The Staploe Hundred

The failure to drain the fenland was not usually the fault of the parish itself, for drainage was only possible by collaboration over a large area. Thus Snailwell's fen was drained through Fordham Abbey fish-pool and 300 acres of Fordham "drains through Isleham, but is at present in a very bad state, owing to the neglect of the outward leading, and inward partition drains". This was local neglect. And Chippenham, too, was affected by Fordham: "there are c.200 acres of fenland, which ought to be drained through Fordham, but from the obstructions, by mill dams, etc. in those watercourses, are at present drowned and in a very deplorable state". The drainage of Isleham was hampered by "the unevenness of the beds of the rivers Lark and Cam (which) are much complained of, in resisting the descent of the water". Soham's undrained 8,000 acres was not Soham's fault: "the bad state of this fen is not attributed to any want of internal works or powers for lifting the water, but to the constant pressure and soakage of the Highland waters, through the loose and neglected banks of the rivers Cam and Lark". If fen drainage was better organized "the most inferior fens, and low grounds, in this parish, would on a certainty be improved to the annual value of 20s. or 21s. an acre", from their existing 4s. "Soham-mere, which was formerly a lake, is now drained and brought into a profitable state of cultivation. The soil is a mixture of vegetable matter and brown clay; it contains c.1400 acres and is rented on an average at 14s. per acre".

The Rev. W. Gooch in his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Cambridge of 1813 "found great doubts entertained in the county of the accuracy of Mr Vancouver's report" as to the extent of the surviving fens. He summarized, at considerable length, past and present views about fen drainage, but gave little detailed information about the local fens. " In the fens, clashing interests" were the obstacles to improvement. But Gooch does say something of interest about the value of undrained fen-land, which qualifies Vancouver's views: "So great is the value of the turf, that land growing it has been sold at £50 and £80 per acre; - - Turf is cut of various sizes - - At Isleham, two inches and a half square, and eighteen to twenty inches long, - - There are persons living at Isleham, who remember the same ground having been dug for turf three times; - - Prices, at Cambridge, best Isleham turf 8s. per thousand - - Turf lands often produce sedge after they have been dug for turf - - At Chippenham, £4 per acre have been made of sedge. - - The value of sedge is so increasing, owing to the rise in the price of straw and seed, and the improving state of the fens, (which decreases this crop), that it is the general opinion that the land producing it, will not yield so great profit from any other application, after improvement". Reeds, white seed, and oziers were all highly profitable crops. In fact the case for fen drainage and reclamation for arable cultivation was not quite as strong as Vancouver suggested.


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