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Yet even they could get lost in its fog-bound watery landscape. The Roman historian Dio Cassius complained that the inhabitants were almost amphibious, able to stand for days with only their heads protruding from the water. The River Great Ouse at Littleport, centre of the fen drainage schemes. Throughout the Middle Ages large areas were reclaimed for agriculture, with much of the work undertaken by the monasteries. Increasingly, more ambitious landowners believed that draining the fens would improve agricultural production. The Dutch engineer, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, embarked on the first major drainage scheme when he was employed by the Duke of Bedford in 1630 to drain the southern area. He began with 20,000 acres near Whittlesey and built a drain to bypass the Great Ouse.

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Resuming work after the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s, he cut the New Bedford River parallel to the Great Ouse. They run side by side for more than thirteen miles and still provide the basic drainage for much of the fens. The strip of land between them is called the Ouse Washes, and reaches no more than 1,000 yards in width at any point. This is deliberately allowed to flood during the winter so the fields on either side can stay dry. There was, however, considerable local opposition. Some fen dwellers, whose way of life was threatened, attacked the Dutch drainage workers, notoriously placing their women at the front to deflect retaliation. When this occurred in Soham and Wicken in the 1630s and Swaffham Prior in the 1650s, such was local sympathy that few people called upon from nearby villages were willing to assist the authorities in restraining them The soil exposed by drainage was mostly peat and, as it shrank, the ground level fell.

Over the years it became necessary to pump rainwater from the fields up into the rivers and, as in Holland, wind pumps took on this task. Steam pumps were introduced in the 1800s, replacing the many wind pumps. The nature of Essex prior to industrialization can be illustrated by remarks made by Daniel Defoe, author of Gulliver’s Travels, when he toured the east of England in 1722: The product of all this part of the country is corn, as that of the marshy feeding grounds mentioned above is grass, where their chief business is breeding of calves, which I need not say are the best and fattest, and the largest veal in England, if not in the world; and, as an instance, I ate part of a veal or calf, fed by the late Sir Josiah Child at Wanstead, the loin of which weighed above thirty pounds, and the flesh exceeding white and fat. Essex saw some of the greatest militancy between farm workers and their employers in the struggle for improved pay and working conditions. Inhabitants of the villages of Greensted and High Layer demonstrated where their sympathies lay when they offered homes to the Tolpuddle Martyrs from Dorset after their convictions for forming a trade union in 1834 were commuted in 1837. One of the key figures in the fight for better conditions later in the century was Charles Jay, a farmer based at Coldham Hall, near Coggeshall. Determined to improve the welfare of farm workers, he collaborated with Joseph Arch, a Methodist lay preacher, in working for the Essex branch of the National Agricultural Labourers Union (NALU).

Farm labourers flocked to join the union, generating hostility among landowners, who formed defence associations in response. In February 1874 labourers at Exning near Stowmarket demanded a rise of one shilling a week. The Newmarket Farmers Defence Association responded with a lock-out which spread into Essex, resulting in around 10,000 people prevented from working, with many evicted from their tied cottages. The protest ended on 27 July as the union and its supporters were unable to continue supplying the financial support needed. Despite an attempt to form a land company to purchase land on which to settle labourers, the union fractured, membership fell and the movement for the unionization of farm labourers all but died in the county for many years. The next major dispute in Essex occurred in 1914 in the Helions Bumpstead area. It followed an ultimatum by local farmer, Richard Ruffle, to ten workers who had joined a newly formed union that they should quit or lose their jobs.

Within weeks, other farmers followed suit and the conflict escalated, resulting in a strike involving over 800 workers from nearby villages in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. As the dispute spread and violence flared a wide range of groups and individuals began to support the labourers. The strike ended with the outbreak of war, with the farmers agreeing to some of the wage demands. Much of the soil in Norfolk is rich and in the growing of crops and grazing of sheep and cattle lay the foundations of Norfolk’s prosperity from at least the Domesday survey. Following the gradual enclosures of open fields, there were innovations such as the rotation of crops, the use of marl to reduce acidity in the soil, the growing of turnips as winter feed for cattle and to clear the land for cultivation, the growing of clover, long leases for tenant farmers and bigger farms, and improvements in drainage and livestock through selective breeding. Thomas Coke of Norfolk at Holkham and Turnip Townshend of Raynham are probably the most well-known innovators in farming in England, influenced by methods already used in the Low Countries. Norfolk did, however, suffer during the agricultural depressions of the nineteenth century.

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