William Harrison – Steam versus Wind

In 1831 William Harrison had been appointed Superintendent of Burnt Fen. At the time the Commissioners were in the process of introducing the first steam engines for fen drainage. There were objection to this change from various quarters but progress could not be ignored.
The winter of 1841-2 was wet – very wet – and many areas of the fenland were under water for long periods. Whilst the rain was heavy the winds were light. The windmills that were there to transfer water from land to dyke were unable to cope. Crops and livelihoods suffered – but not too much on Burnt Fen. Predictably William summed it up in a poem telling the story of the poor performance of the windmills when compared with the new steam engine from Boulton and Watt’s Soho Works in Birmingham. The following was published in May 1842 by the Cambridge Chronicle:

And who e’er knew, or man or mill,
A time so watery, and so still?
When all the elements combin’d
To sink our credit with mankind,
And streaming hills, and flooded plains
Were deluged with incessant rains
While banks around, and drains below,
Were threatening instant overflow;
And not a single breeze would stir
To save our sinking character.
In vain did Stanford woo the gales;
In vain did Peter spread his sails;
While Simper, Taylor, Wright and Pope
Were tired of hoping against hope.
Meanwhile yon little Soho Toy,
Kept smoking with malicious joy,
As if intent to spoil our trade,
And drain the Fen without our aid.
And ’tis a painful truth to tell
The vixen play’d her part so well,
That when at last the breezes blew,
We found hut little left to do,
And little of a large amount
Of credit plac’d in our account.

The named individuals were mill keepers who were liable to lose their wages and even their jobs if they failed to set their mills to catch the wind when flooding threatened, whatever the time of day or night!


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