The Staploe Hundred

But the drainage went ahead. By 1664 Soham Fen was drained and the land was divided among the local proprietors. "For about fifty years after this Division the Fens continued in a flourishing state, many parts of them were arable producing Wheat, Oats, Coleseed, etc. in as plentiful a manner as they have at any time since done (or) are ever like to do". Fen drainage evidently led to enclosure of some of the open-field arable and pasture land. Lysons records that "on the division of the commons in 1685, Sir Thomas Chicheley, then lord of the manor, and the other landholders, allotted one hundred and sixteen acres of moorland for the benefit of the poor, the profits of which were to be appropriated to the purposes of setting them to work, providing a salary for a schoolmaster, and apprenticing children". This was part of the Feoffees' Funds, of which more anon. Although we have not been able to study any records of the way the local drainage and enclosure were carried out in the seventeenth century, we cannot escape from the conclusion that it was this process on top of the manorial sub-division in the middle ages that gave Soham a different character from many of the neighbouring smaller villages. As Cole described it, in 1746; 'the town is very populous and contains a great many freeholders'. These ranged from the well-off, whom Cole described, to the very poor, for whom the Feoffees catered.

The drainage did not last. In 1712 Denver Sluice blew up and the drainage system of the South Level collapsed. 'The Tides so choaked up the River with silt that the natural discharge of the Water being lost, the Fennes thereabouts grew so bad that they were of very little Value'. Then came Viscount Townshend's attempt at re-draining the Mere and the frustration of his achievement in the wet season of 1745. The adventures, which John Holder of Soham Mere (born 1697) recorded in his diary, give us a picture of what the Fens had become by the mid-eighteenth century. In Dec. 1747 there was a great flood and Holder sent his son and neighbours to fetch the horses from Beach Fen. They went by boat and sheets of ice were driven against the boat. Holder's son and three horses went overboard; the son was saved. In 1758 Holder was made Commissioner of Ely and Soham Level in the Middle Fen; on one occasion he was overtaken by a storm in Soham Mere and nearly drowned himself. Holder was a character. He was married in May 1724 and in the same year recording that he had given up 'carding and dancing, dicing and reading ungodly ballads and plays, unchaste songs, etc.'. He joined the Independent Congregation.


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