Fen is an Old English word to describe the low‐lying, waterlogged areas of eastern England, particularly those draining into the Wash or the Humber. From the early Middle Ages onwards, if not before, man attempted to drain the fens, culminating in the great engineering schemes of the 17th and 19th centuries. Hardly any fenland has not been reclaimed. Wicken Fen (Cambridgeshire), a 600‐acre reserve owned by the National Trust, is the finest remnant of the great fens of East Anglia, rich in plant and insect life and a habitat for a wide variety of birds. See Christopher Taylor, ‘Fenlands’, in Joan Thirsk (ed.), Rural England: An Illustrated History of the Landscape (2002).
Drainage of the fens by high dykes and sea walls proceeded on an irregular basis, with many failures, through the early Middle Ages. Some major projects were supervised by monastic landowners, but piecemeal communal reclamation was more typical. The decline of the national †population after the Black Death eased the pressure for reclamation, but once the population had recovered to its medieval levels fresh attempts were made. In the 1630s the most spectacular scheme was the reclamation of 190 000 acres of the Bedford Level (named after the owner, the fourth Earl of Bedford) between Cambridge, Peterborough, and Wisbech. In 1631 what is now called the ‘Old Bedford’ river was completed, 70 feet wide and 21 miles long. The project was continued after the Civil War by the cutting of the ‘New Bedford’ river and other massive drains. See Margaret Albright Knittl, ‘The Design for the Initial Drainage of the Great Level of the Fens: An Historical Whodunit in Three Parts’, Agricultural History Review, 55/1 (2007). The shrinkage of the peat on drying was an unforeseen difficulty which had to be tackled by water pumps operated by windmills, and in later centuries by pumps driven by steam and electricity. In some places the reclaimed fens are now several feet below the level of a road or adjacent fields.
Large blocks of reclaimed land were allotted to the ‘adventurers’ who had put their money into this scheme. Here, and elsewhere, e.g. Hatfield Chase and the Isle of Axholme, the local smallholders who had managed to earn a sufficient living before drainage were now faced with the loss of valuable rights on the commons. Rioting and the destruction of some of the new works ensued. In Fenland Farming in the Sixteenth Century (1953), English Peasant Farming: The Agrarian History of Lincolnshire from Tudor to Recent Times (1957), and The Agrarian History of England and Wales, iv: 1500–1640 (1967), Joan Thirsk altered previous perceptions of the farming economy by a sympathetic understanding of the smallholders’ complaints against the drainers. Fen parishes were large and populous and geared to raising livestock, especially cattle, rather than the growing of corn. Their vast commons helped to support numerous families, few of whom were rich but most of whom enjoyed a comfortable standard of living. Numerous small farmers continued to earn a satisfactory living during the 19th century. See Adrian Hall, Fenland Worker–Peasants: The Economy of Smallholders at Rippingale, Lincolnshire, 1791–1871 (1992).