Draining the Fens

Year:1829 & 1964

Duration:16 & 10 years


Country: East England, UK

What did this project achieve?

Turn boggy marshlands into farmland by removing the water

The Fens – also known as the Fenlands – are a natural marshy region in eastern England. Now largely drained, the land is used for homes and agriculture.

The Fens are mostly located around the coast of the Wash. The area includes Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and a small area of Suffolk.

The region covers nearly 1,500 square miles (3,900 km2). Most of the Fens are flat and low-lying. The land has a complex system of drainage channels, man-made rivers and pumping stations.

Projects to stop the region flooding include engineer John Rennie's 1813-29 scheme to improve drainage around the river Witham.

A more recent scheme – running in stages between 1954 and 1964 – successfully lowered flood levels around the river Great Ouse, which flows through East Anglia into the Wash.

Difference draining the Fens has made

The lowland drainage schemes of John Rennie and his contemporaries turned large areas of marsh land into farmland. Hundreds of previously unproductive acres could now be used to grow crops.

Creating these new areas of farm land played a large part in feeding growing urban populations – particularly in the new manufacturing areas of northern England. Draining the fens helped contribute to the success of the industrial revolution.

The Great Ouse protection scheme built on the work of John Rennie and other engineers. Draining water caused by rainfall from 13 English counties, the programme protects homes and farmland.

How the work was done

In 1799 local government officials in Lincolnshire asked engineer John Rennie for advice on dealing with waterlogged lands around the river Witham.

Rennie, whose work included docks, bridges and harbours, recommended that the river should be straightened and made deeper between the village of Chapel Hill and the town of Lincoln. He also suggested replacing some of the locks.

A later version of Rennie's plan included a series of large drainage ditches – effectively canals – that formed a part of the system now known as the Witham navigable drains. The scheme keeps an area of around 97 square miles (250 km2) from flooding.

The Great Ouse flood protection scheme saw engineers build a 10.75 mile (17.3km) long 'relief channel' running closely parallel to the river. The channel stores diverted flood water.

Engineers also constructed a 'cut-off channel' to control flood levels around the Great Ouse. The 27.75 mile (44.7km) long channel intercepts and diverts flood waters from the rivers Lark, Little Ouse and Wissey before they enter the fens.

Versions of both the relief and cut-off channels had been proposed by John Rennie in 1810.


It is worth going to England solely to see Rennie's bridge.

Antonio Canova

Italian sculptor on John Rennie's bridge at Waterloo

Fascinating facts

Since the 19th century the Fens have been known for a traditional form of ice skating known as fen skating. Skaters compete in speed competitions on waterlogged meadows that freeze over in cold winters.

The Fens are sometimes known as the 'Holy Land of the English' because of the former monasteries in the area. These are now the churches and cathedrals of Crowland, Ely, Peterborough and Ramsey.

The Fens – and particularly the Isle of Ely - were the base for Anglo-Saxon nobleman Hereward the Wake, who led resistance against William the Conqueror after the Normans invaded England in 1066.

People who made it happen

  • Witham Fens – John Rennie the Elder
  • Great Ouse scheme – Sir Murdoch MacDonald and Partners

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