Peterborough Advertiser & South Midland Times,
Saturday, 17 March 1888.
The Ramsey, Warboys, Somersham and Whittlesea fen districts are areas of very rich and low-ling land which have only been completely drained during the last hundred years. The whole countryside forms a shallow basin and is drained externally by the great Middle Level System, and internally by excellent systems of steam pumping plants and dykes in each fen. The men in charge of the pumping engines must maintain a constant watchfulness and have their engines ready to start immediately in case of heavy rain.
The fen land is fairly porous, so the water level in any one place is the same as the water level in the ditches, and on a day following the heaviest rains the land can be worked if the ditches are pumped down to their proper level, for this duty the internal drainage plants are adequate. But it is useless to pump the water off the land into the external drainage system if the latter is not maintained in such a way that the water can be got rid of at once; so that, it does not merely fill the drains and filter back on to the land, or overflow or, worst of all, burst the banks and pour over the land as an uncontrollable and devastating flood.
The Middle Level System was designed at a time when most of the pumping was done by means of windmills. Fortunately the engineers were far-seeing and constructed drains with a much larger capacity than the small duty of the pumps necessitated. But very little improvement has been made since, and the system is inadequate when the total output of the modern steam plants used for internal drainage of the separate fens is taken into consideration.
For the demands on the system have been steadily growing, because the land is 6ft to 8ft below its original level when first drained; when the drains either remain much the same in depth as they were when first constructed, or have only been deepened by 2ft or 3ft without being widened at the same time, and have therefore a smaller capacity than they originally had, as the sinkage in the land has necessitated a navigation depth of the main drains used to be fort, it is now only 6ft 4in; and the narrow, deepened portions have obviously smaller cross sections for an equal depth than the original wide drains, as all canal banks must be sloped.
The history of the fens throws a good deal of light on to the present problems. They were once an oak forest, which account for the peat formation that covered the fens to a depth of from six feet to eight feet. It is this peat which has now become used up; and the present day fields consist of much heavier land, with a large admixture of clay in the top soil, which also rests on clay, so the land cannot sink down in the future as it has done in the past.
The first man that attempted the drainage of the fens on a large scale was the Bishop Moreton of Ely. He built a bank eight miles long from Stanground to Guyhirne, and cut a river beside it called Moreton’s Leam. These two measures prevented the flood waters from Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire coming over the fens, and carried them into the Nene at Guyhirne. This was done in 1470 and absorbed the whole of the Bishop’s enormous revenue and all the money he could raise. The modern drainage works were projected in 1630 by the Duke of Bedford, who brought over a Dutch engineer named Cornelius Ver Muyden. The Duke was joined by nineteen other men, who had shares of £1,000 each. The Bedford Corporation, or Court of Sewers, was formed in this manner, and obtained the Bedford Level Act of 1663, together with a grant, or monopoly, of the fens; they then set to work to drain them. Unfortunately, the funds at their disposal were inadequate, and the political unrest of the time militated against any great commercial scheme, so the venture was not a success.
After the failure of the Duke of Bedford’s scheme, small areas, where the land was slightly higher than the average, were reclaimed by private individuals by banking round and the use of windmill pumps. These pieces were known as Adventures’ Land, and the establishment of rights and interests in regard to them has made it very difficult to administer the drainage of the fens as one area, and has caused endless litigation. After the middle of the eighteenth century a good deal of drainage was done. In 1810 the Middle Level Scheme was brought forward and placed on a separate footing to the North Level on the one side, and the Bedford Level Works on the other. There are one hundred and twelve miles of main drains in the system, and the waters are gathered together into one big “level” or “river”, and taken under an aqueduct (which carries Well Creek) to the sluice gates near Outwell. From Outwell the water passes for eight miles through the New Cut to the Navigation Gates at St Germans, where there is the outfall into the sea.
Whittlesea Mere acted as a reservoir to take sudden heavy rains; also the peat was very porous and could carry much water. The mere was drained in 1851, when the first steam-pumping plant was installed. The aqueduct was constructed in 1843 to suit the old conditions, and has a channel through it forty feet wide and between ten and eleven feet deep, which now seems to be inadequate.
It is obvious that many of the drains will have to be both widened and deepened; the Middle Level Board used to deepen ten miles of their main drains every year, but did not widen them. Three years ago they decided not to deepen any more of their drains because of the extra compensation exacted – an exceedingly short-sighted policy.
Apart from the widening and deepening of the drains, a large amount of labour will have to be expended on putting the banks in order. These are, in most cases, the property of the men who own the adjoining land, and are not under the control of the Middle Level Commissioners. In some cases farmers have been so grasping that they have ploughed away the banks in order to get an extra half-acre of land. From these instances it is obvious that the Middle Level must get an Omnibus Act passed which will give them control of the banks in the same way that they have control of the drains.
Another measure which may have to be taken is the erection of a large pumping station at the outfall to the sea, in order that the water may be pumped out of the drains between tides as well as only at low tide. At high tide there is sometimes a seventeen feet head of salt water against the navigation doors, and the spring tides are even higher. Therefore, the periods are short during which they can be opened and the water allowed to flow out.
The outfall on the sea side was three feet, but now it is probably silted to some extent. Deepening the drains and lowering the water level system will, of course, make the time that the doors can be opened each day even shorter than at present. It is calculated that a plant of about 5,000 hp would be required at the sea outfall to deal with the water pumped off the land by the 150 steam pumping plants in use in the various internal drainage areas, and the flood water which comes down into the Middle Level drains from the higher land without pumping. The Northern Level drains from the higher land without pumping. The Northern Level have already obtained Parliamentary powers to erect such a plant at their sea outlet. The ratable area administered by the Middle Level Board is 125,000 acres, and it is calculated that they take the flood waters of some 30,000 to 40,000 acres of high land in addition.