Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

Strangers in the East

Gazetter entry

Britian has a long history of setting up colonies, utopian or otherwise, in the far flung corners of the globes (see: Jacoboplis The Shakers Maxwell colony ) less well known are the colonies set up in this country by imigrants. Long before United Nations protocols on refugees and asylum seekers we were seen as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution on mainland Europe.

In the early 1600s groups of French-speaking Protestants from Spanish-controlled Netherlands and northern France, Walloons & Huguenots, fled persecution and came to England. They were welcomed by Cornelius Vermuyden, an eminent drainage engineer involved in schemes to reclaim land from the fens in Lincolnshire and north Cambridgeshire. The Walloons set up a colony at Sandtoft on Hatfield Chase in the Isle of Axeholme and used their ditching and embankment skills to clear and drain the fens. The local inhabitants had no liking for the 'strangers'. For hundreds of years they had held the right to take wildfowl and fish the pools and rivers, and they were appalled by the idea that Cornelius Vermuyden and his supporters could deprive them of their livelihood by draining the area.

A contemporary account tells the story of what happened to the colonists of Hatfield Chase who;
'did build a town called Sandtoft with a church therein, placing a minister there; wherein two hundred families of French and Walloon protestants ..... who erected and planted two-hundred habitations for husbandry and plowed and tilled much of the said 24,000 and 500 acres of land to the great benefit of the Commonwealth. All which they enjoyed till about the month of June 1642, that some of the inhabitants thereabouts, pretending they had right of common, said they were not bound by the specified degree . . . and began to raise a powerful army . . . They arose in tumults, brake down the fenns and inclosures of 4,000 acres, destroyed all the corn growing and demolished the houses thereon.......And about the beginning of February ensuing, they pulled up the floodgates of Snow Sewer which by letting in the tides from the River Trent, soon drowned a great part of Hatfield Chase, divers persons standing there with muskets and saying they would stay till the whole level was drowned and the inhabitants were forced to swim away like ducks.' William Dugdale Imbanking and Draining

Thorney 'Abbey' C1900

Some of the colonists left immediately and went to join a second colony on the Earl of Bedford's land at Thorney near Peterborough. Others attempted to stay on despite the local opposition, but the colony finally ended around 1650. The colony at Thorney was more successful. Under the protection of the Earl of Bedford, and with less local opposition,S they set about draining the great Bedford level. Along with Dutch and Scottish prisoners of war drafted in by the New Model Army, the colonists carried out the biggest civil engineering project seen in 17th century England. By1653 some 4,000 acres of fenland had been brought under cultivation. The colonists purchased plots around common land at Willow Hall. Some built substantial stone houses and barns using stone from the dissolved abbey at Thorney - some of which still exist today. They shared the local church with the English Congregation and over the years they dispersed into the surrounding countryside setting up satellite settlements at places like Parsons Drove and Guyhirn. By 1727 a separate 'colony' was no longer identifiable.

In the mid-nineteenth century the then Duke of Bedford transformed the village of Thorney into a model estate village. The village was set out and designed by Samuel Sanders Tuelon a descendent of one of the area's original Huguenot colonists.

Thorney Crossroads C1910

"No stone monument exists testifying the nation's debt to the initiators of the scheme to drain the Fens. Barely any credit is seen to~ the foreign labourers and capitalists - the Participants and Adventurers - who undertook the "impossible" task more than three-and-a-half centuries ago. A monolith overlooking the Bedford Rivers should have been set up to laud the indefatigable labours of Huguenots and Walloons exiled from their homeland for differences of a religious nature, and those Scottish and Dutch prisoners forced to cut the drains in malarial conditions to facilitate control of water entering this natural basin. As a result former marsh and fen was transformed into prolific, ultra-rich soil said to be the finest in the land.
This story of foreigners and patriots coming to the Fens voluntarily and unfree, risking everything and giving their all to the unparalleled scheme is acknowledgement in itself to one of the greatest works of human endeavor ever undertaken ~ in the field of geological change."
The River Makers Trevor Bevis

Local Museum ; www.thorney-museum.org.uk
Thorney circa 1900; www.camcnty.gov.uk
Thorney Village Post; www.thorney.org/




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