River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Draining The Fens

June 2001

A job that's taken over 400 years

Attempts at draining the fens and salt marshes of East Anglia took place over a period of hundreds of years before the present level of success was achieved. Many of the earlier attempts were successful at the time but were subsequently overcome for one reason or another. Two of the more common causes of ultimate failure were extremes of weather and sabotage. The draining of the land was often not popular with the local inhabitants who depended on the wet lands for their supply of food and for the harvest of reeds and they would resort to damming drains and breaking down banks.

Two pieces of writing have come to my notice recently which are of interest in that they demonstrate the points: A report in 1467 read; there was "so great an inundation of waters by reason of the snows and continuous rain that no man living could recall the like. Throughout the whole of South Holland there was scarcely a house or a building but that the waters made their way and flowed through it and this remained continuously through a whole month." It is interesting to consider that, whilst the last twelve months were the wettest on record, those records only date back to the 18th century. Were the floods in 1467 worse I wonder?

A poem, written in 1619 was of ten verses. These are the first three:

Come, Brethren of the Water, and let us all assemble

To treat upon this matter, which makes us quake and tremble;

For we shall rue it, if't be true, the Fens be undertaken,

And where we feed in Fen and Reed, they'll Feed both Beef and Bacon

They'll sow both beans and oats, where never man yet thought it,

Where men did row in boats, ere undertakers bought it:

But, Ceres, thou, behold us now, let wild oats be their venyure,

Oh let the frogs and miry bogs destroy where they do enter.

Behold the great design, which they do noew determine,

Will make our bodies pine, a prey to crows and vermine:

For they do mean all Fens to drain, and waters overmaster,

All will be dry, and we must die, 'cause Essex calves want pasture.

Ron Watts

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