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Forty Foot River or Vermuyden's Drain


This watercourse is not actually part of the Ouse Washes but it is one of several where there are sufficient connections to warrant some mention on this site.

Like so many other waterways in the fens, this one has several names or variations. In 1830, Samuel Wells, an attorney and one-time Clerk to the Middle Level Commissioners and  "Register" (Registrar, or Clerk) of the Bedford Level Corporation, referred in his History of the Bedford Level to "Vermuyden's Eau or Forty Feet Drain", and also "Forty-foot Drain".  Various Middle Level Acts since 1810 refer to the Forty Feet River or Vermuyden's Drain.  Since 1824,  Ordnance Survey maps show "Forty Foot or Vermudens Drain", omitting the"y" from Vermuyden's name (and inconsistently putting an apostophe before the "s"). "Eau" is rarely used now and "river" and "drain" are frequently interchanged even in the same document.  For simplicity, I will refer to it hereon as the Forty Foot River.

The watercourse was cut c1651 under the direction of Vermuyden from the River Nene (old course) at Wells Bridge near Ramsey Forty Foot and Ramsey Mere to Welches Dam Lock where it joins the Counter Drain (later the Old Bedford River), a total of 9½ miles (17km).

 It was (presumably) originally financed by and the responsibility of the Company of Adventurers, then from 1663 to 1844 by their successors, the Bedford Level Corporation (BLC).  In 1810 the Middle Level began to split from the BLC taking responsibility for many watercourses including the Sixteen Foot,  but I believe the Forty Foot Drain remained with the BLC until the ML Act of 1844. Under that act, the MLC were authorised to make a cut to join the Sixteen Foot to the Forty Foot.

Just a few years after, under section 3 of the Middle Level Act, 1848, the MLC were authorised to build (and maintain for ever!) a navigable pen sluice subsequently called Horseway Lock, the object of which was to stop water flowing uncontrolled into the ML system from the Counterdrain / Old Bedford River. At around the same time, the Middle Level's ambitious main drain was cut from the northern end of the Sixteen Foot to the Great Ouse at St. Germans, so waters from the Forty Foot now drained into the tidal river there instead of along the CounterDrain and through the Old Bedford Sluice at Salters Lode as in Vermuyden's design.

Under the ML Act 1862, the MLC were exempted in Section 36 from maintenance of the 2¼ miles from Horseway Lock to Welches Dam which, with Welches Dam Lock, became under Section 105 the responsbility of the Sutton and Manea IDB. At some stage the IDB lost that burden and now of the Environment Agency (EA).


sluice/lock name & keeper's tel location,
OS grid ref
openings & gates2 current dimensions1
(cill AOD, width, length, depth, headr'm)
and sluice operation
Forty Foot Lock3Welches Dam
40-ft to OBR
TL 469 858
-0.9m 3.7m
47ft not known not known
Horseway Lock4 40ft MLC to 40ft EA >18484
  min 12ft  11ft min 50ft  60ft min 4ft n/known n/a


Forty Foot Lock





Notes and sources

3 Disused and blocked off. The EA renamed it Welches Dam Lock
4 Disused but appears generally sound. ML Act 1848 authorised/required MLDC to build a pen sluice to keep water from Old Bedford out of the ML,subject to navigation rights.



Horseway Lock


Old Pumping Station


New irrigation take-off

  Most of the rivers and drains of East Anglia are listed and their courses described on the "Wisbech and the Fenlands" website, which also has a wealth of historical information about the area.