Drainage works were carried out by the Romans in Lincolnshire and Cambridge Fens. The Cardike is a reminder of what they did. But their successors neglected what the Romans had done, and everything fell into disrepair.
In the 12th century Richard De Rollos, lord of Market Deeping, started a drainage scheme for Deeping Fen by embanking the River Welland and digging some drains. Crowland Abbey and Spalding Priory followed suit. There is a record that the Convent of St. Michael paid for digging ‘le Mede dyk” in Thurlby Fen in 1361.
During the medieval period, because the sea walls had been breached, fearful floods devastated what lands remained reclaimed. Almost all the half-lands, which gave rough grazing in summer, were ‘bright’ with shallow floods in winter. Much of Kesteven and Holland were drowned in 1248 and 1250, and other great-floods swept the flat lands in 1257, 1292, 1322 and 1357. As late as in 1571 Holinshed reported, “Bourne was overflowed to the midway of the height of the Church.”
During the Middle Ages the Court of Sewers was established and Commissioners were appointed to keep the banks and drains in order. The penalty for those who either broke the banks or neglected to repair them was savage. The culprit was arrested, bound hand and foot, and then staked down in the gap in the bank, and there buried alive. Thus he became part of his neighbours’ sea defences.
By the beginning of the 16thcentury a large area of the Fens consisted of rneres and a still larger area was flooded in winter and in the wet seasons. The inhabitants, known as Fen Stodgers, lived with their families in huts on isolated mounds surrounded by water. Theirs was a life of hardship, and they suffered from malaria and other diseases caused by damp. They made a living of sorts by fishing and wild fowling, and they sold some of their gains to the neighbouring villagers who would be glad to get some fresh meat. In suitable areas the neighbouring villagers used the Fens to breed numbers of horses, cattle and sheep, and they harvested fodder for winter keep, and reeds which they put to many uses. Upon these areas freeholders would assert common rights.
In the reign of Elizabeth the First, the people of Deeping, Spalding, Pinchbeck, Bourne, Crowland and Thurlby petitioned that Thomas Lovell might drain their Fens. He quoted £12,000 as the cost of the undertaking. The freeholders would not co-operate by paying rates. About 1600 Lovell put up the money himself and was allotted part of the drained lands in return, on which were grown flax and colza oil.
Lovell failed to complete the work of draining the Fens, owing to “riotous letts and disturbances of lewd people casting down his banks”. The opposition would have come from the Fen Stodgers, who would lose their livelihood, and from those villagers who benefited from the produce of the Fens, and instead would have to pay rates. In addition to the natural difficulties of the undertaking, there would be the impossibility of reconciling the conflicting claims to the reclaimed lands, made by those who provided the money, on the one hand, and those who asserted common rights, on the other.
About 1641 the Earl of Exeter and others undertook certain drainage works in Deeping Fen, employing Sir Stephen Vernatt as the engineer. The land was so much improved that it yielded quantities of grass and hay, and would soon have made winter ground, had not the common people, taking advantage of the confusion prior to the Civil War, taken possession and allowed it to be overflowed again.
Under Civil War conditions the Fens degenerated and the successors of Lovell lost their lands. James the First and Charles the First had taken over drained lands near the Wash and had sold them to adventurers. For this reason the inhabitants espoused the cause of Parliament in the Civil War. The tax known as Ship Money also made them anti-Royalist.
After the Civil War drainage started again in earnest. Lovell was followed by the
Earl of Bedford. Lincolnshire people were not pleased at being included in the Cambridgeshire Bedford Level, so they approached Vermuyden, the Dutch drainage expert. He advised sending the waters of the River Glen and the River Welland down the River Nene, so as to clear the silt, but local interests opposed that. Instead of adopting this scheme of Vermuyden, Sir Stephen Vernatt built Vernatt’s Drain from Pode Hole eastwards. But the Fen never dried in winter.
Thurlby Fen was drained privately by the lords of Thurlby, because the River Glen formed a barrier against the waters of Deeping Fen. They tunnelled under the River Glen and ran the water into Deeping Fen.
An account of the conversion of a tract of 40,000 acres embracing the Wildmore and East and West Fens may be given as an illustration of the system adopted. Originally there was a chain of lakes from three to six feet deep, bordered by great beds of reeds. The bottom of the lakes consisted of blue clay under a layer of loose black mud. The water was drawn off and the mud became fertile soil. Then the plough appeared and land was sown with oats.
From Records of Thurlby by Rev.W.G.Summers