Whittlesea Mere – once the greatest of English lakes
Including reminiscences of Yaxley Reed Merchant Joseph Coles.

“Glatton Round Hill,
Yaxley Stone Mill.
And Whittlesea Mere,
Are the three great wonders-
of Huntingdonshire.”

The draining of the fens taking as it did only the water to a certain level, left several meres undrained. Whittlesey Mere, Trundle Mere, Ugg Mere, Ramsey Mere and Benwick Mere, all of these remained as meres well into the nineteenth century.

Whittlesey Mere was once Southern England’s largest inland lake.

John Bodger’s 1786 Map of Whittlesea Mere 

It stretched about three miles east to west and two-and-a-half miles north to south in the summer, while winter flooding could make it even larger. Until the 19th century it was a paradise for boaters and fishermen, teeming with wildlife all year round and used by skaters in the winter when frozen.

The mere was located some four or five miles from the town of Whittlesey and was big enough to take many large trading boats, which used to carry merchandise to Yaxley,
Ramsey and Holme. Reeds grew profusely in a great belt around the Mere and were of such good quality that they were ideal for thatching purposes. As a result there was a thriving business in reeds and merchants coming into the area with goods from the Midlands, the North and Scotland would load their empty wagons with consignments of reeds for the return journey to those distant parts.

In addition to the export of reeds and sedge, turf was cut, dried, stacked and transported into Yaxley for distribution locally and nationally. Turf was burned for light and heat in Fenland cottages.

The 1824-1836 old series map shows the Yaxley Lode running from Main Street into the Trundle Mere, which was connected by a narrow channel into Whittlesey Mere. Trundle Mere itself was connected to an even smaller body of water called Dray Mere, which was in turn connected to Walpole Pit. Trundle Mere opened up into the greater Whittlesey Mere in a body of water called White Pit, which looked towards Gosling’s Island.

Surrounding the Whittlesey Mere were several points of interest: Arnold’s Mouth, the opening at the end of Conquest Drove, Frog Hall Mill on the northern shore of the mere (next to the farm of the same name), Hawkins Mill on the south east shore and Port Sandwich to the south west. Caldecot Dyke ran south west from the mere and was intersected by roads leading to Vise’s Plantation east of Stilton and directly south from Yaxley Wycks.

No. 3 Main Street, may once have been a Customs House at Water End, where at one time there was an old water course of the River Nene connecting to the Great Mere.

The Coles paid £700 per year to the Lord of the Manor for the Fowling, Reeding and Fishing Rights of Whittlesey Mere.
The  Feast of the New Club, held annually on the second Tuesday in June, included traditional water festivities on the Mere and dancing on the shore.

In summer it was a playground for the rich. George Walpole, third earl of Orford, grandson of Britains first prime minister, sailed a flotilla of nine boats to the mere in 1774 for a month of nautical high jinks, along with the Earl of Sandwich.

Winter too, was also a time for merry making as when the water froze, the large expanse of ice was ideal for skating and sledging and large numbers of people would come from the surrounding district to take part in, or watch, these activities.

Skating championships were held with big cash prizes offered. It is said a top skater could cover a mile in just three minutes over the ice. Nineteenth century writer Charles Kingsley claimed some expert skaters even chased pike seen beneath the ice, tracking the fish until they were exhausted, then breaking the ice and netting them.

Drainage of the Mere
By the middle of the 19th century, Whittlesey Mere had become increasingly shallow and so a group of local gentleman and landowners including William Wells of Holmewood, Heathcote of Conington Castle, Edward Fellowes of Ramsey Abbey; Thornhill of Diddington; Lord Sandwich; and Wentworth Fitzwilliam of Milton in conjunction with the Middle Level Commissioners, financed a scheme to drain the mere.

This however was not the first time that the plan had been discussed – around 1830 Sir John Rennie reported, for the Duke of Bedford, on the drainage of Whittlesea Mere and the surrounding fens, an area of 50,000 acres; but his plan, owing to the opposition of conflicting interests, was never carried into effect.

This time though the plan would be successful – the newly invented Appold centrifugal pump, which had been on show at the Great Exhibition that year, was used to pump the Mere dry at 1,600 gallons per minute. The centrifugal pump could lift water to much greater heights and at a faster rate than the scoop wheel (an impeller from this pump is on display at the Science Museum, South Kensington). Thousands of people came to watch and collect the fish that were left stranded on dry land as a result of the reclamation.

A flood occurred in 1852 and the mere filled with water, but it was drained again. In 1862, the Marshland Sluice gave way under pressure from the tide and water flooded in. It was drained once more and farming resumed.

Improvements to the pumping station were made over some time.

William Charles Easton Griffith of Easton, Amos and Anderson, was sent as Resident Engineer in charge of the erection of pumping-machinery in the Whittlesea Mere district of Cambridgeshire in the 1870s. At several stations the old windmill and scoop-wheel were being replaced by the steam engine and centrifugal pump, and at Whittlesea Mere, consequent upon the general subsidence due to the effects of drainage, the original engine and centrifugal pump-the first used in the Fen District-were substituted by an engine of greater power and by a pump of a capacity adapted to work under a higher lift.

Around 1900 engine drain was dug out from Holme post to the Mere engine and a new diesel pump was installed. By 1918 Asa Clarke took charge of the engine.

But what was once only useful as fen for cutting reeds was now prime agricultural land. Rents soared. But there was another consequence. The peat shrank dramatically once it dried out and was exposed to bacteria and winds. Realising this, William Wells sank an iron post deep into the ground near Holme in 1852. Within 10 years the top of the post stuck out six feet above the ground and this shrinkage continued until the end of the century. It has slowed since, but now the peat has shrunk 13ft in the century and-a-half since installation. This is the lowest point in the country, seven feet below sea level.

However, many interesting and historical items were found on the bed of the lake.

Joseph Coles discovered an object embedded in the mud, which turned out to be a fourteenth century censer from Ramsey Abbey – considered to be the finest in Europe at this date.

It is not known whether the censer had been deliberately hidden in the mere during the Dissolution, or whether it had been lost there at some earlier date in a boat accident. The censer was a standard item of church metalwork, and was used in various ceremonies, such as the mass, processions and the performance of the last rites. Incense was placed on hot coals inside the censer. When the censer was swung on its chains, it gave off aromatic smoke.

This find however was claimed by the Lord of the Manor who gave Joseph £25 although the item was valued at around £1000. The censer along with other items from the lake are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Also in the bed were found a chandelier and pieces of quarried stone, which had undoubtedly fallen from a barge on the way to the Abbey.

The skull of a wolf and skeleton of a killer whale has also been found on the bed of the mere.