The Life and Works of John Rennie (7 June 1761 – 4 October 1821)

Swaffham and Bottisham Fen Drainage

Ian Anderson

The Cambridgeshire Lodes are a series of man-made waterways, believed to be Roman in origin, located in the county of Cambridgeshire. The term “lode” denoted a watercourse in Late Middle English, being derived from an Old English word meaning way or course.

There are four lodes connecting the River Cam and the SE Cambridgeshire fens: Reach Lode, Bottisham Lode, Swaffham Bulbeck Lode and Burwell Lode, running from southeast to northwest. These watercourses may well be of Roman origin and cut across the natural drainage of the area, which is towards the north or north east.

In the seventeenth century, the Company of Merchant Adventurers attempted to drain the land by building a main drain running from Stow cum Quy in the south west, using culverts to cross under the Bottisham and Swaffham Lodes into Head Lake Stream and a recut Reach Lode on a new line. The Civil War and other disturbances in the seventeenth century interrupted their attempts, and more work was necessary to drain the lands in the eighteenth century by the Bedford Level Commissioners. Eventually a separate Swaffham and Bottisham Drainage Commission was established by an Act of Parliament in 1767. They carried out some work on Reach Lode and cut some minor drains, but the continuing shrinkage of the peat and lowering of the ground level negated much of their work to drain the land for agricultural use.

Complete reorganisation of the drainage was necessary and John Rennie was commissioned to recommend alternatives. Another project to improve the Eau Brink Cut scheme in 1819-21 required dredging and regrading of the River Cam as far as Clayhithe. It was acknowledged that these works would cause increased seepage through the river banks into the Bottisham & Swaffham Fens, so the Eau Brink Commissioners agreed as required by their Act, to make a contribution towards improved drainage of the fens back into the river.

John Rennie was already the Engineer of the Eau Brink Cut, so he sent Richard Grantham to survey the area to map the pattern of natural drainage. In February 1820 Rennie advised that the natural drainage be re-established with the construction of an “Engine Drain” and the provision of a steam engine at the Cam at Upware, the fourth such engine in use on these fens. The Upware engine works were carried out by Jolliffe and Banks, the contractors on the Eau Brink Cut, under Rennie’s supervision and were completed in 1821.

The system proved to be only partly effective as the steam engine was too small so the old windpumps continued to be used. The pumping capacity could not keep pace with the shrinkage of the fens and there was serious flooding in wet years. In the late 1840s a larger steam engine was built at Upware, all the windpumps were abandoned and the drainage was concentrated to feed into the main Engine Drain, so reverting to the direction of the natural drainage. Work was completed in 1850 and proved successful. In 1854 the Quy, Bottisham and Swaffham Fens were described as ‘now bearing most luxuriant crops of corn’.


1. Fen Drainage NE Cambridgeshire,

2. Cross-Rudkin, Peter, East Anglia-Civil Engineering Heritage, Phillimore (2010), pp92-94