Dryness pleaseth…

This beautiful map of the Bedford level lying between The Wash at the top of the map and Cambridge at the bottom shows the distribution and use of land of the Great Fens, an important wetlands site that had been drained in the seventeenth century.

To the most noble the Governor, the Bailiffs, and Conservators of the Great Level of the Fens, called Bedford Level, this map of the said Great Level and parts adjacent is most gratefully dedicated by Samuel Wells. 1829 (E) C17:17 (7)

The draining of the Fen has a long history. Initially the celebrated Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was commissioned by King James to drain the fen. This at first proved unsuccessful and then Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford, who owed a great deal of land in the area, came to an agreement with Charles I to drain the Fen after which the Duke and a group of fellow investors in the project, known as ‘Adventurers’, would share in the division of the land with the King, each to their own according to the size of the investment made.

 Vermuyden planned and then organized the  digging of the New Bedford River, which ran parallel to the Old River, with a flood plain between the two. These are the two straight lines that run from the middle bottom left to middle top right, draining into the River Great Ouse and then eventually into the sea at King’s Lynn. A new company was formed to handle the administration of the levelling called the ‘Bedford Level Corporation’, and it is their coat of arms that can be seen on the map. Their motto is, appropriately enough, ‘Dryness pleaseth’.


The map is cloth-backed, which would have made it easier to unfold and fold up again any number of times without weakening the paper and causing damage. The effect of the folding and then storing the map has led to ‘ghosting’. This is when the imprint of the image appears faintly as a mirror image on its opposite fold, most attractively illustrated in this image with the faint ghost of the compass rose appearing above the true rose. The map was made to accompany a two volume work, The history of the drainage of the Great Level of the Fens, called the Bedford Level; with the constitution and laws of the Bedford Level Corporation, by Samuel Wells, Register of the Corporation, and published in 1830. This is a comprehensive history of the Fens and the drainage going back to the Roman occupation.

The map shows different levels of land; from that owned by the investors (the numerous plots in red)  to land outside of the Great Level (in blue). The green and yellow show higher ground, and hence land that didn’t need to be drained, both inside (green) and outside (yellow) the level. A map that shows plots of land either for sale or as a record of ownership is called a cadastral map. In the second volume of Wells’ history of the Fens he lists each plot giving information on ownership, size (in acres, rods and perches) and the amount of tax paid on the plot twice yearly. Cadastral maps, especially ones as old as this, are important for a number of reasons. Not only do they give an accurate record of the land at the time the map was made they also give a historical record of land ownership at a particular time.  As with all old maps that list names of people they’re also a wonderful link with our past.

Samuel Wells owned lot VII in Methwold Common

To show how long the levelling of the Fens had been going on here’s an extract from A mapp of ye Great Levell of ye Fenns extending into ye countyes of Northampton, Norfolk, Suffolke, Lyncolne, Cambridg & Huntingdon & the Isle of Ely as it is now drained, described by Sr Jonas Moore (Gough Maps Cambridgeshire 2). The map was published in 1684 and shows how the plot boundaries and identifying numbers have remained constant over the two hundred years between the two maps (the 1684 image has been stitched together for the purpose of this blog from two adjoining sheets).

Jonas Moore was an interesting character, one of those figures that start from humble beginnings to achieve things of lasting fame (born in Lancashire to poor parents it was said that his older brother was  ‘bewitched’ to death by one of the Pendle Witches). Mathematician, astronomer, surveyor and Ordnance Officer, as well as creating this map of the Fens he also designed and built a stone pier in Tangier when the Moroccan port was briefly held by the English.

Cornelius Vermuyden sailed to England in 1621, arriving from a Holland transformed by the draining of low-lying land. After draining and reclaiming wetlands at Canvey and around the Isle of Axholme, Vermuyden was commissioned by the Crown to drain the area of the Great Fens, bringing to an end a way of life supported by wildfowl, peat and withy cutting that had been in place for centuries. Vermuyden wrote one of the earliest works on draining the Fens in 1642, a turbulent year if ever there was one. This image comes from collection of pamphlets about the drainage of the Great Level simply titled ‘Fens’, which includes 19 pamphlets ranging in date from Vermuyden’s in 1642 through to 1775 and is part of the great collection of books, maps and plans belonging to Richard Gough that came to the Library in 1809 (more about Gough and the map of Britain named after him here)

Modesty didn’t seem to hold Vermuyden back. In the introduction to the work he lets us know that not only  have others tried to do what he achieved, but he had the King’s support throughout. ‘Divers persons of quality heretofore have been desirous to attempt the drayning of the great and vast levell called the Great Fennes, but they found not onely the worke but also the composing of an agreement very difficult, for they could not attaine to so much as to make a contract for the generall drayning thereof, until of late years king James of blessed memory, did undertake (by a law of sewers) that great worke, who for the honour of the Kingdome (as his Majesty told me at the time) would not suffer any longer the said land to be abandoned to the will of the waters, nor to let it lye wast and unprofitable.’