A Skeleton Pump

A Skeleton Pump Robert Walker Macbeth, R.A. (1848-1910) Source: “The Great Fen” in the 1885 English Illustrated Magazine. Hathi Trust online version of a copy in the The Pennsylvania State University). Click on image to enlarge it.

Commentary by Samuel H. Summers

Wherever drains are made they must necessarily discharge into the rivers, and the water must go to sea by the influence of gravitation. Now the drainage for “summer lands” was found not equal to the task of drainage for “Winter lands.” The land lowered by shrinkage when the water was abstracted, and then came the necessity for artificial means of lifting the water into the large drains or into the rivers.

Mills were first used for this purpose, as Wells, the historian of the Bedford Level, relates, in 1678. These were worked by horsepower, and it was not till after 1726 that windmills were brought into use, mainly by the action of the Bedford Level Corporation. But these mills had to be modified in time, and small mills were used for pumping the water from the ditches into the mill drain which received the water from the divisional ditches. Another and larger mill was placed near the river, which carried the water to sea. Steam engines are taking the place of mills, though some of these, which were formerly marked objects in the landscape, still linger in the southern part of the fen land. '

All the great main drains, and indeed the river Witham in the north, and the Old West River in the south, are protected from the tidal waters by sluices, and therefore can discharge their burden only with the ebb~ tide.

The system is complicated too, because some of the great drains are used as canals, and so a careful regulation of the sluices is imperative, in order to keep up sufficient water for navigation and in times of drought for purposes of irrigation. The lower course of the great drains, in some cases, runs through a country where the surface of the soil is below that of the water in the drains, and if by accident, and there have been many which we cannot even note here, either through want of repairs or otherwise, a bank should break, the water flows over the land adjacent to the drain, and people. [812]

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Miller, Samuel H. “The Great Fen.” English Illustrated Magazine. 2 (September 1885): 805-17. Hathi Trust online version of a copy in the Getty Institute. Web. 1 February 2021.

Last modified 2 February 2021