Main Street, Prickwillow, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4UN
Through much of the 16th Century there was discussion about the possibility of draining, what was regarded by many as a waste land and turning it into a productive agricultural area.
The sea banks around the edge of The Wash had been built, improved and extended since Roman times and on into the Middle Ages.
The peat of the inland fens had built up to such an extent that most of the land was above sea level and therefore it appeared to be practical to drain the area, if only the rivers could be tamed and straightened.
The dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, loosened the grip of the religious houses on the area and removed a possible obstacle to change.
The period was one of exploration and travel to the New World and trade with the Far East. There was now a new class of people who had become wealthy through trade, rather than land ownership, and some of these were ambitious to invest their wealth in new ventures.
Led by the Duke of Bedford, who had a large estate at Thorney near Peterborough, a group of investors got together and invited a young Dutch engineer called Cornelius Vermuyden to design a drainage system for the whole area and petitioned the King for permission.
The plan was to retain one third of the reclaimed land for themselves, to keep one third in their Corporation (to rent out and provide income for the future maintenance of the system) and to give one third to the Crown.
Vermuyden had already carried out some major engineering works on the Thames marshes at Dagenham and in an area known as the Hatfield Chase near Doncaster which involved draining a peat marsh. He had at his disposal a group of Walloons from what is now Northern France and Belgium who were refugees from religious persecution at home. Many of these had the desire to settle the newly reclaimed land as tenant farmers.
His first major work was the construction of the first Bedford River (now known as the Old Bedford) between Earith and just south of Denver. The idea was to make the main waters of the Ouse take a much shorter and straighter course to the sea and so increase the gradient and flow. This channel was completed by 1635. He also undertook major improvement to the River Nene and constructed the channel now known as the Ramsey Forty Foot Drain.
The civil war broke out before the drainage could be completed and work stopped for almost 10 years.
When the war was over, work resumed with the construction of the second Bedford River (The New Bedford) parallel to the first one and with a wide flood plain between them to store water at times of heavy flow. This post war period also saw the construction of the first Denver Sluice to prevent high tides coming back up the river.
Unfortunately, the more efficient removal of water gave rise to a rapid shrinking of the peat soil and therefore a fall in land level. By the end of the 17th Century much of the fenland had dropped below the river level so preventing excess rainfall from within the fens reaching the rivers.
The widespread use of wind pumps was introduced in the Black Fen to overcome this and the first of these was installed around 1685, although such pumps had been used in other parts of the country for some some considerable time before.