The Drainage of the Fens

The Drainage of the Fens Before they were drained, the fens covered large areas of Cambridgeshire up into Lincolnshire, though now only the National Trust area of Wicken Fen retains the appearance of those original fens. The Drainage of the Fens styles itself as "a book for local historians, steam engine enthusiasts and those with a general interest in fenland". Its author, Rev. Dr. Richard L Hills, has been researching the subject for many years, and as befits an academic, has produced a very detailed analysis of the subject, with detailed footnotes to each chapter providing references to the original sources.

Richard's earlier coverage of the subject was published in 1967 as Machines, Mills and Uncountable Costly Necessities, A Short History of the Drainage of the Fens, and the first half of that title is retained as the chapter title for the current book's second chapter. Before covering mechanical drainage via mills, the book mentions the gravitational schemes that were proposed, but these were mostly impractical, and it was not until wind was harnessed to the pumping efforts that real success was achieved.

Illustrations for the mills chapters include the earliest British drawing of a fen drainage mill, from the 1652 "The English Improver Improved", together with historic photos from the Reid Collection, supplemented with more recent photos by the author, some of which show Dutch mills where they show features that need illustration.

The subsequent chapter, "Gentle Spectators", takes its name from one of the stated disadvantages of using windmills to drain the Fens. Specifically in the Fen area, the water was often pumped into rivers, or tidal water, whose level varied, sometimes to a height that the windmills could not pump to. When this happened, then "the engines must be gentle spectators till the Sea gives way". Whilst in no way neglected, windmills are not the main thrust of this book - for that you should consult Richard's earlier book Power from Wind.

By its fifth chapter, the book moves to cover steam driven drainage of the Fens, and this is the major theme of the remainder of the book. Illustrations in this section include detailed drawings from the Bolton and Watt collection held by the Birmingham Public Library, period engravings, and recent photos by the author. Since each fen district was resposible for its own drainage provision, there is a chapter devoted to a survey of which arrangements of "Trusty Steam" was used in each. As the size of the steam pumps increased, they seemed to be engines of "Unlimited, Untiring Power".

A series of interesting appendices completes the book, including a letter from James Watt specifying a steam engine for drainage; a list of steam engines built in the Fens between 1817 and 1855; a price list for building the Swaffham and Bottisham Engine-house; and notes on various old fashioned measures. These are followed by a bibliography, list of illustrations, maps, tables and figures, and finally by the index.

"The Drainage of the Fens" by Rev. Dr. Richard L Hills, ISBN 1-84306-074-4, Landmark Publishing, 2003 - hardback, 208 pages.

For more info:

[Windmills] [Watermills] [Bookshop] [News] [Site map] :

Last updated 03/03/2017 Text and images © Mark Berry, 1997-2017 -