Draining the Fens

It was the Romans who first took steps to try to protect the land along the Wash from flooding by the sea. Given what happened in 1953, for example, one can easily imagine that these early sea defences were frequently breached.

The dominant rivers draining the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire Fens have been the Great Ouse and Nene. Their courses have changed considerably. At the time of the Norman Conquest, the Ouse as we know it did not exist north of Littleport. Instead it flowed north west as the Old Croft River towards Welney and Wisbech and into the Nene. The Wissey also flowed westwards towards Wisbech. Later, by around 1300, though maybe earlier, the Nene flowed along Well Creek north eastwards past Nordelph towards King’s Lynn. Prior to this only the Nar and Gaywood rivers entered the Wash at King’s Lynn and only a small and unnavgable stream known as the Magdalen Eau joined them from the south.

In the period 1250-1300, it seems increasingly recognised that straight river courses would carry water to the sea faster than those that meander. There is also a greater scouring effect that helps to keep channels clear. Dramatic changes then took place but in what order, and to what extent they were coordinated, is unclear. It is perhaps surprising that the developments are not better documented given the extent of the work involved and the manpower needed in those days before mechanisation. In addition, who were the entrepreneurs who initiated the work and saw it through and what was their motivation? What role did the monasteries play, if any? It was the appointment of the first Commissioners of Sewers in 1258 that presumably acted as a catalyst for several major undertakings.

It appears that the entire course of the Ouse between Littleport and Denver owes its existence to an excavation at this time. It is difficult to believe that the diversion of the Nene along Well Creek was not part of a coordinated plan or, at least, a natural progression. The Wissey now flowed into the new Ouse at Ouse Bridge in the parish of Fordham and its lower course westwards, across what later became the Bedford Levels, was abandoned. It would be nice to put more exact dates on these changes but the consensus seems to settle on the second half of the 13th century. They would, of course, have taken many years to effect given the limited equipment available for construction.

However, there is some apparently contradictory evidence which could suggest this cut was made at an earlier time. Various documents referring to the establishment of a market at Downham in the 11th century point to the existence of significant waterborne trade. However, if the river at Downham was the Well River following a natural course from the Wisbech area then both views would be consistent. It is difficult to see how a man-made channel of this size would have been undertaken in pre-Conquest times.

Part of these developments was the diversion of the lower course of the Little Ouse to merge with the Great Ouse at Brandon Creek. The Little Ouse, or Brandon River, previously flowed westwards into the Old Croft River at Littleport. At Redmere, near Shippea Hill, it was diverted into a straightened course north westwards to Brandon Creek.

Although not dated, there is considerable evidence of these former river courses on the landscape in the form of roddons. It is well known that peat, once drained, shrinks. However, the alluvium of the river beds does not behave in the same way and the former courses of rivers, called roddons, can be clearly seen in aerial photographs as raised ribbons of land. Nowhere is this better illustrated than with the former course of the lower Little Ouse.

The former course of the Little Ouse looking eastwards from Littleport towards Shippea Hill.

The main road is the A1101 to Mildenhall. Note how the settlement concentrates where the road and the roddon intersect. Those few extra feet above sea level were invaluable in times of flood. Redmere is in the top left hand corner of the photograph.

Further roddons can be seen. The lower courses of the Wissey and the Old Croft River are examples. The latter can be traced north west from Littleport along Camel Road and out into Hale Fen. The remains of the Old Croft River, now an insignificant ditch, are clearly marked on the OS 1:25 000 map.

Some former fenland rivers showing, in particular, the former course of the Great Ouse (Courtesy Gordon Fowler. Vol 34 of the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society)

Some other developments took place before the time of dramatic change in the 17th century. These include Morton’s Leam which straightened the Nene eastwards from Peterborough for fourteen miles towards Guyhirn and thereby improved drainage as river water escaped more quickly to the sea. Construction was undertaken around 1487-1490. Morton was Bishop of Ely (1479), Archbishop of Canterbury (1486) and Lord Chancellor to Henry VII (1487). He is buried in Canterbury Cathedral. In 1605, Lord Chief Justice Popham undertook the construction of a channel, called Popham’s Eau, from a point on the Nene, now known as the Old Course, some 2 miles south west of Upwell to Nordelph, a distance of about six miles. This attempt to improve drainage does not appear to have been particularly successful.

Morton's Leam today. Cambridgeshire Heritage Gateway has a little more information at http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MCB4673&resourceID=1000 and the following Wikipedia entry covering the Middle Level Navigations and mentions both Morton and Popham. The eastern end of Popham's Eau today can be found joining the Well Creek at Nordelph https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Level_Navigations

It is in the 1630s, however, that work on the draining of the Fens really got underway and the landscape was to change so significantly. Cornelius Vermuyden (1590-1677) became a naturalised British subject in 1626. Between 1634 and 1637 he undertook to create the Bedford Level for Francis, Earl of Bedford, by constructing the (Old) Bedford River with associated work on nine other major drains. 1649-1652 saw the completion of the New Bedford, or Hundred Foot (the distance between the top of the banks) River running parallel about one kilometre to the east of the Old Bedford.

Cornelius Vermuyden

Much more can be found on this well-covered subject at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Bedford_River and elsewhere.

Vermuyden also constructed St John’s Eau, also referred to as the Downham Eau, Little River or Catchwater Drain, in 1642 to drain the area north of the Wissey through Roxham Fen, Fordham and Denver. Its course was followed by the northern course of the Cut-Off Channel and the southern part of the Relief Channel and has mostly now disappeared. However, it remains in principle. Two photographs show its passage between Downham Market and Downham West.

St John’s Eau and Stone Bridge constructed 1642, also showing the Hythe.

Some 300 years of history were lost when the Relief Channel replaced St John’s Eau and a new bridge was constructed.

The work of Vermuyden is well documented but how much he was personally responsible for overseeing the work is less clear. Certainly, Sir Jonas Moore (1617-1679) had a much greater involvement on a day-to-day basis and his contribution is increasingly recognised. It was he, rather than Vermuyden, who commissioned the sluice at Denver in 1655. Moore was also responsible for mapping out the newly drained lands. His cartographic skills raised mapmaking standards to a new level. He moved to March in February 1652 and to Southery in 1653, living there until about 1658. He drew the princely salary of £200 per annum while employed by the Earl of Bedford. There is much more on Sir Jonas at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/articleHL/19137?docPos=23&anchor=match

The Ely Ouse was no longer tidal after the sluice was completed, until 1713 when the original structure was overwhelmed by abnormal tides. Presumably this was part of the same storm that did extensive damage to Norwich cathedral and replicated the conditions seen on 31 January 1953 which flooded so much of coastal East Anglia and claimed 81 lives in West Norfolk. A new sluice was designed by Charles Labelye, the Swiss bridge builder and engineer, and completed around 1748 so that Vermuyden’s scheme was, once again, fully operational. At this point a lock was constructed to allow the passage of vessels when water levels on either side were unequal – previously it was only possible when levels either side of the sluice were the same. Labelye’s structure remained in place until, after problems in 1821, it was redesigned and rebuilt by Sir John Rennie (1794-1874) just to the east in 1832. Rennie was a distinguished civil engineer and knighted after the completion of London Bridge which he constructed to designs prepared by his father. It is interesting to note that the Ouse boasts a small bore when flood tides are enhanced by the constriction of the estuary. The Severn bore is a far more spectacular example of the same process.

(Environment Agency)

(Courtesy Dave Gillett, Environment Agency)

Rennie’s structure, with modifications, remained operational until the AG Wright sluice was put in place in 1957. The original sluice was to the west of Rennie’s structure, on the Jenyns’ side. The ebb and flow of the water was controlled through three drainage eyes each 18 feet wide and around 13 feet deep. Fitted to each eye were two pairs of wooden leafed doors ‘of immense size’, the northern ones facing downstream to control the incoming tide (the flood doors) and the southern ones facing upstream (the ebb doors) to control the exit of fresh water. The lock is on the right with raised arch. It was 74 feet long, 18 feet wide with an operating depth of 24 feet. It required four pairs of leafed doors, two pointing upstream and two down, to allow the passage of vessels at all states of the tide. The AG Wright sluice, or head sluice, controls the entry of water into the Relief Channel at Denver while a tail sluice near King’s Lynn controls its exit into the tidal waters. The Relief Channel is, thus, a huge storage reservoir. Also at Denver are sluices to control the Cut-Off Channel. The Impounding sluice allows the level of the Cut-Off to be raised until it flows ‘backwards’ for 15 miles towards the Blackdike tunnel on the River Little Ouse (and thence to Abberton and Hanningfield in Essex) while the Diversion sluice allows additional water from the Ouse to be moved into the Cut-Off when required. There is much more on Sir John Rennie at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23377/?back=,23374 and his elder brother George at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/articleHL/23374?docPos=27&anchor=match

Denver Sluice about 1922. Before the Relief and Cut-Off Channels were constructed the road from the village passed to the south of the lockkeeper’s house, on the right in the photograph. (Mike Bullen)

The Sluice in 1924 with extensive improvements in progress (Mike Bullen) Note the sluice gate under construction on the left. Pedestrians could cross by a temporary footbridge but vehicles were diverted via Ten Mile Bank. Denver Lock from the tidal Ouse today. Steel sluice gates have replaced the old wooden leafed doors. The high tide masks the problem of sand banks due to silting which can be readily appreciated from the road at low tide and in the photo below:

Essentially, Vermuyden’s scheme involved the cutting of two straight drainage channels about a kilometre apart from Earith to Denver, a distance of 33 kilometres, into which water from the numerous drainage ditches could be pumped to facilitate its escape to the sea. In winter, the Washes between the two channels were designed to act as a flood-protection reservoir holding excess water until it could be safely released downstream. This winter flooding proved a haven for wildfowl and led to the foundation of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust reserve at Welney (in 1970) and the RSPB’s Ouse Washes reserve at Welch’s Dam further south. In summer, the Washes revert to the water meadows and summer grazing that must have been reminiscent of the fens prior to Vermuyden’s intervention. The former of these two reserves was wardened by Welney man Josh Scott for many years.

The whole system is dependent upon the level of the tidal New Bedford River being below the level of the water held back at Welmore Sluice so that it can be released downstream. Welmore was substantially improved in 1999 to increase the capacity of discharge but problems for the people of Welney remain when the A1101 still closes periodically due to flooding.

Welmore Sluice after 1999 remodelling - The John Martin Sluice

Peat shrinks when it is drained. This was an unexpected development since it was not a phenomenon experienced in the non-peat polder lands of Holland. Numerous wind pumps were required to pump the water up into the rivers and many of these are shown on old maps such as that drawn by Faden.

A steam pumping engine at Hunt’s Sluice was installed in 1824 by the Feltwell and Methwold drainage commissioners to pump water out of Sam’s Cut into the Ouse and, according to evidence on Faden’s map, replaced at least one wind pump. This site was redeveloped in 1884 to enable over 100 tons of water an hour to be lifted. Subsequently, drainage of the area to the south east of the sluice was redirected to the pumping station at Catsholme on the Wissey about two kilometres upstream from the sugar factory and Sam’s Cut no longer served a useful function. Of great interest though are the remains of the pumping house and sluice gates at Hunt’s Sluice which, though overgrown, can be readily appreciated in their Victorian solidity. Sam's Cut, much of which is still in evidence, dates from 1629-31 when a 20 feet wide channel was cut through Methwold Fen from Feltwell, a distance of some six miles, to bring surplus water to the River Ouse. William Same being the drainage Adventurer undertaking the work. Quite where Sam’s Cut fits into the overall scheme of draining the Fens is unclear but it was a significant undertaking ahead of the Old and New Bedford Levels. Hunt’s sluice is close to the western end of Steel’s Drove in Hilgay. Whether Vermuyden was involved is also unclear since, if the date of construction is accurate, he was engaged on drainage work in Yorkshire. Norfolk Heritage Explorer states that Sam's Cut was abandoned and sold off in 1931. Who was Hunt who gave his name to the sluice, I wonder?

Hunt’s Sluice (2007)

Hunt's Sluice 1912 from the south west. The water from Sam's Cut originally flowed into the Ouse by gravity but the shrinking of the fen meant that a steam pump had to installed in 1883. Another pump, at the other end of the Cut was required in 1913 because of further shrinkage - an estimated 5-6 feet in the previous 50 years. The 1883 engine ceased to be used when Sam's Cut was abandoned in 1928 - the drainage of Methwold Fen then being diverted into the Wissey on the upstream side of the sugar factory at Wissington.

Also made redundant by a rearrangement of the drainage was the pumping station at the former Five Sail Mill on the Wissey on the Woodhall estate, sold for residential development in 2008. There are also the remaining foundations of the pumps installed on Sam’s Cut (near to the intersection of the Southery – Feltwell Road and the continuation northwards of the B1160 to the sugar factory) close to Decoy Farm. The remains of Sam’s Cut are of considerable interest.

Former pumping station on the Wissey, Woodhall estate. Built in 1849, the original 40hp beam-engine powered a single scoopwheel and lasted until 1907. Until recently, the pumping machinery was still in situ.

On the other side of the Ouse, just south of the centre of Ten Mile Bank village, we found ourselves, for once, at the forefront of technology. In 1820, the Littleport & Downham Drainage Commissioners built a new steam powered pump to drain 10000 acres of the South Level, to the west of the Ouse, at a project cost of £6000. Rated at 30hp, the beam-engine operated at 18rpm and, unusually, drove two scoopwheels. This was replaced in 1842 with another beam-engine rated at 80hp. The single scoopwheel had a diameter of 42 feet and could discharge 213 tons per minute through a mean lift of 11 feet. It was upgraded in 1879 and 1883 by when it was responsible for the draining of 35000 acres. Dozens of windmills were replaced. The engine was scrapped in 1912 and the scoopwheel replaced by twin steam pumps; the engine house remains today as a private dwelling. Coal was replaced by oil in two developments of 1935 and 1947. Drainage was subsequently realigned, as in Feltwell Fen, and the water is now pumped out, by electric pumps, about two kilometres further south midway between Vineyard Farm and Ferry Farm.

Other steam pumps in the area include a beam-engine erected in 1842 at the western end of Steel’s Drove in Hilgay, close to Hunt’s Sluice, to drain 600 acres of the Great West Fen. It was scrapped in 1939 and water is now pumped into the Wissey nearby.

In Little Ouse, just downstream from the village, an engine was installed in 1831 to drain 1500 acres of Burnt Fen. It was manufactured by Boulton & Watt and lasted until 1892.

Just upstream from the bridge where Redmere Drove crosses the Little Ouse River was built, in 1836, a 20hp beam-engine driving a scoopwheel to drain 2400 acres of the fen around Shrubhill. The bridge appears to have been constructed around 1970 when Weasenham Farms at Shrubhill acquired land south of the Little Ouse from Frederick Hiam's farming interests.

Shrubhill engine run by Ebenezer Gorbould c1885-1903, seen here with his wife Eliza. Several of their seven children appear in the photograph. Thanks to Andrew Bridgeman for this additional information. (He can be reached at andrewbridgeman@mailcontact.co.uk)

7000 acres of Sedge Fen (Feltwell New Fen), south of Southery, was drained by a 60hp engine installed in 1842. This engine lasted until it was replaced in1917 and the building survives. The electric pumps that now do the work are on the opposite side of the main road to the Ferry Bank.

In 1845, an engine was installed just west of the, later, Ouse Bridge railway crossing to drain 800 acres of Fordham Fen. The scoopwheel here had a diameter of 34 feet. It was scrapped in 1909.

Also in Fordham, closer to the village, can be seen the building erected in 1847 to house a small beam-engine, scrapped as late as 1936. Even this engine, rated at c20hp had a flywheel of 18 feet diameter and a scoopwheel of 28 feet. Much of the finance came from the Pratt family. This building is now in the hands of the Denver, Ryston, Roxham and Fordham Village Trust and there are occasional open days. The building holding the modern electric pump close by is tiny by comparison but the drainage here has been greatly affected by the construction of the Cut-Off channel nearby.

Fordham pumping station.

Fordham drainage pump. The solid black line at the top of the map is the lane coming down past Border House. The pump was put in place to raise water into the Catchwater drain which can still be seen even though its role was overtaken by the construction of the Cut-off channel.

Of course, not everything went to plan and the waters fought back from time to time. In January 1853, for example, or 1915 and 1916

St Peter’s, Poppylot, in 1915. It stood close to the Feltwell – Southery road and collapsed shortly after this photograph was taken. A wooden church replaced it later. Areas of Feltwell Fen remained flooded throughout the year and did not fully dry out until October. The floods returned in the winter of 1916 when the Little Ouse broke its bank at Redmere. A water mark on Larman’s Farm showed a depth of four feet at the height of the flood. Workers had to resort to rowing boats for transport and securing floating cornstacks was an unusual but vital task.

A tile in Southery church records the First Great Flood occurring on January 3rd 1915 when one life was lost (Mary Jane Porter, aged 9) and the Second Great Flood on March 4th 1916 when no lives were lost. 'On both occasions the Little Ouse burst its banks'. Mary Jane was the daughter of Robert Aaron Porter (born Southery 1870) and Eliza (nee Bowers) who was also born in Southery in 1872 who lived in Little London on the edge of Southery down the Feltwell Road.

Feltwell Anchor Primitive Methodist January 1915

In March 1947, Sedge Fen was inundated to a depth of several feet. Following heavy rain and the thaw of lying snow, the Wissey burst its south bank close to its confluence with the Ouse. The water flowed south across the Hilgay – Ten Mile Bank road, past Modney and piled up against the Ferry Bank in Southery. A major battle to save Sedge Fen then ensued and a huge number of sandbags were piled up along the road. The sandbags held but a culvert at White Bridge did not. The culvert was swept away and millions of gallons of water flooded hundreds of acres of Sedge Fen.

See the website maintained by Oltah covering the History of Southery and The Fens Parts 1&2. The information on the 1947 flood is currently being updated as part of the 70th anniversary (Jan 2017)

White Bridge House to the west of the breach (top left), unsurprisingly, collapsed shortly after this photograph was taken. George ‘Tiddly’ Porter’s house however, in the foreground, survived. It now has a thatched roof and, standing by the modified A10, clearly indicates where Ferry Bank was breached.

White Bridge House shortly before it was washed away

Older residents of the village can vividly recall the events of 1947 and the attempts to plug the breach in Ferry Bank. Osier mats (some 18000 square yards) loaded with stones and clay were used to restore the breached bank in the Wissey. The water soon drained away and crops were harvested later in the year.

Grateful thanks to the contributor (oltah)

Elsewhere, disused amphibious military vehicles were used to plug breaches in the defences such as at Over in Cambridgeshire.

(Mike Petty)

On the other side of the Ouse can be found the Middle Level Main Drain which passes under the Downham to Outwell road at Mullicourt.

The Middle Level pumping station (1934) at St German’s (Middle Level Commissioners)

Mullicourt viaduct carrying the Well Creek across the Middle Level main drain looking west (Wikimedia). The present aqueduct dates from 1921. The priory was on the opposite side of the road.

As mentioned elsewhere, it is possible that the Welle Stream was the main river flowing past Downham before the diversion of the Ouse at Littleport around 1275. It was at one time known as the New Podyke and the section between Outwell and Nordelph, running roughly parallel to the Old Podyke further north, was labelled as such by Faden. All Fenland rivers have changed their courses over time and the Well Creek is no exception. However, since sluices were installed at Wisbech and at Salter’s Lode in the mid 16th century changes have been few. Popham’s Eau (1605) gave rise to Three Holes village but was superseded by Vermuyden’s Sixteen Foot River although it still exists in two sections today. Tong’s Drain, between Nordelph and the Ouse just upstream from Stowbridge, is prominent on Faden’s map and this was constructed in 1653 to relieve pressure on the sluice at Salter’s Lode. It was made redundant by the construction of the Middle Level Main Drain two hundred years later. Was Tong an Adventurer like Sam (William Same, as in Sam’s Cut), in which case the apostrophe is correctly placed, or was the name due to the two parallel drains being shaped like tongs, in which case it is not?

Early attempts to drain the Middle Level under the initiatives of Morton and Popham were of limited success. It was the cutting of the two Bedford Levels by Vermuyden in the years 1630-1650, and the opening of the Sixteen, Twenty and Forty Foot Rivers shortly afterwards, that created a viable landscape for farming. The Forty Foot (not to be confused with the North and South Forty Foots in the Lincolnshire fens) was cut to drain the area to the west of the Old Bedford, bringing its water into the Washes at Welches Dam, and the Sixteen Foot then connected it to Popham’s Eau at Three Holes. The Twenty Foot drains the area around Whittlesey, running north of March before joining the Old Course of the Nene two miles or so south west of Popham’s Eau – the New Course of the Nene running in a straight line from Peterborough to Ring’s End near Guyhirn north of, and roughly parallel to, Morton’s Leam.

The most significant development on the Middle Level since the middle of the 17th century has been the construction of the Main Drain following serious flooding in 1841-42 and subsequent approval by an Act of Parliament in 1844. Principally, a new cut of twelve miles in length with a width of 50 ‘foot’ was dug to take the waters of the Sixteen Foot to a new outfall on the Ouse at Wiggenhall St Germans that was some seven feet lower than Salter’s Lode. Tong’s Drain was greatly reduced in importance as a consequence. The Middle Level Commissioners, separate from those of the Bedford Level, were established in 1862 to manage the drainage of the area which extends to some 700 square kilometres. This new piece of legislation coincided with a serious flood which resulted from a breach in the bank at Lord’s Bridge as a consequence of which a large part of Outwell parish was inundated. Initially, drainage of the Middle Level was by gravity, sluices being opened at St Germans at low tide, but this proved increasingly inadequate and a pumping station was planned to open in 1934 using as much local labour as possible to help reduce the affects of the depression.

The old.... to be replaced by a new pumping station at a cost of £35+m. Work commenced at the end of 2006.

The station was regularly upgraded but, despite many improvements, often involving other outfalls, events in 1998 pointed to the need for a new pumping station. In April that year the pumps were in maximum operation for a continuous period of over two days – 50 hours at 71 tonnes per second is a lot of water!

Throughout all these developments one feature has remained firmly imprinted on the landscape – Well Creek, formerly the Welle Stream, which is believed to be responsible for the name Welle (or Wella) given to the community which is known to have existed by 970, and its subsequent split into Outwell, on the seaward side, and Upwell. It runs for around eight miles from the Old Course of the Nene at Marmont Priory in the west through to the sluice at Salter’s Lode via Nordelph. The Romans are thought to have used it as a waterway and King Cnut (1017-1035) is supposed to have travelled along it on his various journeys to Ely. The Old Course of the Nene from Outwell to Wisbech can easily be established by the roddon that it created and the Well Stream branched from it. Although the early course of the Nene changed from time to time due to the very slight gradient across the fen and the consequential silting, the direction of flow of the Welle Stream appears always to have been towards the east (although it was tidal until the mid 16th century). Was it, for a time at least, the main course of the Nene, and the waterway alluded to when Downham’s market was founded? To suggest it was an artificial cut, perhaps dug by the Romans, would imply the existence of the Ouse on its present course from Littleport long before the supposed date of this alteration around 1275. Navigation was greatly improved when a sluice was built at Salter’s Lode in the mid 1550s but it was unable to cope with the additional pressure resulting from the creation of Popham’s Eau and duly failed. Sir Edmund Bell of Beaupre Hall was instrumental in funding its replacement. It was again rebuilt by John Dyson, chief engineer of the Bedford Level Commissioners, in 1832, and has been improved at various times right through to the last upgrade in 2008-09. That the Creek was labelled the New Podike by Faden suggests that the Creek itself did not go unimproved over the years.

In the second half of the 20th century, Well Creek lost any pretence at being a commercial waterway and fell into serious decline. Having no longer a drainage function, and being increasingly a dumping place for rubbish, the authorities proposed its infill in connection with plans to improve the road between Downham and Outwell. Fortunately for our heritage, local people did not stand idly by and the Well Creek Trust was formed in 1970. The Creek was drained, dredged, cleared of rubbish and reopened to navigation in 1975.