By the end of the 1820s the Fen Commissioners were active in drainage improvements. This often involved what is now called ‘compulsory purchase’ orders – but back in the early 19th century the modern date constraints did not apply. William Harrison made a point for all to see of the unfairness of their actions.
Some know from Rumours tattling tongue on visiting the Lamb, the moving tale of poor Tom Young who liv’d at Welch’s dam; and more condemn the awful Dower that robb’d him of his all and scourg’d him to his dying hour with unrelenting gall.
Tom’s dwelling was a boarded cot which was by right his own though poverty because his lot he better days had known. Though Tom was reckon’d always poor he once was said to thrive when Tiplers swarm’d around his door like Bees about a hive.
His Ale was good, his House was neat, his Wife obliging too; she often gave her guests a treat of fish, a broil or stew. For Tom pursued the honest craft of Fisherman himself and drew up many a wondrous draught from Bedford and the Delph
Amongst the fowlers too he stood the first of trigger’d fame; and every Winter brought a flood and every flood his game. No Gun so sure in all the wash the wheeling snipe to kill when startling from the weedy plash or from the winning rill.
But death who often blasts our hope depriv’d him of his Wife and Tom was not the mournful mode to lead a widow’d life; and if she was as good a mate as husband ever had, his next to make the world go straight perhaps was just as bad
Poor Tom went daily down at heel and lost his striving will, and when a clock has broke her Wheels her useless hands stand still. His wife turn’d out a fruitful vine tho’ not with graces hung and Olive Branches thick and fine around his table sprung
To Nann’s Mismanagement at home he ow’d his fall at first when want and all its horrors come but this was not the worst. The Corporation claimed his lands on which his cottage stood tho’ Tom could bring a hundred hands to prove his Title good
They heeded not his loud protest at being treated thus; they us’d him as they us’d the rest or rather something worse. Tho’ doubtless they themselves had found the business rather queer to pay a rent of Twenty pounds from twenty casks of beer
A sum poor Tom could never pay and so his House was let, which is their Honor’s usual way of coming at a debt. But Tom refused to quit the cot and Bevill cuss’d about and frankly told him on the spot he would eject him out.
Tom valued not his life a rush defrauded of his home and got prepar’d to stand a brush with Corporation Bum, He burnished up his fowling piece and loaded her with ball and made the dread of ducks and geese the guardian of his wall.
Besides his mounted cannonade commanding all the strand he’d smaller arms on purpose made for fighting hand to hand. A gun which in the sylvan roar had hurl’d destruction round and many a partridge, snipe and hare laid prostrate on the ground.
A sword which from its age might boast of deeds on Cressy’s field, of spreading terror through a host and making heroes yield. But rust had brown’d its trusty blade ere Tom its lord became, and dark oblivion spread her shade o’er all its Deeds of fame.
Then digging down below the floor as skilful miners do he laid a trail beneath the door to intercept the foe; but none of all the Bailiff’s swarm who make distress their sport dare volunteer the wall to storm of Tom’s redoubted fort.
Their courage could not reach the pitch requir’d to scale the banks, the passage of the rearward ditch or houses on the flanks. So meaner stragems they used to starve him from his hold, his usual license was refused: his daily bread was sold.
Thus was poor Tom of all bereft when sickness on him stole, and not a friend nor comfort left to soothe his parting soul. His goods were gone to pay his debts his dying frame was cast, on damp and rugged fishing nets and there he breath’d his last.
Thus death compelled him from his house and laid his courage low, a feat which neither Bailiff’s Bum nor Bailiff’s self could do. When Tom was dead and earth his bones his wife resigned the field for she could neither work his guns or rusty faulchion wield.
Thus when before the Trojan towers Achilles Hector slew, her bulwark gone the grecian Dowers with ease the Town o’erthrew – and ‘twas an easier matter far a woman’s soul to fright than combat with a man of war and conquer in the fight.
But let me still unnotic’d be if mercy must fall down, to make a stepping stone for me to rise into renown. If honor turns the heart to stone by staring at a mace may heav’n avert my eyes for one and keep me in disgrace.
As part of these developments the commissioners also ‘acquired’ a significant portion of William’s land alongside the Hundred Foot drain. He was not happy, and predictably went into print. Next week we’ll see William challenging the whole Corporation of the Bedford Level.