Although there were plenty of ways to make a living, life was harsh and the population was fairly thinly scattered up until the 1800s. Census returns show the biggest increase being between 1841 and 1851. Many people who had made their living from the natural riches of the Mere bitterly resented its drainage, and the disappearance of their way of life. More people moved into the area as drained land became available for farming, local parishes were split and the new parishes of Holme and Ramsey St Marys established. The villages expanded, but many of the cottages were very damp and flooded in winter and the fen droves were nearly impassable in wet weather. Families could be cut off for months at a time and reaching help or a doctor was very difficult.
The population of the area dropped in the 1880s as a result of the agricultural depression. Agricultural labourers, if they stayed in the area, turned their hands to other local work such as brick-making. But by the beginning of the 20th century, population numbers had recovered.
Mosquitoes thrived in the damp fens and carried a form of malaria known as ague (pronounced ay-gu). This produced fits of shivering and intense pain in the limbs. Once infected a person could suffer from fits of ague and fever for many years and it shortened their lives. Fen people drank brandy and chewed or drank opium as a cordial to try and protect themselves from the disease but opium became a habit as well as a necessity. Local-born people had some resistance to ague, but fen-men marrying girls from other areas often lost their wives to ague and other illnesses.
Many children died young, not only from childhood illnesses but from drowning in the fen ditches, from poor water supplies and sanitation and from the difficulty of reaching (and affording) medical help.
Illustration from Skating, (1892) by J M Heathcote + C G Tebbutt.
The authors quote a letter written by a Professor Sedgwick on January 30, 1841: "From Ely I went to Whittlesea, and saw thousands, and, I think, tens of thousands whirling on the ice. There were certainly 10,000 persons assembled one day on Whittlesea Mere to see a match." This must be the famous Prof. Adam Sedgewick from Cambridge, who was a founding father of geology, a correspondent of Darwin's and established the Sedgewick Museum at Cambridge.
In summer people came from miles away to enjoy boating parties and yacht races. There were several boat stations or boat-houses around the rim of the Mere but the area was prone to sudden storms which caused some upsets. Races were held and prizes awarded by local gentry.
"Whittlesea Mere Regatta, June 16 1841, Off Swerve Point"
Assuming Swerve (or Swere) point is the promontory on the right hand side of the picture and there is a southwesterly wind, this picture would show the view looking east from the western shore. i.e. this is the equivalent view to what can seen from Trundle Mere Lookout today!
Whittlesea Mere was important in the local area as a way of moving heavy and bulky goods, such as bricks, peat turves and loads of reed and sedge. The Mere connected to at least three main waterways on the north and eastern sides, so other parts of Fenland could easily be reached. Horse-drawn lighters were used on the waterways, but no doubt they put up a sail to cross the Mere, or were perhaps "spritted" (poled) across, as the Mere was shallow. Lighters were built in a yard at Stanground, about 4 miles north of the Mere near Peterborough.
The following picture and text have been copied, with permission, from the Fenland Lighter Project website.
"The importance of Fenland lighters was at its height around 1700-1850. A typical lighter was about thirteen metres long, with a cargo-capacity of about twenty tonnes. Such vessels generally operated in 'gangs': a gang involved several hulls being coupled head-to-tail by an ingenious arrangement of chains, poles and ropes."
When the Mere was drained 17 stone blocks were recovered. They had presumably been on their way from the quarries at Barnack to Ramsey Abbey, being carried on a barge that overturned. This picture right shows some of the blocks that can still be seen at Engine Farm and below are the masons' marks on two of the blocks.
As the land became better drained and more people were employed in cultivating it, the parishes of Glatton and Ramsey were subdivided so that services could be provided for people closer to where they lived. Holme parish was subdivided from Glatton and a church built in 1862; Ramsey St Marys was subdivided from Ramsey and the church built in 1859. There were also Non-conformist chapels in Holme, Yaxley and Ramsey St Marys. The Vicar of Holme also ran a floating church, a converted barge known as St Withburga’s or the Fenland Ark. The picture below shows an interior view. The horse-drawn barge was active from 1897 to about 1904 and was used to reach the more isolated parts of the fen and the families in newly settled areas around Whittlesea Mere.
Village schools were also set up with help from the local churches, their ministers and the local landowners. In 1880 an Education Act finally made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten. Many children worked outside school hours but truancy was a major problem as parents could not afford to give up the income earned by their children. In Holme village, William Wells’ wife provided for a ‘Van’ to bring the little children in from the Fen to attend school. Presumably, funding the Van made it possible to comply with the Act
Inside the Fenland Ark and plaque on the wall of Holme Village School.
"The School Van, having been started in 1877 by William Wells of Holme Wood to carry the little fen children to and from school in the winter months,
Lady Louisa Wells is anxious that it shoud be kept up in memory of her dear husband in this place always.
And for this purpose she gives and bequeaths the required sum. 1891"