The coming of efficient steam power in the Victorian age made a huge difference to the whole of the Fenland area. The wind-powered drainage mills were gradually replaced by steam powered pumps, often built alongside the old windmills (see photos on previous page). The steam pumps could be operated in any weather and when flooding was likely they often ran for days and nights on end. Local men became expert in running and managing the steam boilers and their pumps. Another advantage was that water could be lifted over a greater height from the field dykes into the main drains.
Pump houses were built to house the new steam engines, this one just east of the Whittlesea Mere area has been converted for domestic use.
The photo of Elijah Clarke was taken about 1885. He was the engine man at Black Ham engine on the north bank of Whittlesea Mere. (courtesy John Driver)
It was now possible to consider draining the Whittlesea Mere, which was in the northern part of the present Great Fen area. This Mere had become gradually shallower as surrounding areas were drained and it was ‘considered a dreadful nuisance’. For the story of the Last of the Meres see the Whittlesea Mere pages.
In 1850 the Great Northern Railway line was laid across the western side of Woodwalton parish and Holme Fen, described as ‘a quaking bog’. A branch line from Holme to Ramsey North was built in 1867, crossing the Great Fen area, which was mostly used to take agricultural produce away to new markets. Several of the farms in the Woodwalton area laid short tramways, as a way of moving produce over the light peat soils to barges, which then went on to a dock at Holme station or elsewhere. The coming of the railways made a big difference to the farmers in the Great Fen area. The line finally closed in 1972.
The station at Ramsey St Mary's, pre1920 and the timetable in 1922
None of the drainage measures in place could cope with severe flooding, and many parts of the fen land could still be completely flooded. In 1912 it was so wet that the harvest had to be brought in by boat, and in 1947 and 1953 there were huge, devastating floods. Woodwalton Fen still floods in a wet winter.
There is a most interesting 9-minute film on the East Anglian Film Archive entitled Draining the Fens that shows the flood of 1947, as well as giving fascinating insights into fenland life as it was nearly 70 years ago.
The great flood of 1912 - using a boat in an attempt to save some of the harvest
For the landowners, the newly created farmland of the fens was extremely profitable. However, it meant a complete change of life for the inhabitants of the fens. In Victorian times, rural poverty became a real issue in the region as there were no longer as many wild birds or the rich fishing in the waterways to supplement peasants' or labourers' diets. Infant mortality rates were high.
However, hundreds of square miles of fenland became highly productive farmland, producing carrots, onions, parsnips, sugar beet, cabbage, wheat and much more on the peat soils or 'black gold'. There are now about 4000 farms in the wider fenland area with about 14,000 people permanently employed and another 13,000 temporary workers. Despite the best efforts of these farmers, the peat in the farmed areas of the fens continues to erode at an average rate of 2 cm per year. In some areas of the fens the peat has disappeared completely leaving the clay soils underneath.