1619, the Commissioners of Sewers for Cambridgeshire and Ely against holding a meeting during the winter floods

The Commissioners of Sewers for Cambridge and Ely. SP 14/105 f. 72 (1619)

To the right honourable the lordes and others of his majesties most honourable privie counsell.

The humble petition of [the Commissioners]

Humblie shewing your honourable good lordshipps, that wheras the commission of sewars was latelie renewed, and your lordshipps sollicited by some fewe as at the humble sute and instance of divers the commissioners of sewars of Cambridge shire the Isle of Ely, and other counties, to order that noe duplicate of the said new commission should be made but onelie one for the countie of Norfolke which your lordshipps ordered accordinglie: these are humblie to certefie your honours that this their sute exhibited to this honourable borde was not onelie without the assent and knowledge of anie of us (being commissioners of sewars inhabitinge within the countie of Cambridge and Isle of Ely) but also contrarie to the humble desires both of us, and the said countrie wherin wee live: for sithence the commyng downe of the said newe commission, and your lordshipps order for restraynte of a duplicate, [their?] is a generall session of sewars summoned (by warrant onelie under six commissioners handes) for all the counties conteyned within the said new commission, which said sessions is to be held the twentieth of Januarie at Stilton beinge a towne in the remotest parte of Huntington shire, which is an innovation not formerlie knowne in our partes to have a generall session of sewars summoned in this winter season of the yeare, the whole levell of the surrounded groundes subjecte to the authoritie of the commissioners of sewars (lying usuallie as nowe it doth deepe under water) so as neither the sewers nor the defectes therof can be discerned, neither can the commissioners or the countrie (the ordinarie passages being all drowned) travell out of their owne lymittes without greate inconveniencie and hassard.

In consideracion of the premises and for that the number of acres of the groundes subjecte to inundation within the countie of Cambridge, and the Isle of Ely are more then dubble in number all the rest of groundes of the same nature conteyned within the whole compasse of the said commission of sewars. Wee doe humblie beseeche your lordshipps to graunte us a duplicate of the said commission for Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, as in all former tymes wee have hadd.

And that your honours would be pleased to voughtsafe your letteres downe to the commissioners meeting the xxth of January at Stilton, therby requiring them to respite the confirmacion and execution of such lawes of sewars and their penal= tyes, as concerne workes to be done within the countie of Cambridge or Isle of Ely except the [outfalles?] of Neane and Welland to a sessions of sewars to be held at some convenient place eyther within the said countie or isle and at some fitter season of the yeare, when the wayes are passable and the sewers with their defectes survayable; where wee wilbe readie to give our attendance and doe our best indeavours for the generall good. And rest ever bounde to pray for your honours.

Thomas Stewarde / John Cotton / Jhon Cuttes [illegible] / Richard [Cohers?] / John [Cage?] / Henry Caesar / Edward Hind: / William Wendyes / William [Branthearst?] [illegible] / John Richardson / Henry Smith / John Croply / Francisse Brakin / Henrye Vernon / Henry Binge / Isake Barrow / John Durant maior of Cambridg: / Richard Willis / Robert Clincher / Edward Roxton / Daniel Wigmore / Daniell Goodrick [illegible] / Thomas Goodricke / Henry [Upehor?] / John Orwell

Report by Barbara Prynn

The Fenland in East Anglia posed a problem for agriculture, travelling and other matters from the time it was first settled. This included regular flooding during the winter months.

From James I’s accession in 1603, the Crown showed a strong interest in drainage projects. Discussions in Parliament and in the Privy Council and at Sessions of Sewers continued intermittently after major plans for the drainage of the Fens, including the Isle of Ely, from 1604 onwards. At this time the prospect of large profits to be gained from fen drainage induced some lords to seek to enclose wide areas of fen. Local resistance eventually proved vain in face of both royal and parliamentary support for draining the fens.

From the reports of Sir Clement Edmonds and Mr. Atkyns to the Privy Council in 1618, it is clear that the main rivers had deteriorated to such an extent that any adequate repairs would be very expensive indeed, although some fenmen remained hostile to the plans. However something needed to be done, and it was useless to rely on the public spirit of the fen landowners.

In 1619 another scheme was suggested but it was not taken up. Finally, since neither private undertakers nor the Commissioners had accomplished anything, the King himself became undertaker for the work in return for 120,000 acres of reclaimed lands.  He summoned Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, to take charge of the proceedings. The introduction of a foreigner only increased the stubborn opposition of the fenmen to the Commissioners of Sewers and all their schemes and activities, so that in the end no part of this grand scheme was accomplished, and Vermuyden spent his energies reclaiming the fens of South Yorkshire.

In 1629 Charles I, in turn, invited Vermuyden to undertake the work originally planned by James I. Not all major landowners in the area supported such encroachments on the enjoyment of traditional common rights, and the poor commoners who suffered through the schemes received widespread sympathy.


‘The Middle Level of the Fens and its reclamation’, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3, ed. William Page, Granville Proby and S Inskip Ladds (London, 1936), pp. 249-290. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/hunts/vol3/pp249-290.

A. F. Wareham and A. P. M. Wright, ‘North-eastern Cambridgeshire’, in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire) (London, 2002), pp. 1-27. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp1-27.


This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, 1600-1625’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.