About Sir Cornelius Wasterdyk Vermuyden

from the Geni - Dutch of Canvey Island Site

This site favours the date of 11th October 1677 as the date of his death. 

Cornelius was the son of Giles Vermuyden and Sarah Werkendet and was born in 1590 on the Isle of Tholen in Zeeland, Netherlands.[2]

After training in the Netherlands, Vermuyden’s first known activities in England were on the Thames, repairing a sea wall at Dagenham and the reclamation of Canvey Island, Essex, between 1621 and 1623, financed by the Dutch haberdasher Joas Croppenburg[3] to whom he was related by marriage.

This, or perhaps work at Windsor, brought him to the notice of Charles I, who commissioned him in 1626 to drain Hatfield Chase in the Isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire, as the King was Lord of the four principal manors there: Hatfield, Epworth, Crowle and Misterton, as well as 13 of the adjacent manors. Vermuyden was to receive one third of the drained land, most of which had previously been common, as recompense for his investment, and to finance the draining he sold shares in this land to other investors, including some fellow Dutchmen; some French and Walloon Protestant refugees also settled in the area as landowners or tenants.[4] The King also intended to enclose one third of the common fen in his right of “improvement” as the Lord of the Manor, leaving only one-third for those who had common rights of pasturage in the fens.

The local people were upset by the procedure, particularly those of the Manor of Epworth whose lord had already enclosed part of the commons in the 14th century and then signed a legal document giving up all subsequent rights of enclosure within the manor. As with other fen drainage schemes at the time, the locals did not hate drainage per se, but were very angry about the large enclosures of their common pasture and turbary fens and the threat this posed to their common rights.[5] Right from 1627, the richer members of the community brought a series of legal challenges and lawsuits, even as large groups of commoners (not necessarily poor people, but including some substantial farmers) rioted against the works and the enclosures. Particularly because the legal position of the commoners of Epworth was so unique, the legal debate over the drainage and enclosures lasted even into the eighteenth century.[6]

Vermuyden was knighted in 1629 and became a British citizen in 1633.

The work on Hatfield Chase was only partially successful as the straightening of the river Don and outlet into the Aire caused flooding in Fishlake, Sykehouse and Snaith. As a result of a lawsuit in 1633, he dug the Dutch River which provided a direct route from the Don to the River Ouse at Goole, depleting most of the land that he had acquired in the Chase, though the same year he bought 4,000 acres (16 km2) of land in Sedgemoor on the Somerset Levels and Malvern Chase in Worcestershire and entered into a partnership in the lead mines in Wirksworth which he drained by means of a sough. The Fens in eastern England

Contrary to popular belief, Vermuyden was not involved with the draining of the “Great Fen” in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk in the 1630s, but only became involved with the second phase of construction in the 1650s.[7] This area of marshland was drained by a labyrinth of rivers which had been inadequately maintained since before the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, the monasteries having had most of the responsibility for keeping the channels clear. The initial plan for the drainage was based on a proposal by John Hunt in 1604 – 1605, to construct a new river 21 miles (34 km) long from Earith to Denver, shortening the length of the River Great Ouse by many miles. It would eventually be named the Bedford River (subsequently Old Bedford River) after Francis, Earl of Bedford who was the chief Adventurer. Eight other channels were also either created or improved. The operation was judged as substantially complete in 1637, but attracted criticism partly because of its limited aim to provide “summer lands”, leaving the winter floods still to occupy the land.

The adventurers had been offered 95,000 acres (380 km2) as the reward for their work, but this was thrown into confusion first by the riots which erupted against the enclosures (and which would continue periodically into the 1650s), and then by the king who had the granting of Bedford’s contract reversed and himself declared as the chief undertaker taking 52,000 acres (210 km2) and leaving the other parties with only 40,000 acres (160 km2). It was at this time that Vermuyden became involved with the Great Level, as in 1637 he wrote a “Discourse Touching the Draining of the Great Fennes” for the king, though it was not published until 1642. In this discourse, he proposed two new innovations to the drainage scheme: washes – areas of land allowed to flood in periods of bad weather to absorb the extra water which could not find its way to the sea – and a catchdrain around the eastern edge of the fen. The first would be constructed as part of the second phase of drainage in the 1650s, but the latter would not be dug until the twentieth century.

Charles I appointed Vermuyden as his own agent for the draining on 19 September 1639, but it was not until 5 August that Vermuyden received approval for his drainage plan. The Crown was in a precarious position with all three of its kingdoms and lacked both sufficient funds and attention to pay to the works in the Great Level, but Vermuyden did begin works there, widening the River Nene below Horseshoe Sluice, banking the north side of Morton’s Leam (and beginning on the south), setting a new sluice Shire Drain and cutting a new channel at the mouth of the Nene through the salt marshes to the sea. Vermuyden was still working in the Great Level as of May 1642, but was now responding to the House of Lords, rather than the beleaguered king, and, having received perhaps less than £5000, was continually in arrears for the wages of his workmen.[7]

During the Civil War, the drainage appears to have been halted by the chaos of war, and the original drainers – now headed by Bedford’s heir William – began to seek an Act of Parliament to overturn the King’s overturning of their undertaking and restore them to all of the 95,000 acres (380 km2) first awarded in January 1630/31. By 29 May 1649, a few months after the King’s execution, they had succeeded and an Act of Parliament was passed (later known as “The Pretended Act”) which restored them to the undertaking and gave their claim to the enclosures the force of law.

Before this time, Vermuyden’s activities are not clear; there is some inconclusive evidence that one of his nephews may have acted as a colonel of horse in the parliamentary army, alongside Oliver Cromwell in the Eastern Association army.[8] But with the beginning of the second phase of Bedford-led construction, Vermuyden was again appointed as the director of the works in January 1649/50.[9]

This second phase included continuing the work of both the first and the king’s (1.5 phase), as well as the digging of the New Bedford River (with a large area of wash between it and the Bedford River) and the Forty Foot Drain. It also established Denver Sluice to stop tides and flood water from depositing silt into the Great Ouse to the east of Ely. However, it did not include his projected “cutoff channel” which was designed to take flood water from the southern rivers, the Wissey, Little Ouse and Lark, away from Denver and this proved an ongoing cause of flooding, not finally cured till the early 1960s. Due to the high cost of labour, and the continuing unpopularity of the project among the local inhabitants, both Scottish and Dutch prisoners of war (after the Battles of Dunbar and the start of the war with the Dutch respectively) were used as labourers in this phase of construction.[9]

Vermuyden’s relationship with the other adventurers was never easy and by 1655 they had parted company altogether. Several other initiatives came to nothing including a proposal for a treaty between England and the States-General of the Netherlands made to Cromwell, and efforts to drain his areas of Sedgmoor and Malvern Chase. He had 13 children and his son Cornelius became a founding member of the Royal Society in 1663 and the Royal African Company. Despite the initial success of the reclamation, the drying of the land caused the peat to shrink greatly, lowering the land below the height of the drainage channels and rivers, and the reclaimed farmland became susceptible to flooding once again. By the end of the 17th century, much of the reclaimed land was sporadically underwater, and would remain so until the advent of steam-powered pumps in the early 19th century. An excellent example of this fall in land can be seen at the pumps near Ramsey Forty Foot, where animal-powered pumps, steam pumps and now fossil-fuel pumps are all co-located, at different heights, giving an example of both the development of technology and the fall in land levels.


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