William Harrison and the New South Level Cut 1830

On Monday 19th April 1830 there was a formal opening, in Ely, of the New South Level Cut which ran from Ely to Littleport so by-passing the old meandering course of the Ouse and transforming the Padnal and Waterden Fens into rich agricultural land. The Bedford, Biggleswade and Potton Advertiser of 23rd April tells us that:–

‘The Commissioners, with their friends, assembled at the Lamb Inn (Ely) at eleven o’clock, and soon afterwards went in formal procession to the Quay, headed by the charity children of Ely, the band of the Cambridgeshire Militia, the colors (sic) of the Ely volunteers, and parties of the workmen who had been employed in excavating the Cut, and of the waterboys working on the stream. The Commissioners’ barge and a great number of other barges and boats fitted up and decorated for the occasion were in attendance at the Quay, and the procession, accompanied by a large party of ladies, proceeded along the line of the works to Littleport Bridge, halting at the junction of the two cuts, when the new River was in due form named ‘The South Level Cut’.

At half-past five o’clock, the Commissioners’ party, consisting of about 90 gentlemen (ladies were typically not invited) sat down to an excellent dinner. Between the speeches and toasts the lines written for the occasion by Mr Harrison, of Downham, who was described as the Poet Laureate of the Fens, were read in which he extolled the virtues of the undertaking in the most glowing terms! [It would appear that William was not invited himself.]

Let Old Padnal’s sedgy moors
Echo to his furthest shores;
Waterden the strains prolong
Of the music and the song;
While the glad exulting Ouse
Comes to wed his virgin spouse.
Long his streams have spent their force,
Winding in the serpent’s course;
Or with stagnant waters wide
Overflown his swampy side!
Long has Padnal’s dreary waste
Ely’s neighbourhood disgraced;
Long her stately pile has frown’d
O’er the scene, desert and drown’d!
But we see an era new
Rising in the future view,
And rejoice to hail the day
When the stain is wip’d away:
When, instead of deluged moors,
Zig-zag streams and jetty’d shores,
Deeper beds and straighter mounds
Circumscribe the river’s bounds,
Urging on its seaward course
With accelerated force.
Hope, with grateful eye, surveys
Bright anticipated days,
When the swain shall plough and sow
Where the fisher used to row:
Waving cornfields supersede
Swampy wastes of sedge and reed:
Bleating sheep and lowing kine
In the future concert join,
Where the Bittern’s hollow boom
Echoed through the dreary gloom.
Since such fruits we hope to share
From our well-intended care,
While our barge so gaily glides
O’er the river’s virgin tides,
And the music’s melting strain
Floats along the liquid plain,
Freely let the sparkling glass
Round the social circle pass,
Drowning in the generous bowl
Every care that racks the soul.

These lines must have opened up a prospect of something that was a vast improvement on the damp, ague-ridden swamp which had been, as long as people could remember, Padnal Fen. It was one of the last ‘swamp fens’ to be drained.

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