The fen slodgers were roughish people, inhabiting the great fens of eastern England.
It is thought they were so named because they had to slosh through the mud and sludge of their environment, which was then a vast area of swampy ground.
Even in high summer, when some of the water drained off, the “deeps”, or small lakes, were permanent features and much of the surrounding land was in shallow water.
The fen slodgers lived in wattle and daub dwellings roofed by reeds, burning dried turves for fuel.
To town-dwellers they were a race apart, some even maintaining that they had webbed feet! It would not have been difficult to persuade them that the world was flat, for their’s certainly was.
Fenland covers a very wide area, reaching into several counties, but we are mostly concerned with the East Fen which stretches south and west from Wainfleet and Friskney. Beyond Stickford and Stickney it merges with the West Fen, with Wildmore Fen still further inland, below Coningsby and Tattershall.
The Penman grazed sheep and cattle on the drier ground, but straying animals were often lost and drowned among the reeds. With fish and fowl in abundance, they were seldom hungry and the majority made their living by fishing, and shooting and trapping wildfowl.
They also reared geese, valuable for their down, used for feather beds and pillows, and the quills for writing. The unfortunte birds were plucked alive, often four or five times a year.
Mallard, teal; widgeon and other wildfowl were lured into decoys which were numerous in the East Fen, and a glance at a modern map will reveal names like Decoy Farm and Decoy Wood (now a nature reserve), reminders of the old Penland.
The decoys were centres on a pond where the birds came to feed, and channels or “pipes”, netted over, radiated in different directions. Into these “pipes” the birds were enticed and caught, sometimes a tame duck acting as decoy, herded in by a terrier.
Wildfowl were also shot from a punt mounted with a gun, more like small cannon.
Crouched low and paddling slowly and silently to where the geese or ducks were feeding in large numbers, the fowler would let fly with the punt gun, inflicting terrible carnage.
Dead and dying birds scattered over the water and the boatman raked them in with the long, hooked pole he always carried.
The pole was also used for vaulting the dykes, and some slodgers waded through the water on stilts. When it was frozen over they wore skates made from bone, and the champion fen skaters of a later age were their descendants.
Thick mist frequently enveloped the watery landscape and in that damp, unhealthy climate the fen people suffered much sickness; and such little medical aid then available in the towns was beyond their reach.
They were eelskin garters to ward off rheumatism — a universal affliction — and carrying a mole’s foot in the pocket was also believed to alleviate the aches.
Sufferers from whooping cough were treated to a roasted mouse, but tea made from poppy seed was drunk to ease the ague, or malaria, and most other kinds of sickness.
An old jingle runs:
“Poppy tea and opium pill, The fenmen’s cure for every ill.’
The lakes abounded with fish and when Daniel Defoe was on his travels through Britain he noted that great quantities were carried to London alive in water butts. Each night when the fish wagons came to an inn, the water was changed so that the fish could be delivered in fresh condition.
He said they conveyed pike, tench, perch, and eels which were the largest in England. In the East Fen it was recorded that the water was so clear that fat bream could be speared with a hayfork
The Romans had made attempts at draining the fens, but it was not until the early 17th century that the work was tackled on a large scale.
Charles I, always short of money, commissioned the Earl of Bedford to drain the southern fenland, joining with other rich gentlemen known as the Adventurers. Reclaimed land meant new wealth and the Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, was engaged to repeat the miracles he had worked in his own land. There is an old saying that God made the world, but man made Holland, and the same might be said of the low-lying lands of eastern England.
The Fenmen, of course, did not take kindly to the draining and enclosure of what had been common land, providing their livelihood as long as the memory of man.
They were determined that it should not be filched from them to line rich men’s pockets, and they reacted like the Luddites, breaching the new banks, smashing the sluices and hindering the drainers in every possible way.
There were riots and reprisals and, in the distractions of the Civil War, the “fen tigers” as they had become, increased their sabotage and set back progress another century.
Holland Fen, and the fens on the west bank of the Witham between Lincoln and Boston, were drained in the 1760s; when Boston’s Grand Sluice was constructed.
The East, West and Wildmore Fens, was a bigger and much more difficult undertaking and it was not until the beginning of the 19th century that the great John Rennie was employed to recover some 40,000 acres there.
He planned a network of catchwter drains to take the water flowing from the Wolds, with internal drains to carry it off the fens. In the East Fen, the Hobhole Drain became the main internal watercourse, running 14 straight miles to empty into Boston Haven, the catchwaters discharging into the haven at the Maude Foster Sluice.
Owing to land shrinkage, the drained fen fell below sea level and windmills had to be built to raise the water into the new banked channels.
Later in the century, windmills gave way to steam pumps, as the fen was still constantly threatened. Lade Bank, on the Hobhole, was opened after serious floods in 1866, one of the early steam pumping stations and still quite an impressive installation, with its tall chimney, below Midville.
More about the Lade Bank Pumping Station
The Hobhole, taking water to the Witham instead of into the Steeping River, contributed largely to he silting of Wainfleet Haven, and Wainfleet’s days as a port came to and end. It was also the end of the road for the Fen Stodgers – they had to concentrate on agriculture, although some of the wildfowlers continued to make a living in the saltmarshes of the Wash.
Thanks to my wonderful FB Friends, Michelle, Sarah, Chris & Kathy, for their help with this story.