Records of the Bedford Level Corporation

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

This collection contains the administrative records of the Bedford Level Corporation, including records of the first and second undertakings; minutes of meetings in London and Ely; correspondence; inventories; volumes of engrossed accounts, bundles of bills and receipts; tax receipt books, arrears rolls; registers of conveyances, mortgages and leases; lot books; counterpart deeds; copies of acts of parliament; legal papers; journals; reports; maps and the Corporation library.

Administrative / Biographical History

In 1630, the Commissioners of Sewers at King's Lynn proposed to enter into a contract with Cornelius Vermuyden for the draining of the Great Level of the Fens. There was significant local opposition to Cornelius Vermuyden being appointed, on account of him being a foreigner and his demands for remuneration. Instead, they approached Sir Francis Russell, Earl of Bedford, who agreed to undertake the draining of the Fens in return for 95,000 acres of the newly drained land. Thirteen Adventurers joined with the Earl of Bedford in the "Indenture of Fourteen Parts". The 95,000 acres of newly drained lands were divided into 20 "lots" of 4,000 acres, which were shared amongst the Adventurers. The Adventurers agreed to expend at least £500 for every share taken.

The principal works carried out during this phase included the construction of the (Old) Bedford River, between Earith and Salter's Lode; Sam's Cut, between Feltwell and the River Ouse; Sandy's Cut [at Ely]; Bevill's Leam, between Whittlesey Mere and Guyhirn; Peakirk Drain, between Peterborough Great Fen and Guyhirn; New South Eau, between Crowland and Clow's Cross; Hill's Cut at Peterborough (later extended and became Smith's Leam), and Shire Drain, between Clow's Cross and Tydd. They also improved Morton's Leam, and built two sluices at Tydd, one at Salter's Lode and one at Horseshoe near Wisbech, to keep out the tides. The traditional view is that Vermuyden was employed by the Earl of Bedford to execute this scheme, but Margaret Knittl puts forward a convincing argument that he was not.

In October 1836, the Commissioners of Sewers at St Ives found that the Earl of Bedford and Adventurers had successfully drained the Great Level according to "Lynn Law". This judgement appears to have been somewhat premature, and was probably to relieve some of the (more or less bankrupt) Adventurers. A schedule was drawn up of the 95,000 acres that were to be allotted to the Earl of Bedford and the Adventurers.

Following complaints and petitions to the Privy Council in July 1638, it was declared that the Adventurers had not sufficiently fulfilled their obligations as the Great Level of the Fens was still prone to flooding, especially in winter. Charles I declared himself as Undertaker in July 1638, and agreed to make the Fens suitable as "winter grounds" in return for 57,000 acres. The original Adventurers, some of whom were financially ruined, were to receive just 40,000 acres for what they had achieved so far. Charles I proceeded to embank Morton's Leam between Peterborough and Stanground; made a new cut between Horseshoe Sluice and the Norfolk Estuary, and built sluices at Stanground and at the outfall of Shire Drain. However, he soon had more pressing matters on his mind, and it seems that he did nothing further as undertaker to improve the drainage of the Great Level of the Fens.

In 1645, Sir William Russell, Earl of Bedford, together with some of the original Adventurers and other interested parties (known as the Participants) petitioned for a new Act of Parliament to be enacted for the draining of the Great Level. "The Pretended Act" was passed by Parliament in 1649, and decreed that Sir William Russell, Earl of Bedford, the original Adventurers and the Participants were now the Undertakers for draining the Great Level of the Fens. They agreed to complete this before October 1656, and that all land was to be "winter ground" without prejudicing the navigation of the rivers. They called themselves the Bedford Level Company or the Society of Adventurers, and established an office in the Lord Chief Justice's chambers.

After almost a year of negotiations between the Society of Adventurers, Cornelius Vermuyden and Edward Partheriche, Cornelius Vermuyden was appointed as the Director of Works to the drainage scheme. The earlier drainage works created during the "First Undertaking" works were scoured and restored. The principal new works carried out during this phase include the New Bedford River (or the Hundred Foot River); St John's Eau (or Downham Eau), between Denver Sluice to Stow Bridge; Tong's Drain between Nordelph and the River Ouse below Downham Bridge; Moore's Drain (or Twenty Foot Drain); the Forty Foot Drain (or Vermuyden's Drain), between Ramsey and Welches Dam; Stonea Drain near March, Thurlow's Drain (or Sixteen Foot Drain), between Popham's Eau to the Forty Foot Drain and Conquest Lode. When local labour became scarce (due to the lack of funds to pay wages), prisoners of war from the Battle of Dunbar and the Battle of Goodwin Sands were used instead.

In 1651, a Warrant of Adjudication was given at Peterborough ("Peterborough Law"), which confirmed that the North and Middle Levels had been satisfactorily drained according to the intent and meaning of the "Pretended Act". It had already cost them £170,000. They then started draining the South Level. A second Warrant of Adjudication was given at Ely in 1652, which confirmed that the South Level had been also satisfactorily drained. In consequence of these two Warrants of Adjudication, the 95,000 acres of newly drained "Adventurers" lands were allotted to the Adventurers and Participants.

With the draining of the Great Level of the Fens complete, the Society of Adventurers turned their attention towards the creation of new legislation to preserve the drainage works in the Bedford Level, and to give powers and rights to the Society for maintaining them. An Ordinance was enacted in 1657, which acknowledged the satisfactory drainage of the Great Level and made the Earl of Bedford, the original Adventurers and the later Participants responsible for the maintenance of the drainage works in the Bedford Level. Following the restoration of Charles II, the Society of Adventurers entered into a period of uncertainty. All laws made during the Commonwealth were declared null and void, the King's 12,000 acres (as compensation for Charles I's work as the Undertaker during the 1640s) had not yet been allotted and some of the Adventurers and Participants had been ejected from their lands, leading to disputes about the distribution of lands. A temporary maintenance Act was passed in September 1660, which gave the Earl of Bedford sufficient time to reconcile all the opposing parties. A second temporary Act was passed in January 1661, as the Earl of Bedford was not yet in a suitable position to introduce a general drainage Bill.

An Act of Parliament was finally enacted in July 1663, and established the Bedford Level Corporation as a corporate body. It also granted the Corporation powers to levy a tax on all 95,000 acres of Adventurers' lands, vested 83,000 acres of Adventurers' lands in the Corporation, and defined the duties of the Corporation. The Board of Corporation was to consist of a governor, six bailiffs and twenty conservators, assisted by a number of paid Officers including the Registrar, Receiver and Expenditor General, Serjeant-at-Mace, Divisional Officers and Sluice Keepers.

The Bedford Level Corporation continued to build further new works to try and improve the drainage of the Bedford Level. These included Smith's Leam, a new channel for the River Nene between Peterborough and Wisbech in 1728; Kinderley's Cut, the opening and extending of an existing channel between Wisbech and the Norfolk Estuary in 1770-1772; the Eau Brink Cut, between Eau Brink and King's Lynn in 1817-1821; the Nene Outfall Cut in 1830; the Woodhouse Marsh Cut, straightening sections of Kinderley's Cut in 1832; the North Level Main Drain, between Clow's Cross and Tydd Gote in 1831-1834; the Middle Level Main Drain, between the Sixteen Foot River and the Eau Brink Cut in 1848; building Seven Holes Sluice at Earith in 1824 and Welmore Lake Sluice in 1825; and also rebuilding Denver Sluice in 1750 and 1832 and Salter's Lode Sluice in 1826.

By 1728, the Bedford Level Corporation owed £17,150 to its creditors. Wriothesley Russell, the Duke of Bedford (then a minor); his guardian the Duke of Devonshire, and the Earl of Lincoln agreed to lend the Corporation £10,000 to secure the drainage works in the North Level, which were then in a dire condition. In return, they received all the revenues from the North Level. As the Bedford Level Corporation was never going to be able to repay this loan, the first North Level Act was passed in 1753. It established an independent body of Commissioners to administer and manage the North Level, and required that all North Level revenues were spent solely on the upkeep of the main drainage works, in particular on the north bank of Morton's Leam. In 1857, the North Level became completely independent of the Bedford Level Corporation.

In 1810, the Middle Level Act was passed, which placed control of the Middle Level into the hands of the Middle Level Commissioners. While the Bedford Level Corporation remained responsible for maintaining the banks of the rivers and drains in the Middle Level, the newly established Middle Level Commissioners now oversaw the clearing and scouring of these rivers. Despite opposition from the Corporation, a further Act of Parliament was passed in 1844 which increased the Middle Level Commissioners' relative power, although they still remained nominally under the control of the Bedford Level Corporation. In 1862, the Middle Level (Separation) Act entirely abolished the Corporation's jurisdiction in the Middle Level.

The Bedford Level Corporation continued to defend the last remnants of its authority in the South Level for a further sixty years. By 1920, the 'Bedford Level' was controlled by 83 separate drainage boards and 12 main channel and outfall authorities, resulting in considerable conflicts of interest and lack of co-operation. In response to considerable local agitation, the Great Ouse and its tributaries became a distinct drainage district, the Ouse Drainage Board. As this area completely encompassed the remaining area controlled by the Bedford Level Corporation, it consented for its few remaining powers to be included with those of the new drainage board. With this final transfer of assets, liabilities and duties, the Bedford Level Corporation ceased to exist.

Arrangement

This collection is arranged as follows:

  • BLC/1 - Foundation documents
  • BLC/1/1 - First Undertaking
  • BLC/1/2 - Second Undertaking
  • BLC/1/3 - Third Undertaking
  • BLC/1/4- Letters Patent to Sir John Dugdale

  • BLC/2 - Administration
  • BLC/2/1 - Proceedings of the Society of Adventurers
  • BLC/2/2 - Proceedings of the Lords Commissioners of Adjudication
  • BLC/2/3 - Proceedings of the Bedford Level Corporation
  • BLC/2/5 - Proceedings of the Bedford Level Corporation as Commissioners of Sewers
  • BLC/2/6 - Bedford Level Corporation Draft Minute Books
  • BLC/2/7 - Further Minute Books and Other Related Material
  • BLC/2/8 - Corresponence
  • BLC/2/9 - Memorials and petitions presented to the Bedford Level Corporation
  • BLC/2/10 - Diaries
  • BLC/2/11 - Seal Books
  • BLC/2/12 - Lists of the Board's 100 Acre Men and Officers
  • BLC/2/13 - Directions, Forms of Procedure, Rules and Regulations
  • BLC/2/14 - Schedules of the Documents, Papers, Furniture, Fixtures and Fittings in the Fen Office
  • BLC/2/15 - Miscellaneous Administrative Volumes
  • BLC/2/16 - Bundles
  • BLC/2/17 - Handbills, Posters and Notices

  • BLC/3 - Finance
  • BLC/3/1 - Audited Accounts
  • BLC/3/2 - Bundles of Accounts
  • BLC/3/3 - Working Accounts
  • BLC/3/4 - Tax Receipt Books
  • BLC/3/5 - Arrears Rolls
  • BLC/3/6 - Bonds
  • BLC/3/7 - North Level Accounts
  • BLC/3/8 - Bundles of Financial Papers

  • BLC/4 - Property
  • BLC/4/1 - Registers of Conveyances, Leases and Mortgages
  • BLC/4/2 - Lot Books
  • BLC/4/3 - Schedules and Particulars of Lots
  • BLC/4/4 - Tax Rolls
  • BLC/4/5 - Rental Books
  • BLC/4/6 - Schedules of Taxes Deducted
  • BLC/4/7 - Further Volumes concerning the Registration of Lots
  • BLC/4/8 - Bundles of Deeds

  • BLC/5 - Legal
  • BLC/5/1 - Acts of Parliament
  • BLC/5/2 - Parliamentary Papers
  • BLC/5/3 - Reports and Publications relating to Acts of Parliament
  • BLC/5/4 - Cases and Opinions
  • BLC/5/5 - Legal Cases and Bundles of Legal Papers
  • BLC/5/6 - Legal Papers concerning the Court of Sewers

  • BLC/6 - Engineering
  • BLC/6/1 - Journals of Corporation Officers
  • BLC/6/2 - Notebooks
  • BLC/6/3 - Bundles of Papers

  • BLC/7 - Reports, Library, Maps and Plans
  • BLC/7/1 - Reports and Surveys
  • BLC/7/2 - Bedford Level Corporation Library
  • BLC/7/3 - Maps and Plans
  • BLC/7/4 - Copper Plates
  • BLC/7/5 - Wooden cases formerly containing maps

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Custodial History

These records were created, used and stored by the Bedford Level Corporation in the course of their day-to-day business. The Fen Office was established in 1660, and was originally located in Mr Hampson's chambers in Inner Temple. They were destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and many of the records from the "First Undertaking" (see BLC1/1) and "Second Undertaking" (see BLC1/2) are believed to have been destroyed. The Fen Office then moved to No. 3 Tanfield Court (built on the site of Mr Hampson's former chambers) in 1667, and to No. 6 Serjeant's Inn in c. 1827. Following the sale of No. 6 Serjeant's Inn in 1837 and much discussion about the propriety and necessity of having an office in the country, the Bedford Level Corporation moved the Fen Office to Bedford House, Ely, in 1846. In 1864, they sold the mansion house, but retained the adjacent single storey building as the Fen Office. The Bedford Level Corporation was wound up in 1920, but the records of the Bedford Level Corporation remained at the Fen Office until at least 1947. They were then moved to the Great Ouse River Board's offices in Cambridge, and later transferred to Cambridgeshire Record Office (now Cambridgeshire Archives) in 1959.