Etching from Illustrated London News
How the Mere was drained
The coming of steam power was probably the main factor in the final drainage of Whittlesea Mere. Although surrounding areas had been drained, the peat shrank as it dried out, making the land lower. It became more and more difficult to lift water from the low-lying fields to the main drains. Local landowners, led by William Wells of Holmewood Hall realised that steam powered pumps were now efficient enough to finally drain the Mere and decided, as a group, to fund the drainage plan.
The pump was installed at the east end of the Mere and it was ‘state of the art’ Victorian engineering, using the recently invented Appolds Impeller. This pump could lift 16,000 gallons of water a minute through 6 feet of height and soon drained the water away. As the surface water was drained off, a new main channel was dug by hand across the bed of the Mere: this is now known as the Holme Lode.
The pump continued in use for many years, located at what became known as Engine Farm. The photo on the left was taken in about 1910 and shows the farmhouse and pump house. In the 1920s the Appold steam pump was replaced by a diesel powered one and it was necessary to clear out and lower Holme Lode as shown in the picture on the right.
As the Mere was drained many interesting objects came to light which had been lost there over the years. Two of these are shown below, and on other pages there are pictures of the Ramsey Abbey censor and incense boat, as well as the huge stone blocks from Barnack Quarry.
Two medieval objects that were discovered when Whittlesea mere was drained,
On the left is an engraved sword, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
On the right is a 13th century, green-glazed jug. Peterborough Museum.
The Holme Posts
In 1848 William Wells had three wooden posts driven into the soil so that shrinkage of the peat could be measured. These were replaced in 1851 by a cast iron column that came from the Crystal Palace and which was driven in so that its head was level with the ground surface. Immediately after drainage a subsidence of nine inches a year in the soil level was recorded; today approximately 4 metres of the post is showing above ground. The pictures below were taken in 1905, 50 years after drainage and in 2012, over 100 years later. The steel guys were added to stabilise the post in 1957.
Creating the farmland
A huge amount of work was needed to convert the drained land into farmland. New dykes were dug across the Mere’s bed to divide up the land into fields and farms. A top layer of clumps of peaty vegetation were gathered up and burnt, then clay from below the surface and from the new dykes was dug up and mixed with the surface peaty soil - a process known as “claying”. All this work was done by hand, aided by horse-drawn trucks running on flanged wooden rails.
The land was harrowed lightly several times, then ryegrass, clover and mixed grasses were sown as pioneer crops. By 1860 3,500 acres of farmland were producing heavy crops of wheat, oats, coleseed and mangel-wurzels. William Wells said that the clayed land produced better crops and better straw and suffered less from frost damage.
In 1853 the average value of the crops grown was estimated at £12,350 compared with the £1,160 produced by the cutting of reed and sedge around the Mere before drainage. By 1860 the value of the newly drained land had risen by at least ten-fold, so the group of people who had funded the scheme were jubilant. But by 1880 corn prices had dropped dramatically so that the profits were no more than those of ordinary farmland. Land prices dropped and as a result odd corners of land in the area were not brought under full cultivation. A tax imposed by the Middle Level for drainage costs also decreased the profits from the land.
Wells and the other landowners were clearly very proud of their achievements -
this is a copy of the banner used at the celebratory luncheon held in the pumphouse at the completion of the project.
The copy hangs in St Giles' Church, Holme.