanders to install the machinery at Lode Bank. But they were effective. Virtually no new drainage work was necessary; some attention was given to the outfalls of the rivers in the 1880s, and sea marshes were reclaimed at the mouths of the Witham and Welland. From the 1940s, steam pumps have been replaced by diesel or electric pumping stations. The inundation of 1953 shows that the danger is still there, and schemes to turn the Wash into a freshwater reservoir are usually linked with co-ordinated drainage plans for the whole of the English Fens.

The main battles were fought and won; and the changes were dramatic. Although possessed of ‘a climate not salubrious to the human constitu­tion’, the region became ‘one of the richest tracts in the kingdom. . . the population has grown in numbers, in health and in comfort … the haunts of pike and wild fowl have become the habitation of industrious farmers and husbandsmen’ (Arthur Young, 1813). Steam packets and other traffic passed along the rivers and drains. Despite the ‘quaking peat’, a hazard to house builder and railway engineer alike, new farms were erected often dated by their names (Crimea Farm, etc), trees were planted for shelter, and grazing lands became arable. Cobbett in the 1830s still saw pastures: ‘land covered with beautiful grass, with sheep lying about upon it as fat as hogs . . . earth without a stone as big as a pin’s head; grass as thick as it can grow in the ground; immense bowling greens separated by ditches’. But mostly the farmers turned to arable – oats, cole-seed in the northern fens, hemp, flax, potatoes and beans in Axholme, and even woad, opium and tobacco were tried.