The Drainage of the Fens


This is a work in progress. Please note that I live in Australia and have relied on various sources, some of which are old and may be incorrect.

Originally the Fens area were dense Forrest, which were large destroyed by the Romans, since the original inhabitants used the Forrest as a defence against the invading Romans. Later it became in parts a swamp. In the 13th century the sea undulated the land to a greater extent with more land becoming swamp. Since this time the various ventures having being carried out to win back the Fens back from the sea. This has been hampered by the very fact of attempting to control the waters of the Fens have created the problem of the outfalls into the wash being more silted up, thus causing a need for more sophisticated drainage methods to cope with the dilemma. Because of this, the very nature of Fens have change remarkably over the last thousand of years. Towns such a Wisbech which has it origins possibly as a Roman fort once use to sit at the mouth of the Well Stream that emptied into the Wash. The Well Stream carried the untied waters of the River Nene and the river Ouse. Now Wisbech stand 10 miles from the sea.

The Romans were the first to systematically attempt the drainage of the fens with the construction of Car Dyke (a catchwater drain) which runs from south of Lincoln, Lincolnshire to Ramsey or according to Stukeley to Fen Ditton a mile north of Cambridge. It was at located along the western fringes of the Fens. The Romans also reclaimed the silt and soil deposit bordering the wash with the construction of sea walls on either side of the Wells Steam at Wisbech. One wall went north west from the Wells Stream at Wisbech along to and down part of the River Welland. The other wall went east from the Wells Stream at Wisbech along to the Little Ouse, across from Lynn. The Romans also built a causeway from Standground to Denver. Much of the Romans work went back to Marshes with the continuing erosion of deposits from 8 counties flowing down the River Nene and River Ouse causing a silting up of the outfall north of Wisbech into the Wash. 120

From 1215 to 1270  a cut of two miles was made from the junction of  the Old River Ouse and Lark River east of Littleport to the Little Ouse. Such a small cut was to have a major impact on the whole drainage of the southern Fens. Instead of the Old River Nene and the Old River Ouse joining together south of Upwell forming the Wells Stream which flowed into the wash at Wisbech. The larger amount of the waters from the Old River Ouse were now diverted into the Little Ouse to flow into the Wash at Lynn. Without the same volume of water flowing into the Wash at Wisbech to keep the channel open, it began to silt up, causing the Old River Nene to flow back onto itself, thus flooding more land. This also cause the water of the Wash to recede from Wisbech, where in the present it is now 10 miles from the waters of the Wash. The Little Ouse whose banks were narrow and with a smaller channel into the Wash could not accommodate the extra water it received from the Old River Ouse, thus the River would often break it's banks and flood the surrounding Fens. The southern Fens were then being affected the opposing forces of the waters from the rivers and the waters from the Wash and North Sea.

Work was done in 1436 to drain the Fens with construction of various embankments and ditches, but this work was undone the next winter by flooding. The next attempt was made by Bishop Morton during the reign of Henry VII this involed the construction of Morton Leam.

The Bedford Level derives it name from the Earl of Bedford. The first Earl Francis whom in agreement with thirteen adventure and Charles I formed a company in 1634 to drain the marshes of the greater part of the English Fens. They employed Cornelius Vermuyden for this task. Over a period of three years Cornelius Vermuyden and his workers constructed embankments and drains at various intervals before the scheme was annulled by Charles I. On such work was the construction of the Old Bedford River which ran from Earith to Denver, thus shortening the route in which the water of the upper River Ouse flowed. No more work was done until after the Civil War of 1648-1649, during which, several of the embankment were destroyed, thus flooding the then land that had been reclaim from the marshes. In 1649 work recommence with Parliament instating the new Earl of Bedford, the adventures. In 1664 the company received a royal charter from Charles II and became incorporated. In 1697 the Bedford Level was divided into the North, Middle and South Levels.

In the North Level the Welland was embanked, the New South Eau, Peakirk Drain and Shire Drain created and existing drains regulated. In the Middle Level, the New River Nene was embanked from Peterborough to Guyhirn as was the River Ouse from Earith to Over. The New Bedford River was constructed. The north side of the Old Bedford River was embanked as was the south side of the New Bedford river, thus creating an over flow basin (wash) between them. Several feeding drains were also built including the Forty Foot or Vermuyden's Drain, Sixteen Foot River, Bevill's River and the Twenty Foot River. A new outfall for the River Nene was built and the first Denver Sluice was built.

Work continued along the lines that Cornelius Vermuyden had envisage. From 1795 to 1820 the River Ouse was straighten above and below King's Lynn. The Work of cutting a better outfall of the Ouse north of Lynn was engineered by James Rennie. This was accomplish by cutting down the outfall to low water at spring tide. The Ouse was also straighten between Ely and Littleport. The North Level Main Drain and the Middle Level (Main) Drain were constructed and the and the Meres of Whittlesey and Ramsey drained.

The Denver sluice is a keystone for the whole Fenland drainage scheme. It hold back the waters of the North Sea at high tide, to stop the waters from flooding the Fens. It also allows the waters of the lower Fens, primary from the Great Ouse to drain into the North Sea at low tide. The first Denver Sluice was built in 1651 by Cornelius Vermuyden. In 1713 this sluice failed due to a large tide, resulting in the flooding of the lower Fens. A new Denver Sluice was built in 1752? by Charles Labelye.

The majority of the Fens are below sea level and with more work being carried out in drainage, the land has subsided further. To drain the marshes, Windmills were needed to lift the water from the marshes into the rivers and drains which were at a higher level. During the Nineteenth century, most of the Windmills were replaced by Steam Engines. In the twentieth century these were replaced by electric engines.

  • Highways and Byways in Cambridge and Ely - By the Rev. Edward Conybeare, Illustrated by Frederick L. Griggs, Published by Macmillan and Co. Ltd., London, 1923. (originally published 1910)
  • The Encyclopeadia Britannica - Published by Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1875. (Ninth Edition) and 1887 (Tenth Edition)
  • Jim Shead's Waterways Information


This page was last updated - Sunday, 24 September 2006

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