Our History

Principal Events and Context at the Stretham Old Engine

1700 - 1831

Throughout the 18th century, the 1700s, the ‘Enclosure’ of common land was mostly completed and had brought about the biggest change to rural England since the middle ages. During this period agriculture had also started to modernise along more profitable and business orientated lines with Tull’s seed drill, a four-crop rotation replacing fallowing fields, selection and cross breeding of livestock. Specialist farm buildings were constructed to reduce labour and by the start of the 1800s the first reaper was patented.

This modernisation created a reduction in the agricultural work force and reduced the security of the farm labourer. In turn these changes and insecurity brought about food riots and along with the ‘Swing’ riots, East Anglia was a centre for this insurrection with Brandon, Thetford and Littleport being sites of particular note. In 1815, five men from Littleport were hanged in Ely for their part in the turmoil and left a feeling of bad blood in the countryside around Stretham.

The black fen soils had shrunk during this whole period and windmills or wind-engines had been used to lift the field waters into the rivers. However, the shrinkage had been so great by the beginning of the 1800s that wind power was no longer adequate. The increasing development of steam power and technical advances in engineering made it a possibly a suitable choice to replace wind.

1741 Waterbeach Level constituted by Act of Parliament.
1814 John Rennie reported on his survey of the drainage.
1829 Mr. Glynn invited to decide best situation for the Stretham engine. (This station rests on a bed of hard gravel so no piling was required).
1831 Contract for engine, boiler and scoop-wheel awarded to Mr. Glynn.
1831 Contract for building brickwork of engine house awarded to Mr. Briggs.

1831 - 1870

The development of power and engineering not only helped agriculture but brought about ‘Industrialisation’ that was to lead to the ‘Industrial Revolution’. The reduction of the agricultural labour force during the previous century allowed and even required, an ever-increasing number of labourers to seek work in towns and cities. This cyclical interaction has led to the increase in agricultural dependence on mechanisation and depopulation of the countryside that has lasted up until modern times. However, by the start of the 19th century it was clear that there was an increasing and almost insatiable need, for food within the country and thus the decision was taken by the local farmers to adapt the drainage system to steam power.

With this increasing industrialisation and drive for profit, protection of workers became an increasing necessity and heralded the ‘Factory Act’ 1834, providing increased working restrictions and safety requirements that have continued to the present time. Around the working area of ‘Stretham Old Engine’ the growth of this protection can be seen in practice

This was a golden age of farming in the Waterbeach Level. The resolution, to continue draining the area, was to pay handsome dividends over the coming decades and maintained the low-lying fenlands as a highly productive source of fresh food. The benefits of this further increased by the arrival of the steam train throughout the region in 1845 allowed fast delivery to be made into the heart of towns and cities. However, the more aggressive drainage of the steam power increasingly decreased the soil level and necessitated an ever-bigger scoop wheel to reach the water level.

1847 Third boiler installed.
1850 New scoopwheel fitted 33 feet in diameter.


1870 - 1899

The year 1870 was the beginning of the end of the good times as steam trains crossed the massive and mechanised American Prairie’s with cheap grain. Steam replaced sail crossing the Atlantic. Cheap beef now came from South America and lamb for New Zealand along with dairy products along with Australian wool. British agriculture was not to recover until the First World War.

The fens responded to this downturn with innovation in cropping and diversified into vegetables and fruit and so the engine needed regular maintenance and further updating.

1871 Two original boilers renewed.
1878 Third boiler renewed.

1892 Crankshaft replaced.
1896 New scoop wheel, 37 feet in diameter.


1900 - 1947

The desperate need for food during the Great War alerted both the populous and politicians to the need for food security and so the use of diesel engines that had been increasingly developed in German submarines, as a replacement for steam power. The older engines were finding the lift of the water into the rivers too high and so, a new type of pump, first seen at the Great Exhibition, was combined with the power of diesel.

1925 Mirrlees diesel started work driving a Gwynnes centrifugal pump. (Their pumping ability was three times that of the steam engine and scoop-wheel).
1941 Steam engine last used
1947 Mirrlees diesel and the Station relegated to ‘standby’ duty.

1947 - 1980

It was rather an ignominious ending of pumping at Stretham Old Engine as the shrinkage of the land meant that the water started to flow towards Cambridge rather than Stretham and the engine became increasingly stranded. Thus, the engine was used as a standby for the newer electric pumps with remote sensors and controls that were being installed. Following the 1947 and 1953 floods a major overhaul of the whole drainage system was introduced.

As the station was still in full working condition, both the old obsolete steam engine and the now redundant diesel engine their historic value was appreciated by the last station superintendent Mr. C.O. Clarke. He fought hard to preserve his charges and stop the IDB, Internal Drainage Board, from having to sell them for their scrap value, as had been the case for most of the other stations and their engines throughout the fens.

1958 Preservation appeal for the engine on T V by L.E. Harris.
1959 Stretham Engine Preservation Trust formed.
1966 Mirrlees diesel last worked.

1969 Electrically driven pump installed at Bottisham Lock (pumping from the Waterbeach Level into the River Cam).


1980 - 2000

The preservation of engine came under a more formal structure with renovations and improvement with the creation of a visitor friendly site and funding to ensure its wellbeing into the new Millennium.

1988 Stretham Engine Trust formed and a new 99-year lease obtained from the Waterbeach Level Internal Drainage Board.
1989 National Appeal for funds & Phase 1 renovation works started.

1993 Coal yard wall rebuilt, fencing above weed screen installed and Phase 2 renovation works completed.
1994 Concrete floor to Guinness engine shed laid.
1995 Electrical drive fitted to flywheel of the Engine; Guinness engine and Archimedean Screw pump installed; steps and walkway to the weighbridge installed.

2000 - 2010

Come the new century the upkeep of the building has been a large part of the Trustees responsibilities and achievement as dilapidations and new acquisitions have encouraged an increase in the visitor numbers.


2002 Partial electrical re-wiring; display lighting in beam loft and Guinness shed installed.
2003 Carpenter’s shed floor concreted; new lighting in scoop wheel house installed and the chimney was repaired.
2004 Scoop wheel ladles repaired.
2005 Mirrlees Engine House roof repaired.
2006 Shelter for Archimedean Screw constructed; river gauge renovated; oilers throughout repaired or replaced; all brasswork cleaned, polished and repaired; barrier plate behind flywheel secured.
2007 New fanlight for boiler room fitted; all outside doors (apart from main door) replaced with Oroko hardwood.
2008 Lighting in Engine House extended; half of the internal walls of the boiler room sealed and repainted; broken pipe on No. 2 boiler welded; Weighbridge hut repainted; shutters to Mirrlees windows installed.
2009 Mirrlees windows and door frame replaced with hard wood.
2010 Easton Amos & Anderson centrifugal pump installed on concrete plinth outside the Mirrlees Engine House


2010 - 2020

Since 2017 new volunteers have continued the work of care and restoration of the engines and ancillary equipment, with a further increase in visitor footfall. However, in 2020, Covid 19 required the Station to close for the first time in its 190-year history