Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1683) - Fen Reclamation

Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, born 1595, Tholen, Netherlands, died circa April 1683 in London, was an engineer who first introduced Dutch land reclamation methods into England and drained the Fens, the low marshy lands of the East of England.

An experienced embankment engineer, Vermuyden was employed in 1626 by King Charles I of England to drain Hatfield Chase in the Isle of Axholme. Jointly financed by Dutch and English capitalists, Francis, Earl of Bedford and 13 Adventurers, the project was a controversial undertaking, not only for the engineering techniques used, but also because it employed Dutch, rather than English, workmen. The fenmen, men who made their living from fish and fowl in the Fens, attacked the Dutch workers. An agreement was finally made in 1630 to complete the project, the engineer had to employ English workers and compensate the fenmen for the loss of hunting and fishing rights; Vermuyden contracted to drain the Great Fen, or Bedford Level in Cambridgeshire, under an arrangement by which he would receive 95,000 acres of the drained lands, during this period the major contribution to the drainage were the Old Bedford River and the Forty Foot Drain: the project, completed in 1637, drew objections from other engineers, who claimed the draining system to be inadequate.

In 1642, during the English Civil War, Parliament ordered the dykes broken and the land flooded in order to stop a royalist army advance. In 1649 Vermuyden was commissioned to reclaim the Bedford Level. After the Civil War the work continued with the actual labour provided by Scottish prisoners of war captured at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 and Dutchmen captured at a naval battle two years later. Some 40,000 acres were drained by 1652 and the New Bedford River cut.

As a result of this construction, neighboring farmlands were dried out and sank. Some have sunk as much as 20 feet below the waterway to this day. The loss of the peat that settled from the rise and fall of the water caused the "sinking." The surfaces of roads and railways were most often hard to keep even, having a large social and economic impact on the region. Houses and buildings have sunken looks with jammed windows and doorways.

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Last Updated on: 05 March 2000
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