Frequently Asked Questions

As someone who knows very little and has never seen the engine before, can you describe to me what the pumping station actually does?


The Stretham Old Engine (SOE) was designed to lift the flood water from the ditches and drains of the fenland that had shrunk below the river level, to allow crops to be grown on the land and to be productive all year round. 


How were the Fens created?   


The fens were a marshy area of East Anglia just above the sea level and which constantly flooded by tidal sea water from the north-eastern side and rain and land drainage water from the higher uplands to south-western side. The black fen soil was formed from the rotting of the reeds and rushes that grew in the area and formed a very organic soil. Over millennia the land got higher and higher but still flooded regularly. The challenge was/is to secure the land from inundation year round. We have got close to this but the floods of recent times in the area shows we haven’t yet quite managed it. 


How did the people live without fertile land before drainage and how did drainage change the lives of the locals?


Prior to extensive drainage the Iron age man and the Romans used it for extensive summer grazing of sheep and later cattle and geese; local roads are called ‘Droves’ as the livestock was ‘driven’ along them to London.


Pre-Drainage (1600) the locals had a lot of ‘Manorial and Crown Common Rights’  which were removed by acts of parliament in a similar way to the enclosure acts 100 years later.


As the fens were a wetland area the region was a haven for wildfowl and river fish. These resources were used as sustenance as well as income from their sale. The local populous were famous for their eels and pike and these along with vast numbers of duck, cranes and plovers were netted and trapped (hunting firearms didn’t become numerous until the 19th century) for the London market. Wild birds eggs were also collected in great numbers, so much so, that, in 1534 their collection was forbidden between April and August along with the ‘destruction’ (catching) of birds in full moult.


As drainage increased the area under cultivation, the wildlife numbers and fish stocks dwindled and the so called fen tigers were tamed and learned to be farm workers.


Was the drainage of the fens a good thing?


It is claimed, by some, the drainage was the greatest environmental disaster in the UK due to the loss of wildlife habitat. It was this habitat that was the main stay of the local economy and was obliterated by the drainage, use and enclosure of the land.


Others argue it was one of the great achievements of the 19th century as it fed and allowed the urbanisation and development of the Industrial Revolution. In this way it improved the life expectancy and standard of living for many and reduced starvation throughout the county. 


Has the fens been historically important? 


It was home to 'Queen Boudicca’ who challenged the Romans and whose statue stands outside Parliament. ‘Hereward the Wake’ another resident of the area, challenged the takeover of England by the Normans. 

Its increase in grain production fed the embryonic Industrial Revolution and supplied the nation with bread, vegetables and sugar throughout the two world wars.


Please can you give me some background information on the problem that the engine was designed to solve and the impact that it eventually had on the area?


Interest in the drainage increased in the 1600s at a time when the ground level was above the river level and so limited drainage could be achieved by digging ditches and gravity feeding the drainage waters into the rivers. The Duke of Bedford was largely responsible for the major drainage scheme designed and carried out by Cornelius Vermuyden. However, as the soil is highly organic it not only shrinks, due to the water being taken out but it also oxidises as well; thus the level of the ground soon drops.


When the ground level dropped below the level of the river at the start of the 1700s, mechanical means were required to remove the water from the land. Wind pumps were thus adopted quite successfully. They had been used in Holland for about a 100 years before this. In the fens they worked adequately, but not well, mainly due to the wind that didn’t always blow at the right time. They did, however, allow grain crops to be grown. By the end of the 1700’s the ground level had dropped below the level the wind pumps could lift and the land was waterlogged once more and reverting to marsh. The Waterbeach Level had 9 windmills at this point.


What areas did the Stretham Old Engine drain?


Drainage areas (Levels) are confined areas where the level of the water is maintained at a required level. SOE (Stretham Old Engine) was the only pumping station in the ‘Waterbeach Level’,  a 6,000 acre area of land bounded by the river Cam on one side, the Roman road, now the A10, that sat/sits on the rising Greensand hill upon which Ely and it cathedral stands. On its third side is the River Ouse, the section known as the Old West River, into which the pumping station lifted the drainage water prior to it flowing to the sea, 20 miles away.


Is there anywhere you can get a sense of the area of land that SOE drained?


From the Stretham A10 roundabout, turn towards Wilburton. On the brow of the hill between Wilburton and Haddenham, just on the edge of the village, at a small lay-by there is a wonderful panoramic view of the ‘Waterbeach Level’ looking towards Cambridge. This gives an idea of the effects of the drainage system.


Did it revolutionise the area?  If so, how?


The use of steam and engines completely revolutionised the area as for the first time farmers could actively control the water level, free from the vagaries of nature. Also the power of the engines when compared with wind power allowed the water to be lifted much higher.


The water table was thus lowered to two feet below the ground level which enabled better crop yields. The quality of the wheat in particular, was greatly improved. (It can be argued, that this enabled the burgeoning urban population to be better fed. Bearing in mind that this population increased by 150% from 1800 to 1870.)


What crops were grown there? Before and after.


Prior to steam a lot of Cole crops (oil seed rape family) were grown for pressing into oil, Wisbech being the major centre with 6 pressing mills. Oats were also grown for animal feed. 


After steam and the lowering of the water table, more sensitive crops, mainly wheat, were added to the rotation. Later when the 1870 crash in grain prices occurred, due to cheap imports of cereals from USA, the agriculture changed to root crops and later on fruits and vegetables, for which it is famous to this day.


Can you give a basic history and how the engine works?


The pumping station was built and the engine installed in 1831, two years after Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ strutted its stuff in Darlington and so was at the cutting edge of technology. It was effectively the iPhone of its day and like iPhones has gone through constant updates until its final lift of water in 1947. Brunel was 30 when it was installed. It cost the sizeable sum of £ 5,000.This was £ 2,000 for the building, and a further 

£ 3,000 for the engine. 


The engine was powered by coal boilers that produced steam, feeding through the wall of the boiler room into the engine cylinder where it lifts a piston connected to a mighty 20 ton beam that pivots three stories above your head. The other end of the beam has another rod that turns a flywheel; this in turn rotates a scoop wheel in a separate room outside. It is the scoop wheel that lifts the water into the river.


The engine is no longer steam driven but is now powered by an electric motor. Starting and stopping is now achieved by switching this motor on or off; this is impressive as the mighty engine starts to lift the connecting rod as in turn the 27 foot cast iron flywheel and the engine cylinder hisses, as in days of yore. 


What areas are there in the building?


The boiler room is a commanding introduction to the building for its height, size and space.


The engine room is without doubt the most impressive for its height, with towering con-rod, hissing valves and massive iron work. The beauty of the workmanship is a joy for both engineers and non-engineers alike, shining brass and wooden cylinder casing; craftsmanship of the past it has in plenty. 

Glass and brass containers faithfully filled by hand from the many oil-cans lubricate the joints as there were no grease guns or even ball bearings in those days.


The upper floor, with wonderful views of the surrounding drained area, houses a range of old ditching tools and memorabilia of the stoker and engineer’s life on site.


There is a full workshop laid out with all the necessities to keep the engine running in an isolated area before phones, spare parts and next day delivery. It has a forge and anvil along with long forgotten tools and equipment.


In an adjacent purpose built room stand a mighty 1920s Mirlees diesel engine that superseded the Beam engine. 


 A variety of other early engines as well as an old wooden ‘Archimedean Screw’ used to drain clay pits in nearby Ely. This early type of water lifting pump was used by the Egyptians. These are preserved nearby in  the coal-yard.


There is a well-known landmark, the 75 foot white-brick chimney, also in the coal-yard. This engine is the only pumping station with a chimney in the Fens today. 


Is the pumping station a museum?


SOE is not a museum as it is run by a charitable trust with volunteers who restore and maintain the grade 2* listed building and engine. It has been maintained as if it has been left for the night by the stoker and superintendent. The old brick floors and stone steps are uneven and worn but the brass is shining and the engine well-oiled; it feels a real step back in time.


Next door is the old Stoker’s cottage, where ‘River Bank Tolls’, were collected, now restored by

‘The Landmark Trust’ as a rental property.


Is there an example of land that is still original fen?


No, not original, but an area of restored fenland can be visited at nearby ‘Wicken Fen’, a National Trust site, where reeds and rushes are still harvested and the willow and alder trees now grow as in the original fens. There is also the last drainage-pumping wind engine on display. 


Are there any written materials and/or visual examples and online resources?


There are a plethora of books and written material on all aspects of the subject, not so much TV or video.


Online is well provided for and, of course, good old Wikipedia with its links.