Reclaiming a New World: Fen Drainage, Improvement, and Projectors in Seventeenth-Century England


In: Early Science and Medicine
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  • 1 Wayne State University


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The draining of the English Fens was one of the largest and most expensive agricultural improvement projects undertaken in early-modern England. Though the principal motivation was to make money from the improved land, many advocates of fen drainage emphasized the moral, utopian dimension of such projects, part of a much broader program for improvement and reform of all kinds to benefit the English Commonwealth. To those interested in pursuing good husbandry and agricultural improvement for their own sake, the Fens represented an unparalleled opportunity, a region of great potential yet unrealized. This article examines several texts advocating fen drainage written between 1580 and 1660, especially those published by Samuel Hartlib and his extensive network of correspondents, with particular attention to the non-financial reasons they gave for undertaking such projects.


  • 17

     Hartlib, ed., Legacie, 54.

  • 28

     Hartlib, ed., Legacie, 53.

  • 30

     Thirsk, “Plough,” 306–13; see also Yamamoto, “Distrust,” 150–54; The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Walter Blith.”

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  • 31

     Blith, “To those of the High and Honourable Houses of Parliament,” in English Improver, fol. a v.

  • 32

     Blith, “The Epistle to the Ingenuous [sic] Reader,” in English Improver, fol. a v.

  • 33

     Thirsk, “Plough,” 309–11.

  • 34

     Blith, English Improver Improved, 45–64; quotations on 49. The original orthography reads “Ingenuous,” but I believe this is an error – the same error was made in the title of Blith’s “Epistle to the Ingenuous Reader” in English Improver.

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  • 37

     Blith, English Improver Improved, 16–7.

  • 39

     Yamamoto, “Distrust,” 117–28; The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Cressy Dymock;” see also John Dixon Hunt, “Hortulan Affairs,” in Greengrass, Leslie, and Raylor, eds., Samuel Hartlib, 321–42.

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  • 42

     Dymock, Dicoverie, 17–8.

  • 43

     Dymock, Dicoverie, 19–22.

  • 47

     Dymock, Dicoverie, 19.

  • 48

     Dymock, Dicoverie, 11.

  • 50

     Blith, English Improver Improved, 52; Dymock, Discoverie, 2.

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