1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fens

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20126891911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 10 — FensJohn Thomas Bealby

FENS,[1] a district in the east of England, possessing a distinctive history and peculiar characteristics. It lies west and south of the Wash, in Lincolnshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, and extends over more than 70 m. in length (Lincoln to Cambridge) and some 35 m. in maximum breadth. (Stamford to Brandon in Suffolk), its area being considerably over half a million acres. Although low and flat, and seamed by innumerable water-courses, the entire region is not, as the Roman name of Metaris Aestuarium would imply, a river estuary, but a bay of the North Sea, silted up, of which the Wash is the last remaining portion. Hydrographically, the Fens embrace the lower parts of the drainage-basins of the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Great Ouse; and against these streams, as against the ocean, they are protected by earthen embankments, 10 to 15 ft. high. As a rule the drainage water is lifted off the Fens into the rivers by means of steam-pumps, formerly by windmills.

General History.—According to fairly credible tradition, the first systematic attempt to drain the Fens was made by the Romans. They dug a catchwater drain (as the artificial fenland water-courses are called), the Caer or Car Dyke, from Lincoln to Ramsey (or, according to Stukeley, as far as Cambridge), along the western edge of the Fens, to carry off the precipitation of the higher districts which border the fenland, and constructed alongside the Welland and on the seashore earthen embankments, of which some 150 m. survive. Mr S. H. Miller is disposed to credit the native British inhabitants of the Fens with having executed certain of these works. The Romans also carried causeways over the country. After their departure from Britain in the first half of the 5th century the Fens fell into neglect; and despite the preservation of the woodlands for the purposes of the chase by the Norman and early Plantagenet kings, and the unsuccessful attempt which Richard de Rulos, chamberlain of William the Conqueror, made to drain Deeping Fen, the fenland region became almost everywhere waterlogged, and relapsed to a great extent into a state of nature. In addition to this it was ravaged by serious inundations of the sea, for example, in the years 1178, 1248 (or 1250), 1288, 1322, 1335, 1467, 1571. Yet the fenland was not altogether a wilderness of reed-grown marsh and watery swamp. At various spots, more particularly in the north and in the south, there existed islands of firmer and higher ground, resting generally on the boulder clays of the Glacial epochs and on the inter-Glacial gravels of the Palaeolithic age. In these isolated localities members of the monastic orders (especially at a later date the Cistercians) began to settle after about the middle of the 7th century. At Medeshampstead (i.e. Peterborough), Ely, Crowland, Ramsey, Thorney, Spalding, Peakirk, Swineshead, Tattershall, Kirkstead, Bardney, Sempringham, Bourne and numerous other places, they made settlements and built churches, monasteries and abbeys. In spite of the incursions of the predatory Northmen and Danes in the 9th and 10th centuries, and of the disturbances consequent upon the establishment of the Camp of Refuge by Hereward the Wake in the fens of the Isle of Ely in the 11th century, these scattered outposts continued to shed rays of civilization across the lonely Fenland down to the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. Then they, too, were partly overtaken by the fate which befell the rest of the Fens; and it was only in the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century that the complete drainage and reclamation of the Fen region was finally effected. Attempts on a considerable scale were indeed made to reclaim them in the 17th century, and the work as a whole forms one of the most remarkable chapters of the industrial history of England. Thus, the reclamation of the Witham Fens was taken up by Sir Anthony Thomas, the earl of Lindsey, Sir William Killigrew, King Charles I., and others in 1631 and succeeding years; and that of the Deeping or Welland Fens in 1638 by Sir W. Ayloff, Sir Anthony Thomas and other “adventurers,” after one Thomas Lovell had ruined himself in a similar attempt in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The earl of Lindsey received 24,000 acres for his work. Charles I., declaring himself the “undertaker” of the Holland Fen, claimed 8000 out of its 22,000 acres as his share.

A larger work than these, however, was the drainage of the fens of the Nene and the Great Ouse, comprehending the wide tract known as the Bedford level. This district took name from the agreement of Francis, earl of Bedford, the principal landholder, and thirteen other adventurers, with Charles I. in 1634, to drain the level, on condition of receiving 95,000 acres of the reclaimed land. A partial attempt at drainage had been made (1478–1490) by John Morton, when bishop of Ely, who constructed Morton’s Leam, from Peterborough to the sea, to carry the waters of the Nene, but this also proved a failure. An act was passed, moreover, in 1602 for effecting its reclamation; and Lord Chief-Justice Popham (whose name is preserved in Popham’s Eau, S.E. of Wisbech) and a company of Londoners began the work in 1605; but the first effectual attempt was that of 1634. The work was largely directed by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, who had begun work in the Fens in 1621, and was knighted in 1628.

Three years after the agreement of the earl of Bedford and his partners with the king, after an outlay of £100,000 on the part of the company, the contract was annulled, on the fraudulent plea that the works were insufficient; and an offer was made by King Charles to undertake its completion on condition of receiving 57,000 acres in addition to the amount originally agreed on. This unjust attempt was frustrated by the breaking out of the civil war; and no further attempt at drainage was made until 1649, when the parliament reinstated the earl of Bedford’s successor in his father’s rights. After an additional outlay of £300,000, the adventurers received 95,000 acres of reclaimed land, according to the contract, which, however, fell far short of repaying the expense of the undertaking. In 1664 a royal charter was obtained to incorporate the company, which still exists, and carries on the concern under a governor, 6 bailiffs, 20 conservators, and a commonalty, each of whom must possess 100 acres of land in the level, and has a voice in the election of officers. The conservators must each possess not less than 280 acres, the governor and bailiffs each 400 acres. The original adventurers had allotments of land according to their interest of the original 95,000 acres; but Charles II., on granting the charter, took care to secure to the crown a lot of 12,000 acres out of the 95,000, which, however, is held under the directors, whereas the allotments are not held in common, though subject to the laws of the corporation. The level was divided in 1697 into three parts, called the North, Middle, and South Levels—the second being separated from the others by the Nene and Old Bedford rivers.

These attempts failed owing to the determined opposition of the native fenmen (“stilt-walkers”), whom the drainage and appropriation of the unenclosed fenlands would deprive of valuable and long-enjoyed rights of commonage, turbary (turf-cutting), fishing, fowling, &c. Oliver Cromwell is said to have put himself at their head and succeeded in stopping all the operations. When he became Protector, however, he sanctioned Vermuyden’s plans, and Scottish prisoners taken at Dunbar, and Dutch prisoners taken by Blake in his victory over Van Tromp, were employed as the workers. Vermuyden’s system, however, was exclusively Dutch; and while perfectly suited to Holland it did not meet all the necessities of East Anglia. He confined his attention almost exclusively to the inland draining and embankments, and did not provide sufficient outlet for the waters themselves into the sea.

Holland and other Fens on the west side of the Witham were finally drained in 1767, although not without much rioting and lawlessness; and a striking account of the wonderful improvements effected by a generation later is recorded in Arthur Young’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Lincoln (London, 1799). The East, West and Wildmore Fens on the east side of the Witham were drained in 1801–1807 by John Rennie, who carried off the precipitation which fell on the higher grounds by catch-water drains, on the principle of the Roman Car Dyke, and improved the outfall of the river, so that it might the more easily discharge the Fen water which flowed or was pumped into it. The Welland or Deeping Fens were drained in 1794, 1801, 1824, 1837 and other years. Almost the only portion of the original wild Fens now remaining is Wicken Fen, which lies east of the river Cam and south-east of the Isle of Ely.

The Fen Rivers.—The preservation of the Fens depends in an intimate and essential manner upon the preservation of the rivers, and especially of their banks. The Witham, known originally as the Grant Avon, also called the Lindis by Leyland (Itinerary, vol. vii. p. 41), and in Jean Ingelow’s High Tide on the Lincolnshire Coast, is some 80 m. long, and drains an area of 1079 sq. m. It owes its present condition to engineering works carried out in the years 1762–1764, 1865, 1881, and especially in 1880–1884. In 1500 the river was dammed immediately above Boston by a large sluice, the effect of which was not only to hinder free navigation up to Lincoln (to which city sea-going vessels used to penetrate in the 14th and 15th centuries), but also to choke the channel below Boston with sedimentary matter. The sluice, or rather a new structure made in 1764–1766, remains; but the river below Boston has been materially improved (1880–1884), first by the construction of a new outfall, 3 m. in length, whereby the channel was not only straightened, but its current carried directly into deep water, without having to battle against the often shifting sandbanks of the Wash; and secondly, by the deepening and regulation of the river-bed up to Boston. The Welland, which is about 70 m. long, and drains an area of 760 sq. m., was made to assume its present shape and direction in 1620, 1638, 1650, 1794, and 1835 and following years. The most radical alteration took place in 1794, when a new outfall was made from the confluence of the Glen (30 m. long) to the Wash, a distance of nearly 3 m. The Nene, 90 m. long, and draining an area of some 1077 sq. m., was first regulated by Bishop Morton, and it was further improved in 1631, 1721, and especially, under plans by Rennie and Telford, in 1827–1830 and 1832. The work done from 1721 onward consisted in straightening the lower reaches of the stream and in directing and deepening the outfall. The Ouse (q.v.) or Great Ouse, the largest of the fenland rivers, seems to have been deflected, at some unknown period, from a former channel connecting via the Old Croft river with the Nene, into the Little Ouse below Littleport; and the courses of the two streams are now linked together by an elaborate network of artificial drains, the results of the great engineering works carried out in the Bedford Level in the 17th century. The old channel, starting from Earith, and known as the Old West river, carries only a small stream until, at a point above Ely, it joins the Cam. The salient features of the plan executed by Vermuyden[2] for the earl of Bedford in the years 1632–1653 were as follows: taking the division of the area made in 1697–1698 into (i.) the North Level, between the river Welland and the river Nene; (ii.) the Middle Level, between the Nene and the Old Bedford river (which was made at this time, i.e. 1630); and (iii.) the South Level, from the Old Bedford river to the south-eastern border of the fenland. In the North Level the Welland was embanked, the New South Eau, Peakirk Drain, and Shire Drain made, and the existing main drains deepened and regulated. In the Middle Level the Nene was embanked from Peterborough to Guyhirn, also the Ouse from Earith to Over, both places at the south-west edge of the fenland; the New Bedford river was made from Earith to Denver, and the north side of the Old Bedford river and the south side of the New Bedford river were embanked, a long narrow “wash,” or overflow basin, being left between them; several large feeding-drains were dug, including the Forty Foot or Vermuyden’s Drain, the Sixteen Foot river, Bevill’s river, and the Twenty Foot river; and a new outfall was made for the Nene, and Denver sluice (to dam the old circuitous Ouse) constructed. In the South Level Sam’s Cut was dug and the rivers were embanked. Since that period the mouth of the Ouse has been straightened above and below King’s Lynn (1795–1821), a new straight cut made between Ely and Littleport, the North Level Main Drain and the Middle Level Drain constructed, and the meres of Ramsey, Whittlesey (1851–1852), &c., drained and brought under cultivation. A considerable barge traffic is maintained on the Ouse below St Ives, on the Cam up to Cambridge, the Lark and Little Ouse, and the network of navigable cuts between the New Bedford river and Peterborough. The Nene, though locked up to Northampton, and connected from that point with the Grand Junction canal, is practically unused above Wansford, and traffic is small except below Wisbech.

The effect of the drainage schemes has been to lower the level of the fenlands generally by some 18 in., owing to the shrinkage of the peat consequent upon the extraction of so much of its contained water; and this again has tended, on the one hand, to diminish the speed and erosive power of the fenland rivers, and, on the other, to choke up their respective outfalls with the sedimentary matters which they themselves sluggishly roll seawards.

Map of the Fens.

The Wash.—From this it will be plain that the Wash (q.v.) is being silted up by riverine detritus. The formation of new dry land, known at first as “marsh,” goes on, however, but slowly. During the centuries since the Romans are believed to have constructed the sea-banks which shut out the ocean, it is computed that an area of not more than 60,000 to 70,000 acres has been won from the Wash, embanked, drained and brought more or less under cultivation. The greatest gain has been at the direct head of the bay, between the Welland and the Great Ouse, where the average annual accretion is estimated at 10 to 11 lineal feet. On the Lincolnshire coast, farther north, the average annual gain has been not quite 2 ft.; whilst on the opposite Norfolk coast it has been little more than 6 in. annually. On the whole, some 35,000 acres were enclosed in the 17th century, about 19,000 acres during the 18th, and about 10,000 acres during the 19th century.

The first comprehensive scheme for regulating the outfall channels and controlling the currents of the Fen rivers seems to be that proposed by Nathaniel Kinderley in 1751. His idea[3] was to link the Nene with the Ouse by means of a new cut to be made through the marshland, and guide the united stream through a further new cut “under Wotten and Wolverton through the Marshes till over against Inglesthorp or Snetsham, and there discharge itself immediately into the Deeps of Lyn Channel.” In a similar way the Witham, “when it has received the Welland from Spalding,” was to be carried “to some convenient place over against Wrangle or Friskney, where it may be discharged into Boston Deeps.” This scheme was still further improved upon by Sir John Rennie, who, in a report which he drew up in 1839, recommended that the outfalls of all four rivers should be directed by means of fascined channels into one common outfall, and that the land lying between them should be enclosed as rapidly as it consolidated. By this means he estimated that 150,000 acres would be won to cultivation. But beyond one or two abortive or half-hearted attempts, e.g. by the Lincolnshire Estuary Company in 1851, and in 1876 and subsequent years by the Norfolk Estuary Company, no serious effort has ever been made to execute either of these schemes.

Climate.—The annual mean temperature, as observed at Boston, in the period 1864–1885, is 48.7° F.; January, 36.5°; July, 62.8°; and as observed at Wisbech, for the period 1861–1875, 49.1°. The average mean rainfall for the seventy-one years 1830–1900, at Boston, was 22.9 in.; at Wisbech for the fifteen years 1860–1875, 24.2 in., and for the fifteen years 1866–1880, 26.7 in.; and at Maxey near Peterborough, 21.7 for the nineteen years 1882–1900. Previous to the drainage of the Fens, ague, rheumatism, and other ailments incidental to a damp climate were widely prevalent, but at the present day the Fen country is as healthy as the rest of England; indeed, there is reason to believe that it is conducive to longevity.

Historical Notes.—The earliest inhabitants of this region of whom we have record were the British tribes of the Iceni confederation; the Romans, who subdued them, called them Coriceni or Coritani. In Saxon times the inhabitants of the Fens were known (e.g. to Bede) as Gyrvii, and are described as traversing the country on stilts. Macaulay, writing of the year 1689, gives to them the name of Breedlings, and describes them as “a half-savage population . . . who led an amphibious life, sometimes wading, sometimes rowing, from one islet of firm ground to another.” In the end of the 18th century those who dwelt in the remoter parts were scarcely more civilized, being known to their neighbours by the expressive term of “Slodgers.” These rude fen-dwellers have in all ages been animated by a tenacious love of liberty. Boadicea, queen of the Iceni, the worthy foe of the Romans; Hereward the Saxon, who defied William the Conqueror; Cromwell and his Ironsides, are representative of the fenman’s spirit at its best. The fen peasantry showed a stubborn defence of their rights, not only when they resisted the encroachments and selfish appropriations of the “adventurers” in the 17th century, in the Bedford Level, in Deeping Fen, and in the Witham Fens, and again in the 18th century, when Holland Fen was finally enclosed, but also in the Peasants’ Rising of 1381, and in the Pilgrimage of Grace in the reign of Henry VIII. So long as the Fens were unenclosed and thickly studded with immense “forests” of reeds, and innumerable marshy pools and “rows” (channels connecting the pools), they abounded in wild fowl, being regularly frequented by various species of wild duck and geese, garganies, polchards, shovelers, teals, widgeons, peewits, terns, grebes, coots, water-hens, water-rails, red-shanks, lapwings, god-wits, whimbrels, cranes, bitterns, herons, swans, ruffs and reeves. Vast numbers of these were taken in decoys[4] and sent to the London markets. At the same time equally vast quantities of tame geese were reared in the Fens, and driven by road[5] to London to be killed at Michaelmas. Their down, feathers and quills (for pens) were also a considerable source of profit. The Fen waters, too, abounded in fresh-water fish, especially pike, perch, bream, tench, rud, dace, roach, eels and sticklebacks. The Witham, on whose banks so many monasteries stood, was particularly famous for its pike; as were certain of the monastic waters in the southern part of the Fens for their eels. The soil of the reclaimed Fens is of exceptional fertility, being almost everywhere rich in humus, which is capable not only of producing very heavy crops of wheat and other corn, but also of fattening live-stock with peculiar ease. Lincolnshire oxen were famous in Elizabeth’s time, and are specially singled out by Arthur Young,[6] the breed being the shorthorn. Of the crops peculiar to the region it must suffice to mention the old British dye-plant woad, which is still grown on a small scale in two or three parishes immediately south of Boston; hemp, which was extensively grown in the 18th century, but is not now planted; and peppermint, which is occasionally grown, e.g. at Deeping and Wisbech. In the second half of the 19th century the Fen country acquired a certain celebrity in the world of sport from the encouragement it gave to speed skating. Whenever practicable, championship and other racing meetings are held, chiefly at Littleport and Spalding. The little village of Welney, between Ely and Wisbech, has produced some of the most notable of the typical Fen skaters, e.g. “Turkey” Smart and “Fish” Smart.

Apart from fragmentary ruins of the former monastic buildings of Crowland, Kirkstead and other places, the Fen country of Lincolnshire (division of Holland) is especially remarkable for the size and beauty of its parish churches, mostly built of Barnack rag from Northamptonshire. Moreover, in the possession of such buildings as Ely cathedral and the parish church of King’s Lynn, other parts of the Fens must be considered only less rich in ecclesiastical architecture. Using these fine opportunities, the Fen folk have long cultivated the science of campanology.

Dialect.—Owing to the comparative remoteness of their geographical situation, and the relatively late period at which the Fens were definitely enclosed, the Fenmen have preserved several dialectal features of a distinctive character, not the least interesting being their close kinship with the classical English of the present day. Professor E. E. Freeman (Longman’s Magazine, 1875) reminded modern Englishmen that it was a native of the Fens, “a Bourne man, who gave the English language its present shape.” This was Robert Manning, or Robert of Brunne, who in or about 1303 wrote The Handlynge Synne. Tennyson’s dialect poems, The Northern Farmer, &c., do not reproduce the pure Fen dialect, but rather the dialect of the Wold district of mid Lincolnshire.

Authorities.—Sir William Dugdale, History of Imbanking and Draining (2nd ed., London, 1772); W. Elstobb, A Historical Account of the Great Level (Lynn, 1793); W. Chapman, Facts and Remarks relative to the Witham and the Welland (Boston, 1800); S. Wells, History and Drainage of the Great Level of the Fens (2 vols., London, 1828 and 1830); P. Thompson, History of Boston (Boston, 1856); Baldwin Latham, Papers on the Drainage of the Fens, read before the Society of Engineers, 3rd November 1862; N. and A. Goodman, Handbook of Fen Skating (London, 1882); Moore, Associated Architectural Societies’ Reports and Papers (1893); Fenland Notes and Queries, and Lincolnshire Notes and Queries, passim; W. H. Wheeler, A History of the Fens of South Lincolnshire, pp. 223 et seq. (2nd ed., Boston, 1897). Various phases of Fen life, mostly of the past, are described in Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake (Cambridge, 1866); Baring Gould’s Cheap-Jack Zita (London, 1893); Manville Fenn’s Dick o’ the Fens (London, 1887); and J. T. Bealby’s A Daughter of the Fen (London, 1896).  (J. T. Be.) 

  1. The word “fen,” a general term for low marshy land or bog, is common to Teutonic languages, cf. Dutch ven or veen, Ger. Fenne, Fehn, Goth. fani, mud; the Indo-European root is seen in Gr. πῆλος, mud, Lat. palus, marsh. The word “bog” is from the Irish or Gaelic bogach, formed from Celtic bog, soft, and meaning therefore soft, swampy ground.
  2. The principles upon which he proceeded are set forth in his Discourse touching the Draining of the Great Fennes (1642), reprinted in Fenland Notes and Queries (1898), pp. 26-38 and 81-87.
  3. Set forth in The Present State of the Navigation of the Towns of Lyn, Wisbeach, Spalding and Boston (2nd ed., London, 1851), pp. 82 seq.
  4. For descriptions of these see Oldfield, Appendix, pp. 2-4, of A Topographical and Historical Account of Wainfleet (London, 1829); and Miller and Skertchly, The Fenland, pp. 369-375.
  5. See De Foe’s account in A Tour through the Eastern Counties, 1722 (1724–1725).
  6. General View, pp. 174-194 and 288-304.