West Dereham Heritage Group
DRAINAGE OF THE FENS & THE CIVIL WAR
To continue the report of the lecture by Mike Petty in October of last year when he spoke about the improvements made by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to the drainage of the Fens to the east and south of Peterborough. This work was continued after the war and helped to a great extend with the introduction of wind powered drainage mills.
Walter Blinth published instructions in 1652 to landowners to draw a substantial master drain though all your lands to the lowest part and here set up a water engine to be driven by the wind, the strength of a horse or even two or three men.
It had been the practice of some to throw up banks around their land and allow the water to drain naturally into the rivers but in many places the land was not high enough to do so. Protecting one own holdings often resulted in flooding your neighbours land which lead to heated exchanges between land owners when this was reported to them.
The use of wind driven mills dates back to the middle ages and the adaptation of the windmill from grinding corn to raising water was first accomplished in the Netherlands but the true origins remain obscure. There were reported to be 16 working around Delft by 1470 and 8 north of Amsterdam in 1514.
These dates suggest that some wind drainage mills could have been working in the Fens as early as this.
These early mills were based on the Dutch wipmolen which were lighter than smock or tower mills and more suited for use in marshy areas. In the wipmolen the supporting post of a post mill was made hollow so that a vertical shaft could pass through it connected by gears at the top to drive the axle of the scoop wheel at the bottom.
It was the design that was being built by the 1580s and the type commonly drawn on early English maps. There is mention of one in the Holland district of Lincolnshire in 1555 where remains of a windmill beside the old sea bank with two ditches leading up to it, so it was obviously used to move water. It was mentioned again in 1604 by the Commissioners of Sewers as an engine for raising water.
The soil in the fens is peat based so as the drainage improved the soil level shrunk the banks became higher thus increasing the work load of a mill.
Once the Civil War ended and the monarchy restored a more integrated system was employed and consequently dozens of mills were erected from the 1670s.
The fens were slow in employing steam power to raise water although it had been used in mines for some time before 1712 developed by Thomas Newcomen and formed the basis of steam engine design until the end of the 19th century. These were known as Beam Engines There are examples of windmills with pulley wheels connected to the axels to allow the use of portable steam engines if there was no wind.
All these improvements cost money and much of it was raised in taxes, rates and tolls of up to one shilling per acre but it did not really solve the problems. By 1769 land was still being flooded as the Reverend William Cole, Curate at Waterbeach, wrote in his letters Horace Walpole in which he describes the flooding of his estate by violent rains which caused the banks to burst and overflow covering all this part of the country. His land had been drowned for the third time in six years, it depressed him so much that he decided to sell his estate and retired to Milton.
The Level remained in a chronic state of debt and it was realised that the one shilling acre tax was totally inadequate and this was doubled to pay off the debt of