The flooding nightmare – four centuries ago

Chase reporter ANTONY CLAY delves into the history of flooding in the area to the north of Doncaster so recently devastated by a river breaking its banks

THE recent flooding in Rotherham and to the north of Doncaster reminds us that nature has a habit of catching people out.

For all our attempts to hold back the waters, the rain can always be that bit heavier and produce a greater deluge than we had anticipated.

A portrait of Sir Cornelius Vermuyden

There has been controversy in the area around Fishlake near Doncaster following the November 2019 floods but the area has a history of unrest and misery because of flooding dating back nearly four centuries.

Back then, it was all about plans to drain the area around Hatfield Chase and the Isle of Axholme which caused uproar – as well as unexpected flooding in supposedly safe areas.

And it was all because the king wanted more land.

The story of Cornelius Vermuyden and his massive drainage project is one which is still remembered today.

The Dutchman’s activities have even been remembered in a novel – the so-called Manuscript in a Red Box by an unknown author – about the impact on local people of his work and their response.

His name lives on even today in the names of streets, a cafe and a school.

Vermuyden was knighted for his troubles but others had to try and clear up the problems caused by his mistakes.

It was very much a tale of rich versus poor.

Hatfield Chase and the Isle of Axholme covers the area around the settlements of Hatfield, Thorne, Sandtoft, Fishlake, Epworth, Belton, Crowle and Haxey,

The area was fed back in the early seventeenth century by the old courses of the rivers Don, Trent and Idle and covered 70,000 acres of marshland, forests and lakes.

Local farmers had common land on which they could feed their animals but the area was a hunting ground for the monarch.

The area produced crops such as barley, beans, peas, oats, rye and hemp and the rights of local inhabitants are displayed on the 1410 Inclesmere Map, a copy of which is in Doncaster Museum. It shows that locals could let their cattle graze on common land in the summer, and they could benefit from fishing and hunting wildfowl too.

But things began to change after 1600 when outside forces demanded more farmland for themselves. This would eventually be achieved by a mammoth drainage project.

Enter Cornelius Vermuyden.

A committee was appointed in 1622 by King James I with a view to “drain and improve” the Hatfield Chase area, and a scheme put forward by Vermuyden said it would achieve this – and he would bring in Dutch and French workers to do the task.

But local people would lose their rights, sparking a local uprising over ensuing decades.

Farmer retaliated against the changes by destroying machinery, banks and sluices and throwing foreign workmen into rivers.

The hostility was given an added boost when the English Civil War began in 1642 with local people supporting Parliament against the king who in their eyes had wronged them.

But the unrest continued long after the Civil War ended and peace was only restored in 1714 when troops were sent in to quell unrest.

Vermuyden’s work in the Chase area prompted lawsuits and petitions as well as direct action, including riots.
Regardless of local dissent, in 1626 Charles I agreed to Vermuyden’s scheme and in 1629 a Court of Sewers for Level of Hatfield Chase was established.

The monarch’s plan was to divide the drained land into three parts, one third for him, another for investors in the project, and the final third for local people.

The £400,000 scheme took three years to complete.

What did Vermuyden do? By any stretch of the imagination, he undertook a major project which led to significant changes in the area’s natural drainage.

To the north of the area, the Don was diverted into the Ouse. The River Torne was diverted near Wroot to join the River Trent near Althorpe along a new canal. To the south, the River Idle was dammed at Idle Stop and diverted to the River Trent.

But as with all major projects – and particularly ones which took place four centuries ago – there were unexpected consequences.

Flooding occurred in areas which had previously been dry, particularly around Fishlake, which suffered so much recently, and at Sykehouse and Snaith.

But other areas were now opened for agriculture.

To try and solve the flooding problem, a sluice was built at Turnbridgedike, probably by Vermuyden’s assistant Hugo Spiering, but it didn’t achieve all that was hoped. A new channel was created from Newbridge to the River Ouse at Goole between 1632 and 1635 at a massive cost (in those days) of £33,000. This eventually became known as the Dutch River.

But the massive cost of carrying out these improvements forced out many of the people who had invested in Vermuyden’s project, known as the Participants, who sold up.

Despite the mixed results from his work at Hatfield Chase, Vermuyden went on to drain the Great Level around Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.

Quite how Vermuyden became the apple of the king’s eye is uncertain. A story that they met on a royal hunting party is believed to be false, but who knows?

Born at Sint-Maartensdijk in the Netherlands in 1595, Cornelius Vermuyden was the son of Dutch engineer Giles Vermuyden and his wife Sarah Werkendet.

By around 1621, Vermuyden was working on the River Thames in such tasks as reclaiming Canvey Island. He met Charles I and seems to have hit it off as he was commissioned a few years later to work at Hatfield Chase.

He was knighted and in 1663 became an original fellow of the Royal Society.
Vermuyden died in the capital in October 1677.

It is a tale which may sound familiar today with the powers that be stepping very firmly on the little man, resulting in protest.

There is no doubt that Vermuyden’s scheme was a game changer and definitely ambitious. Given the technology of the age, that there were problems afterwards is perhaps understandable.

But it does show that flooding, and the actions of the authorities on our waterways and land use decisions, are as much in the news today as they were four centuries ago.

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