The Ouse Washes Website

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The Company of Adventurers and The Bedford Level Corporation

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It had not been my intention when I began The Ouse Washes website to say much about the history and legal framework of the incorporation of the original Company of Adventurers and their successors, the Corporation of the Bedford Level, more commonly known as the Bedford Level Corporation (BLC).  I merely wanted to learn sufficient to enable me to understand how the original management of the Bedford Level as a whole affected the current administration of the Ouse Washes.

But, as is so often the way, conflicting statements by modern writers led me to start reading some of the early source documents, which often confused and sometimes amused me.

This page will set down from time to time a few snippets from over 1,500 pages of reference books, and some personal observations.

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Foundation of the Company of Adventurers

 The original works, cutting the two main rivers with their retaining banks and building the controlling structures, were instigated by the Commissioners of Sewers who asked Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford, to become the "undertaker" of a venture that had previously failed to start through lack of popular support and funding. Russell had extensive estates in the Fens at Thorney and Whittlesey (as well as the family seat in Bedford) was wealthy, well connected and much respected.

At a meeting of the Commissioners held at King's Lynn in January 1630, a contract, subsequently known as the 'Lynn Law', was agreed and Russell became the contractor of a scheme to drain the southern part of the fens within 6 years in return for 95,000 acres of the reclaimed land. The contract received the approval of the King, Charles 1, and the High Court in London.

Russell and his son William persuaded 12 other wealthy men to join them, to become 'Adventurers', venture capitalists in todays terminology, in a Company with 20 transferable shares of £500 each. The deed of incorporation in February 1631 is known as the 'Indenture of Fourteen Parts'. The King gave his consent to this in return for a 12,000 acre share of the 95,000 acres. After Russell's death (of small-pox, in May 1641) his son, the 5th Earl, took over his father's role.

The original Adventurer's, and their share holding and promised land reward, were:
Adventurer home/estates/assets sharesacres
Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford (W) or Russel (E) Family seat at Woburn, Beds, plus 20,000 acres at Thorney and Whittlesey 2 8,000
Oliver, Earl of Bulingbrooke (W)
or Bolingbroke (E)
  1 4,000
Edward, Lord Gorges  1 4,000
Sir Robert Heath, Knight  1 4,000
Sir Miles Sandys, Knight & Baronet Wilberton, Isle of Ely 2 8,000
Sir William Russell, Knight & Baronet (son of Francis, & later 5th Earl & 1st Duke of Bedford) Chippenham, cambs 2 8,000
Sir Robert Bevill, Knight & Baronet Chesterton, Hunts 1 4,000
Sir Thomas Tyringham, Knight (W) or Teringham (E) Tyringham, Bucks 2 8,000
Sir Philibert Vernatt (W) or Vernat (E) Carleton, Yorks 1 4,000
William Sames, LL.D (W) Sams (E)   1 4,000
Anthony Hamond, Esq.Saint Albons, Kent 2 8,000
Samuel Spalding, Gent. Cambridge 1 4,000
Andrew Burrell, Gent.(W) Burrel (E) London 1 4,000
Sir Robert Lovett, Knight (W)
or Lovel (E)
Liscombe, Bucks 1 4,000
TOTAL  19 76,000
Notes: main source: (E) = Elstobb, 1743; (W) = Samuel Wells, 1830.  Note differences in spelling. Wells states that Francis Russell reserved 3 shares but only took up 2, so only 19 shares were originally issued out of the 20 authorised.

The remaining 20th share must have been issued soon after as it is recorded that by 10th July 1631 £10,000 had been paid. (Wells, V1 p151). Each share cost just £500 initially, but committed the holder to a 20th part of the expenses. As the works progressed and the costs increased, to a total of £93,000 by March 1637, the Adventurers had to make further payments. Some were unable or unwilling to do so and wthin a short time many shares were split or reassigned. According to Summers, that increased the number of Adventurers to more than 200.

Annual taxes were levied on the lands awarded in order to finance maintenance and future works. For many of the Adventurers, their share of the expenses and the taxes due outweighed income from the lands, and many were bankrupted.

Adding the King's 12,000 acres to the 80,000 acres covered by the 20 shares leaves 3,000 acres which I have not yet found to be allocated.

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Offices and Meeting Places of the Company of Adventurers

The main office was the "Fen Office" in London, also used later by the Bedford Level Corporation. See below.

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Clerk(s) to the Company

From to name Remarks, voting
? 1663 Thos Bland became Register of the Bedford Level Corporation

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From to name Remarks, voting

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From to name Remarks, voting
1650   Jonas Moore  
in 1657 in 1666 Lord Gorges  

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Foundation of the Corporation of the Bedford Level

The original drainage contracts held by the Company of Adventurers did include the ability to raise taxes for maintenance, but it became clear that the Company was not a suitable organisation to carry out long term works, nor to administer drainage of land into the main rivers, or look after navigation interests - not to mention the Company's incorporation was by a charter from the King (Charles I) not government, and therefore the legality of taxation was questionable.

A properly constituted body was obviously needed and in 1663 the General Draining Act provided a means of doing so - the founding of the Bedford Level Corporation to be a central authority for drainage and navigation.

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Offices of the Bedford Level Corporation

The BLC managed its business from the 'Fen Office' in London, as had the Company of Adventurers. The Office moved a number of times from one set of chambers to another, and in 1666 the building it then occupied was destroyed, along with most of the early records, in the Great Fire of London. The Office remained in London until 1843 when operations were moved to offices the BLC occupied in Ely.

The person responsible for dealing with the legal side of the business, and ensuring that the Boards decisions were carried out, was known as the "Register" (later "Registrar"). Notable Registers were Charles Nalson Cole, who published a collection of BLC Laws in 1761; and Samuel Wells who published a 2 volume history of the BLC in 1830.

the front of the two Ely buildings
note carving above right hand door
(shown in close-up below).

Carving above the door of right hand building at Ely
spot the differences with the coat of arms in right column

 Wells says the annual election of the Board took place in London every year until 1809 when it "was very properly removed to Ely" (V1, p518). Wells also refers on p 557 to annual meetings in April in the Shire Hall at Ely. From the list of Registers (below) we can seen from the votes cast that some years more than 160 people attended, so a large building was needed.
The Corporation must also have had an office in Ely from the beginning to receive rents etc, from local people, but I haven't found details prior to c1820 when one source said that it was then that the BLC  acquired two adjoining buildings in St.Mary's Street, Ely. They were apparently rebuilt  c1827, and in 1841 relocation from London to Ely began; by 1843 removal was complete and the London office closed.  The taller of the two buildings became a girls school in 1905 (source: plaque on wall); a single-story one (now known as Bedford House) with a carved stonework set into the wall above the entrance representing the BLC Coat of Arms remained the 'Fen Office' until at least 1947, as records talk of engineers working from it to combat the floods (source: Harvest Home, p36) (note, Ely on-line history says the Ely office was only used 1844-1864. which is clearly wrong)

From to name Remarks, voting
  1666 Mr Hampson's chambers Burnt down in Great Fire 2nd Sept 1666
1666 1667 Mr Moyle's chambers
Inner Temple Lane
temporary arrangement
1667   ground fl, 3 Tanfield Court, Inner temple purchased [from?] Mr Hampson who had erected them on the site of the old chamber
early 1800s ? in1830
1843 ?
6, Serjeants' Inn, Fleet St,  london in 1830, Wells wrote "Fen Office lately moved to No 6 Serjeants Inn"
1824 1903 St Mary's Street, Ely 3 storey building
  1920 St Mary's Street, Ely single storey building

The History of Ely High Sch states that In the early 19th century a three storey dwelling was erected in St Mary's Street, Ely by Thomas Page for use as a private house, and In 1824 it was acquired by BLC. In 1903 is was bought by Cambs CC, and from 1905 to 1957 it was Ely High School. The school website also confirms that BLC still occupied the single story building in 1947, and the army commandeered part of the school.

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rear of Ely buildings.
the semi-circular room would have made a splendid setting for Board meetings.
all photos: EE, May 2011

BLC Coat-of-Arms
Motto: Arridet Aridum
"Dryness Pleaseth"

The Bedford Level and its divisions

Vermuyden's plan had divided the land of the Bedford Level into three areas, North, Middle and South Level, and the BLC administered them all. Somewhat confusingly, a large chunk of South Level is further north than part of North Level.

Gradually over very many years the three levels became more self-governing and eventually split away from the BLC. Within the Levels there were further divisions and sub-divisions. The BLC's powers and responsibilities diminished and in 1920, after 237 years, it was wound-up.

The Ouse Washes divides the Middle and South Levels, but the Washes are part of neither. The outer (north-west) bank of the Old Bedford/Delph is the Middle Level Barrier Bank; the outer (south-east) bank of the New Bedford is the South Level Barrier Bank.

Since 1920 a variety of government authorised bodies have had responsibility for vast and sometimes different areas of which The Washes is a just a tiny part. Each were tasked with a set of duties which will be explained later, but all with responsibility for controlling the main rivers surounding the Washes.

The table below briefly summarises the management bodies and their responsibilities prior to 1920.  Like the rest of this page this is an early draft - much has to be added!

from to name inits main responsibities
  1663 Commissioners of Sewers COS Land drainage
1630 1652 Company of Adventurers COA construction of new drainage systems
1663 1920 Bedford Level Corporation BLC Established under the General Drainage Act 1663 to maintain drainage & navigation on all three levels.
Lost resp for most of NL 1753 and all by 1857
Lost resp for most of ML 1810 and all by 1864
Lost resp for much of SL 1830 and all by 1920
According to Summers, by 1850 resp was confined to major channels & sluices
Sources: various
Draining and irrigating the actual fields and washlands between the rivers (from Earith to Welmore Lake Sluice) has been the duty of the Hundred Foot Washes IDB from its formation (?) to the present day.
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Samuel A Wells (Samuel Wells, Jnr) born in Chatteris. Described as a "radical attorney" stood unsucessfully for Parliament in Huntingdon in 1830. His father, also Samuel Wells, was elected a Conservator of BLC in 1797; died 1817, buried nth aisle Peterborough Cathedral

Registers, or Registrars

The office of Register since the General Drainage Act, 15 Car.II. (1663). The Register was the highest paid employee of BLC.
Elected annually:
From to name Remarks, votes cast for at elections
1663 1692 Thomas Bland previously Clerk to the Company of Adventurers, under the Pretended Act, 1649
1692 1723 Joseph Hope  
1717 1720 Joseph Hope, junior Deputy Register. Discharged for neglect of duty
1720 1723 William Plaxton Deputy Register in place of Hope, junior
1723 1745 William Plaxton  
1745 1757 Benjamin Woodward  
1757 1804 Charles Nalson Cole see comment box on right
c1800 1805 T. Gotobed Deputy Register
1805 1812 William Saffery Saffrey 82, Edward Christian, Barrister, 81
1812 1824 Robert Bevil Bevill 115; Thomas Mortlock, Barrister, 53
1824 at least to 1841 Samuel Wells Wells 68, Charles Jenyns, Barrister, 66
Wells was also Clerk to the Middle Level Commissioners since it was formed in 1810 until at least 1830
in 1851   Goodwyn Archer based at Ely

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C.N.Cole: born Isle of Ely 1722. Educated St.John's College, Cambridge. Lawyer in Inner Temple, London and admitted to the Bar before becoming Registrar of BLC. Published Laws & constitution of BLC in 1761. Died London 1804.

Receiver and Expenditor General

The officer is annually, at the April meeting held at the Shire Hall, Ely:
From to name Remarks, voting
1663   Robert Mingay  
1689   Roger Jenyns, Jun  
1699   Sir Roger Jenyns  
`725   Edward Partheriche  
1728   Robert Lightfoot  
1728   Edward Patheriche, Jun  
1730   William Cole  
1731   Francis Pemberton  
1738   Humphrey Smith  
1743   Gotobed East  
1750 Whetham Robinson  
1751   John Drage  
1760   John Waddington  
1790   James Golborne  
1819   Hugh Robert Evans  

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The office of Auditor since the General Drainage Act, 15 Car.II. (1663)
Elected annually at Ely:
From to name Remarks, voting
1663 1703 Richard Marryott  
1703 1703   Two conservators shared the job that year
1704 1711 Ralph Pierson  
1711 1717 John Chicheley  
1717 1723 William Fortrey  
1723 1726 Francis Pemberton  
1726 1729 Nathaniel Green  
1729 1730 Thomas Dixon  
1730 1731 Francis Pemberton  
1731 1736 John Brownell  
1736 Ordered that office of Auditor "be extinguished" & duties annexed to Register
1736 1745 William Plaxton Combined the position with Register
1745     Positions of Auditor & Register again divided
1745 1748 Owen Fann  
1749     Owen Fann elected, but declined
1749 1752   No Auditor appointed
1752   Benjamin Woodward combined position with Register
1757 1804 Charles Nalson Cole combined position with Register
1805 1812 William Saffery combined position with Register
1812 1824 Robert Bevill combined position with Register
1824     Positions of Auditor & Register again divided
1824 1825 Francis Eagle  
1825   Steed Girdlestone at least to 1830

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Serjeant's at mace

Name from to      
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Disintegration and Winding up

The Corporation was never healthy and its ills worsened with age. It suffered two major amputations (the loss of the North and Middle Levels), yet lingered on, slowly deteriorating. The symptoms were obvious, the diagnosis clear, but a cure could not be found.  It was finally put out of its misery in 1920,  aged 257 years.

Looking back it is astonishing how it lasted so long. Its immediate successor (in this area) the Ouse Drainage Board, lasted just ten years.

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Text and photos except where noted © Eddy Edwards, 2010-12

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