Effective drainage work started in this area in the late 1600s. Nine windmills (driving water wheels) were recorded in Woodwalton parish alone. Ramsey, Ugg and Trundle Meres were all drained by the 1840's, wheat was cultivated for the first time, and the land value increased fourfold. Whittlesea Mere was the last to be drained and was dry by 1852. See more details on the drainage page.
The drainage had a huge effect on the wildlife of the area and many species became locally extinct because of it. The way people lived on and around the land changed significantly too.
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The earliest drainage pumps were windmills linked to a scoop-wheel that could lift water from a lower drainage ditch or dyke into a higher level drain, but if the wind dropped the pump could not work. Gradually the wind-powered pumps were replaced by steam-driven ones which were more reliable and could lift greater quantities of water. This was especially important because as the peat fenland dried out it shrank and the water had to be lifted a greater height into the main drains. Steam power was eventually replaced by diesel power and then, after 1900, by electricity.
The photograph shows the pump house east of Engine Farm, the main outfall for Whittlesey Mere.
By the mid 1800's drainage of this area was well underway using the new steam pumping engines. In 1851 at Holme Woods, near Whittlesea Mere, the local landowner William Wells had a wooden post driven into the ground to ground level (which was later replaced by a cast iron post). This was done to measure the shrinkage of the peat after drainage of the Mere, which was completed in 1852. The picture to the right (from the Norris Museum) shows the Holme Post in 1905 when it appears to be about 3m (10 feet) out of the ground. The post now stands approximately 4m (13 feet) out of the ground and can be seen at Holme Fen.
By the mid-1800’s railways were beginning to spread through the country. However the peat soil in the fen areas posed problems for engineers. Stephen Ballard and Thomas Brassey came up with a plan to provide a solid foundation to build a railway line from Holme to Ramsey. This line opened in 1863 and passengers could then travel by train through to London on the Great Northern Railway (now the East Coast Main Line). Farm produce that previously had to be moved by water was now moved by rail from the station at Ramsey St Marys (see picture). The line was closed in the 1970’s.
On 22nd July 1863 Ramsey North Station opened to the public. Hundreds of people assembled at the new station to see the departure of the first train, which carried 30 passengers the few miles to Holme. In 1889 a second line, from Ramsey to Somersham, was opened along with a new station at Ramsey East. Through the years passenger numbers and freight dwindled and in the 1970’s the Holme to Ramsey Line was closed. A few years later Ramsey East Station was levelled and the site re-developed. One building remains at the site of Ramsey North Station.
At the beginning of this period, the landscape was mainly reedbeds, wet meadows, open water and wet woodland. There was so much wildlife that thousands of wildfowl and fish could be caught every day. Animals such as the European Beaver (right) were common before the fens were drained. Victorian collectors visited the area and gathered great numbers of rare plants and animals, especially insects; see more information on the Past Wildlife page. Woodwalton Fen was one of the few areas that were not drained and some species managed to cling on here.
By at least 1820 several brickyards were operating at Ramsey Heights using a local seam of clay. One former yard is now the Wildlife Trust Countryside Centre. The clay was dug, prepared and moulded into bricks or tiles, then fired in the kilns on site. Bricks were sent out to customers by horse-drawn barge along the waterways. Originally local peat was used to fire the kilns and later coal was brought in by barge. Many people, including women and children, found employment in the brickmaking and barge trades.
The open farm lands and commons were gradually enclosed and Acts of Parliament for dividing and enclosing Herne Common and Gore Common were passed in 1795. Enclosure enabled landowners to manage their land and drainage more efficiently, but excluded local people from accessing the natural resources of the land. During the 1800’s farming started to become more mechanised, due to steam power. Where the land was dry enough to bear their weight, traction engines allowed cultivation on a larger scale, but most of the Great Fen area was still cultivated by traditional methods. After it was drained the bed of Whittlesea Mere was brought under cultivation by hand, and by the 1860s it was producing exceptionally heavy crops, repaying the investment made by the landowners.
The Ark was a floating church for Holme parish, it was dedicated by the Archdeacon of Huntingdon at Stokes Bridge on 5th April 1897. The horse-drawn Ark travelled along the rivers in this area stopping at three stations; Stokes Bridge, Charter Farm, and Mere Engine/Engine Farm (as shown on the map) on following Sundays in rotation. The Ark’s aim was to reach the families living in remote cottages in the Fen. The church came to an end quite suddenly in 1904 because congregation numbers dwindled and the expense of running the Ark increased. The photo shows the interior of the church.
Most people were living by working on the land, either for themselves or for bigger farmers. Living conditions were poor, the cottages in the fens were damp; many had earth floors and would flood in wet winters. The work available locally was physically hard and life expectancy was low. Many children did not survive infancy or childhood. Children had a long wet walk to school along muddy footpaths and droves. Schools were provided in Holme, Ramsey St Marys and Ramsey Heights (see the map) but school attendance was not compulsory until the 1870s, and even then children were often absent if they were needed in the fields. Social life for the adults revolved around the churches and chapels, as well as the pubs and alehouses. Local landowners provided funds for the churches at Holme and Ramsey St Marys and helped found the schools.
The photo shows the pupils of Ramsey Heights school c.1900.