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«In 1626, Charles I reached an agreement with Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the level of Hatfield Chase, a wetland area in Lincolnshire ...»

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‘Any English settler would have been driven insane’. Dutch investors and the draining of

Hatfield Chase, 1626-1660

Piet van Cruyningen, Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands

In 1626, Charles I reached an agreement with Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to drain the

level of Hatfield Chase, a wetland area in Lincolnshire and southern Yorkshire.1 The drainage of

this area of some 70,000 acres by Vermuyden and a group of mostly Dutch investors became a

cause célèbre in the history of English wetland reclamation because of the many difficulties they encountered. A nineteenth-century English author commented that any English settler would been driven insane by these problems, but the more cold-blooded Dutch seemed to take them in their stride.2 Unfortunately, this paper will show that the Dutch were not that cold-blooded and that many of the difficulties were of their own making.

Vermuyden and his ‘adventurers’ encountered two kinds of problems. The first were caused by the expropriation of parts of the commons of the adjacent villages. To remunerate Vermuyden and the investors, they were to receive one third of the drained land, and the king would also receive a third, so the villagers lost two thirds of their commons. Arbitration reduced the loss to about one half, but that still was a blow to the regional economy. The commoners lost rights of fishing and fowling, reed and turf cutting, and, most importantly, large areas of pasture.

Grazing was essential for agriculture in the area, which was mostly pastoral.3 The loss of commons led to riots, destruction of drains, fields and farmsteads, and litigation, which continued for almost a century, until 1719. As a result, the costs of the enterprise rose considerably, but Vermuyden and the investors themselves added to the problems by quarreling over the repartitioning of the costs and delaying necessary repairs.

In the Dutch Republic, investors in drainage seldom encountered such trouble. The Dutch had developed institutions to deal efficiently with the conflicts drainage schemes might cause.

Those who wished to reclaim land – usually a ‘company’ of investors who held shares in the enterprise – had to apply for an octrooi (patent) with the States of the province or with the States- General. When the patent was granted, it contained conditions to deal with externalities. The projectors had to compensate those whose land was expropriated or whose interests were harmed by the project – e.g. water boards that used a lake that was to be drained for storage of excess water – in money or by constructing new canals or sluices. In the patent, the drainage company was also incorporated. The participants were granted the right to elect a board that could raise taxes to finance the works and to pay for maintenance afterwards.4 In this way, conflicts were usually prevented and the financial responsibility for maintenance was clearly established.

If the Dutch had exported these institutions to England, they might have prevented a lot of difficulties. The failure to do so could have been caused by the fact that institutions are embedded in specific social, cultural and political contexts and cannot be easily transplanted to 1 J. Korthals Altes, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden. The lifework of a great Anglo-Dutchman in land-reclamation and drainage (London, 1925), appendix II.

2 Quoted in H.S. van Lennep, Van Valkenburg. Een Haarlems regentengeslacht (s.l., 2000), p. 7.

3 J. Thirsk, ‘The Isle of Axholme before Vermuyden’, Agricultural History Review 1 (1953), pp. 16-28.

4 P. van Cruyningen, ‘State, property rights and sustainability of drained areas along the North Sea coast in the sixteenth – eighteenth centuries’ in B. van Bavel and E. Thoen, eds., Rural societies and environments at risk.

Ecology, property rights and social organization in fragile areas (Middle Ages – twentieth century) (Turnhout,

2013) pp. 186-187, 196.

1 different contexts. Another cause might be that Vermuyden and his partners deliberately decided not to apply Dutch institutions. People are not just prisoners of structures and institutions, they can make a difference, for good or for bad.5 In this case, the Dutch method of reaching compromises and protecting the interests of all parties prevented most conflicts and litigation, but it was also time-consuming and costly. Vermuyden and his partners may have reasoned it would be more expedient to rely on royal support to crush opposition. The Crown was fully prepared to provide that support.6 The conflicts between Vermuyden and the commoners have been thoroughly studied by Lindley.7 This paper aims at explaining why efficient Dutch institutions were not introduced and what financial consequences this had for the project. It will demonstrate that until 1642, the conflicts between Vermuyden and the participants and the failure to set up an efficient system for financing maintenance caused more damage to the project than the problems with the commoners. However, by comparing with Dutch drainage projects, it will also show that the draining of Hatfield Chase was not such a financial catastrophe as is often claimed in the literature.8 A second aim of this paper is to debunk. The draining of the Hatfield Level was a project of Cornelius Vermuyden and his controversial personality has strongly influenced historiography. To some he is a hero: a brilliant engineer of the Dutch Golden Age who brought civilization to ungrateful, backward English peasants.9 To others he is almost the personification of evil: the man who made disastrous technical mistakes, destroyed valuable ecosystems and robbed the poor of their commons.10 Such strong opinions are seldom conducive to good research. As a result, historiography of the draining of the Hatfield Level is confused and incomplete. This paper attempts at presenting a more coherent account of the project, mainly based on documents preserved in Dutch archives and libraries. Since most of these documents were written by the investors or their representatives, this has the additional benefit of casting light on their role in the project, which has been mostly neglected until now.





II Hatfield Chase is a wetland area near the confluence of the rivers Don, Torne, Idle, Aire, Went, Trent and Ouse. Most settlements are situated on riverbanks or on ‘isles’ of pre-Holocene deposits, the most important of which is the north – south oriented ridge of the Isle of Axholme.

In the Middle Ages part of the lower lying area was drained by Selby Abbey, but most of it was used as commons by the inhabitants of the adjacent villages.11 The Crown owned the manor of Hatfield and most manors of the Isle of Axholme, so it could easily grant the drainage of the area 5 A.J. Schuurman, ‘Mensen maken verschil. Sociale theorie, historische sociologie en geschiedenis’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale Geschiedenis 22 91996), p. 203.

6 R.W. Hoyle, ‘Introduction: custom, improvement and anti-improvement’ in: R.W. Hoyle, ed., Custom, improvement and the landscape in Early Modern Britain (Farnham, 2011), pp. 19-24.

7 K. Lindley, Fenland riots and the English Revolution (London, 1982), pp. 23-33, 71-83, 137, 140-142, 146-157, 188-222, 233-252.

8 L.E. Harris, Vermuyden and the fens. A study of Sir Cornelius Vermuyden and the Great Level (London, 1953), pp. 47, 54; Korthals Altes, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, p. 28.

9 E.g. Korthals Altes, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden. Harris, Vermuyden, was more aware of the dark sides of his hero.

10 E.g. S. Wells, History of the drainage of the Great level of the Fens called the Bedford Level (London, 1830), pp.

92-96, 288-289; I.D. Rotherham, Yorkshire’s forgotten fenlands (Barnsley, 2011).

11 R. Van de Noort, The Humber wetlands. The archaeology of a dynamic landscape (Macclesfield, 2004), pp. 135, 139-140.

2 to Vermuyden.12 But the General Drainage Act of 1600 also required permission of the majority of the commoners. The contract of 1626 stipulated that the king was responsible for gaining the consent of the commoners. Although royal commissioners appointed to this task did not manage to reach an agreement with the majority of the commoners, Vermuyden was permitted to start draining the Level in 1627.13 The failure to reach an agreement with the commoners resulted in costly litigation, obstruction and destruction of embankments. It should be stressed, however, that the western part of the Level was quite different from the eastern part. In the west, Hatfield Chase proper, commons were limited to rights of turbary (peat digging) and wood cutting. Moreover, this part of the Level was situated in Yorkshire, where the Council of the North had jurisdiction. This Council’s president, viscount Wentworth, did not follow the Crown’s policy of blindly supporting drainage schemes. In 1630 he negotiated a compromise between the commoners and Vermuyden and his associates which was generous towards the commoners. Vermuyden was not pleased with this outcome, but the result was that the Hatfield part of the Level was pacified and would remain peaceful for the rest of the century.14 In the Isle of Axholme, the eastern part of the Level, the commons included extensive grazing rights, which were crucial to the pastoral economy of the Isle. They would lose 7,400 of their 13,400 acres of commons.15 Moreover, an indenture of 1359 had guaranteed the commoners of Epworth, the most important manor of the Isle, that the lords of that manor in the future would refrain from improving common land.16 So it is not surprising that in this part of the Level resistance to drainage was more fierce and also continued longer.

Vermuyden clearly preferred not to negotiate but to rely on royal support. Since the king was in favour of improvement and he had a powerful ally in the person of Attorney General Sir Robert Heath, he knew he could rely on that.17 His attitude was less reckless than it might at first seem. After some initial unrest, the Level remained relatively calm during the 1630s. Some riots occurred, but the damage remained limited. Tenant farmers and some of the investors settled in the Level and brought the land into cultivation.18 It was the outbreak of civil war and the collapse of royal power in 1642 that plunged the Level into chaos. The area was flooded, houses and farmsteads were demolished and the damage was estimated at £ 20,000.19 Until that year, it seemed Vermuyden had been right. Between c. 1628 and 1642 the main problem was the lack of an efficient organization of the project.

Vermuyden’s ruthless attitude is exemplified by the way he concentrated the waters of the river Don, which hitherto had flowed in three channels, into one channel with an outfall into the river Aire. Because this channel and the river Aire now had to carry much more water, the risk of flooding increased. Vermuyden had foreseen this and a strong embankment was constructed on the Hatfield Chase side of the river. Since there was no strong dike on the other 12 M. Albright, ‘The entrepreneurs of fen draining in England under James I and Charles I: an illustration of the uses of influence’, Explorations in Entrepreneurial History 8:2 (1955), p. 55.

13 Harris, Vermuyden, p. 50.

14 Lindley, Fenland riots, p. 24; Korthals Altes, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, pp. 109-110.

15 Korthals Altes, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, p.111. In 1636 they were granted 1,000 acres more.

16 Lindley, Fenland riots, p. 26.

17 Harris, Vermuyden, p. 58; Hoyle, ‘Introduction’, pp. 21-24.

18 Lindley, Fenland riots, pp. 76-79; Van Lennep, Van Valkenburg, p. 58.

19 W. Dugdale, The history of imbanking and draining of divers fens and marshes in foreign parts and this kingdom and of the improvements thereby (2nd edition, London 1772), pp. 145-146.

3 side of the river, this would inevitably result in flooding of the villages on that side.20 A competent engineer like Vermuyden must have realized that, but he took no measures to protect these villages. Even Vermuyden’s participants sympathized with the villagers who cut holes into the new dike of Hatfield Chase and appealed to the Council of the North.21 Again he seems to have counted on royal support to protect him from the consequences, but this time he was mistaken. In the case of the villagers of Fishlake, Sykehouse and Snaith against Vermuyden and the participants the Council of the North ruled in 1630 that Vermuyden had to cut a new outfall of the river Don towards the river Ouse. Eventually, the cost of digging this ‘Dutch River’ would amount to £ 20,000.22 These extra costs threw the drainage consortium into disorder.



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