Written by Stewart Howe
The text of ‘Ode to Joy’ as it is more commonly known, is regarded by many as the greatest literary and musical expression of universal brotherhood but what is far less known, is Schiller’s quasi-ode to the people of the Fens, quoted by J.M Heathcote in the preface to his 1876 tome, Reminiscenses of Fen and Mere:
“a pastoral people, inhabiting a neglected corner of Europe, which by industry they have won from the waters of the ocean; the sea their profession, the source of their wealth and their disquietude; their highest good, their glory, and their virtue have all sprung from poverty and freedom.”
It is my belief that the story of these people, of their ingenuity and industry, can be encapsulated in a single story – the drainage of the Whittlesea Mere. The term epoch-making event is often overused, but the affairs of 1851 in many ways justify such a label. Indeed, scientists are now debating the scientific criteria for a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or the age of man, the point at which human activities began to have a significant global impact on the planet’s geology and ecosystems.
It was 1851 and Prince Albert and Henry Cole’s grand theatre of nationalism, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at Crystal Palace was proving to be immensely popular. Whilst the public flocked to view countless tableau depicting the Empire’s cultural and industrial prowess, a fellowship of gentlemen from the Fens had only one destination in mind – the Hall of Machinery and Mechanical Inventions. William Wells of Holme and his team of adventurers and investors had travelled to Hyde Park to look at the revolutionary centrifugal pump, and to meet its inventor, George Appold. This technological marvel promised to arm its officers with the ability to discharge water at an unprecedented rate and transform a landscape of bog into fertile agricultural land.
Their target was the watery expanse was the Whittlesea Mere, a vast area of open water in the parish of Holme, close to the Fen Edge. In 1702, the travels of Celia Fiennes took in the view of the mere and she described it “like some sea it being so high and of great length; this is in part of the ffenny country and is called Whitlsome Mer, is 3 mile broad and six long”. Whilst that observation, specifically the dimensions are perhaps dubious, the epic size of the lake is illustrated in the famous silk map of 1786, produced by the Stilton cartographer John Bodger. The panel beneath the map, exquisitely penned by Bodger’s own hand describes the mere as “One of the greatest curiosities in this Kingdom, being a most spacious and beautiful fresh-water lake, on which have been exhibited several Regattas, at which were present many Thousands of Nobility, Gentry, and Others, from various Parts, who were accommodated with upwards of 700 sailing Vessels and Boats”.
And so the drainage began. The steam engineers Easton and Amos were commissioned to erect the pump and engine to drain the Whittlesea Mere. After coupling the pump to a 25 horsepower steam engine, tweaks to the equipment raised the performance of the pump from a 74 tons per minute discharge rate to 101 tons. This performance could drain an inch of water from an acre of land every minute. Having existed since approximately 800BCE, the great lake was quickly tamed. Though subsequent floods and bank breaches in the following years would temporarily restore the mere, the landscape was changed irrevocably. The famous Holme posts, driven into the ground by William Wells to measure the rate of peat shrinkage, graphically illustrate how the parched land has become the lowest place beneath sea level in the United Kingdom.
As we move into the 21st Century, the Great Fen promises to at least partially restore the habitat of the land in and around the Whittlesea Mere. As the work of William Wells has been labelled “an act of ecological vandalism”, there were dissenters when this new millennium project was first unveiled. Yet, increasingly the agricultural community has come to embrace the work that offers regional benefits in the form of economic diversification and the introduction of a tourist economy for settlements along the Fen Edge.
The age of the Anthropocene is upon us and once again, with the turn of Appold’s impeller blade, a new chapter is being written in our landscape heritage. Whether scientists opt to measure the impact of humanity upon our planet in radioactive isotopes or by the deeds of a pastoral people who dared to challenge nature, one thing is certain – our local history has helped to shape the modern world.