England reclaimed

How we became a nation of drainage engineers

Artillery Row

The early migrants to England from Friesland, Jutland and Belgium were diggers. Wanting to farm the boggy English land, they drained and embanked the marsh to make it a field. In his landmark book Lives of the Engineers, Samuel Smiles called them “agricultural colonists”, comparing them to the people then migrating to Australia and New Zealand to settle the land. This began Britain’s long history as a nation of drainage engineers.

It is no coincidence that St Paul’s is built on high ground

One of the most significant forms of embankment was the Thames, which in its natural state was a very wide river. Engineering work restrained it all the way from Richmond to the sea. Without this, all of Southwark and Lambeth had been underwater and Westminster was a marsh. It is no coincidence that St Paul’s is built on high ground.

As Smiles says, this embanking work made the river deeper, better for navigation, suitable for connecting London to the world, and it opened up large amounts of good agricultural land. For centuries, the embankments would give way, and many areas of London — Greenwich, Plumstead, Bermondsea, the Isle of Dogs — were flooded. In the 17th century, the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was brought to England to repair the breaches.

The other great area of reclamation, as every school child used to know, is the Fens, a place so damp that frogs were once known as Fen nightingales and pikes abounded near Lincoln. In the time of Henry VII, John Morton the Bishop of Ely introduced the practice of cutting straight artificial rivers in the Fens to improve drainage and provide navigational pathways. Morton had a twelve mile ditch cut, to take the overflow from the River Nene, running east from Peterborough through Wisbech, when the water would then flow to the sea.

Much of this sort of drainage was done by clergy, so after Henry VIII this work ceased, leading to the silting of rivers and the degradation of embankments. Flooding was inevitable. After especially bad flooding early in his reign, James I declared: “‘the Honour of the Kingdom would not suffer the said Land to be absorbed to the Will of the Waters, nor let it keep Waste and unprofitable; and that if no one else would undertake their drainage, he himself would become their undertaker.” Thus Cornelius Vermuyden was summoned to England to repair the Thames and drain the Fens.

Many traditional Fen dwellers disliked these changes

Vermuyden raised the capital for his drainage scheme — which would entitle him to a third of the reclaimed land — primarily from Dutch capitalists. He also hired many Dutch and Flemish workers, who had settled in England to escape religious persecution. Now comes a very English story. To prevent flooding from the River Don in Yorkshire, a channel was cut to divert water to the Ouse. The capitalists lost money making these necessary changes and the locals disliked the disruption — despite the benefit to them. Embankments were broken, Flemish workers assaulted and riots undertaken. Vermuyden had to hire local workers at higher wages to finish the work, which of course resulted in more and better employment on the reclaimed land.

Many traditional Fen dwellers disliked these changes, regretting the loss of the commons and their way of life — despite its inherent dangers and frequency of disease — and animosity continued, often litigiously, towards the Dutch. Then, during the Civil War, dykes and floodgates were broken to prevent the march of royalist troops, undoing so much good work, and, incidentally, reclaiming the common marshes. Smiles writes:

The people who carried out these orders were no doubt glad to have the opportunity of taking their full revenge upon the foreigners, who, they alleged, had robbed them of their commons. They levelled the houses of settlers, destroyed their growing corn, and broke down the fences; and, when some of them tried to stop the destruction of their sluices … the rioters stood by with loaded guns and swore they would stay until the whole levels were drowned again, and the foreigners forced to swim away like ducks.

It was the same story in the East Anglian Fens, where locals filled in freshly dug channels and pulled down embankments. The workers often had an armed guard. In the late 1630s they began to argue, in the context of disputes about the ship levy, that King Charles I only wanted to drain the Fens to fill the treasury and government without Parliament.

Work continued after the Civil War, and the Fens gradually became a place of corn growing, with towns and villages cropping up all over the reclaimed land. The work was imperfect but was a significant improvement. Not until the 19th century would reliable drainage be achieved. First windmills were used to pump out water, then steam engines. Today East Anglia is famed for its farming output, notably pork, sugar and salad crops. It is worth searching out local produce in Norfolk, especially the tomatoes produced in British Sugar’s greenhouse near Downham Market, grown using the carbon dioxide byproduct of sugar manufacture.

Similarly, the embankment of the Thames continued to be proposed by people like Christopher Wren, but was also imperfect until the 19th century, when the embankment of central London that we now enjoy was constructed. That is just a small part of the two hundred miles of embankment — continuously worked on for hundreds of years — that protects an area where well over a million people live.

The long process of recovering English marshland has created some of our loveliest landscapes and towns and our most prosperous city and port.

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