Lines addressed to the Commissioners of Burnt Fen

In 1861, at the age of 66, William had completed thirty years’ service with Burnt Fen Commissioners and such an auspicious occasion called – of course – for some poetry. To celebrate the ‘poem’ a small booklet was published and was then ‘reprinted by desire of the commissioners’. There are two images here of cover and a double-page spread of part of the text. The words that follow here are those in the booklet – but laid out slightly differently for ease of reading. There are just less than 2,000 words which, I believe, give the reader an outstanding glimpse of the East Anglian Fenlands at a time of critical change. The ‘old’ is fast giving way to the new. Windmills – for centuries the power suppliers – are outdated and inefficient. Steam power is replacing them – and doing the job much better than they ever did. ‘A generation of our race has risen, and resigned its place; the busy actors of “an age,” have played their parts and left the stage.’

 Lines addressed to the Commissioners of Burnt Fen by their Officer on his 30th anniversary in their service 18th February 1861

THIS day the motions of the spheres have reel’d off thirty rolling years, since to my keeping and my cares, Burnt-Fen entrusted her affairs, her works, her interest, and her purse, whether “for better or for worse.” O had some sybil then foretold how many links that chain would hold, how long that fragile bond would last, through summer’s heat and wintry blast, the weary length of that survey had doubtless struck me with dismay. While Fancy reckon’d up the sum of years on years, and all to come, what work for Time’s unwearied wing, it must have seem’d the end to bring. But turning now a look to cast, I start to find they all are past; gone, with their evil and their good, to join “the years beyond the flood.” Yet looking now at both extremes, how short the space between them seems; the keel-track, when the wave is cross’d, is scarcely less conceal’d and lost; the arrow’s pathway through the air is almost as conspicuous there; a thrice-told tale, a stale old song, or morning dream, appear as long. Of scatter’d incidents a few, rise in the retrospective view, just mark’d enough with good or ill, to show that Time has not stood still, and prove from memory’s conscious lore, the distance has been travell’d o’er; ten thousand things, which day by day, embittered life, or cheer’d its way, oblivion’s overwhelming wave hides in the darkness of the grave.

Alas! what havoc thirty years can make with human hopes and fears; what expectations, fair and bright, they terminate in withering blight; what fears they ripen to despair, or melt away to viewless air; and scarce less countless is the sum of pains from ills that never come. Nor does the period fail to tell, on human life itself as well; ‘twixt childhood’s morn of pleasures brief, and age’s eve of pain and grief, a long parenthesis they pen, in life’s poor three score years and ten; comprising all its sunniest hours, its brightest scenes, and fairest flowers.

Since first those thirty years began – so circumscrib’d is life’s short span – a generation of our race has risen, and resign’d its place; the busy actors of “an age,” have play’d their parts and left the stage; nor know their audience much beside the fact that they were born, and died. Perchance amidst the countless names oblivion for extinction claims, one here and there, like glow-worm spark, gleams through the deep surrounding dark, illuming with its phosphor light what else were all Egyptian night. What numbers then in manhood’s prime are now but hoary wrecks of time, on life’s remotest confines cast, poor tottering ruins of the past! What numbers more, robust and brave, have reach’d the goal of life – the grave; compounded in the “common lot,” of all forgetful and forgot! Reflection here would pause to say, my good old masters, where are they? How many a kind familiar face, I miss from its accustom’d place, when those are met who represent Burnt-Fen’s half-yearly parliament. All, all are gone, save two or three, who started in the race with me, scarce miss’d as units till we come to reckon up the startling sum, and sighing trace the long array, who one by one have dropp’d away. This sadly-shorten’d list to find from sixty gatherings left behind, conveys a warning loud and strong, that time with me cannot be long; that I must soon by death be told to quit the humble post I hold, and terminate my cares and pains for Burnt-Fen’s engines, banks, and drains. Who then will trust her new commands, I fain would hope, to abler hands, though well assured that none will feel for Burnt Fen’s good a warmer zeal, or seek her interests to secure, from motives more correct and pure; although the issue might not bless each well-meant effort with success, the good intent could ever plead for the miscarriage of the deed.

Though boasting must be disavow’d, since honesty is never proud, and scouting as an idle dream all overweening self-esteem, I hope to be excused if found, to trespass on forbidden ground, in making this the time and place to thank the’ God of truth and grace, who through my thirty years’ career, has kept my hands and conscience clear, nor left the keen accuser power to keep me sleepless one half-hour, though trusted every day with gold to all except myself untold as far as knowing how it went how just or how unjustly spent and though almost as poor a man as when those thirty years began, and still the hindmost in the race of all who hold the world in chase, ’tis surely some relief to see all are not stereotyped like me; and that the fruits of all my cares, to be transmitted to my heirs, will not comprise in their amount, one sovereign from a “cook’d account,” one shilling that can dirt betray, or sixpence from a poor man’s pay. O were my whole account as clean my Maker and myself between; but there I sink into the dust, renouncing all self-righteous trust a sinner in His sight who reads the motive e’er the act proceeds, and hope for pardoning grace alone, through Him who did for sin atone.

My kind indulgent masters, too, to your employment and to you my sixty-seven winters tell, I soon must bid a long farewell; but while remembrance holds her power, and Heaven delays the final hour, a grateful shrine my heart will be of all your kindness shown to me; a kindness that has ever sought, the best construction for a fault; assign’d the head the erring part, while charity excus’d the heart. O may your District still be found, a pattern to the Fens around; the bounteous produce of your lands, reward the toil of heads and hands; your engines still maintain a name worthy a Watt and Boulton’s fame; your banks substantial, sound, and good, ever resist “old Captain Flood,” whose very name can almost rend the heart, and set the hair on end; as if affrighted fancy heard all Egypt’s plagues in one short word; the fen-man’s sworn eternal foe, the same to-day as years ago; remorseless and unreconciled, whom naught but force has ever foil’d; with whom the war must never cease, or lowland men expect a peace; but with allies from Roswell Hill, maintain the desperate contest still; nor hope by strategy to gain the fight, when tactics must be vain. May men of Burnt-Fen lead the van in every patriotic plan; prompt, as their District’s interest needs, to follow where improvement leads; whose foot-prints whereso’er we turn, the least observant must discern.

When first your servant I became, steam was a thing known but by name; and not a single “spit” of clay had to the surface found its way. One house (The ‘Plough’ by Mildenhall Drove) alone was grand enough to glory in a slated roof; all else was homely tile or thatch, with homely stud and board to match. Nine poor old mills had done their best to have your drainage wants redress’d; though often in the time of need

Found anything but “friends indeed.” When winds were low, and floods were high, with out-stretched pinions to the sky, they stood in utter helplessness, exchanging signals of distress; while murmurs’ frequent and profound arose from those whose lands where drown’d. The trite old course of “pare and burn” had run its race and had its turn; till poor peat ashes had at length lost all their fertilizing strength; and scarcely to the soil return’d the power the soil possess’d unburn’d from which repeated parings thin, had burn’d away both flesh and skin; foreboding at no distant day, complete exhaustion and decay; when fens with retrograding haste would torn to their primeval waste, a watery desert wild and lost, worthless at its reclaiming cost.

But Burnt-Fen now has changed her state, from stud and board to brick and slate; and with a corresponding pace, moves onward in the social race; while trusty steam the office fills, once held by poor uncertain mills; and Roswell Hill receives her thanks for puddle-wall’d impervious banks. And better things are found in store, than sedge and reed, and barren moor. A great discovery, rich and rare, has saved poor fen-men from despair an epoch which historic pens will note as glorious for the fens; an era well defined and clear, from which to date their new career; wide as the want, broad as the wound, the bounteous remedy is found; beneath the surface close at hand, no stormy sea, no distant land, to navigate or to explore with cost and peril for the store. So sneer the atheist as he may, the fen-man thanks his God for clay, whose providence in by-gone years prepared this cure for all his fears, as mark’d with manifest design as the “black diamonds” of the mine; reserved like them a “friend indeed” against the hour of urgent need; which twice ten thousand times to one the “dance of atoms,” had not done; or “accident,” howe’er it fell, performed the tumble half so well; the fen-man can conclude as soon prospective goodness form’d the boon; and spread the treasure o’er his land, a gift from His Almighty hand, whose value in his eyes outshines the produce of Australian mines. Though “nuggets” which his “diggins” yield but go to fertilize the field, transmuted in the plastic still by rules of cultivating skill; the shapes they ultimately find, of sterling sovereigns ready coined, provide a rich reward for toil, give life and vigor to the soil, find capital and labor scope, industry its inspiring hope, and promise bread, and health, and home, to generations yet to come. Who then will grudge a warm hurra in honor of good Captain Clay? Who (as ’tis said) the virtues found of his good namesake underground, and first revealed in Coveney Fen, it’s worth and excellence to men.

Dear Sirs, forgive this long tirade, with which I close my third decade; aware such scribbling in the case may be condemned as out of place; so little sympathy with rhymes have these stern struggling business times; so small the affinity between the Ouse and Lark and Hippocrene; ‘twixt mental mud in doggrel strains, and that in Whelpmoor’s dykes and drains; while wide asunder as the poles, must be the Muses and the moles; (Though Shippey Hill a kindred fame, may justly with Parnassus claim, through Fordham’s bard, [J R Withers who harvested for several years at Shippey Hill] whose harp’s sweet sound turns all his haunts to classic ground.) Yet there is one excusing plea which haply may be urg’d for me, the greatest folly that appears if shown but once in thirty years, may surely some indulgence claim from critics though disposed to blame, however much the rash offence may chance to outrage common sense, if the transgressor will engage it shall occur but once “an age,” it’s perpetration must appear too seldom for exciting fear; and sins so “few and far between” disarm the most malignant spleen. Another term like this will run to eighteen hundred ninety-one, and I will promise at that time, not to repeat, in “prose or rhyme,” the liberty for which I bow to ask your kind forgiveness now.

God grant those thirty years may be the worst that Burnt-Fen e’er may see; your future labors may He bless, crown every effort with success, and when your earthly race is run, receive you with a blest “well done.”

Lines addressed to the commissioners Harrison text 002


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