Boston, Lincolnshire is a long way from Boston, Massachusetts, and further still from Botany Bay. But James Boyce wants us to see the long-lasting assault on the marshy lands of Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire in the context of colonising invasion around the world.
The Fens had been kind to the locals. The land saw more than its share of flooding, but this wasn’t always bad news. The fishing was fabulous and the variety of bird-life destined for the pot was astounding. Sediment-rich soil ensured good harvests and you couldn’t move for grass, so the animals always had feed come wintertime. But the long series of invaders wanted more: deciding that this was a landscape to be tamed, drained and brought under centralised control. They usually made a hash of the job.
The Romans’ most significant import to the Fens was malaria. The Anglo-Saxons made progress on the missionary front, but followed the Roman example of settling for nominal rule over the region. The Vikings usually left the Fens alone. It was left to the Normans to concoct vaguely cohesive policies to bring the Fens to heel. But if your all-important cavalry horses got stuck in the mud how much could be achieved? Church building gathered steam through the medieval era but the area once more became, in the popular imagination, the sinister habitat of destitute barbarians. Only a few people noted how pretty and bountiful it could be. William of Malmesbury wrote, during the 12th century, of ‘a very paradise and a heaven for the beauty and delight thereof’ with ‘such an abundance of fish as to cause astonishment to strangers while natives laugh at their surprise’.
Then everything changed. There had been drainage efforts in the past, and fitful attempts to replace common land ownership with a system of enclosure. From 1500 or so, this campaign escalated. The Dissolution of the Monasteries offered new opportunities for land speculators. Elizabeth I’s reign was packed with misguided, short-lived ventures and the frequently cash-strapped Stuart regime brought matters to a head. Grandiose projects were launched, most famously the attempt, from the 1630s, to drain the ‘Great Level’ in the southern fens. Three hundred thousand acres of marshland came under threat. But protests long predated this massive scheme. As early as 1603 Thomas Wells of Deeping St James was urging his fellow parishioners to fill in enclosure ditches and kill anyone who opposed their efforts. The battles continued and some famous places weathered the storm. The lands around Whittlesey Mere, close to Peterborough, for example, or Lincolnshire’s Isle of Axholme, where focused resistance kept most of the island unenclosed until the 1790s.
By the beginning of that century, however, the regime already had a standing army to help enforce the endless drainage and enclosure bills that passed through Parliament. New draconian legislation also made dissent a good deal more risky. If the mob grew restless, you sent in the troops. Between 1750 and 1820, 21 per cent of English land – both in and far beyond the Fens – was enclosed through statutory methods: a staggering 6.8 million acres.
One could emerge from this book assuming that everyone in the Fens was constantly up-in-arms. That, surely, would be a reductive caricature. But it’s hard to blame Boyce for expressing his indignation, not least because meddling in the region continued up to the very recent past. A new dynamism arrived in the post-WWII era when an obsession with drainage, as ambitious as any of its forerunners, stretched from the 1950s to the 1970s. Today, 99 per cent of the wetlands have been drained.
The word ‘Commons’, Boyce reminds us, was always about more than land. Custom and kinship, ecosystems and traditions, were also at stake.
That world has vanished and Boyce tells the tale with that rare but always winning combination of passion and scholarly rigour. Today’s heroic restoration schemes can only cover a couple of dozen square miles but you might spot some rare wildflower or a bittern returned from exile. There is at least as much poignancy as pleasure in the spectacle.