PoWs put to work

LAST week, I discussed the River Great Ouse Flood Protection Scheme. Despite the obvious need for the work to be undertaken as soon as possible after the 1947 floods the arguments raged on. Eventually, however, the scheme was built, and today it protects

LAST week, I discussed the River Great Ouse Flood Protection Scheme. Despite the obvious need for the work to be undertaken as soon as possible after the 1947 floods the arguments raged on. Eventually, however, the scheme was built, and today it protects us from the devastating flooding that occurred in past centuries.

What is interesting though, is that while reading LE Harris's book Vermuyden and the Fens, I realised that this theory of flood relief was advocated by the Dutch engineer in 1638.

The Old Bedford River had been completed in 1630, but at the time was criticised for the extent of land which still lay under water for much of the year.

In his defence, in 1638, Vermuyden reported to the Lords' Commissioners that 'about 40,000 acres at this time [were] sowne with cole seed, wheate, and other winter grain' this land had not been 'surrounded' (flooded) for two years. He felt that his drainage work had helped reclaim land in the North and Middle Levels.


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The South Level was a different problem entirely. Vermuyden said that the Level was 'watered by five rivers which ran through it, and did heretofore occasion the surrounding thereof, namely the river Ouze, the river of Grant, the river of Mildenhall, the river of Brandon, and the river of Stoake'. Today we know them as the rivers Great Ouse, the Cam, the Lark, the Little Ouse and the Wissey. His conclusion was that it was necessary to dig a cut-off channel for the last of the four rivers which would prevent them discharging into the Great Ouse between Earith and Salter's Lode.

So, more than 300 years before the River Great Ouse Flood Protection Scheme was adopted, the cause of flooding in the south Level had been recognised. The reason Vermuyden's scheme was not used was that the adventurers, who were putting up the money for the scheme, did not want to 'expend so much'.

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As a result, in 1653, Vermuyden abandoned the idea of the cut-off channel and supported the view that flooding could be prevented by the provision of 'sufficient bankes, leaving portionable receptacles between the said bankes for any sudden downfall'. By this stage the New Bedford River had been dug and Vermuyden probably hoped to have satisfied his backers with more land at less cost.

For those of you who do not know the story of how the New Bedford River was dug I will mention it briefly here, but for a more in-depth insight, look at Trevor Bevis's book Prisoners of the Fens.

In essence, Vermuyden and the adventurers' ambitious scheme of digging huge rivers and drainage channels met with local opposition and they found it hard to employ Fen people on such a hazardous, dirty job.

The Civil War was still raging and, after the Battle of Worcester in 1650 and the Battle of Dunbar in 1651, Scottish soldiers who had fought against the Parliamentary forces were held captive. These prisoners-of-war, also including some Dutch prisoners taken after a sea battle off Portland Bill, were destined for the Fens.

Having inspected the men at Totenhill Fields, where they were being held, the adventurers approached Oliver Cromwell, who was persuaded to allow them to buy several hundred men to work on the drainage scheme.

Over the ensuing months the numbers of prisoners sent to the Fens increased rapidly. The conditions they worked in were hostile and unhealthy. Digging in water filled trenches for hours on end, even in the depth of winter they faced disease, particularly pneumonia, and in the summer malaria or Fen ague. Many died in these dreadful conditions and those who tried to escape were executed on the spot.

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