Draining the fens was arguably the greatest single development in agriculture in this area during the last 350 years although many areas remained unproductive wetlands long after the work of Vermuyden. After that, it is difficult to rank other advances. Enclosure? The seed drill? Crop rotations? The internal combustion engine? The use of chemicals, sprays and fertilizers? A more descriptive analysis focussing on the consequences of these changes might be more informative.

Agriculture made steady progress during the period 1750-1830 as new techniques made labour more productive. Enclosure caused social disruption but brought about larger farms and increased the acreage of land in cultivation. Change rarely occurs without some upheaval.

The Southery parish registers record that there was rioting in the streets by dissenters on Thursday 28 June 1809 but no other information is given. However, seven years later, in May 1816, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was much more serious unrest in Downham Market and Littleport. The grievances were numerous but particularly highlighted high food prices, low wages and the hardships brought about by agricultural change and post-war unemployment.

Trouble flared up in Brandon on 16 May following incidents in Bury St Edmunds. Norwich was also affected by a ‘strong disposition to riot’. Hockwold endured a riot on 17 May and Feltwell the next day. On Monday 20 May really serious rioting broke out in Downham Market. A crowd of about sixty gathered in Southery. Their spokesman appears to have been James Galley, labourer. Demands were made on local farmers Robert Martin and John Benton, who was armed, without much success and the mob proceeded to march to Downham Market, picking up supporters along the way. These included Sarah Moore (18) from Hilgay whose cry of ‘Bread or blood!’ provides the title for AJ Peacock’s excellent account of the troubles, published by Gollancz in 1965. Eventually, the crowd may have numbered as many as 1500 – which must have looked a formidable throng crammed into the market place outside the Crown. Many shops were looted and much stolen beer was drunk. Leaders included Daniel Harwood, a waggoner of Gooderstone, and Thomas Thody (25 – though his age was reported in the Norwich Mercury as 22). Thody was born in St Neots and currently lived in Necton; he had two young children, Sarah and Thomas, following his marriage to Mary Easy in Littleport St George on 27 November 1809. Both Harwood and Thody were singled out as ringleaders and subsequently executed. In the late afternoon, following the arrival of the Clackclose Yeomanry Cavalry and the reading of the Riot Act, the crowd dispersed. The next day a crowd gathered in Southery, led by John Stern (33), John Neal and William Hardy, who demanded that Robert Martin secure the release of the people arrested the previous day. Martin rode off to Downham to confer with the magistrates (Dering, Hare and Pratt) while the labourers set out on foot, again picking up support as they went. Hardy seems to have drilled the men into a more organised unit. At Hilgay, James Goat and John Bell took powder and shot from local shopkeepers Isaac Ashley and Robert Bond. The mob numbered around 500 by the time it reached Downham Market – though not all appear to have been willing participants. Joseph Galloway, who had been working at Modney Bridge, it appears, was forced to march at the point of gun held by Gamaliel Porter. Martin secured the release of the Southery men, those from Hilgay followed, and the crowd dispersed. Much more serious trouble was to break out in Littleport on the following day, 22nd May, no doubt encouraged by the apparent success of the men from Southery and Hilgay. There was further trouble when it became clear that the authorities intended to renege on the agreement earlier in the week. Troops were called and many rioters rearrested.

In August, rioters from Hilgay and Southery as well as Downham Market, both male and female, were brought before the Norfolk and Norwich Assizes. Nine men and six women were sentenced to death. Several were bound over and John Stern was sentenced to seven years transportation. The death sentence was commuted to transportation or hard labour in all cases except Harwood and Thody who were publicly executed in Norwich on 31 August 1816. The burial of Thomas Thody ‘of Downham Market’ is recorded in Littleport St George registers on 02 September, three days later. No case was proved against Sarah Moore but William Young, also from Hilgay, received one year’s hard labour. More men from Southery were involved. Apart from Stern, the most seriously punished was William Bell (41), yeoman, who was transported for 14 years.

It is possible to trace the family histories of many of the rioters through to the present day via the parish registers, particularly where an age is given or the name is less common. Daniel Elmer, for example, did well. He was buried in Southery churchyard on 06 December 1862, aged 72. In the 1851 census he is shown as a farmer of 200 acres on Ferry Bank. His headstone can be clearly seen today. Gamaliel Porter was a shoemaker; he was buried in Southery on 03 October 1848, aged 54. Elijah Pigott (1776-1833) was a wheelwright and spent all his life in Southery. William Bell, yeoman, (age given as 41 in 1816) who was also transported, was probably the William Bell christened on 30 May 1773 in Southery who married Ann Porter in Southery on 12 August 1794. Of their five children, William (christened in Southery on 07 July 1799) married Jane Porter and so began the Porter Bells......

Of the magistrates, the families of Hare of Stow Bardolph and Pratt of Ryston are well known. John Thurlow Dering (christened in Hilgay on 07 July 1763) resided at Crow Hall in Downham Market.

Crow Hall before redevelopment. Built in the early 1700s and modified later. Its cone-shaped walled garden was probably laid out by Dering, elsewhere described as a horticulturist. There is a very good history at

Dering’s father was rector of Hilgay for 34 years until his death in 1774 and is commemorated in the floor of the north aisle of Hilgay church.

There is much more information at

A large pool of agricultural labourers receiving low wages meant that there was little incentive for mechanisation. 1830-1870 was a period of prosperity as farmers benefited from new techniques and the increasing availability of artificial fertilizers. The growth of population in the new industrial centres increased the demand for food. ‘Ag labs’ were abundant and attempts at unionisation were largely ineffective because of the dispersed nature of the membership. The 1851 census provides a breakdown of the population of Hilgay as follows:

District 10a. (East of the Turnpike) 600 residents in 127 households of which 92 were agricultural labourers

District 10b. (Between the Turnpike and the River Ouse) 570 residents of which 186 were agricultural labourers

District 10c. (West of the Ouse and north of the Southery bounds) 432 residents of which 116 were agricultural labourers

District 10d. (South of the Southery bounds) 114 residents of which 31 were agricultural labourers

A total population, therefore, in the parish on census night of 1716 with 425, or 25%, employed on the land. A little caution is advised with these figures since four different enumerators were used and their returns show some variation in the way ‘Rank, Profession or Occupation’ has been entered. A much smaller proportion of ‘Scholars’ are recorded in District 10c (3.5%), for example, than in District 10a (19.8%) though this may also reflect the availability of school places west of the Ouse.

This prosperity changed in the last quarter of the 19th century and, but for a period during World War I when there was an increased demand for home produced food, continued in effect right up to 1939. The causes of the downturn in fortune mostly relate to the opening up of new lands around the world and the development of the means of transporting the produce to the UK. Wheat from the Prairies of the USA and Canada undermined British farmers. The development of refrigeration ships meant that beef from Argentina and lamb from New Zealand and Australia could undercut British meat farmers significantly despite the distances involved. The agricultural depression, combined with the increasing availability of better-paid jobs in the industrial cities, meant that many labourers form Hilgay and Southery left the area where they had been brought up to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Some emigrated, particularly to the USA and Canada. Wade Porter was born in Southery in 1825 and emigrated to Kalamazoo County, Michigan very soon after the 1851 census. He was an agricultural labourer in Littleport in 1851 and was described as a farmer in the US census of 1880.

The headstones for Wade Porter (1824-1908) nearest the camera and wife Rebecca (nee Dent,1829-92) to his left in the image. Rebecca was baptised as an adult in Southery in 1848. In all, they had nine children. Dent Porter, the oldest, was christened in Southery on 27 May 1849 and the next, William Dent, was born in Michigan in 7th September 1851. Dent died in 1911 and is interred alongside his parents. William Dent died in 1834,

Rebecca was not the only member of her family to emigrate. Her parents, Charles Dent, who was born in Littleport in 1788, and Alice (nee Feast) had eleven children, not all of whom survived infancy. However, William, Samuel, Charles and Eliza, at least, all emigrated to Kalamazoo in 1851. William married Mahala Porter in Welney in 1842; Samuel married Mary Ann Morden in Cambridge in 1845; Charles married Hannah Butcher in Southery in 1849 and Eliza married Arthur Barrow in Southery in 1848, Eliza was widowed in 1850 when her husband died, aged 23, and was buried on 5th April. There were a good number of children and there are many graves to be found in and around Kalamazoo. William's son, Charles Eli, who was born in Feltwell but christened in Southery on 19th December 1847 received this glowing tribute on his death in 1923:

C E Dent (1847-1923) ' of Vicksburg's best known pioneers...' (courtesy Sinclair/Nash public family tree on Ancestry)

C E Dent, a clearer photo uploaded by Julie & Tom York on the findagrave website (below)

Charles Eli's headstone in the Schoolcraft Township Cemetery

The 1870 US Census shows that Charles Eli's father, Charles, was farming next to Wade Porter in Brady County when their respective real estate was valued at $2500 and $3000. By this time Charles' first wife had died and he had remarried Lavinia Osterhaut in 1863

The layout of Kalamazoo County shows the typical gridiron pattern around which early settlement took place.

A pioneer settler family arrive in the early 1860s on their 160 acre quarter section granted free under Abraham Lincoln's 1862 Homestead Act. The land was initially registered for a small fee with the settlers gaining full ownership after working it for five years. Farming was still hard work and methods were very similar to those in south west Norfolk with horse power predominating but settlers were now farmers on their own land rather than 'ag labs'. A great reward for the courage required to find a new life thousands of miles from home.

Michigan was well wooded so log houses could be readily constructed though tools and expertise were still required. Average January minimum temperatures are around -10C and several feet of snow are recorded each winter. The Dents' timber would have come from John Vickers' saw mill in Vicksburg, from which the community derives its name.

Spare a thought for settlers in the relatively treeless prairies further west where the first winter, at least, after arrival would have been spent in a rapidly constructed sod hut. Winter temperatures there would be even lower, touching -30C or worse in cold snaps.

Main Street, Vicksburg in 1909. The raised sidewalks were essential when the roadway turned to mud in the spring thaw.

William Galloway Porter was landlord of the Ship at Brandon Creek (see the Little Ouse & Brandon Creek section) in the 1871 census and left the following year, also for Kalamazoo. There is a plaque in Southery church to commemorate George Edward Osler who was killed in an accident on his farm in Williams, Iowa, in July 1910. The memorial was erected by ‘relations and friends then residing in the USA’ of which twenty are named. The Brandon Creek page shows his headstone and that of his wife.

A 'Whitepages' search in February 2016 listed 74 people with the surname Porter in Kalamazoo, and more in the surrounding area, so further family research would surely uncover more links back to West Norfolk in general and Southery in particular.

The census of 1891 shows that 128 people born in Hilgay were living in London, 21 of whom were servants. Philip Bovill, aged 46, was a gas stoker in Limehouse as was his brother Joseph. Their father, Lawrence, was an agricultural labourer living in Hilgay High Street when the boys were born. Henry Engledow (40) was a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police. Frederick Maidwell was a waiter in the St George, Hanover Square district. William Mortlock was a milk carrier in Brixton. Robert Delph (28) was a stevedore in Bromley St Leonard’s.

Rising wages and competition for workers created pressures for increased mechanisation but agriculture remained very labour intensive throughout the period up to 1945 and beyond. Thomas Brown was the tenant of Manor Farm, Southery in 1871, living at the Manor House, with 1005 acres under cultivation. He employed 49 men, 5 women and 14 boys. William Henry Rose with 852 acres at Ten Mile Bank in 1881 employed 30 men, 10 boys and 8 girls while, further west along Long Drove, Ephraim Smith employed 5 men and 3 boys on his farm of 237 acres. As machines developed, especially with the increasing use of tractors after the 1930s and with the corresponding reduction in the number of horses, so the numbers employed on the land fell. A ploughman with a horse could reasonably plough an acre a day in suitable conditions whereas a man on a tractor could accomplish far more.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments in the area in the years of depression was the opening of the Wissington sugar factory in 1925.

(Courtesy Roger Darsley) There was no road bridge until 1946

Labour intensive farming. Beet had to be forked by hand into trucks on the Wissington Railway

The sugar factory built by McAlpines at Wissington in its early days. Much has changed in the sugar industry since.

Modern day Wissington. The greenhouse complex can be seen in the background.

In 1981 the Ely, Felsted, Nottingham and Selby factories closed after a reduction in the allowed sugar quota. This was followed by the closure of a site at Spalding in 1989, Peterborough and Brigg in 1991, King's Lynn in 1994, Bardney and Ipswich in 2001, Kidderminster in 2002, and Allscott and York in 2007. The site at Allscott, which opened in 1927, near Telford, Shropshire, was closed because it "lacked scale" to be run economically, while the site at York, North Yorkshire (opened 1926) was closed due to the poor crop yields in northern England.

Of the 18 factories which were owned by the British Sugar Corporation, only four still process beet - Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk) Cantley (in Norfolk, the first British sugar factory in 1912), Newark-on-Trent (Nottinghamshire) and Wissington (western Norfolk and the largest in Europe). The Bury site is also a major packaging plant for Silver Spoon. The 12 sites already closed have been sold and decommissioned to various degrees - many large concrete silos (for storing the major product, white granulated sugar) still remain even where the sites have been closed, including those at the Kidderminster factory which was closed in 2002 and was sold off in 2006, and Ipswich. Allscott has now been completely demolished. Spalding has been replaced by Spalding Power Station. (text from Wikipedia)

The remaining four sugar factories (2015) - offices are at Peterborough

There exists a detailed history of Middle Drove Farm, Denver, from the end of WWI through to the end of WWII written by John William Lister (1912-1994). This fascinating account brings alive the day to day issues faced by farmers between the Wars and the events affecting the lives of Denver residents. The farm had been previously owned by Caius College and by Arthur James Keeble who helped open up the full commercial potential of the top quality soils between the Little Ouse and Wissey by pioneering the Wissington railway. At one time he owned over 7000 acres of the Methwold fens, an area known as Five Mile that became known as the Wissington Estate.

Keeble moved from Middle Drove Farm to Wereham Hall in 1904 and built a fertilizer plant at Wissington to utilise the high levels of nitrogen in the fen soil to produce ammonia. The venture was never a success and finally closed in 1914, Keeble having gone into receivership in 1912, after which the factory was sold as scrap to Dodman’s in King’s Lynn in 1918. Keeble died the same year though his widow continued to live at the Hall until 1922. However, prior to Keeble’s arrival the principal crop in the area had been hay, mostly going to London to help feed the thousands of working horses in the capital, but he started to grow celery, potatoes, carrots and other market crops. The railway facilitated this development in the absence of any roads other than that between Feltwell and Southery.

All the work on Middle Drove Farm up until 1931 was accomplished by using horses until the first tractor was purchased in 1931. There were up to six working horses on the farm “and the hardest job for the horses in those days was hauling the Massey Harris binder. It took three horses to pull it and it had a cutting width of six feet. Although we changed horse during the day, in a year when the crop was laid and choked with weeds it was gruelling hard work. It was made worse on hot days because the horses were covered in sweat and tormented by flies. I remember the first day I hung the tractor on the binder, we sailed round the field with no problems and the old horses stood looking over the gate as pleased as I was! Another hard job for the horses was the hauling of the sugar beet off the fields to the roadside, or to the station yard, where it was loaded onto trucks and despatched to Wissington. Towards the end of the season the dirt roads would cut up badly and, with the iron-tyred carts, deep ruts would form. When conditions got bad we would put three horses in length to pull about fifteen hundredweight. When the ruts became very deep it was impossible to get out of them and, going down Middle Drove, the men would walk along the dyke on either side and leave the horses to get along as best they could. I have seen our horses on such days covered in mud and completely exhausted. If a hard frost came before we finished beet carting, they would slip and slide about and sometimes fall down. If the winter had been wet with little or no frost, there would be hard times ahead for both man and horse. To obtain a seed bed, especially for sugar beet, would mean endless hours spent harrowing and rolling to break up the clods. It used to be said that, when walking behind the horses, a man would travel ten to twelve miles a day. About four hours would be spent feeding, grooming and bedding down every day – the only free time a horseman had during the seven-day working week was a few hours on a Sunday. On 1st May, weather permitting, the horses, the horses would be turned out to grass. The horse-yard gate would be opened and they would go out at a gallop, racing around the field and rolling and romping about on the grass. Their hard work was done for another year. Spring was here and their coats would shine and ‘Dr Green’ would put them right!

“In the 1920s and into the ‘30s, in times of high unemployment, men tramped the roads in large numbers. Men who had stayed the night in the workhouse at Downham would be coming through Denver around 8:30am on their way to Ely, seventeen miles hence. Some of them would carry empty cans in their bags and would call at various houses asking for hot water with which to make tea. They would be men of all ages, some would be poorly dressed and unshaven and often they would stoop to pick up cigarette ends to put in a pipe. On cold winter mornings it was a sad sight.

“The full time men on the farm in those days (1926) were Jim Turner, horseman, Ernie Jarvis, who looked after the cows and other stock, and Ernie Bunkall..... About twice a year the threshing tackle moved in and my job (having left school, aged 14) was chaff tending. This was a rotten task as there was so much dust and dirt about that I had to wear goggles and a duster round my mouth. Towards the end of the day when I got tired the blower used to get blocked up and the whole operation came to a halt. As the threshing gang were usually anxious to get the stack finished as soon as they could, the poor chaff boy came in for a bit of stick. Another job was water carrying for the engine, usually with a yoke and two pails filled from the nearest dyke. This was another hard job, more so when the weather was hot.

“It was again a wet winter and on Boxing Day 1927 a great fall of snow covered everything. A few days later came the thaw and over two inches of rain. Within a few days the rivers could take no more and the Wissey broke its banks near the railway bridge and flooded Fordham Fen as far as Stoke Ferry to a depth of 3-4 feet..... The water came into the garden but stopped short of the house and after a few days began to go down. No work was possible on the land until April and it was indeed a bad time for us.

“During January 1929 came the severest frost of the century to date. For seven weeks frost came every night and in the first part it froze all day as well. The ice on the river was six inches thick and skating was going on everywhere. There was no snow or rain during these weeks and as the frost penetrated the ground so the topsoil became dry and when the March winds began to blow great clouds of dust swept across the fens.

A Fen Blow - Dykes often became clogged with topsoil.

“Sugar beet was first grown in Norfolk at Cantley about 1913 and we first grew it here about 1922-23 on contract for the factory there and when Wissington opened the beet went there by rail from Denver Station. My first recollections of beet are as a schoolboy, when I used to lead a horse-hoe up and down the fields on Saturdays and sometimes during the evenings. The grower would make a contract with the factory for a certain acreage to be delivered by rail. The seed, in its natural state, would be sown in early April. The next job was thinning out the rows with a seven-inch hoe, and the final job was singling by hand. These operations were important as the yield would depend on how well this was done. During the following weeks the crop would be hoed in the rows by hand and between the rows by horse-hoe. If the beet had been sown too early, or had had a check during the early growth, the whole field would look like a pine forest of plants running to seed. Lifting would start in early October when the beet would be ploughed out, knocked together to remove the soil and have the leaves and crowns cut off; then it would be thrown into small heaps. The horse and cart would come along and the beet would be taken to the station or dumped on the roadside. The handwork done on the crop in the next three months was the hardest and heaviest of the whole farming year. Some seasons harvesting of the crop would go on into the New Year and would often end in hard frost and snow. An average crop would be 20000-25000 plants per acre which all had to be topped singly. Often in the early mornings, when the beet were frozen hard, men would cut their hands without feeling it.”

John William’s father, Benjamin Clarke Lister, is listed as a Welney farmer in Kelly’s Directory of 1912. He was born at Smith’s Farm, Somersham Fen in 1880 where his father John was the farm bailiff. In the mid 1880s the family moved to Poppylot on the Feltwell Road, south east of Southery, where he was one of thirteen children. The oldest child was George who married Jane Maggs, the daughter of the landlord of The Ship public house at Poppylot. Hannah, the second eldest, married into the Register family of Southery whose roots in that village go back into the middle of the 17th century at least. John had married Mary Ann Fisher in Chatteris in 1866. His parents were John Lister and Mary Stevens who were married in Chatteris in 1840 and were living there in Hive End with John’s parents Richard & Elizabeth Lister in the census of the following year. Richard was born in Upwell in 1793 to parents John & Hannah.

Benjamin Clarke Lister married twice. In 1904 he married Martha Elizabeth Porter in Southery but she died in January 1908 in Welney and was buried back in Southery, the village where she was born in 1880. His second marriage was to Eliza Elmore on 26 May 1909 in Welney parish church. Eliza was born in Welney on 11 April 1885, daughter of William, a farm bailiff, & Martha (née Burton). The 1861 census shows Eliza’s grandparents Charles & Caroline Elmore in William’s birthplace, Wistow in Huntingdonshire, where Charles is a thrashing machine driver. Twice, at least, in the census records ‘Elmore’ has been recorded as ‘Elmer’.

Five of Martha Porter’s seven brothers and sisters died in childhood but Benjamin Edward (who died in 1965, aged 82) married Hannah Brighton and ran the post office stores at Stock’s Corner. They lived latterly at Manor Villa on Westgate Street. His younger brother John William (died 1970, aged 80) married Millicent May Porter from Ferry Bank and farmed at Sedge Fen. He was father to Laurie who many residents of the village of Southery will know as a former landlord of the Old White Bell. A fuller history of the Porters is available elsewhere (see References).

The Times 21 January 2016 'Last Fenland eel man slips into history'.

Harvests may not always come from the land. Outwell resident, Peter Carter, aged 50, has retired from eel catching through a lack of eels. His family can trace their pursuit of this occupation back for 500 years and there is evidence of the importance of eels and eel catching back to the Bronze Age. No satisfactory explanation has been put forward for the eels' decline but numbers are a mere 5% or less of what they were even in recent times. 2014 was a better year but recovery has not been maintained. Bede says that Ely, founded in 673, was an island surrounded by marshes and gets its name from 'the eel district' - many medieval rents were paid in eels, often by the thousand.