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Fens, drainage of

Fens, drainage of. From the 13th cent. the commissioners of sewers in the 1,300 square miles of low-lying fenlands in eastern England were responsible for undertaking works designed to prevent inundation. With James I's declaration in 1621 that he was unwilling to allow waterlogged lands to lie waste and unprofitable, a firmer base was created for action, and this arrived in the form of the Dutch entrepreneur Sir Cornelius Vermuyden who in 1626 began the complex task of draining the fens of Hatfield Chase and the Isle of Axholme. Axholme was drained between 1626 and 1636, but at a price to the fenlanders, and during the civil wars they took the opportunity to undo much of his work. Drainage resumed after the Restoration, but it was the second half of the 18th cent. before much enthusiasm could be generated. In the 1830s and 1840s the introduction of steam pumps ensured that by the later 19th cent. the risk of flooding had virtually disappeared. This, plus the agricultural benefits of cropping the fens, brought resistance to an end. The familiar dikes and drains of the fenland landscape are still a vivid reminder of how vulnerable this area has long been to inundation. See Bedford level.

John Beckett

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