Brindley and the Early Engineers I.
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IT has taken the labour and the skill of many generations of men to make England the country that it now is; to reclaim and subdue its lands for purposes of agriculture, to build its towns and supply them with water, to render it easily accessible by means of roads, bridges, canals, and railways, and to construct lighthouses, breakwaters, docks, and harbours for the protection and accommodation of its commerce.  Those great works have been the result of the continuous industry of the nation, and the men who have designed and executed them are entitled to be regarded in a great measure as the founders of modern England.

    Engineering, like architecture, strikingly marks the several stages which have occurred in the development of society, and throws much curious light upon history.  The ancient British encampment, of which many specimens are still to be found on the summits of hills, with occasional indications of human dwellings within them in the circular hollows or pits over which huts once stood,—the feudal castle perched upon its all but inaccessible rock, provided with drawbridge and portcullis to secure its occupants against sudden assault,—then the moated dwelling, situated in the midst of the champaign country, indicating a growing, though as yet but half-hearted confidence in the loyalty of neighbours,—and, lastly, the modern mansion, with its drawing-room windows opening level with the sward of the adjacent country,—all these are not more striking indications of social progress at the different stages in our history, than the reclamation and cultivation of lands won from the sea, the making of roads and building of bridges, the supplying of towns with water, and the construction of canals and railroads for the ready conveyance of persons and merchandise throughout the empire.

    In England, as in all countries, men began with making provision for food and shelter.  The valleys and low-lying grounds being mostly covered with dense forests, the naturally cleared high lands, where timber would not grow, were doubtless occupied by the first settlers.  Tillage was not as yet understood nor practised; the people subsisted by hunting, or upon their herds of cattle, which found ample grazing among the hills of Dartmoor, and on the grassy downs of Wiltshire and Sussex.  Numerous remains or traces of ancient dwellings have been found in those districts, as at Bowhill in Sussex, along the skirts of Dartmoor where the hills slope down to the watercourses, and on the Wiltshire downs, where Old Sarum, Stonehenge and Avebury, mark the earliest and most flourishing of the British settlements.

    The art of reclaiming, embanking, and draining land, is supposed to have been introduced by men from Belgium and Friesland, who early landed in great numbers along the south-eastern coasts, and made good their footing by the power of numbers, as well as probably by their superior civilization.  The lands from which they came had been won by skill and industry from the sea and from the fen; and when they swarmed over into England, they brought their arts with them.  The early settlement of Britain by the races which at present occupy it, is usually spoken of as a series of invasions and conquests; but it is probable that it was for the most part effected by a system of colonization, such as is going forward at this day in America, Australia, and New Zealand; and that the immigrants from Friesland, Belgium, and Jutland, secured their settlement by the spade far more than by the sword.  Wherever the new men came, they settled themselves down on their several bits of land, which became their holdings; and they bent their backs over the stubborn soil, watering it with their sweat; and delved, and drained, and cultivated it, until it became fruitful.  They also spread themselves over the richer arable lands of the interior, the older population receding before them to the hunting and pastoral grounds of the north and west.  Thus the men of Teutonic race gradually occupied the whole of the reclaimable land, and became dominant, as is shown by the dominancy of their language, until they were stopped by the hills of Cumberland, of Wales, and of Cornwall.  The same process seems to have gone on in the arable districts of Scotland, into which a swarm of colonists from Northumberland poured in the reign of David I., and quietly settled upon the soil, which they proceeded to cultivate.  It is a remarkable confirmation of this view of the early settlement of the country by its present races, that the modern English language extends over the whole of the arable land of England and Scotland, and the Celtic tongue only begins where the plough ends.

    One of the most extensive districts along the English coast, lying the nearest to the country from which the continental immigrants first landed, was the tract of Romney Marsh, containing about 60,000 acres of land along the south coast of Kent.  The reclamation of this tract is supposed to be due to the Frisians.  English history does not reach so far back as the period at which Romney Marsh was first reclaimed, but doubtless the work is one of great antiquity.  The district is about fourteen miles long and eight broad, divided into Romney Marsh, Wallend Marsh, Denge Marsh, and Guildford Marsh.  The tract is a dead, uniform level, extending from Hythe, in Kent, westward to Winchelsea, in Sussex; and it is to this day held from the sea by a continuous wall or bank, on the solidity of which the preservation of the district depends, the surface of the marsh being under the level of the sea at the highest tides.  The following descriptive view of the marsh, taken from the high ground above the ancient Roman fortress of Portus Limanis, near the more modern but still ancient castle of Lymne, will give an idea of the extent and geographical relations of the district.


    The tract is so isolated, that the marshmen say the world is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.  It contains few or no trees, its principal divisions being formed by dykes and watercourses.  It is thinly peopled, but abounds in cattle and sheep of a peculiarly hardy breed, which are a source of considerable wealth to the marshmen; and it affords sufficient grazing for more than half a million of sheep, besides numerous herds of cattle.

    The first portion of the district reclaimed was an island, on which the town of Old Romney now stands; and embankments were extended southward as far as New Romney, where an accumulation of beach took place, forming a natural barrier against further encroachments of the sea at that point.  The old town of Lydd originally stood upon another island, as did Ivychurch Old Winchelsea, and Guildford; the sea sweeping round them and rising far inland at every tide.  Burmarsh, and the districts thereabout, were reclaimed at a more recent period; and by degrees the islands disappeared, the sea was shut out, and the whole became firm land.  Large additions were made to it from time to time by the deposits of shingle along the coast, which left several towns, formerly important seaports, stranded upon the beach far inland.  Thus the ancient Roman port at Lymne, past which the Limen or Rother is supposed originally to have flowed, is left high and dry more than three miles from the sea, and sheep now graze where formerly the galleys of the Romans rode.  West Hythe, one of the Cinque Ports, originally the port for Boulogne, is silted up by the wide extent of shingle used by the modern School of Musketry as their practising ground.  Old Romney, past which the Rother afterwards flowed, was one of the ancient ports of the district, but it is now about two miles from the sea.  The marshmen followed up the receding waters, and founded the town of New Romney, which also became a Cinque Port; but a storm that occurred in the reign of Edward I. so blocked up the Rother with shingle, at the same time breaching the wall, that the river took a new course, and flowed thenceforward by Rye into the sea; and the port of New Romney became lost.  The point of Dungeness, running almost due south, gains accumulations of shingle so rapidly from the sea, that it is said to have extended more than a mile seaward within the memory of persons living.  Rye was founded on the ruins of the Romneys, and also became a Cinque Port; but notwithstanding the advantage of the river Rother flowing past it, that port also has become nearly silted up, and now stands about two miles from the sea.  New Winchelsea, the Portsmouth and Spithead of its day, is left stranded like the rest of the old Cinque Ports, and is now but a village surrounded by the remains of its ancient grandeur.  All this ruin, however, wrought by the invasions of the shingle upon the seacoast towns, has only served to increase the area of the rich grazing ground of the marsh, which continues year by year to extend itself seaward.


St Thomas Becket Church, Fairfield, Romney Marsh.
© Copyright dennis smith and licensed for reuse under
this Creative Commons Licence.

    Another highly important work of the same class was the embankment of the Thames, now the watery highway between the capital of Great Britain and the world.  Before human industry had confined the river within its present channel, it was a broad estuary, in many parts between London and Gravesend several miles wide.  The higher tides covered Plumstead and Erith Marshes on the south, and Plaistow, East Ham, and Barking Levels on the north; the river meandering in many devious channels at low water, leaving on either side vast expanses of rich mud and ooze.  Opposite the City of London, the tides washed over the ground now covered by Southwark and Lambeth; the district called Marsh still reminding us of its former state, as Bankside informs us of the mode by which it was reclaimed by the banking out of the tidal waters.



    A British settlement is supposed to have been formed at an early period on the high ground on which St. Paul's Cathedral stands, by reason of its natural defences, being bounded on the south by the Thames, on the west by the Fleet, and on the north and east by morasses, Moorfields Marsh having only been reclaimed within a comparatively recent period.  The natural advantages of the situation were great, and the City seems to have acquired considerable importance even before the Roman period.  The embanking of the river has been attributed to that indefatigable people; but on this point no evidence exists.  The numerous ancient British camps found in all parts of the kingdom afford sufficient proof that the early inhabitants of the country possessed a knowledge of the art of earthwork; and it is not improbable that the same Belgian tribes who reclaimed Romney Marsh were equally quick to detect the value for agricultural purposes of the rich alluvial lands along the valley of the Thames, and proceeded accordingly to embank them after the practice of the country from which they had come.  The work was carried on from one generation to another, as necessity required, until the Thames was confined within its present limits, the process of embanking serving to deepen the river and improve it for purposes of navigation, while large tracts of fertile land were at the same time added to the food-producing capacity of the country.

    Another of the districts won from the sea, in which a struggle of skill and industry against the power of water, both fresh and salt, has been persistently maintained for centuries, is the extensive low-lying tract of country, situated at the junction of the counties of Lincoln, Huntingdon, Cambridge, and Norfolk, commonly known as the Great Level of the Fens.  The area of this district presents almost the dimensions of a province, being from sixty to seventy miles from north to south, and from twenty to thirty miles broad, the high lands of the interior bounding it somewhat in the form of a horse-shoe.  It contains about 680,000 acres of the richest land in England, and is as much the product of art as the kingdom of Holland, opposite to which it lies.


    Not many centuries ago, this vast tract of about two thousand square miles of land was entirely abandoned to the waters, forming an immense estuary of the Wash, into which the rivers Witham, Welland, Glen, Nene, and Ouse discharged the rainfall of the central counties of England.  It was an inland sea in winter, and a noxious swamp in summer, the waters expanding in many places into settled seas or mores, swarming with fish and screaming with wildfowl.  The more elevated parts were overgrown with tall reeds, which appeared at a distance like fields of waving corn; and they were haunted by immense flocks of starlings, which, when disturbed, would rise in such numbers as almost to darken the air.  Into this great dismal swamp the floods descending from the interior were carried, their waters mingling and winding by many devious channels before they reached the sea.  They were laden with silt, which became deposited in the basin of the Fens.  Thus the river-beds were from time to time choked up, and the intercepted waters forced new channels through the ooze, meandering across the level, and often winding back upon themselves, until at length the surplus waters, through many openings, drained away into the Wash.  Hence the numerous abandoned beds of old rivers still traceable amidst the Great Level of the Fens—the old Nene, the old Ouse, and the old Welland.  The Ouse, which in past times flowed into the Wash at Wisbeach (or Ouse Beach), now enters at King's Lynn, near which there is another old Ouse.  But the probability is that all the rivers flowed into a lake, which existed on the tract known as the Great Bedford Level, from thence finding their way, by numerous and frequently shifting channels, into the sea.

    Along the shores of the Wash, where the fresh and salt waters met, the tendency to the deposit of silt was the greatest and in the course of ages, the land at the outlets of the inland waters became raised above the level of the interior.  Accordingly, the first land reclaimed in the district was the rich fringe of deposited silt lying along the shores of the Wash, now known as Marshland and South Holland.  This was effected by the Romans, a hard-working, energetic, and skilful people; of whom the Britons are said to have complained [p.10] that they wore out and consumed their hands and bodies in clearing the woods and banking the fens.  The bulwarks or causeways which they raised to keep out the sea are still traceable at Po-Dyke in Marshland, and at various points near the old coast-line.  On the inland side of the Fens the Romans are supposed to have constructed another great work of drainage, still known as Carr Dyke, extending from the Nene to the Witham.  It means Fen Dyke, the fens being still called Carrs in certain parts of Lincoln.  This old drain is about sixty feet wide, with a broad, flat bank on each side; and originally it must have been at least forty miles in extent, winding along under the eastern side of the high land, which extends in an irregular line up the centre of the district from Stamford to Lincoln.

    The eastern parts of Marshland and Holland were thus the first lands reclaimed in the Level, and they were available for purposes of agriculture long before any attempts had been made to drain the lands of the interior.  Indeed, it is not improbable that the early embankments thrown up along the coast had the effect of increasing the inundations of the lower-lying lands farther west; for, whilst they dammed the salt water out, they also held back the fresh, no provision having been made for improving and deepening the outfalls of the rivers flowing through the Level into the Wash.  The Fen lands in winter were thus not only flooded by the rainfall of the Fens themselves, and by the upland waters which flowed from the interior, but also by the daily flux of the tides which drove in from the German Ocean, holding back the fresh waters, and even mixing with them far inland.

    The Fens, therefore, continued flooded with water down to the period of the Middle Ages, when there was water enough in the Witham to float the ships of the Danish sea rovers as far inland as Lincoln, where ships' ribs and timbers have recently been found deep sunk in the bed of the river.  The first reclaimers of the Fen lands seem to have been the religious recluses, who settled upon the islands overgrown with reeds and rushes, which rose up at intervals in the Fen level, and where they formed their solitary settlements.  One of the first of the Fen islands thus occupied was the Isle of Ely, or Eely—so called, it is said, because of the abundance and goodness of the eels caught in the neighbourhood, and in which rents were paid in early times.  It stood solitary amid the waste of waters, and was literally an island.  Etheldreda, afterwards known as St. Audrey, the daughter of the King of the East Angles, retired thither, secluding herself from the world and devoting herself to a recluse life.  A nunnery was built, then a town, and the place became famous in the religious world.  The pagan Danes, however, had no regard for Christian shrines, and a fleet of their pirate ships, sailing across the Fens, attacked the island and burnt the nunnery.  It was again rebuilt, and a church sprang up, the fame of which so spread abroad that Canute, the Danish king, determined to visit it.  It is related that as his ships sailed towards the island his soul rejoiced greatly, and on hearing the chanting of the monks in the quire wafted across the waters, the king joined in the singing and ceased not until he had come to land.  Canute more than once sailed across the Fens with his ships, and the tradition survives that on one occasion, when passing from Ramsey to Peterborough, the waves were so boisterous on Whittlesea Mere (now a district of fruitful cornfields), that he ordered a channel to be cut through the body of the Fen westward of Whittlesea to Peterborough, which to this day is called by the name of the "King's Delph."


Draining Soham Great Fen.
© Copyright Alison Rawson and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The other Fen islands which became the centres of subsequent reclamations were Crowland, Ramsey, Thorney, and Spinney, each the seat of a monastic establishment.  The old churchmen, notwithstanding their industry, were, however, only able to bring into cultivation a few detached points, and made very little impression upon the drowned lands of the Great Level.  It often happened, indeed, that the steps which they took to drain one spot merely had the effect of sending an increased flood of water upon another, and perhaps diverting in some new direction the water which before had driven a mill, or formed a channel for purposes of navigation.  The rivers also were constantly liable to get silted up, and form for themselves new courses; and sometimes, during a high tide, the sea would burst in, and in a single night undo the tedious industry of centuries.

    Each suffering locality, acting for itself, did what it could to preserve the land which had been won, and to prevent the recurrence of inundations.  Dyke-reeves were appointed along the sea-borders, with a force of shore-labourers at their disposal, to see to the security of the embankments; and fen-wards were constituted inland, over which commissioners were set, for the purpose of keeping open the drains, maintaining the dykes, and preventing destruction of life and property by floods, whether descending into the Fens from the high lands or bursting in upon them from the sea.  Where lands became suddenly drowned, the Sheriff was authorised to impress diggers and labourers for raising embankments; and commissioners of sewers were afterwards appointed, with full powers of local action, after the law and usage of Romney Marsh.  In one district we find a public order made that every man should plant with willows the bank opposite his portion of land towards the fen, "so as to break off the force of the waves in flood times;" and swine were not to be allowed to go upon the banks unless they were ringed, under a penalty of a penny (equal to a shilling in our money) for every hog found unringed.  A still more terrible penalty for neglect is mentioned by Harrison, who says, "Such as having walls or banks near unto the sea, and do suffer the same to decay (after convenient admonition), whereby the water entereth and drowneth up the country, are by a certain ancient custom apprehended, condemned, and staked in the breach, where they remain for ever as parcel of the new wall that is to be made upon them, as I have heard reported." [p.13]

    The Great Level of the Fens remained in a comparatively unreclaimed state down even to the end of the sixteenth century; and constant inundations took place, destroying the value of the little settlements which had by that time been won from the watery waste.  It would be difficult to imagine anything more dismal than the aspect which the Great Level then presented.  In winter, a sea without waves; in summer, a dreary mud-swamp.  The atmosphere was heavy with pestilential vapours, and swarmed with insects.  The mores and pools were, however, rich in fish and wild-fowl.  The Welland was noted for sticklebacks, a little fish about two inches long, which appeared in dense shoals near Spalding every seventh or eighth year, and used to be sold during the season at a halfpenny a bushel, for field manure.  Pike was plentiful near Lincoln: hence the proverb, "Witham pike, England hath none like."  Fen-nightingales, or frogs, especially abounded.  The birds-proper were of all kinds; wild-geese, herons, teal, widgeons, mallards, grebes, coots, godwits, whimbrels, knots, dottrels, yelpers, ruffs, and reeves, some of which have long since disappeared from England.  Mallards were so plentiful that 3,000 of them, with other birds in addition, have been known to be taken at one draught.  Round the borders of the Fens there lived a thin and haggard population of "Fenslodgers," called "yellow-bellies" in the inland counties, who derived a precarious subsistence from fowling and fishing.  They were described by writers of the time as "a rude and almost barbarous sort of lazy and beggarly people."  Disease always hung over the district, ready to pounce upon the half-starved fenmen.  Camden spoke of the country between Lincoln and Cambridge as "a vast morass, inhabited by fenmen, a kind of people, according to the nature of the place where they dwell, who, walking high upon stilts, apply their minds to grazing, fishing, or fowling."  The proverb of "Cambridgeshire camels" doubtless originated in this old practice of stilt-walking in the Fens; the fen-men, like the inhabitants of the Landes, mounting upon high stilts to spy out their flocks across the dead level.  But the flocks of the fenmen consisted principally of geese, which were called the "fenmen's treasure;" the fenman's dowry being "three-score geese and a pelt" or sheep-skin used as an outer garment.  The geese throve where nothing else could exist, being equally proof against rheumatism and ague, though lodging with the natives in their sleeping-places.  Even of this poor property, however, the slodgers were liable at any time to be stripped by sudden inundations.

    In the oldest reclaimed district of Holland, containing many old village churches, the inhabitants, in wet seasons, were under the necessity of rowing to church in their boats.  In the other less reclaimed parts of the Fens the inhabitants were much worse off.  "In the winter time," said Dugdale, "when the ice is only strong enough to hinder the passage of boats, and yet not able to bear a man, the inhabitants upon the hards and banks within the Fens can have no help of food, nor comfort for body or soul; no woman aid in her travail, no means to baptize a child or partake of the Communion, nor supply of any necessity saving what these poor desolate places do afford.  And what expectation of health can there be to the bodies of men, where there is no element good? the air being for the most part cloudy, gross, and full of rotten harrs; the water putrid and muddy, yea, full of loathsome vermin; the earth spungy and boggy, and the fire noisome by the stink of smoaky hassocks."

    The wet character of the soil at Ely may be inferred from the circumstance that the chief crop grown in the neighbourhood was willows; and it was a common saying there, that "the profit of willows will buy the owner a horse before that by any other crop he can pay for his saddle."  There was so much water constantly lying above Ely, that in olden times the Bishop of Ely was accustomed to go in his boat to Cambridge.  When the outfalls of the Ouse became choked up by neglect, the surrounding districts were subject to severe inundations; and after a heavy fall of rain, or after a thaw in winter, when the river swelled suddenly, the alarm spread abroad, "the bailiff of Bedford is coming!" the Ouse passing by that town.  But there was even a more terrible visitor than the bailiff of Bedford; for when a man was stricken down by the ague, it was said of him, "he is arrested by the bailiff of Marsh-land;" this disease extensively prevailing all over the district when the poisoned air of the marshes began to work.

    The great perils which constantly threatened the district at length compelled the attention of the legislature.  In 1607, shortly after the accession of James I., a series of destructive floods burst in the embankments along the east coast, and swept over farms, homesteads, and villages, drowning large numbers of people and cattle.  When the King was informed of the great calamity which had befallen the inhabitants of the Fens, principally through the decay of the old works of drainage and embankment, he is said to have made the right royal declaration, that "for the honour of his kingdom, he would not any longer suffer these countries to be abandoned to the will of the waters, nor to let them lie waste and unprofitable; and that if no one else would undertake their drainage, he himself would become their undertaker."  A Commission was appointed to inquire into the extent of the evil, from which it appeared that there were not less than 317,242 acres of land lying outside the then dykes which required drainage and protection.  A bill was brought into Parliament to enable rates to be levied for the drainage of this land, but it was summarily rejected.  Two years later, a "little bill," for draining 6000 acres in Waldersea County, was passed—the first district Act for Fen drainage that received the sanction of Parliament.  The King then called Chief-Justice Popham to his aid, and sent him down to the Fens to undertake a portion of the work; and he induced a company of Londoners to undertake another portion, the adventurers receiving two-thirds of the reclaimed lands as a recompense.  "Popham's Eau," and "The Londoners' Lode," still mark the scene of their operations. The works, however, did not prove very successful, not having been carried out with sufficient practical knowledge on the part of the adventurers, nor after any well-devised plan.  There were loud calls for some skilled undertaker or engineer (though the latter word was not then in use) to stay the mischief, reclaim the drowned lands, and save the industrious settlers in the Fens from total ruin.  But no English engineer was to be found ready to enter upon so large an undertaking; and in his dilemma the King called to his aid one Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, a man well skilled in works of embanking and draining.

    The necessity for employing a foreign engineer to undertake so great a national work is sufficiently explained by the circumstance that England was then very backward in all enterprises of this sort.  We had not yet begun that career of industrial skill in which we have since achieved so many triumphs, but were content to rely mainly upon the assistance of foreigners.  Holland and Flanders supplied us with our best mechanics and engineers.  Not only did Vermuyden prepare the plans and superintend the execution of the Great Level drainage, but the works were principally executed by Flemish workmen.  Many other foreign "adventurers" as they were called, besides Vermuyden, carried out extensive works of reclamation and embankment of waste lands in England.  Thus a Fleming named Freeston reclaimed the extensive marsh near Wells in Norfolk; Joas Croppenburgh and his company of Dutch workmen reclaimed and embanked Canvey Island near the mouth of the Thames; Cornelius Vanderwelt, another Dutchman, enclosed Wapping Marsh by means of a high bank, along which a road was made, called "High Street" to this day; while two Italians, named Acontius and Castilione, reclaimed the Combo and East Greenwich marshes on the south bank of the river.

    We also relied very much on foreigners for our harbour engineering.  Thus, when a new haven was required at Yarmouth, Joas Johnson, the Dutchman, was employed to plan and construct it.  When a serious breach occurred in the banks of the Witham at Boston, Mathew Hakes was sent for from Gravelines, in Flanders, to repair it; and he brought with him not only the mechanics, but the manufactured iron required for the work.  In like manner, any unusual kind of machinery was imported from Holland or Flanders ready made.  When an engine was needed to pump water from the Thames for the supply of London, Peter Morice, the Dutchman, brought one from Holland, together with the necessary workmen.

    England was in former times regarded principally as a magazine for the supply of raw materials, which were carried away in foreign ships, and returned to us worked up by foreign artisans.  We grew wool for Flanders, as India, America, and Egypt grow cotton for England now.  Even the wool manufactured at home was sent to the Low Countries to be dyed.  Our fisheries were so unproductive, that the English markets were supplied by the Dutch, who sold us the herrings caught in our own seas, off our own shores.  Our best ships were built for us by Danes and Genoese; and when any skilled sailors' work was wanted, foreigners were employed.  Thus, when the "Mary Rose" sank at Spithead in 1545, Peter de Andreas, the Venetian, with his ship carpenter and three Italian sailors, were employed to raise her, sixty English mariners being appointed to attend upon them merely as labourers.

    In short, we depended for our engineering, even more than we did for our pictures and our music, upon foreigners.  Nearly all the continental nations had a long start of us in art, in science, in mechanics, in navigation, and in engineering.  At a time when Holland had completed its magnificent system of water communication, and when France, Germany, and even Russia had opened up important lines of inland navigation, England had not cut a single canal, whilst our roads were about the worst in Europe.  It was not until the year 1760 that Brindley began his first canal for the Duke of Bridgewater.

    After the lapse of a century we find the state of things has become entirely reversed. Instead of borrowing engineers from abroad, we now send them to all parts of the world.  British-built steam-ships ply on every sea; we export machinery to all quarters, and supply Holland itself with pumping engines.  During that period our engineers have completed a magnificent system of canals, turnpike-roads, bridges, and railways, by which the internal communications of the country have been completely opened up; they have built lighthouses round our coasts, by which ships freighted with the produce of all lands, when nearing our shores in the dark, are safely lighted along to their destined havens; they have hewn out and built docks and harbours for the accommodation of a gigantic commerce; whilst their inventive genius has rendered fire and water the most untiring workers in all branches of industry, and the most effective agents in locomotion by land and sea.  Nearly all this has been accomplished during the last century, and much of it within the life of the present generation.  How and by whom certain of these great things have been achieved, it is the object of the following pages to relate.




CORNELIUS VERMUYDEN, the Dutch engineer, was invited over to England about the year 1621, to stem a breach in the Thames embankment near Dagenham, which had been burst through by the tide.  He was a person of good birth and education, and was born at St. Martin's Dyke, in the island of Thelon, in Zealand.  He had been trained as an engineer, and having been brought up in a district where embanking was studied as a profession, and gave employment to a large number of persons, he was familiar with the most approved methods of protecting land against the encroachments of the sea.  He was so successful in his operations at Dagenham, that when it was found necessary to drain the Royal Park at Windsor, he was employed to conduct the work; and he thus became known to the king, who shortly after employed him in the drainage of Hatfield Level, then a royal chase on the borders of Yorkshire.

    The extensive district of Axholme, of which Hatfield Chase formed only a part, resembled the Great Level of the Fens in many respects, being a large fresh-water bay formed by the confluence of the rivers Don, Went, Ouse, and Trent, which brought down into the Humber almost the entire rainfall of Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottingham, and North Lincoln, and into which the sea also washed.  The uplands of Yorkshire bounded this watery tract on the west, and those of Lincolnshire on the east.  Rising up about midway between them was a single hill, or rather elevated ground, formerly an island, and still known as the Isle of Axholme.  There was a ferry between Sandtoft and that island in times not very remote, and the farmers of Axholme were accustomed to attend market at Doncaster in their boats, though the bottom of the sea over which they then rowed is now amongst the most productive corn-land in England.  The waters extended to Hatfield, which lies along the Yorkshire edge of the level on the west; and it is recorded in the ecclesiastical history of that place that a company of mourners, with the corpse they carried, were once lost when proceeding by boat from Thorne to Hatfield.  When Leland visited the county in 1607, he went by boat from Thorne to Tudworth, over what at this day is rich ploughed land.  The district was marked by numerous merestones, and many fisheries are still traceable in local history as having existed at places now far inland.


Across Hatfield Moors towards the Isle of Axholme. [p.20-1]
© Copyright Ian Paterson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The Isle of Axholme was in former times a stronghold of the Mowbrays, being unapproachable save by water.  In the reign of Henry II., when Lord Mowbray held it against the King, it was taken by the Lincolnshire men, who attacked it in boats; and, down to the reign of James I., the only green spot which rose above the wide waste of waters was this solitary isle.  Before that monarch's time the south-eastern part of the county of York, from Conisborough Castle to the sea, belonged for the most part to the crown; but one estate after another was alienated, until at length, when James succeeded to the throne of England, there only remained the manor of Hatfield, which, watery though it was, continued to be dignified with the appellation of a Royal Chase.  There was, however, plenty of deer in the neighbourhood, for De la Pryme says that in his time they were as numerous as sheep on a hill, and that venison was as abundant as mutton in a poor man's kitchen. [p.20-2]  But the principal sport which Hatfield furnished was in the waters and mores adjacent to the old timber manor-house.  Prince Henry, the King's eldest son, on the occasion of a journey to York, rested at Hatfield on his way, and had a day's sport in the Royal Chase, which is thus described by De la Pryme:—"The prince and his retinue all embarked themselves in almost a hundred boats that were provided there ready, and having frightened some five hundred deer out of the woods, grounds, and closes adjoining, which had been drawn there the night before, they all, as they were commonly wont, took to the water, and this little royal navy pursuing them, soon drove them into that lower part of the level, called Thorne Mere, and there, being up to their very necks in water, their horned heads raised themselves so as almost to represent a little wood.  Here being encompassed about with the little fleet, some ventured amongst them, and feeling such and such as were fattest, they either immediately cut their throats, or else tying a strong long rope to their heads, drew them to land and killed them."

    Such was the last battue in the Royal Chase of Hatfield.  Shortly after, King James brought the subject of the drainage of the tract under the notice of Cornelius Vermuyden, who, on inspecting it, declared the project to be quite practicable.  The level of the Chase contained about 70,000 acres, the waters of which, like those of the Fens, found their way to the sea through many changing channels.  Various attempts had been made to diminish the flooding of the lands.  In the fourteenth century several deep trenches were dug, to let off the water, but they probably admitted as much as they allowed to escape, and the drowning continued.  Commissioners were appointed, but they did nothing.  The country was too poor, and the people too unskilled, to undertake so expensive and laborious an enterprise as the effectual drainage of so large a tract.

    A local jury was summoned by the King to consider the question, but they broke up, after expressing their opinion of the utter impracticability of carrying out any effective plan for the withdrawal of the waters.  Vermuyden, however, declared that he would undertake and bind himself to do that which the jury had pronounced to be impossible.  The Dutch had certainly been successful beyond all other nations in projects of the same kind.  No people had fought against water so boldly, so perseveringly, and so successfully.  They had made their own land out of the mud of the rest of Europe, and, being rich and prosperous, were ready to enter upon similar enterprises in other countries.  On the death of James I., his successor confirmed the preliminary arrangement which had been made with Vermuyden, with a view to the drainage of Hatfield Manor; and on the 24th of May, 1626, after a good deal of negotiation as to terms, articles were drawn up and signed between the Crown and Vermuyden, by which the latter undertook to reclaim the drowned lands, and make them fit for tillage and pasturage.  It was a condition of the contract that Vermuyden and his partners in the adventure were to have granted to them one entire third of the lands so recovered from the waters.

    Vermuyden was a bold and enterprising man, full of energy and resources.  He also seems to have possessed the confidence of capitalists in his own country, for we find him shortly after proceeding to Amsterdam to raise the requisite money, of which England was then so deficient; and a company was formed composed almost entirely of Dutchmen, for the purpose of carrying out the necessary works of reclamation.  Amongst those early speculators in English drainage we find the names of the Valkenburgh family, the Van Peenens, the Vernatti, Andrew Boccard, and John Corsellis.  Of the whole number of shareholders amongst whom the lands were ultimately divided, the only names of English sound are those of Sir James Cambell, Knight, and Sir John Ogle, Knight, who were about the smallest of the participants.

    Several of the Dutch capitalists came over in person to look after their respective interests in the concern, and Vermuyden proceeded to bring together from all quarters a large number of workmen, mostly Dutch and Flemish.  It so happened that there were then settled in England numerous foreign labourers—Dutchmen who had been brought from Holland to embank the lands at Dagenham and Canvey Island on the Thames, and others who had been driven from their own countries by religious persecution—French Protestants from Picardy, and Walloons from Flanders.  The countries in which those people had been born and bred resembled in many respects the marsh and fen districts of England, and they were practically familiar with the reclamation of such lands, the digging of drains, the raising of embankments, and the cultivation of marshy ground.  Those immigrants had already settled down in large numbers in the eastern counties, and along the borders of the Fens, at Wisbeach, Whittlesea, Thorny, Spalding, and the neighbourhood. [p.23]  The poor foreigners readily answered Vermuyden's call, and many of them took service under him at Hatfield Chase, where they set to work with such zeal, and laboured with such diligence, that before the end of the second year the work was so far advanced, that a commission was issued for the survey and division amongst the participants of the reclaimed lands.

    The plan of drainage adopted seems to have been, to carry the waters of the Idle by direct channels into the Trent, instead of allowing them to meander at will through the level of the Chase.  Deep drains were cut, through which the water was drawn from the large pools standing near Hatfield and Thorne.  The Don also was blocked out of the level by embankments, and forced through its northern branch, by Turnbridge, into the river Aire.  But this last attempt proved a mistake, for the northern channel was found insufficient for the discharge of the waters, and floodings of the old lands about Fishlake, Sykehouse, and Snaith took place; to prevent which, a wide and deep channel, called the Dutch River, was afterwards cut, and the waters of the Don were sent directly into the Ouse, near Goole.  This great and unexpected addition to the cost of the undertaking appears to have had a calamitous effect, and brought distress and ruin on many who had engaged in it.  The people who dwelt on the northern branch of the Don complained loudly of the adventurers, who were denounced as foreigners and marauders; and they were not satisfied with mere outcry, but took the law into their own hands; broke down the embankments, assaulted the Flemish workmen, and several persons lost their lives in the course of the riots which ensued. [p.25-1]


    Vermuyden did what he could to satisfy the inhabitants.  He employed large numbers of native workmen, at considerably higher wages than had before been paid; and he strenuously exerted himself to relieve those who had suffered from the changes he had effected, so far as could be done without incurring a ruinous expense. [p.25-2]  Dugdale relates that there could be no question about the great benefits which the execution of the drainage works conferred upon the labouring population; for whereas, before the reclamation, the country round about had been "full of wandering beggars," these had now entirely disappeared, and there was abundant employment for all who would work, at good wages.  An immense tract of rich land had been completely recovered from the waters, but it could only be made valuable and productive after long and diligent cultivation.

    Vermuyden was throughout well supported by the Crown, and on the 6th of January, 1629, he received the honour of knighthood at the hands of Charles I., in recognition of the skill and energy which he had displayed in adding so large a tract to the cultivable lands of England.  In the same year he took a grant from the Crown of the whole of the reclaimed lands in the manor of Hatfield, amounting to about 24,500 acres, agreeing to pay the Crown the sum of £16,080, an annual rent of £193. 3s. 5½d., one red rose ancient rent, and an improved rent of £425 from Christmas, 1630. [p.26-1]  Power was also granted him to erect one or more chapels wherein the Dutch and Flemish settlers might worship in their own language. They built houses, farmsteads, and windmills; intending to settle down peacefully to cultivate the soil which their labours had won.

    It was long, however, before the hostility and jealousy of the native population could be appeased.  The idea of foreigners settling as colonists upon lands over which, though mere waste and swamp, their forefathers had enjoyed rights of common, was especially distasteful to them, and bred bitterness in many hearts.  The dispossessed fenmen had numerous sympathisers among the rest of the population.  Thus, on one occasion, we find the Privy Council sending down a warrant to all Postmasters to furnish Sir Cornelius Vermuyden with horses and a guide to enable him to ride post from London to Boston, and from thence to Hatfield. [p.26-2]  But at Royston "Edward Whitehead, the constable, in the absence of the postmaster, refused to provide horses, and on being told he should answer for his neglect, replied, 'Tush! do your worst: you shall have none of my horses in spite of your teeth.'" [p.27-1]  Complaints were made to the Council of the injury done to the surrounding districts by the drainage works; and an inquisition was held on the subject before the Earls of Clare and Newcastle, and Sir Gervase Clifton.  Vermuyden was heard in defence, and a decision was given in his favour; but he seems to have acted with precipitancy in taking out subpoenas against many of the old inhabitants for damage said to have been done to him and his agents.  Several persons were apprehended and confined in York gaol, and the feeling of bitterness between the native population and the Dutch settlers grew more intense from day to day.  Lord Wentworth, President of the North, at length interfered; and after surveying the lands, he ordered that all suits should cease.  Vermuyden was also directed to assign to the tenants certain tracts of moor and marsh ground, to be enjoyed by them in common.  He attempted to evade the decision, holding it to be unjust; but the Lord President was too powerful for him, and feeling that further opposition was of little use, he resolved to withdraw from the undertaking, which he did accordingly; first conveying his lands to trustees, and afterwards disposing of his interest in them altogether. [p.27-2]

    The necessary steps were then taken to relieve the old lands which had been flooded, by the cutting of the Dutch River at a heavy expense.  Great difficulty was experienced in raising the requisite funds; the Dutch capitalists now holding their hand, or transferring their interest to other proprietors, at a serious depreciation in the value of their shares.  The Dutch River was, however, at length cut, and all reasonable ground of complaint so far as respected the lands along the North Don was removed.  For some years the new settlers cultivated their lands in peace; when suddenly they were reduced to the greatest distress, through the troubles arising out of the wars of the Commonwealth.

    In 1642 a committee sat at Lincoln to watch over the interests of the Parliament in that county.  The Yorkshire royalists were very active on the other side of the Don, and the rumour went abroad that Sir Ralph Humby was about to march into the Isle of Axholme with his forces.  To prevent this, the committee at Lincoln gave orders to break the dykes, and pull up the flood-gates at Snow-sewer and Millerton-sluice.  Thus in one night the results of many years' labour were undone, and the greater part of the level again lay under water.  The damage inflicted on the Hatfield settlers in that one night was estimated at not less than £20,000.  The people who broke the dykes were, no doubt, glad to have the opportunity of taking their full revenge upon the foreigners for robbing them of their commons.  They levelled the Dutchmen's houses, destroyed their growing corn, and broke down their fences; and, when some of them tried to stop the destruction of the sluices at Snow-sewer, the rioters stood by with loaded guns, and swore they would stay until the whole levels were drowned again, and the foreigners forced to swim away like ducks.

    After the mischief had been done, the commoners set up their claims as participants in the lands which had not been drowned, from which the foreigners had been driven.  In this they were countenanced by Colonel Lilburne, who, with a force of Parliamentarians, occupied Sandtoft, driving the Protestant minister out of his house, and stabling their horses in his chapel.  A bargain was actually made between the Colonel and the commoners, by which 2,000 acres of Epworth Common were to be assigned to him, on condition of their right being established as to the remainder, while he undertook to hold them harmless in respect of the cruelties which they had perpetrated on the poor settlers of the level.  When the injured parties attempted to obtain redress by law, Lilburne, by his influence with the Parliament, the army, and the magistrates, parried their efforts for eleven years. [p.29-1]  He was, however, eventually compelled to disgorge; and though the original settlers at length got a decree of the Council of State in their favour, and those of them who survived were again permitted to occupy their holdings, the nature of the case rendered it impossible that they should receive any adequate redress for their losses and sufferings. [p.29-2]

    In the meantime Sir Cornelius Vermuyden had not been idle.  He was as eagerly speculative as ever.  Before he parted with his interest in the reclaimed lands at Hatfield, he was endeavouring to set on foot his scheme for the reclamation of the drowned lands in the Cambridge Fens; for we find the Earl of Bedford, in July, 1630, writing to Sir Harry Vane, recommending him to join Sir Cornelius and himself in the enterprise.  Before the end of the year Vermuyden entered into a contract with the Crown for the purchase of Malvern Chase, in the county of Worcester, for the sum of £5,000, which he forthwith proceeded to reclaim and enclose.  Shortly after he took a grant of 4,000 acres of waste land on Sedgemoor, with the same object, for which he paid £12,000.  Then in 1631 we find him, in conjunction with Sir Robert Heath, taking a lease for thirty years of the Dovegang lead-mine, near Wirksworth, reckoned the best in the county of Derby.  But from this point he seems to have become involved in a series of lawsuits, from which he never altogether shook himself free.  His connection with the Hatfield estates got him into legal, if not pecuniary difficulties, and he appears for some time to have suffered imprisonment.  He was also harassed by the disappointed Dutch capitalists at the Hague and Amsterdam, who had suffered heavy losses by their investments at Hatfield, and took legal proceedings against him.  He had no sooner, however, emerged from confinement than we find him fully occupied with his new and grand project for the drainage of the Great Level of the Fens.

    The outfalls of the numerous rivers flowing through the Fen Level having become neglected, the waters were everywhere regaining their old dominion.  Districts which had been partially reclaimed were again becoming drowned, and even the older settled farms and villages situated upon the islands of the Fens were threatened with like ruin.  The Commissioners of Sewers at Huntingdon attempted to raise funds for improving the drainage by levying a tax of six shillings an acre upon all marsh and fen lands, but not a shilling of the tax was collected.  This measure having failed, the Commissioners of Sewers of Norfolk, at a session held at King's Lynn, in 1629, determined to call to their aid Sir Cornelius Vermuyden.  At an interview to which he was invited, he offered to find the requisite funds to undertake the drainage of the Level, and to carry out the works after the plans submitted by him, on condition that 95,000 acres of the reclaimed lands were granted to him as a recompense.  A contract was entered into on those terms, but so great an outcry was immediately raised against such an arrangement being made with a foreigner, that it was abrogated before many months had passed.

    Then it was that Francis, Earl of Bedford, the owner of many of the old church-lands in the Fens, was induced to take the place of Vermuyden, and become chief undertaker in the drainage of the extensive tract of fen country now so well known as the Great Bedford Level.  Several of the adjoining landowners entered into the project with the Earl, contributing sums towards the work, in return for which a proportionate acreage of the reclaimed lands was to be allotted to them.  The new undertakers, however, could not dispense with the services of Vermuyden.  He had, after long study of the district, prepared elaborate plans for its drainage, and, besides, had at his command an organized staff of labourers, mostly Flemings, who were well accustomed to this kind of work.  Westerdyke, also a Dutchman, prepared and submitted plans, but Vermuyden's were preferred, and he was accordingly authorised to proceed with the enterprise.

    The difficulties encountered in carrying on the works were very great, arising principally from the want of funds.  The Earl of Bedford became seriously crippled in his resources; he raised money upon his other property until he could raise no more, while many of the smaller undertakers were completely ruined.  Vermuyden meanwhile took energetic measures to provide the requisite means to pay the workmen and prosecute the drainage; until the undertakers became so largely his debtors that they were under the necessity of conveying to him many thousand acres of the reclaimed lands, even before the works were completed, as security for the large sums which he had advanced.


Old Bedford River.
Looking downstream along Vermuyden's artificially channelled watercourse,
dating from the 1630s.
© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The most important of the new works executed at this stage were as follows;—Bedford River (now known as Old Bedford River), extending from Erith on the Ouse to Salter's Lode on the same river: this cut was 70 feet wide and 21 miles long, and its object was to relieve and take off the high floods of the Ouse. [p.33-1]  Bevill's Leam was another extensive cut, extending from Whittlesea Mere to Guyhirne, 40 feet wide and 10 miles long; Sam's Cut, from Feltwell to the Ouse, 20 feet wide and 6 miles long; Sandy's Cut, near Ely, 40 feet wide and 2 miles long; Peakirk Drain, 17 feet wide and 10 miles long; with other drains, such as Mildenhall, New South Eau, and Shire Drain.  Sluices were also erected at Tydd upon Shire Drain, at Salter's Lode, and at the Horseshoe below Wisbeach, together with a clow, [p.33-2] at Clow's Cross, to keep out the tides; while a strong fresh-water sluice was also provided at the upper end of the Bedford River.


    These works were not permitted to proceed without great opposition on the part of the Fen-men, who frequently assembled to fill up the cuts which the labourers had dug, and to pull down the banks which they had constructed.  They also abused and maltreated the foreigners when the opportunity offered, and sometimes mobbed them while employed upon the drains, so that in several places they had to work under a guard of armed men.  Difficult though it was to deal with the unreclaimed bogs, the unreclaimed "fen-slodgers" were still more impracticable.  Although their condition was very miserable, they nevertheless enjoyed a sort of wild liberty amidst the watery wastes, which they were not disposed to give up.  Though they might alternately shiver and burn with ague, and become prematurely bowed and twisted with rheumatism, still the Fens were their "native land," such as it was, and their only source of subsistence, precarious though it might be.  The Fens were their commons, on which their geese grazed.  They furnished them with food, though the finding thereof was full of adventure and hazard.  What cared the Fen-men for the drowning of the land?  Did not the water bring them fish, and the fish attract wild fowl, which they could snare and shoot?  Thus the proposal to drain the Fens and to convert them into wholesome and fruitful lands, however important in a national point of view, as enlarging the resources and increasing the wealth of the country, had no attraction whatever in the eyes of the Fen-men.  They muttered their discontent, and everywhere met the "adventurers," as the reclaimers were called, with angry though ineffectual opposition.  But their numbers were too few, and they were too widely scattered, to make any combined effort at resistance.  They could only retreat to other fens where they thought they might still be safe, carrying their discontent with them, and complaining that their commons were taken from them by the rich, and, what was worse, by foreigners—Dutch and Flemings.  The jealous John Bull of the towns became alarmed at this idea, and had rather that the water than these foreigners had possession of the land.  "What!" asked one of the objectors, "is the old activitie and abilities of the English nation grown now see dull and insufficient that wee must pray in ayde of our neighbours to improve our own demaynes?  For matter of securitie, shall wee esteem it of small moment to put into the hands of strangers three or four such ports as Linne, Wisbeach, Spalding, and Boston, and permit the countrie within and between them to be peopled with overthwart neighbours; or, if they quaile themselves, must wee give place to our most auncient and daungerous enemies, who will be readie enough to take advantage of soe manic fair inlets into the bosom of our land, lying soe near together that an army landing in each of them may easily meet and strongly entrench themselves with walls of water, and drown the countrie about them at their pleasure?" [p.34]

    Thus a great agitation against the drainage sprang up in the Fen districts, and a wide-spread discontent prevailed, which, as we shall afterwards find, exercised an important influence on the events which culminated in the Great Rebellion of a few years later.  Among the other agencies brought to bear against the Fen drainers was the publication of satirical songs and ballads—the only popular press of the time; and the popular poets doubtless represented accurately enough the then state of public opinion, as their ballads were sung with great applause about the streets of the Fen towns.  One of these, entitled 'The Powte's [p.35] Complaint,' was among the most popular.

    In another popular drinking song, entitled 'The Draining of the Fennes,' the Dutchmen are pointed out as the great offenders.  The following stanzas may serve as a Specimen:—

 The Dutchman hath a thirsty soul,
     Our cellars are subject to his call;
 Let every man, then, lay hold on his bowl,
     'Tis pity the German sea should have all.

 Then apace, apace drink, drink deep, drink deep,
     Whilst 'tis to be had let's the liquor ply;
 The drainers are up, and a coile they keep,
     And threaten to drain the kingdom dry

 Why should we stay here, and perish with thirst?
     To th' new world in the moon away let us goe,
 For if the Dutch colony get thither first,
     'Tis a thousand to one but they'll drain that too!
Then apace, apace drink, &c.

    The Fen drainers might, however, have outlived these attacks, had the works executed by them been successful; but unhappily they failed in many respects.  Notwithstanding the numerous deep cuts made across the Fens in all directions at such great cost, the waters still retained their hold upon the land.  The Bedford River and the other drains merely acted as so many additional receptacles for the surplus water, without relieving the drowned districts to any appreciable extent.  This arose from the engineer confining his attention almost exclusively to the inland draining and embankments, while he neglected to provide any sufficient outfalls for the waters themselves into the sea.  Vermuyden committed the error of adopting the Dutch method of drainage, in a district where the circumstances differed in many material respects from those which prevailed in Holland.  In Zeeland, for instance, the few rivers passing through it were easily banked up and carried out to sea, whilst the low-lying lands were kept clear of surplus water by pumps driven by windmills.  There, the main object of the engineer was to build back the river and the ocean; whereas in the Great Level the problem to be solved was, how to provide a ready outfall to the sea for the vast body of fresh water falling upon as well as flowing through the Fens themselves.  This essential point was unhappily overlooked by the early drainers; and it has thus happened that the chief work of modern engineers has been to rectify the errors of Vermuyden and his followers; more especially by providing efficient outlets for the discharge of the Fen waters, deepening and straightening the rivers, and compressing the streams in their course through the Level, so as to produce a more powerful current and scour, down to their point of outfall into the sea.

    This important condition of successful drainage having been overlooked, it may readily be understood how unsatisfactory was the result of the works first carried out in the Bedford Level.  In some districts the lands were no doubt improved by the additional receptacles provided for the surplus waters, but the great extent of fen land still lay for the most part wet, waste, and unprofitable.  Hence, in 1634, a Commission of Sewers held at Huntingdon pronounced the drainage to be defective, and the 400,000 acres of the Great Level to be still subject to inundation, especially in the winter season.  The King, Charles I., then resolved himself to undertake the reclamation, with the object of converting the Level, if possible, into "winter grounds."  He took so much personal interest in the work that he even designed a town to be called Charleville, which was to be built in the midst of the Level, for the purpose of commemorating the undertaking.  Sir Cornelius Vermuyden was again employed, and he proceeded to carry out the King's design.  He had many enemies, but he could not be dispensed with; being the only man of recognised ability in works of drainage at that time in England.

    The works constructed in pursuance of this new design were these:—an embankment on the south side of Morton's Leam, from Peterborough to Wisbeach; a navigable sasse, or sluice, at Standground; a new river cut between the stone sluice at the Horse-shoe and the sea below Wisbeach, 60 feet broad and 2 miles long, embanked at both sides; and a new sluice in the marshes below Tydd, upon the outfall of Shire Drain.  These and other works were in full progress, when the political troubles of the time came to a height, and brought all operations to a stand-still for many years.  The discontent caused throughout the Fens by the drainage operations had by no means abated; but, on the contrary, considerably increased.  In other parts of the kingdom, the attempts made about the same time by Charles I. to levy taxes without the authority of Parliament gave rise to much agitation.  In 1637 occurred Hampden's trial, arising out of his resistance to the payment of ship-money: by the end of the same year the King and the Parliamentary party were mustering their respective forces, and a collision between them seemed imminent.

    At this juncture the discontent which prevailed throughout the Fen counties was an element of influence, not to be neglected.  It was adroitly represented that the King's sole object in draining the Fens was merely to fill his impoverished exchequer, and enable him to govern without a Parliament.  The discontent became fanned into a fierce flame; on which Oliver Cromwell, the member for Huntingdon, until then comparatively unknown, availing himself of the opportunity which offered, of increasing the influence of the Parliamentary party in the Fen counties, immediately put himself at the head of a vigorous agitation against the further prosecution of the scheme.  He was very soon the most popular man in the district; he was hailed 'Lord of the Fens' by the Fen-men: and he went from meeting to meeting, stirring up the public discontent, and giving it a suitable direction.  "From that instant," says Mr. Forster, [p.39] "the scheme became thoroughly hopeless.  With such desperate determination he followed up his purpose—so actively traversed the district, and inflamed the people everywhere—so passionately described the greedy claims of royalty, the gross exactions of the commission, nay, the questionable character of the improvement itself, even could it have gone on unaccompanied by incidents of tyranny,—to the small proprietors insisting that their poor claims would be merely scorned in the new distribution of the property reclaimed,—to the labouring peasants that all the profit and amusement they had derived from commoning in those extensive wastes were about to be snatched for ever from them,—that, before his almost individual energy, King, commissioners, noblemen-projectors, all were forced to retire, and the great project, even in the state it then was, fell to the ground."

    The success of the Cambridge Fen-men, in resisting the reclamation of the wastes, encouraged those in the more northern districts to take even more summary measures to get rid of the drainers, and restore the lands to their former state.  The Earl of Lindsey had succeeded at great cost in enclosing and draining about 35,000 acres of the Lindsey Level, and induced numerous farmers and labourers to settle upon the land.  They erected dwellings and farm-buildings, and were busily at work, when the Fen-men suddenly broke in upon them, destroyed their buildings, killed their cattle, and let in the waters again upon the land.  So, too, in the West and Wildmore Fen district between Tattershall and Boston in Lincolnshire, where considerable progress had been made by a body of "adventurers" in reclaiming the wastes.  After many years' labour and much cost, they had succeeded in draining, enclosing and cultivating an extensive tract of rich land, and they were peaceably occupied with their farming pursuits, when a mob of Fen-men collected from the surrounding districts, and under pretence of playing at football, levelled the enclosures, burnt the corn and the houses, destroyed the cattle, and even killed many of the people who occupied the land.  They then proceeded to destroy the drainage works, by cutting across the embankments and damming up the drains, by which the country was again inundated and restored to its original state.


Wildmore Fen: a classic Lincolnshire fenland view.
© Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

    The greater part of the Level thus again lay waste, and the waters were everywhere extending their dominion over the dry land through the choking up of the drains and river outfalls by the deposit of silt.  Matters were becoming even worse than before, but could not be allowed thus to continue.  In 1641 the Earl of Bedford and his participants made an application to the Long Parliament, then sitting, for permission to re-enter upon the works; but the civil commotions which still continued prevented any steps being taken, and the Earl himself shortly after died in a state of comparative penury, to which he had reduced himself by his devotion to this great work.  Again, however, we find Sir Cornelius Vermuyden upon the scene.  Undaunted by adversity, and undismayed by the popular outrages committed upon his poor countrymen in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, he still urged that the common weal of England demanded that the rich lands lying under the waters of the Fens should be reclaimed, and made profitable for human uses.  He saw a district almost as large as the whole of the Dutch United Provinces remaining waste and worse than useless, and he gave himself no rest until he had set on foot some efficient measure for its drainage and reclamation.  What part he took in the political discussions of the time, we know not; but we find the eldest of his sons, Cornelius, a colonel in the Parliamentary army [p.41] stationed in the Fens under Fairfax, shortly before the battle of Naseby.  Vermuyden himself was probably too much engrossed by his drainage project to give heed to political affairs; and besides, he could not forget that Charles, and Charles's father, had been his fast friends.

    In 1642, while the civil war was still raging, appeared Vermuyden's 'Discourse' on the Drainage of the Fens, wherein he pointed out the works which still remained to be executed in order effectually to reclaim the 400,000 acres of land capable of growing corn, which formed the area of the Great Level.  His suggestions formed the subject of much pamphleteering discussion for several years, during which also numerous petitions were presented to Parliament urging the necessity for perfecting the drainage.  At length, in 1649, authority was granted to William, Earl of Bedford, and other participants, to prosecute the undertaking which his father had begun, and steps were shortly after taken to recommence the works.  Again was Westerdyke, the Dutch engineer, called in to criticise Vermuyden's plans; and again was Vermuyden triumphant over his opponent.  He was selected, once more, to direct the drainage, which, looking at the defects of the works previously executed by him, and the difficulties in which the first Earl had thereby become involved, must be regarded as a marked proof of the man's force of purpose, as well as of his recognised integrity of character.

    Vermuyden again collected his Dutchmen about him, and vigorously began operations.  But they had not proceeded far before they were again almost at a standstill for want of funds; and throughout their entire progress they were hampered and hindered by the same great difficulty.  Some of the participants sold and alienated their shares in order to get rid of further liabilities; others held on, but became reduced to the lowest ebb.  Means were, however, adopted to obtain a supply of cheaper labour; and application was made by the adventurers for a supply of men from amongst the Scotch prisoners who had been taken at the battle of Dunbar.  A thousand of them were granted for the purpose, and employed on the works to the north of Bedford River, where they continued to labour until the political arrangements between the two countries enabled them to return home.  When the Scotch labourers had left, some difficulty was again experienced in carrying on the works.  The local population were still hostile, and occasionally interrupted the labourers employed upon them; a serious riot at Swaffham having only been put down by the help of the military.  Blake's victory over Van Tromp, in 1652, opportunely supplied the Government with a large number of Dutch prisoners, five hundred of whom were at once forwarded to the Level, where they proved of essential service as labourers.

    The most important of the new rivers, drains, and sluices included in this further undertaking, were the following:—The New Bedford River, cut from Erith on the Ouse to Salter's Lode on the same river, reducing its course between these points from 40 to 20 miles: this new river was 100 feet broad, and ran nearly parallel with the Old Bedford River.  A high bank was raised along the south side of the new cut, and an equally high bank along the north side of the old river, a large space of land, of about 5,000 acres, being left between them, called the Washes, for the floods to "bed in," as Vermuyden termed it.  Then the river Welland was defended by a bank, 70 feet broad and 8 feet high, extending from Peakirk to the Holland bank.  The river Nene was also defended by a similar bank, extending from Peterborough to Guyhirne and another bank was raised between Standground and Guyhirne, so as to defend the Middle Level from the overflowing of the Northamptonshire waters.  The river Ouse was in like manner restrained by high banks extending from Over to Erith, where a navigable sluice was provided.  Smith's Leam was cut, by which the navigation from Wisbeach to Peterborough was opened out.  Among the other cuts and drains completed at the same time, were Vermuyden's Eau, or the Forty Feet Drain, extending from Welch's Dam to the river Nene near Ramsey Mere; Hammond's Eau, near Somersham, in the county of Huntingdon; Stonea Drain and Moore's Drain, near March, in the Isle of Ely; Thurlow's Drain, extending from the Forty Feet to Popham's Eau; and Conquest Lode, leading to Whittlesea Mere.  And in order to turn the tidal waters into the Hundred Feet River, as well as to prevent the upland floods from passing up the Ten Mile River towards Littleport, Denver Sluice, that great bone of after contention was constructed.  Another important work in the South Level was the cutting of a large river called St. John's, or Downham Eau, [p.43] 120 feet wide, and 10 feet deep, from Denver Sluice to Stow Bridge on the Ouse, with sluices at both ends, for the purpose of carrying away with greater facility the flood waters descending from the several rivers of that level.  Various new sluices were also fixed at the mouths of the rivers, to prevent the influx of the tides, and most of the old drains and cuts were at the same time scoured out and opened for the more ready flow of the surface waters.

    At length, in March, 1652, the works were declared to be complete, and the Lords Commissioners of Adjudication appointed under the Act of Parliament proceeded to inspect them.  They embarked upon the New River, and sailing over it to Stow Bridge, surveyed the new eaus and sluices executed near that place, after which they returned to Ely.  There Sir Cornelius Vermuyden read to those assembled a discourse, in which he explained the design he had carried out for the drainage of the district; in the course of which he stated as one of the results of the undertaking, that in the North and Middle Levels there were already 40,000 acres of land "sown with cole-seed, wheat, and other winter grain, besides innumerable quantities of sheep, cattle, and other stock, where never had been any before.  These works," he added, "have proved themselves sufficient, as well by the great tide about a month since, which overflowed Marshland banks, and drowned much ground in Lincolnshire and other places, and a flood by reason of a great snow, and rain upon it following soon after, and yet never hurt any part of the whole Level; and the view of them, and the consideration of what hath previously been said, proves a clear draining according to the Act."  He concluded thus,—"I presume to say no more of the work, lest I should be accounted vain-glorious; although I might truly affirm that the present or former age have done nothing like it for the general good of the nation.  I humbly desire that God may have the glory, for his blessing and bringing to perfection my poor endeavours, at the vast charge of the Earl of Bedford and his participants."

    A public thanksgiving took place to celebrate the completion of the undertaking; and on the 27th of March, 1653, the Lords Commissioners of Adjudication of the Reclaimed Lands, accompanied by their officers and suite,—the Company of Adventurers, headed by the Earl of Bedford,—the magistrates and leading men of the district, with a vast concourse of other persons,—attended public worship in the cathedral of Ely, when the Rev. Hugh Peters, chaplain to the Lord-General Cromwell, preached a sermon on the occasion.

    Vermuyden's perseverance had thus far triumphed.  He had stood by his scheme when all others held aloof from it.  Amidst the engrossing excitement of the civil war, the one dominating idea which possessed him was the drainage of the Great Level.  While the nation was divided into two hostile camps, and the deadly struggle was proceeding between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, Vermuyden's sole concern was how to raise the funds wherewith to pay his peaceful army of Dutch labourers in the Fens.  To carry on the works he sold every acre of the soil he had reclaimed.  He first sold the allotment of land won by him from the Thames at Dagenham in 1621; then he sold his interest in his lands at Sedgemoor and Malvern Chase; and in 1654 we find him conveying the remainder of his property in Hatfield Level.  He was also under the necessity of selling all the lands apportioned to him in the Bedford Level itself, in order to pay the debts incurred in their drainage.  But although he lost all, it appears that the company in the end preferred heavy pecuniary claims against him which he had no means of meeting; and in 1656 we find him appearing before Parliament as a suppliant for redress.  Thenceforward he entirely disappears from public sight; and it is supposed that, very shortly after, he went abroad and died, a poor, broken down old man, the extensive lands which he had reclaimed and owned having been conveyed to strangers.

    The drainage of the Fens, however, was not yet complete.  The district was no longer a boggy wilderness, but much of it in fine seasons was covered with waving crops of corn.  As the swamps were drained, farm buildings, villages, and towns gradually sprang up, and the toil of the labourer was repaid by abundant harvests.  The anticipation held forth in the original charter granted by Charles I. to the reclaimers of the Bedford Level was more than fulfilled.  "In those places which lately presented nothing to the eyes of the beholders but great waters and a few reeds thinly scattered here and there, under the mercy might be seen pleasant pastures of cattle and kine, and many houses belonging to the inhabitants."  But the tenure by which the land continued to be held was unremitting vigilance [p.46] and industry; the difficulties interposed by nature tending to discipline the skill, to stimulate the enterprise, and evoke the energy of the people who had rescued the fields from the watery waste.

    Improvements of all kinds went steadily on, until all the rivers flowing through the Level were artificially banked and diverted into new channels, excepting the Nene, which is the only natural river in the Fen district remaining comparatively unaltered.  New dykes, causeways, embankments, and sluices were formed; many droves, leams, eaus, and drains were cut, furnished with gowts or gates at their lower ends, which were from time to time dug, deepened, and widened.  Mills were set to work to pump out the water from the low grounds; first windmills, sometimes with double-lifts, as practised in Holland; and more recently powerful steam-engines.  Sluices were also erected to prevent the inland waters from returning; strong embankments extending in all directions, to keep the rivers and tides within their defined channels.  To protect the land from the sea waters as well as the fresh,—to build and lock back the former, and to keep the latter within due limits,—was the work of the engineer; and by his skill, aided by the industry of his contractors and workmen, water, instead of being the master and tyrant as of old, became man's servant and pliant agent, and was used as an irrigator, a conduit, a mill-stream, or a water-road for extensive districts of country.  In short, in no part of the world, except in Holland, have more industry and skill been displayed in reclaiming and preserving the soil, than in Lincolnshire and the districts of the Great Bedford Level.  Six hundred and eighty thousand acres of the most fertile land in England, or an area equal to that of North and South Holland, have been converted from a dreary waste into a fruitful plain, and fleets of vessels traverse the district itself, freighted with its rich produce.  Taking its average annual value at £4 an acre, the addition to the national wealth and resources may be readily calculated.

    The prophecies of the decay that would fall upon the country, if "the valuable race, of Fenmen" were deprived of their pools for pike, and fish, and wild-fowl, have long since been exploded.  The population has grown in numbers, in health, and in comfort, with the progress of drain-ago and reclamation.  The Fens are no longer the lurking places of disease, [p.47] but as salubrious as any other parts of England.  Dreary swamps are supplanted by pleasant pastures, and the haunts of pike and wild-fowl have become the habitations of industrious farmers and husbandmen.  Even Whittlesea Mere and Ramsey Mere,—the only two lakes, as we were told in the geography books of our younger days, to be found in the south of EngIand,—have been blotted out of the map, for they have been drained by the engineer, and are now covered with smiling and pleasant homesteads.




The New River at Ware. [p.48]
© Copyright Nigel Cox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

WHILE the engineer has occasionally to contend with all his skill against the powers of water, he has also to deal with it as a useful agent. Though water, like fire, is a bad master, the engineer contrives to render it docile and tractable. He leads it in artificial channels for the purpose of driving mills and machinery, or he employs it to feed canals along which boats and ships laden with merchandise may be safely floated.

But water is also an indispensable necessary of life, an abundant supply of it being essential for human health and comfort. Hence nearly all the ancient towns and cities were planted by the banks of rivers, principally because the inhabitants required a plentiful supply of water for their daily uses. Old London had not only the advantage of its pare broad stream flowing along its southern boundary, so useful as a water-road, but it also possessed an abundance of Wells, from which a supply of pure water was obtained, adequate for the requirements of its early population. The river of Wells, or Wallbrook, flowed through the middle of the city; and there were numerous wells in other quarters, the chief of which were Clerke's Well, Clement's Well, and Holy Well, the names of which still survive in the streets built over them.

As London grew in size and population, these wells were found altogether inadequate for the wants of the inhabitants; besides, the water drawn from them became tainted by the impurities which filter into the soil wherever large numbers are congregated. Conduits were then constructed, through which water was led from Paddington, from James's Head, Mewsgate, Tyburn, Highbury, and Hampstead. There were sixteen of such public conduits about London, and the Conduit Streets which still exist throughout the metropolis mark the sites of several of these ancient works. [p.49] The copious supply of water by the conduits was all the more necessary at that time, as London was for the most part built of timber, and liable to frequent fires, to extinguish which promptly, every citizen was bound to have a barrel full of water in readiness outside his door. The corporation watched very carefully over their protection, and inflicted severe punishments on such as interfered with the flow of water through them. We find a curious instance of this in the City Records, from which it appears that, on the 12th November, 1478, one William Campion, resident in Fleet Street, had cunningly tapped the conduit where it passed his door, and conveyed the water into a well in his own house, "thereby occasioning a lack of water to the inhabitants." Campion was immediately had up before the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, and after being confined for a time in the Comptour in Bread Street, the following further punishment was inflicted on him. He was set upon a horse with a vessel like unto a conduit placed upon his head, which being filled with water running out of small pipes from the same vessel, he was taken round all the conduits of the city, and the Lord Mayor's proclamation of his offence and the reason for his punishment was then read. When the conduit had run itself empty over the culprit, it was filled again. The places at which the proclamation was read were the following,—at Leadenhall, at the pillory in Cornhill, at the great conduit in Chepe, at the little conduit in the same street, at Ludgate and Fleet Bridge, at the Standard in Fleet Street, at Temple Bar, and at St. Dunstan's Church in Fleet Street; from whence he was finally marched back to the Comptour, there to abide the will of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen. [p.50]


    But the springs from which the conduits were supplied in course of time decayed; perhaps they gradually diminished by reason of the sinking of wells in their neighbourhood for the supply of the increasing suburban population.  Hence a deficiency of water began to be experienced in the city, which in certain seasons almost amounted to a famine.  There were frequent contentions at the conduits for "first turn," and when water was scarce, these sometimes grew into riots.  The water carriers came prepared for a fight, and at length the Lord Mayor had to interfere, and issued his proclamation forbidding persons from resorting to the conduits armed with clubs and staves.  This, however, did not remedy the deficiency.  It is true the Thames,—"that most delicate and serviceable river," as Nichols terms it, [p.51-1] was always available; but an increasing proportion of the inhabitants lived at a distance from the river.  Besides, the attempt was made by those who occupied the lanes leading towards the Thames to stop the thoroughfare, and allow none to pass without paying a toll.  A large number of persons then obtained a living as water carriers, [p.51-2] selling the water by the "tankard" of about three gallons; and they seem to have formed a rather unruly portion of the population.

    The difficulty of supplying a sufficient quantity of water to the inhabitants by means of wells, conduits, and water carriers, continued to increase, until the year 1582, when Peter Morice, the Dutchman, undertook, as the inhabitants could not go to the Thames for their water, to carry the Thames to them.  With this object he erected an ingenious pumping engine in the first arch of London Bridge, worked by water wheels driven by the rise and fall of the tide, which then rushed with great velocity through the arches.  This machine forced the water through leaden pipes, laid into the houses of the citizens.  The power with which Morice's forcing pumps worked was such, that he was enabled to throw the water over St. Magnus's steeple, greatly to the astonishment of the Mayor and Aldermen, who assembled to witness the experiment.  The machinery succeeded so well that a few years later we find the corporation empowering the same engineer to use the second arch of London Bridge for a similar purpose. [p.52-1]

    But even this augmented machinery for pumping was found inadequate for the supply of London.  The town was extending rapidly in all directions, and the growing density of the population along the river banks was every year adding to the impurity of the water, and rendering it less and less fit for domestic purposes.  Hence the demand for a more copious and ready supply of pure water continued steadily to increase.  Where was the new supply to be obtained, and how was it to be rendered most readily available for the uses of the citizens?  Water is by no means a scarce element in England; and no difficulty was experienced in finding a sufficiency of springs and rivers of pure water at no great distance from the metropolis.  Thus, various springs were known to exist in different parts of Hertfordshire and Middlesex; and many vague projects were proposed for conveying their waters to London.

    Desiring that one plan or another might be carried out, the corporation obtained an Act towards the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, [p.52-2] empowering them to cut a river to the city from any part of Middlesex or Hertfordshire; and ten years were specified as the time for carrying out the necessary works.  But, though many plans were suggested and discussed, no steps were taken to cut the proposed river.  The enterprise seemed too large for any private individual to undertake; and though the corporation were willing to sanction it, they were not disposed to find any part of the requisite means for carrying it out.  Notwithstanding, therefore, the necessity for a large supply of water, which became more urgent in proportion to the increase of population, the powers of the Act were allowed to expire without anything having been done to carry them into effect.

    In order, however, to keep alive the parliamentary powers, another Act was obtained in the third year of James I.'s reign (1605), [p.53-1] to bring an artificial stream of pure water from the springs of Chadwell and Amwell, in Hertfordshire; and the provisions of this Act were enlarged and amended in the following session. [p.53-2]  From an entry in the journals of the corporation, dated the 14th October, 1606, it appears that one William Inglebert petitioned the court for liberty to bring the water from the above springs to the northern parts of the city "in a trench or trenches of brick."  The petition was "referred," but nothing further came of it; and the inhabitants of London continued for some time longer to suffer from the famine of water—the citizens patiently waiting for the corporation to move, and the corporation as patiently waiting for the citizens.

    The same inconveniences of defective water-supply were experienced in other towns, and measures were in some cases taken to remedy them.  Thus, at Hull, in certain seasons, the inhabitants were under the necessity of bringing the water required by them for ordinary uses across the Humber from Lincolnshire in boats, at great labour and expense.  They sought to obtain a better supply by leading water into the town from the streams in the neighbourhood; but the villagers of Hessle, Anlaby, and Cottingham, with others, resisted their attempts.  In 1376, the mayor and burgesses appealed to the Crown; commissioners were appointed to inquire into the subject; and the result was, that powers were granted for making an aqueduct from Anlaby Springs to Hull.  This was not accomplished without serious opposition on the part of the villagers, who riotously assembled to destroy the works, and they even went so far as to threaten Hull itself with destruction.  Some of the rioters were seized and hanged at York, and the aqueduct was then finished.

    Tiverton, in Devonshire, has in like manner been supplied with water from a very early period, by means of an artificial cut called the Town-leet, extending from a spring on White Down, about five miles distant, into the heart of the town.  This valuable conduit was the free gift of Amicia, Countess of Devon, to the inhabitants, as long ago as the year 1240; and it continues a constant source of blessing.  A perambulation is made along its course once in every five or six years, by the portreeve, the steward of the manor, the water bailiffs, and others, from Cogan's Well in the centre of the town, to the source of the stream on White Down.  All obstructions are then removed, and the stream is claimed publicly for the sole use of the inhabitants of Tiverton.  For about two miles of its course, it may, perhaps, be regarded as a natural stream; but from the village of Chettiscombe the channel is for the most part artificial, the water being confined within a high embankment, in many places above the level of the surrounding country; and it is conveyed, as one writer says, "over a deep road behind the hospital, by a leaded shute, on a strong stone arch, into the town." [p.54]  By this channel, the water, shedding in its passage an allotted portion to each street, is brought to Cogan's Well, where it is artificially parted into three streams, which run along the sides of the remaining streets, until they are discharged into one or other of the two rivers, the Loman and the Exe, from which the place derives its name of Twy-ferd-town, or Tiverton.  Copious rivulets are in like manner led, by artificial cuts, through the principal streets of Salisbury, from the natural streams at the confluence of which that city is situated.

    But the most important artificial work of the kind in the West of England is that constructed for the supply of water to Plymouth, which was carried out through the public spirit and enterprise of one of the most distinguished of English admirals—the great Sir Francis Drake.  It appears from ancient records that water was exceedingly scarce in that town, the inhabitants being under the necessity of sending their clothes more than a mile to be washed, the water used by them for domestic purposes having to be fetched for the most part from Plympton, about five miles distant.  Sir Francis Drake, who was born within ten miles of Plymouth, and had settled in the neighbourhood, after having realized a considerable fortune by his adventures on the Spanish main, observing the great inconvenience suffered by the population from their want of water, as well as the difficulty of furnishing a supply to the ships frequenting the port, conceived the project of remedying the defect by leading a store of water to the town from one of the numerous springs on Dartmoor.  Accordingly, in 1587, when he represented Bossiney (Tintagel) in Cornwall, he obtained an Act enabling him to convey a stream from the river Mew or Meavy; and in the preamble to the Act it was expressed that its object was not only to ensure a continual supply of water to the inhabitants, but to obviate the inconvenience hitherto sustained by seamen in watering their vessels.  It would appear, from documents still extant, that the town of Plymouth contributed £200 towards the expenses of the works, Sir Francis being at the remainder of the cost; and on the completion of the undertaking the corporation agreed to grant him a lease of the aqueduct for a term of twenty years, at a nominal rental.  Drake lost no time in carrying out the work, which was finished in four years after the passing of the Act; and its completion in 1591, on the occasion of the welcoming of the stream into the town, was celebrated by great public rejoicings. [p.56]

    "The Leet," as it is called, is a work of no great magnitude, though of much utility.  It was originally nothing more than an open trench cut along the sides of the moor, in which the water flowed by a gentle inclination into the town and through the streets of Plymouth.  The distance between the head of the aqueduct at Sheep's Tor and Plymouth, as the crow flies, is only seven miles; but the length of the Leet—so circuitous are its windings—is nearly twenty-four miles.  After its completion, Drake presented the aqueduct to the inhabitants of Plymouth "as a free gift for ever," and it has since remained vested in the corporation,—who might, however, bestow more care than they do on its preservation against impurity.  Two years after the completion of the Leet, the burgesses, probably as a mark of their gratitude, elected Drake their representative in Parliament.  The water proved of immense public convenience, and Plymouth, instead of being one of the worst supplied, was rendered one of the best watered towns in the kingdom.  Until a comparatively recent date the water flowed from various public conduits, and it ran freely on either side of the streets, that all classes of the people might enjoy the benefit of a full and permanent supply throughout the year.  One of the original conduits still remains at the head of Old Town-street, bearing the inscription, "Sir Francis Drake first brought this water into Plymouth, 1591."

    The example of Plymouth may possibly have had an influence upon the corporation of London in obtaining the requisite powers from Parliament to enable them to bring the springs of Chadwell and Amwell to the thirsty population of the metropolis; but unhappily they had as yet no Drake to supply the requisite capital and energy.  In March, 1608, one Captain Edmond Colthurst petitioned the Court of Aldermen for permission to enter upon the work; but it turned out that the probable cost was far beyond the petitioner's means, without the pecuniary help of the corporation; and that being withheld, the project fell to the ground.  After this, one Edward Wright is said to have actually begun the works; but they were suddenly suspended, and fever and plague [p.57] continued to decimate the population.  The citizens of London seemed to be as far as ever from their supply of pure water.  At this juncture, when all help seemed to fail, and when men were asking each other "who is to do this great work, and how is it to be done?" citizen Hugh Myddelton, impatient of further delay, came forward and boldly offered to execute it at his own cost.  Yet Hugh Myddelton was not an engineer, nor even an architect nor a builder.  What he really was, we now proceed briefly to relate, according to the best information that we have been able to bring together on the subject.


    Hugh Myddelton, the London goldsmith, was born in the year 1555, at Galch-hill, near Denbigh, in North Wales.  Richard Myddelton, of Galch-hill, was governor of Denbigh Castle in the reigns of Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth.  He was a man eminent for his uprightness and integrity, and is supposed to have been the first member who sat in Parliament for the town of Denbigh.  His wife was one Jane Dryhurst, the daughter of an alderman of the town, by whom he had a family of nine sons and seven daughters.  He was buried with his wife in the parish church of Denbigh, called Whitchurch or St. Marcellus; where a small monumental brass, placed within the porch, represents Richard Myddelton and Jane his wife, with their sixteen children behind them, all kneeling.


    Several of the Governor's sons rose to distinction.  The third son, William, was one of Queen Elizabeth's famous sea captains.  He was also a man of literary tastes, being the author of a volume entitled 'Barddonnaeth, or the Art of Welsh Poetry.'  While on his cruises, he occupied himself in translating the Book of Psalms into Welsh; he finished it in the West Indies, and it was published in 1603, shortly after his death.  The fourth son, Thomas, was an eminent citizen and grocer of London.  He served the office of Sheriff in 1603, when he was knighted; and he was elected Lord Mayor in 1613.  He was the founder of the Chirk Castle family, now represented by Mr. Myddelton Biddulph.  The fifth son, Charles, succeeded his father as governor of Denbigh Castle, and when he died bequeathed numerous legacies for charitable uses.  The sixth son was Hugh, the subject of this memoir.  Robert, the seventh, was, like two of his brothers, a citizen of London, and afterwards a member of Parliament.  Foulk, the eighth son, served as high sheriff of the county of Denbigh.  This was certainly a large measure of worldly prosperity and fame to fall to the lot of one man's offspring.

    Hugh Myddelton was sent up to London to be bred to business there, under the eye of his elder brother Thomas, the grocer and merchant adventurer.  In those days country gentlemen of moderate income were accustomed to bind their sons apprentices to merchants, especially where the number of younger sons was large, as it certainly was in the case of Richard Myddelton of Galch-hill.  There existed at that time in the metropolis numerous exclusive companies or guilds, the admission into which was regarded as a safe road to fortune.  The merchants were few in number, constituting almost an aristocracy in themselves; indeed, they were not unfrequently elevated to the peerage because of their wealth as well as public services, and not a few of our present noble families can trace their pedigree back to some wealthy skinner, mercer, or tailor, of the reigns of James or Elizabeth.

    Hugh Myddelton was entered an apprentice of the guild of the Goldsmiths' Company.  Having thus set his son in the way of well-doing, Richard Myddelton left him to carve out his own career, relying upon his own energy and ability.  He had done the same with Thomas, whom he had helped until he could stand by himself; and William, whom he had educated at Oxford as thoroughly as his means would afford.  These sons having been fairly launched upon the world, he bequeathed the residue of his property to his other sons and daughters.

    The goldsmiths of that day were not merely dealers in plate, but in money.  They had succeeded to much of the business formerly carried on by the Jews and Venetian merchants established in or near Lombard-street.  They usually united to the trade of goldsmith that of banker, money-changer, and money-lender, dealing generally in the precious metals, and exchanging plate and foreign coin for gold and silver pieces of English manufacture, which had become much depreciated by long use as well as by frequent debasement.  It was to the goldsmiths that persons in want of money then resorted, as they would now resort to money-lenders and bankers; and their notes or warrants of deposit circulated as money, and suggested the establishment of a bank-note issue, similar to our present system of bullion and paper currency.  They held the largest proportion of the precious metals in their possession; hence, when Sir Thomas Gresham, one of the earliest bankers, died, it was found that the principal part of his wealth was comprised in gold chains. [p.61]

    The place in which Myddelton's goldsmith's shop was situated was in Bassishaw (now called Basinghall) Street, and he lived in the overhanging tenement above it, as was then the custom of city merchants.  Few, if any, lived away from their places of business.  The roads into the country, close at hand, were impassable in bad weather, and dangerous at all times.  Basing Hall was only about a bow-shot from the City Wall, beyond which lay Finsbury Fields, the archery ground of London, which extended from the open country to the very wall itself, where stood Moor Gate.  The London of that day consisted almost exclusively of what is now called The City; and there were few or no buildings east of Aldgate, north of Cripplegate, or west of Smithfield.  At the accession of James I. there were only a few rows of thatched cottages in the Strand, along which, on the river's side, the boats lay upon the beach.  At the same time there were groves of trees in Finsbury and green pastures in Holborn; Clerkenwell was a village; St. Pancras boasted only of a little church standing in meadows; and St. Martin's, like St. Giles's, was literally "in the fields."  All the country to the west was farm and pasture land; and woodcocks and partridges flew over the site of the future Regent Street, May Fair, and Belgravia.

    The population of the city was about 150,000, living in some 17,000 houses, brick below and timber above, with picturesque gable-ends, and sign boards swinging over the footways.  The upper parts of the houses so overhung the foundations, and the streets were so narrow, that D'Avenant said the opposite neighbours might shake hands without stirring from home.  The ways were then quite impassable for carriages, which had not yet indeed been introduced into England; all travelling being on foot or on horseback.  When coaches were at length introduced and became fashionable, the aristocracy left the city, through the streets of which their carriages could not pass, and migrated westward to Covent Garden and Westminster.

    Those were the days for quiet city gossip and neighbourly chat over matters of local concern; for London had not yet grown so big or so noisy as to extinguish that personal interchange of views on public affairs which continues to characterise most provincial towns.  Merchants sat at their doorways in the cool of the summer evenings, under the overhanging gables, and talked over the affairs of trade; whilst those courtiers who still had their residences within the walls, lounged about the fashionable shops to hear the city gossip and talk over the latest news.  Myddelton's shop appears to have been one of such fashionable places of resort, and the pleasant tradition was long handed down in the parish of St. Matthew, Friday-street, that Hugh Myddelton and Walter Raleigh used to sit together at the door of the goldsmith's shop, and smoke the newly introduced weed, tobacco, greatly to the amazement of the passers by.  It is not improbable that Captain William Myddelton, who lived in London [p.62] after his return from the Spanish main in 1591, formed an occasional member of the group; for Pennant states that he and his friend Captain Thomas Price, of Plasgollen, and another, Captain Koet, were the first who smoked, or as they then called it, "drank " tobacco publicly in London, and that the Londoners flocked from all parts to see them. [p.63-1]

    Hugh Myddelton did not confine himself to the trade of a goldsmith, but from an early period his enterprising spirit led him to embark in ventures of trade by sea; and hence, when we find his name first mentioned in the year 1597, in the records of his native town of Denbigh, of which he was an alderman and "capitall burgess," as well as the representative in Parliament, he is described as "Cittizen and Gouldsmythe of London, and one of the Merchant Adventurers of England." [p.63-2]  The trade of London was as yet very small, but a beginning had been made.  A charter was granted by Henry VII., in 1505, to the Company of Merchant Adventurers of England, conferring on them special privileges.  Previous to that time, almost the whole trade had been monopolised by the Steelyard Company of Foreign Merchants, whose exclusive privileges were formally withdrawn in 1552.  But for want of an English mercantile navy, the greater part of the foreign carrying trade of the country continued long after to be conducted by foreign ships.

    The withdrawal of the privileges of the foreign merchants in England had, however, an immediate effect in stimulating the home trade, as is proved by the fact, that in the year following the suppression of the foreign company, the English Merchant Adventurers shipped off for Flanders no less than 40,000 pieces of cloth.  Myddelton entered into this new trade of cloth-making with great energy, and he prosecuted it with so much success, that in a speech delivered by him in the House of Commons on the proposed cloth patent, he stated that he and his partner then maintained several hundred families by that trade.  He also seems to have taken part in the maritime adventures of the period, most probably encouraged thereto by his intimacy with Raleigh and other sea captains, including his brother William, who had made profitable ventures on the Spanish main.  In short, Hugh Myddelton was regarded as an eminently prosperous man.

    At this stage of his affairs, when arrived at a comparatively advanced age, Myddelton took to himself a wife; and the rank and fortune of the lady he married afford some indication of the position he had by this time attained.  She was Miss Elizabeth Olmstead, the daughter and sole heiress of John Olmstead of Ingatestone, Essex, with whom the thriving goldsmith and merchant adventurer received a considerable accession of property.  That he had secured the regard of his neighbours, and did not disdain to serve them in the local offices to which they chose to elect him, is apparent from the circumstance that he officiated for three years as churchwarden for the parish of St. Matthew, to which post he was appointed in the year 1598.

    Myddelton continued to keep up a friendly connection with his native town of Denbigh, and he seems to have been mainly instrumental in obtaining for the borough its charter of incorporation in the reign of Elizabeth.  In return for this service the burgesses elected him their first alderman, and in that capacity he signed the first by-laws of the borough in 1597.  On the back of the document are some passages in his hand-writing, commencing with "Tafod aur yngenau dedwydd " [A golden tongue is in the mouth of the blessed], followed by other aphorisms, and concluding with some expressions of regret at parting with his brethren, the burgesses of Denbigh, whom he had specially visited on the occasion.  It would appear, from subsequent letters of his, that about this time he temporarily resided in the town,— most probably during an attempt which he made to sink for coal in the neighbourhood, which turned out a total failure.


    A few years later, Myddelton was appointed Recorder of the borough, and in 1603 he was elected to represent it in Parliament.  In those days the office of representative was not so much coveted as it is now, and boroughs remote from the metropolis were occasionally under the necessity of paying their members to induce them to serve.  It was, doubtless, an advantage to the burgesses of Denbigh that they had such a man to represent them as Hugh Myddelton, resident in London, and who was moreover an alderman and a benefactor of the town.  His two brothers—Thomas Myddelton, citizen and grocer, and Robert, citizen and skinner, of London—were members of the same Parliament, and we find Hugh and Robert frequently associated on committees of inquiry into matters connected with trade and finance.  Among the first committees to which the brothers were appointed was one on the subject of a bill for explanation of the Statute of Sewers, and another for the bringing of a fresh stream of running water from the river of Lea, or Uxbridge, to the north parts of the city of London.  Thus the providing of a better supply of water to the inhabitants of the metropolis came very early under his notice, and doubtless had some influence in directing his future action on the subject.

    At the same time the business in Bassishaw-street was not neglected, for, shortly after the arrival of King James in London, we find Myddelton supplying jewelry for Queen Anne, whose rage for finery of that sort was excessive.  A warrant, in the State-Paper-office, orders £250 to be paid to Hugh Myddelton, goldsmith, for a jewel given by James I. to the queen; [p.66] and it is probable that this connection with the Court introduced him to the notice of the king, and facilitated his approach to him when he afterwards had occasion to solicit His Majesty's assistance in bringing the New River works to completion.

    The subject of water supply to the northern parts of the city was still under the consideration of parliamentary committees, of which Myddelton was invariably a member; and at length a bill passed into law, and the necessary powers were conferred.  But no steps were taken to carry them into effect.  The chief difficulty was not in passing the Act, but in finding the man to execute the work.  A proposal made by one Captain Colthurst to bring a running stream from the counties of Hertford and Middlesex, was negatived by the Common Council in 1608.  Fever and plague from time to time decimated the population, and the citizens of London seemed as far as ever from being supplied with pure water.

    It was at this juncture that Hugh Myddelton stepped forth and declared that if no one else would undertake it, he would, and bring the water from Hertfordshire into London.  "The matter," quaintly observes Stow, "had been well-mentioned though little minded, long debated but never concluded, till courage and resolution lovingly shook hands together, as it appears, in the Soule of this no way to be daunted, well-minded gentleman."  When all others held back—lord mayor, corporation, and citizens—Myddelton took courage, and showed what one strong practical man, borne forward by resolute will and purpose, can do.  "The dauntless Welshman," says Pennant, "stept forth and smote the rock, and the waters flowed into the thirsting metropolis."

    Myddelton's success in life seems to have been attributable not less to his quick intelligence than to his laborious application and indomitable perseverance.  He had, it is true, failed in his project of finding coal at Denbigh; but the practical knowledge which he acquired, during his attempt, of the arts of mining and excavation, had disciplined his skill and given him fertility of resources, as well as cultivated in him that power of grappling with difficulties, which emboldened him to undertake this great work, more like that of a Roman emperor than of a private London citizen.

    The corporation were only too glad to transfer to him the powers with which they had been invested by the legislature, together with the labour, the anxiety, the expense, and the risk of carrying out an undertaking which they regarded as so gigantic.  On the 28th of March, 1609, the corporation accordingly formally agreed to his proposal to bring a supply of water from Amwell and Chadwell, in Hertfordshire, to Islington, as being "a thing of great consequence, worthy of acceptation for the good of the city;" but subject to his beginning the works within two months from the date of their acceptance of his offer, and doing his best to finish the same within four years.  A regular indenture was drawn up and executed between the parties on the 21st of April following; and Myddelton began the works and "turned the first sod" in the course of the following month, according to the agreement.  The principal spring was at Chadwell, near Ware, and the operations commenced at that point.  The second spring was at Amwell, near the same town; each being about twenty miles from London as the crow flies.

    The general plan adopted by Myddelton in cutting the New River was to follow a contour line, as far as practicable, from the then level of the Chadwell Spring to the circular pond at Islington, subsequently called the New River Head.  The stream originally presented a fall of about 2 inches in the mile, and its City end was at the level of about 82 feet above what is now known as Trinity high water mark.  Where the fall of the ground was found inconveniently rapid, a stop-gate was introduced across the stream, penning from 3 to 4 feet perpendicularly, the water flowing over weirs down to the next level.

    To accommodate the cut to the level of the ground as much as possible, numerous deviations were made, and the river was led along the sides of the hills, from which sufficient soil was excavated to form the lower bank of the intended stream.  Each valley was traversed on one side until it reached a point where it could be crossed; and there an embankment became necessary, in some cases of from 8 to 10 feet in height, along the top of which the water was conducted in a channel of the proper dimensions.  In those places where the embankments were formed, provision had of course to be made for the passage of the surface waters from the west of the line of works into the river Lea, which forms the natural drain of the district.  In some cases the drainage waters were conveyed under the New River in culverts, and in others over it by what were termed flashes.  At each of the "flashes" there were extensive swamps, where the flood-waters were upheld to such a level as to enable them to pass over the flash, which consisted of a wooden trough, about twelve feet wide and three deep, extending across the river; and from these swamps, as well as from every other running stream, such apparatus was introduced as enabled the Company to avail themselves of the supply of water which they afforded, when required.  Openings were also left in the banks for the passage of roads under the stream, the continuity of which was in such cases maintained either by arches or timber troughs lined with lead.  One of these troughs, at Bush Hill, near Edmonton, was about 660 feet long, and 5 feet deep.  A brick arch also formed part of this aqueduct, under which flowed a stream which had its source in Enfield Chase; the arch sustaining the trough and the road along its side.  Another strong timber aqueduct, 460 feet long and 17 feet high, conducted the New River over the valley near where it entered the parish of Islington.  This was long known in the neighbourhood as "Myddelton's Boarded River."  At Islington also there was a brick tunnel of considerable extent, and another at Newington.  That at Islington averaged in section about 3 feet by 5, and appears to have been executed at different periods, in short lengths.  Such were the principal works along the New River.  Its original extent was much greater than it is at present, from its frequent windings along the high grounds for the purpose of avoiding heavy cuttings and embankments.  Although the distance between London and Ware is only about 20 miles, the New River, as originally constructed, was not less than 38¾ miles in length.



    The works were no sooner begun than a swarm of opponents sprang up.  The owners and occupiers of lands through which the New River was to be cut, strongly objected to it as most injurious to their interests.  In a petition presented by them to Parliament, they alleged that their meadows would be turned into "bogs and quagmires," and arable land become "squallid ground;" that their farms would be "mangled " and their fields cut up into quillets and "small peeces;" that the "cut," which was no better than a deep ditch, dangerous to men and cattle, would, upon "soden raines," inundate the adjoining meadows and pastures, to the utter ruin of many poor men; that the church would be wronged in its tithe without remedy; that the highway between London and Ware would be made impassable; and that an infinity of evils would be perpetrated, and irretrievable injuries inflicted on themselves and their posterity.  The opponents also pointed out that the Mayor and corporation would have nothing to do with the business, but, by an irrevocable act of the Common Council, had transferred their powers of executing the works to Mr. Myddelton and his heirs, "who doth the same for his own private benefit."


    The agitation against the measure was next taken up in Parliament.  "Much ado there is in the House," writes Mr. Beaulieu, on the 9th of May, 1610, to a friend in the country, "about the work undertaken, and far advanced already by Myddelton, of the cutting of a river and bringing it to London from ten or twelve miles off, through the grounds of many men, who, for their particular interests, so strongly oppose themselves to it, and are like (as it is said) to overthrow it all."  On the 20th of June following, a Bill was introduced and committed to repeal the Act authorising the construction of the New River.  A committee of ten was appointed a few days after "to view" the river and to certify respecting the progress made with the works, doubtless with the object of ascertaining what damage had actually been done, or was likely to be done, to private property. The committee were directed to make their report in the next session; but as Parliament was prorogued in July, and did not meet for four years, the subject is not again mentioned in the Journals of the House.


The map on the next page [above] will enable the reader to trace the line of the New River works between Amwell, Chadwell, and London.  The dotted lines indicate those parts of the old course which have since been superseded by more direct cuts, represented by the continuous black line.  Where the loops have been detached from the present line of works, they are, in most instances, laid dry, and may be examined and measured correctly, as also the soil of which the banks were originally formed.

    Worse than all, was the popular opposition which Myddelton had to encounter.  The pastor of Tottenham, writing in 1631, speaks of the New River as "brought with an ill wille from Ware to London."  Stow, who was a contemporary and enthusiastic admirer of Myddelton, says bitterly, "If those enemies of all good endeavours, Danger, Difficulty, Impossibillity, Detraction, Contempt, Scorn, Derision, yea, and Desperate Despight, could have prevailed, by their accursed and malevolent interposition, either before, at the beginning, in the very birth of the proceeding, or in the least stolne advantage of the whole prosecution, this Worke, of so great worth, had never been accomplished."  Stow records that he rode down divers times to see the progress made in cutting and constructing the New River, and "diligently observed that admirable art, pains, and industry were bestowed for the passage of it, by reason that all grounds are not of a like nature, some being oozy and very muddy, others again as stiff, craggy, and stony.  The depth of the trench," he adds, "in some places descended full thirty feet, if not more, whereas in other places it required a sprightful art again to mount it over a valley in a trough, between a couple of hills, and the trough all the while borne up by wooden arches, some of them fixed in the ground very deep, and rising in height above twenty-three feet."

    It shortly became apparent to Myddelton that the time originally fixed by the Common Council for the completion of the works had been too short, and we accordingly find him petitioning the Corporation for its extension.  This was granted him for five years more, on the ground of the opposition and difficulties which had been thrown in his way by the occupiers and landowners along the line of the proposed stream.  It has usually been alleged that Myddelton fell short of funds, and that the Corporation refused him the necessary pecuniary assistance; but the Corporation records do not bear out this statement, the only application apparently made by Myddelton being for an extension of time.  It has also been stated that he was opposed by the water-carriers, and that they even stirred up the Corporation to oppose the construction of the New River; but this statement seems to be equally without foundation.  The principal obstacle which Myddelton had to encounter was unquestionably the opposition of the landowners and occupiers; and it was so obstinate that in his emergency he was driven to apply to the King for assistance.

    Though James I. may have been ridiculous and unkingly in many respects, he nevertheless appears throughout his reign to have exhibited a sensible desire to encourage the industry and develop the resources of the kingdom he governed.  It was he who made the right royal declaration with reference to the drowned lands in the Fens, that he would not suffer the waters to retain their dominion over the soil which skill and labour might reclaim for human uses.  He projected the drainage and reclamation of the royal manor of Hatfield Chase, as well as the reclamation of Sedgemoor and Malvern Chase; and when the landowners in the Fens would take no steps to drain the Great Level, he expressed the determination to become himself the sole undertaker.  And now, when Hugh Myddelton's admirable project for supplying the citizens of London with water threatened to break down by reason of the strong local opposition offered to it, and while it was spoken of by many with derision and contempt as an impracticable undertaking, the same monarch came to his help, and while he rescued Myddelton from heavy loss, it might be ruin, he enabled him to prosecute his important enterprise to completion.

    James had probably become interested in the works from observing their progress at the point at which they passed through the Royal Park at Theobalds, a little beyond Enfield. [p.74]  Theobalds was the favourite residence of the King, where he frequently indulged in the pastime of hunting; and on passing the labourers occupied in cutting the New River, he would naturally make inquiries as to their progress.  The undertaking was of a character so unusual, and so much of it passed directly through the King's domains, that he could not but be curious about it.  Myddelton, having had dealings with His Majesty as a jeweller, seized the opportunity of making known his need of immediate help, otherwise the project must fall through.  Several interviews took place between them at Theobalds and on the ground; and the result was that James determined to support the engineer with his effective help as King, and also with the help of the State purse, to enable the work to be carried out.

    An agreement was accordingly entered into between the King and Myddelton, the original of which is deposited in the Rolls-office, and is a highly interesting document.  It is contained on seven skins, and is very lengthy; but the following abstract will sufficiently show the nature of the arrangement between the parties.  The Grant, as it is described, is under the Great Seal, and dated the 2nd of May, 1612.  It is based upon certain articles of agreement, made between King James I. and Hugh Myddelton, "citizen and goldsmith of London," on the 5th of November preceding.  It stipulates that His Majesty shall discharge a moiety of all necessary expenses for bringing the stream of Water within "one mile of the city," as well as a moiety of the disbursements "already made" by Hugh Myddelton, upon the latter surrendering an account, and swearing to the truth of the same.  In consideration of His Majesty's pecuniary assistance, Myddelton assigned to him a moiety of the interest in, and profits to arise from, the New River "forever," with the exception of a small quill or pipe of water which the said Myddelton had granted, at the time of agreement with the City, to the poor people inhabiting St. John-street and Aldersgate-street,—which exception His Majesty allowed.

    One of the first benefits Myddelton derived from the arrangement was the repayment to him of one-half the expenditure which had been incurred to that time.  It appears from the first certificate delivered to the Lord Treasurer, that the total expenditure to the end of the year 1612 had been £4,485. 18s. 11d., as attested by Hugh Myddelton, acting on his own behalf, and Miles Whitacres acting on behalf of the King.  Further payments were made out of the Treasury for costs disbursed in executing the works; and it would appear from the public records that the total payments made out of the Royal Treasury on account of the New River works amounted to £8,609. 14s. 6d.  As the books of the New River Company were accidentally destroyed by a fire many years ago, we are unable to test the accuracy of these figures by comparison with the financial records of the Company; but, taken in conjunction with other circumstances hereafter to be mentioned, the amount stated represents, with as near an approach to accuracy as can now be reached, one-half of the original cost of constructing the New River.

    As the undertaking proceeded, with the powerful help of the King and the public Treasury, and as the great public uses of the New River began to be recognised, the voice of derision became gradually stilled, and congratulations began to rise up on all sides in view of the approaching completion of the bold enterprise.  The scheme had ceased to be visionary, as it had at first appeared, for the water was already brought within a mile of Islington; all that was wanted to admit it to the reservoir being the completion of the tunnel near that place.  At length that too was finished; and now King, Corporation, and citizens vied with each other in doing honour to the enterprising and public spirited Hugh Myddelton.  The Corporation elected his brother Thomas Lord Mayor for the year; and on Michaelmas Day, 1613, the citizens assembled in great numbers to celebrate by a public pageant the admission of the New River water to the metropolis.  The ceremony took place at the new cistern at Islington, in the presence of the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, Common Council, and a great concourse of spectators.  A troop of some three score labourers in green Monmouth caps, bearing spades and mattocks, or such other implements as they had used in the construction of the work, marched round the cistern to the martial music of drums and trumpets, after which a metrical speech, composed by one Thomas Middleton, was read aloud, expressive of the sentiments of the workmen.  The following extract may be given, as showing the character of the persons employed on the undertaking:—

First, here's the Overseer, this try'd man,
An antient souldier and an artizan;
The Clearke; next him the Mathematian;
The Maister of the Timber-works takes place
Next after these; the Measurer in like case;
Bricklayer, and Enginer; and after those
The Borer, and the Pavier; then it shower
The Labourers next; Keeper of Amwell Head;
The Walkers last;—so all their names are read.
Yet these but parcels of six hundred more,
That, at one time, have been imploy'd before;
Yet these in sight and all the rest will say
That all the weeks they had their Royall pay!

    At the conclusion of the recitation the flood-gates were thrown open, and the stream of pure water rushed into the cistern amidst loud huzzas, the firing of mortars, the pealing of bells, and the triumphant welcome of drums and trumpets. [p.77]

    It is rather curious that James I. was afterwards nearly drowned in the New River which he had enabled Hugh Myddelton to complete.  He had gone out one winter's day after dinner to ride in the park at Theobalds accompanied by his son Prince Charles; when, about three miles from the palace, his horse stumbled and fell, and the King was thrown into the river.  It was slightly frozen over at the time, and the King's body disappeared under the ice, nothing but his boots remaining visible.  Sir Richard Young rushed into his rescue, and dragged him out, when "there came much water out of his mouth and body."  He was, however, able to ride back to Theobalds, where he got to bed and was soon well again.  The King attributed his accident to the neglect of Sir Hugh and the Corporation of London in not taking measures to properly fence the river, and he did not readily forget it; for when the Lord Mayor, Sir Edward Barkham, accompanied by the Recorder, Sir Heneage Finch, attended the King at Greenwich, in June, 1622, to be knighted, James took occasion, in rather strong terms, to remind the Lord Mayor and his brethren of his recent mischance in "Myddelton's Water."

    It is scarcely necessary to point out the great benefits conferred upon the inhabitants of London by the construction of the New River, which furnished them with an abundant and unremitting supply of pure water for domestic and other purposes.  Along this new channel were poured into the city several millions of gallons daily; and the reservoirs at New River Head being, as before stated, at an elevation of 82 feet above the level of high water in the Thames, they were thus capable of supplying through pipes the basement stories of the greater number of houses then in the metropolis.

    The pipes which were laid down in the first instance to convey the water to the inhabitants were made of wood, principally elm; and at one time the New River Company had wooden pipes laid down through the streets to the extent of about 400 miles!  But the leakage was so great through the porousness of the material,—about one-fourth of the whole quantity of water supplied passing away by filtration,—and the decay of the pipes in ordinary weather was so rapid, besides being liable to burst during frosts, that they were ultimately abandoned when mechanical skill was sufficiently advanced to enable pipes of cast-iron to be substituted for them.  For a long time, however, a strong prejudice existed against the use of water conveyed through pipes of any kind, and the cry of the water carriers long continued to be familiar to London ears, of "Any New River water here!  Fresh and fair New River water! none of your pipe sludge!"

    Among the many important uses to which the plentiful supply of New River water was put, was the extinction of fires, then both frequent and destructive, in consequence of the greater part of the old houses in London being built of wood.  Stow particularly mentions the case of a fire which broke out in Broad Street, on the 12th November, 1623, in the house of Sir William Cockaigne, which speedily extended itself to several of the adjoining buildings.  We are told by the chronicler, that "Sir Hugh Myddelton, upon the first knowledge thereof, caused all the sluices of the water-cisterne in the field to be left open, whereby there was plenty of water to quench the fire.  The water" [of the New River], he continues, "hath done many like benefits in sundrie like former distresses."

    We now proceed to follow the fortunes of Myddelton in connexion with the New River Company.  The year after the public opening of the cistern at Islington, we find him a petitioner to the Corporation for a loan of £3,000, for three years, at six per cent., which was granted him "in consideration of the benefit likely to accrue to the city from his New River;" his sureties being the Lord Mayor (Hayes), Mr. Robert Myddelton (his brother), and Mr. Robert Bateman.  There is every reason to believe that Myddelton had involved himself in difficulties by locking up his capital in this costly undertaking; and that he was driven to solicit the loan to carry him through until he had been enabled to dispose of the greater part of his interest in the concern to other capitalists.  This he seems to have done very shortly after the completion of the works.  The capital was divided into seventy-two shares, [p.80-1] one-half of which belonged to Myddelton and the other half to the King, in consideration of the latter having borne one-half of the cost.  Of the thirty-six shares owned by the former, as many as twenty-eight were conveyed by him to other persons; and that he realized a considerable sum by the sale is countenanced by the circumstance that we find him shortly after embarked in an undertaking hereafter to be described, requiring the command of a very large capital.

    The shareholders were incorporated by letters patent on the 21st of June, 1619, under the title of "The Governors and Company of the New River brought from Chadwell and Amwell to London." [p.80-2]  The government of the corporation was vested in the twenty-nine adventurers who held amongst them the thirty-six shares originally belonging to Myddelton, who had by that time reduced his holding to only two shares.  At the first Court of proprietors, held on the 2nd of November, 1619, he was appointed Governor, and Robert Bateman Deputy-Governor of the Company.  Sir Giles Mompesson was appointed, on behalf of the King, Surveyor of the profits of the New River, with authority to attend the meetings, inspect the accounts, &c., with a grant for such service of £200 per annum out of the King's moiety of the profits of the said river.  It was long, however, before there were any profits to be divided; for the cost of making repairs and improvements, and laying down wooden pipes, continued to be very great for many years; and the ingenious method of paying dividends out of capital, to keep up the price of shares and invite further speculation, had not yet been invented.  In fact, no dividend whatever was paid until after the lapse of twenty years from the date of opening the New River at Islington; and the first dividend only amounted to £15. 3s. 3d. a share.  The next dividend of £3. 4s. 2d. was paid three years later, in 1636; and as the concern seemed to offer no great prospect of improvement, and a further call on the proprietors was expected, Charles I., who required all his available means for other purposes, finally regranted his thirty-six "King's shares " to the Company, under his great seal, in consideration of a fee farm rent of £500, which is to this day paid by them yearly into the King's exchequer.


    Notwithstanding this untoward commencement of the New River Company, it made great and rapid progress when its early commercial difficulties had been overcome; and after the year 1640 its prosperity steadily kept pace with the population and wealth of the metropolis.  By the end of the seventeenth century the dividend paid was at the rate of about £200 per share; at the end of the eighteenth century the dividend was above £500 per share; and at the present date each share produces about £850 a year.  At only twenty years' purchase, the capital value of a single share at this day would be about £17,000.  But most of the shares have in course of time, by alienation and bequeathment, become very much subdivided; the possessors of two or more fractional parts of a share being enabled, under a decree of Lord Chancellor Cowper, in 1711, to depute a person to represent them in the government of the Company.


St. Mark's Church, Myddleton Square, EC1 - east window. [p.81]
© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence.


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