The Fight for The Fens

Having grown up surrounded by The Fens (see earlier post), I was delighted to receive the book Imperial Mud by James Boyce, which outlines the history of this area of England. But why a book about English history written by an Aussie historian from Tasmania? This becomes clear as you realise that Boyce is also author of Van Diemens Land, a history of Tasmania. It turns out that the history of The Fens in England has strong echoes with the history of Tasmania – both being stories of displacement or co-opting of indigenous peoples in a colonial project, stealing their land for settlement.

The thing about the English Fens is that they were not easily settled by farmers, nor easily dominated by landowners. The low-lying land comprised varying degrees of bog/marsh, depending on season. But there was an abundance of fish and wildlfe, so it was possible to survive without the large farms in other areas of England. Also, travel was difficult, so the local people were very independent and distrusting of outsiders.

Boyce tells the story of the formation of the Fens and what he calls the ‘Fennish’ people with the emergence of a marshland environment in the East of England around 3-4000 years ago. The Roman invasion in AD43 had a significant impact, draining and colonising part of the Fens, provoking the rebellion led by Boudicca. After the Roman withdrawal in 410 the next ‘invasion’ came from the Christian church, through establishment of numerous monasteries, which grew into powerful centres integrated into the social fabric, and doing their own drainage projects. With the Norman invasion of 1066, feudal lords owned much of the land, alongside the monasteries, but there was still much ‘common land’ managed according to traditional practice, particularly in the Fens.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s led to major change, as many of the new landowners eventually wanted to enclose some of the common land and drain it for farmland. Land reclamation by drainage became big business in Holland in the late 1500s and this expertise inevitably found its way to the Fens. The political will came with the Stuart kings in the 1600s.

Boyce outlines the events of the ‘fight for the Fens’, where landowners sought to drain the land and create settlements by removing access to the Common land of the people. This was naturally resisted by local people whose way of life was being destroyed.

Rough map of The Fens

In the marshes to the south of the Wash (‘great Level’ on map), the resistance was initially encouraged by one Oliver Cromwell, whose lands were affected. But after the Civil War, Cromwell turned and was for more enclosure and the newly minted concept of the ‘national interest’. Because of local resistance, prisoners of war did much of the labour. The use of soldiers battle-hardened from the civil war, plus the willingness to punish communities rather than individuals, eventually overcame the resistance, although there were sporadic uprisings throughout the 1600s.

A similar process occurred in the Isle of Axholme in north Lincolnshire, where conflict continued into the 1700s. Here the commons were never fully subdued.

In the Fens around Boston there was a different outcome. In the 1630s the fen was drained, but in the 1640s the works were totally destroyed and the settlers sent packing. The resistance had won, and the area became very prosperous.

It’s a stirring story, and I’m sure that Boyce is right in his assessment that this was a colonial project, just as those in America and Australia:

If the centuries of Fennish resistance to enclosure, drainage and colonisation had occurred anywhere but England there would be no dispute that this was another example of an indigenous people resisting the appropriation and destruction of their homeland.

Colonisation is one take on the history of this area, but it is not the whole story of ‘progress’. After World War II, everything changed, within my own lifetime. Following the postwar drainage project 1950-2000, 99.9% of land had been drained.

But there is a cost, now evident, in the need to keep the sea at bay, prevent flooding and re-establish biodiversity. With sea level rise and climate change, there is a realisation that we need to live with the waters rather than always fighting them. The Fen country will always be changing.

The rough map of The Fens is by Jb?, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “The Fight for The Fens

  1. There are some common themes between what happened in the Fens and what is described in “The Book of Tresspass”, which I’m currently reading. Rich, aristocratic landowners have cleared land previously used by ordinary people to provide themselves with a living, raising enclosures around it.

    Liked by 1 person

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