River Wissey Lovell Fuller


December 2009

Report on the September and October meetings of the West Derham Heritage Group

September the 15th we were pleased to welcome back again the very popular Mike Petty for another of his illustrated lectures this time entitled Fenland in Crisis 1919-1939.

The 20 year period between the wars witnessed a great many changes in the way ordinary people lived and although some were designed to make living standards better, unemployment, poor housing, social unrest and natural disasters made a mockery of the then slogan, Homes fit for Heroes. The men and women returning home after the end of WWI found that the class system that had been the order of things in 1914 was breaking up. They had seen what life was like in foreign parts and had no intention of going back to the way of life they left in 1914.

A lot of effort was placed on improving public services with Doctors being more accessible who held surgeries in Pubs and forming sick clubs to enable people to save to provide care for unforeseen illness, child birth/care.

Library services were improved and built in the smaller towns which did not have one.

Reading was encouraged and schools were brought up to date with money from the Church of England. Radio broadcasts expanded and the new wonder of the Cinema opened up the world to many more people.

Right up to 1940 local councils undertook the building of houses for working families who were unable to pay the rents on a lot of private properties. These homes were built to modern standards and although these early properties did not have piped water or bathrooms they were vastly superior to most of the other local housing. They had large gardens both front and back which provided an area for growing vegetables and keeping livestock. Rents were kept low and affordable.

The Fens main enterprise was of course farming and therefore the biggest employer of labour. The floods of 1919 were caused by the collapse of banks due to the weight of water they were holding back. German POWs were employed to try and rebuild but with the decline of agriculture many began to wonder if the effort was worth while. By the early summer the banks were back in place only to be breached again in later years.

That same year saw wages for farm work drop from £2 two shillings and sixpence to £1 sixteen shillings. Tenant farmers were no better off as landlords were in fact putting up rents and by 1927 many were finding it a struggle. Workers were given pauper wages of £1 ten shilling per week. Wheat prices continued to fall as imports of American hard wheat increased. Farmers costs had gone up 70% where as prices only increased 17%. Arable decline was taking place and there was worse to come with a railway strike of 1924,the general strike of 1926 and the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Farming practices had to change, more mechanisation started to show it was possible to increase production. New industries began to take labour from the land which in turn lead to better employment. Sugar Beet is a crop that improved farm income from 1923 and by 1939 was expanding rapidly. Road transport improved with buses and lorries but was to the detriment of the Railways which lost the carriage business. Sugar beet brought about an increase in all traffic, road, river and rail as the crop had to be delivered to the factory.

By the 1930s marketing farm crops was taken up by the formation of various marketing boards and Co-ops. The Government fixed the price of wheat and guaranteed it for 12 months but later went back on this deal which infuriated members of the Governments Advisory Committee of whom many were farmers and land owners. One in particular,Frederick Hiams a fen land owner & farmer resigned over this Governmant fiasco.

In 1928 tithe charges looked like causing a total collapse of agriculture and in 1930 there were demonstrations in Cambridge and Ely under a banner of Save Agriculture-Save Britain. Many of these demos were supported by Oswold Mosley and his fascist movement members.

Areas of the Fens flooded again in 1928 which instigated the formation of area Drainage Boards who were able to levy a rate for the improvement of the drainage system. Denver sluice was improved and use of diesel engined pumps made the work so much more efficient. The cost was spread to all landowners who passed the charge on to tenants which was strongly resented.

There were many intances of tenant farmers being turned off the land and their equipment and livestock being put up for auction to recover the debt. These turned into farce when those attending would bid very low or offer no bids at all in order to foil the whole purpose of the sale. These people were often friends and relatives of the farmer and no one would dare to bid up against them as they might be next.

After the merging of the many railway companies in 1924 into what became known as the Big Four rural passenger traffic declined to a point where a lot of rolling stock became redundant. Passenger carraiges were soon to be found in villages put down on plots to be turned into homes for those who wanted more independance. It was described at the time as 'emergency housing'.

In 1936 after the King died, piped water was being laid and electricity poles were to be seen marching across the fenland but the clouds of war were yet again gathering and the area braced itself for another conflict when the ability to feed the population was to be a major priority.

Mike Petty is an authority on Cambridge and the Fens and has written many books on the subject. He was Librarian of the Cambridge Collection for 35 years and was awarded an MBE & an Honorary Degree from Cambridge University for his work. Mike offers a personal reserch and picture search service and is available to give lectures and talks to Club & organisations for a small fee. Contact by Phone 01353 648106 or e-mail mikepetty@tiscali.co.uk

On the 17th of October the Church of St Andrews welcome a visit by the Church Monument Society. The party of 23 lead by Dr Julian Litten, the Societies Vice President, were welcomed by Church Warden Graham Presley and Pam Bullas representing the Heritage Group. They had visited other Churches in Norfolk at Narhorough, West Acre and were going on to Stowe Bardolf later that afternoon. The visitors spent about an hour looking round the Church and it's monuments after a short introduction by Dr Litten.

Refreshments were provided by Graham and Church & Heritage group publications proved to he very popular with the visitors who spent freely and made generous donations to the Church.

By 4pm the visit ended with the departure of the coach to Stowe Bardolf. The Society is London based and its members come from all walks of life and from all parts of the country.

Richard French

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