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May 2004 Meeting Report

Report on Sawston Village History Society, May 2004 Meeting: Peter Filby - Drainage of the Fens

Peter comes from a family of mill wrights. He gave us an overview of the Fenland drainage before showing us a selection of windmills and also some of those which had been converted to steam (Prickwillow - now a museum) or electricity (Stretham) in later years.

The Fens are in northern Cambridgeshire and southern Lincolnshire and were first drained by the monasteries at Ely, Crowland, Ramsey and Thorney. When Henry VIII ordered the abolition of the monasteries drainage fell into disrepair and the Fens became a morass. In 1600 the Drainage Act attempted to improve the situation but money ran out and not much was done.

The Bedford Drain was dug from Earith to Denver and by 1637 was more or less completed but very wet weather undid some of the work. During the Civil War the drainage was largely undone. Fen men sabotaged the waterways for duck shooting.

By 1651 Cromwell aimed for self sufficiency and by 1653 the New Bedford Drain was completed although silt and the natural ebb and flow of the tides caused blockages. The two drains had a middle area to be used as a holding for flood water. Areas of Lincolnshire were also drained at this time.

Charles II introduced the Bedford Levels Commission when farmers and land owners had to pay taxes for the upkeep of the waterways on their land, but these taxes were not sufficient and by the 1720s drainage had once again fallen into disrepair. People living in Haddenham petitioned to drain their own land. This village and various other areas were finally given permission to drain by Acts of Parliament. There were 250 windmills in the Bedford Level which were independently pumped but as there was no overall control neighbouring land became flooded.

There were 400 windmills in 1800 and a lot of private mills. The Fen area was divided into drainage districts to facilitate better control of the waterways. Banks had to be constructed properly using galt clay to effect a waterproof lining. The clay was moved along the waterways in lighters (boats), then barrowed to the banks for the lining work. The well known Rothwell Pits was originally a hill but the extraction of galt clay reduced it somewhat.

It was expensive to maintain windmills and several farmers would unite to pay for the upkeep. Some water mills were taken down and rebuilt as corn mills with two mills used to make one good one. A few mills had their own bake houses. It could also be dangerous living at the mill. Occasionally children were hit by the sails or drowned in the drains.

Soham mere mill was rebuilt in 1869 following a fire and continued working till the 1930s. Lothy Fen had over 20 mills along each side of two central drains.

Wicken Fen mill with its 18 ft long sails is the last surviving working mill. Belonging to the National Trust, it works on Open Days and is now used for keeping water up in the Fens, not draining water away.

Skeleton mills were much smaller with a wooden frame and no cover. Some small mills were horse driven.

At one time there were 700 drainage mills in Cambridgeshire. Sails had to be transported by lighter, also materials for repair. A mill wright copied patterns of the teeth for the brake wheel, wallower or fly wheels. Wooden gears were used and the scoop wheel was also made of wood. Some engines lasted for 100 years or more.

Peter told us that flooding today is mainly caused by urban development on the flood planes.


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