Britain is getting wetter. Storm Christoph is only the latest deluge in a string of soggy disasters that have drenched communities in every corner of England and Wales. Scientists have predicted 10% more rainfall on our notoriously damp island by 2100. Much of this will happen during ‘heavy rainfall events’ – the exact type of weather that can cause rivers to burst banks and overwhelm flood defences. Increased downpour will converge with sea level rises and storm surges in coastal areas. Floods are the most common natural disaster, happening at an alarming scale and frequency in the UK. While resulting loss of life here is often relatively small, the disruption and damage to homes, livelihoods, and lives is immense. But we are failing to rise to these new challenges. This week, it was revealed that one in 20 of the country’s crucial flood defences – protecting lives and property – are in disrepair. In parallel, property developers are building ever more homes on floodplains.
In November 2019, Fishlake – a Yorkshire village on the edge of the River Don – became the unhappy posterchild of extreme, ‘biblical’, flooding in the UK, as a ‘miniature tsunami’ inundated 140 of 200 homes in the village. This week, Storm Christoph left Fishlake teetering on the brink of another disaster. This is not the first time, however, that the village has faced severe and recurrent threats from the Don. Four hundred years ago, a succession of increasingly desperate petitions from Fishlake, and other villages strung along tributaries of the Humber estuary, landed on the desks of chief ministers in Westminster. Their complaints of catastrophe and pleas for intervention allow us to think about how communities have dealt with dramatic increases in flooding in the past.
These early modern records offer insights into the politics of risk that emerged during a period of rapid environmental and political change. Seventeenth-century England was in the grips of a global climate cooling, known as the Little Ice Age, which led to worse and more extreme weather – both drought and downpours. Sea surges could cause dramatic deluge, as in 1607 when waters broke through coastal defences across western England and south Wales, killing hundreds of people. From the late sixteenth century, the Humber estuary was literally reshaped by increased storminess in the North Sea Basin, which washed away agricultural land and even whole villages. The effects were felt upstream in Fishlake and other villages fringing the tidal rivers of Don, Trent, Ouse, and Aire, which emptied into the Humber. By the 1620s, tidal fluctuations had become so extreme that these rivers overflowed into wetland commons even in summer.
Local residents were reluctant, however, to participate in schemes to improve the state of the wetlands. When the crown offered to drain and enclose their commons, they insisted that they were ‘confident of the ympossibillitie of preserving’ the land from flooding ‘in wett yeares’. Inaction was not a result of passivity. Instead, locals showed striking awareness of changing environmental conditions and the demands of water management. First, they pointed out that the new flooding was caused by changes in the Spurn Head peninsula, 60km east, which had once protected the Humber estuary from North Sea winds and surges. Breaches in the 1610s, however, had left only an isolated island. These distant structural causes, they argued, made drainage unfeasible. Secondly, they highlighted the financial burden of not only building, but also maintaining, new banks. They were unwilling to surrender most of their commons to drainers in return for new water infrastructure, fearing loss of land to flood and enclosure. Significant costs outweighed uncertain benefits: increased flood risk was acceptable, in order to preserve local control of resources and waterways.
As John Morgan has shown, most fluvial communities in this period understood deluge as a result of human action and neglect, rather than as ‘biblical’ in origin. Water management was part of daily life for wetland and coastal communities, with a kaleidoscope of rights and responsibilities encoded in local customary law. Fishlake was part of a large fenland area – later known as Hatfield Level – in which communities were not only flood resilient, but reliant on seasonal ebbs and flows. Commons on the floodplain absorbed overflow during wet winter months, which deposited a fine alluvial silt that fertilised rich summer pastures. They were described by the poet Michael Drayton in 1622 as a womb fertilised by the Don’s ‘profuse excesse’. These communities had long experience of working in and managing a hydrographic landscape. Fishlake inhabitants collectively paid four ‘banksmen’ to monitor and maintain the Don’s banks and invested in a ferryman and boat to carry livestock across the river to feed on fen marshes. Wetland communities turned water to their advantage, both adapting to and modifying their environment.
Only after top-down interventions to improve water infrastructure did a cacophony of complaints about flooding arise. Drainage transformed the environment on a scale not previously imagined, as high-capital ventures were pioneered by public-private partnerships between the crown and entrepreneurs. These schemes were – indirectly – financed by wetland communities, with most of the drained commons awarded to investors in the scheme. Drainers imagined productive terra firma, producing food for the nation and profit for landlords, and depicted wetlands as waste; a site of disease, poverty, and disorder.
For fen communities, however, drainage could incur ‘infinite losses’, rather than improvement. The first state-led drainage project, in Hatfield Level, did not eliminate water, but instead redistributed flood risk: commons on the floodplain were drained at the expense of drowning riverside villages. By 1635, Fishlake inhabitants complained that they had been flooded 30 times in 7 years, with damages amounting to £10,000 (equivalent to £1.2 million today). This was only the latest missive in a petitioning campaign to Westminster, often organised in collaboration with other Don-edge villages. Their houses were ‘defaced and spoiled’ and their livelihoods jeopardised. Crops were washed away, the harvest ruined, and cattle drowned or starving. Cumulatively, this left them so ‘miserable poor’ that they were ‘in need of the alms of others’. Damage rippled downstream to the rivers Ouse and Aire, where residents objected that there was ‘noe dry ground left for ourselves or our cattell to tread uppon’.
Flooded communities were in no doubt about the cause, alleging that new patterns of flow favoured drainers’ assets in the Level. The Dutch engineer, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, had ‘meddled’ in and disrupted networks of ‘ancient’ waterways. By damming a meandering branch of the Don, he had forced excessive volumes of water into a single, insufficient channel. Even more flagrantly, he constructed a high eastern bank to protect his new lands. No longer able to overflow onto the floodplain, excess waters burst over the older flood defences of villages to the west. Further complaints surfaced that Vermuyden and his investors had taken ‘all the best ground’ and left locals the worst and wettest.
Drainage generated a fraught water politics in Hatfield Level. In 1630, local petitions had resulted in orders that Vermuyden should repair villagers’ western bank. In addition, his co-investors were compelled to construct an expensive five-mile channel, the Dutch River, to alleviate pressure on the Don. But enforcing new water responsibilities was easier said than done. The Dutch River remained unfinished by 1635 and Vermuyden evaded liability for the western bank. Residents protested that they were were ‘still subjecte to the same calamitie upon everie flood’, but opportunities for redress were limited: they could not ‘contend in lawe’ with the drainers, ‘beinge persons of great estate, and friends’.
Communities instead resorted to direct action to redistribute precarious balances of water, drawing on collective knowledge about the hydrographic landscape. Fishlake residents cut gaps in Vermuyden’s bank to alleviate flooding on their lands. Meanwhile, locals pointedly refused help when a sudden flood from the River Aire threatened drainers’ new estates: ‘not one man would assist us’, but instead ‘denied to lend us a spade’. Hydro-violence spread across Hatfield Level during the civil war. Rioters broke banks and sabotaged sluices controlling flow on tidal rivers, drowning thousands of acres of drained land. By 1645, the House of Lords warned that disorder in the Level ‘threaten[ed] the drowning of the whole’. Multiple smaller modifications also undermined new systems of flow: for instance, blocking drains to create crossing points for carts and livestock into commons.
Order was eventually restored, but problems of responsibility, decision-making, and competing interests persisted, as did memories of old waterways and earlier floods. At the century’s end, one Yorkshireman lamented the flood destruction still caused by Vermuyden’s interventions and demanded the re-opening of the Don’s long-closed eastern branch. This was not an isolated opinion. A few years earlier, in winter 1697, a huge flood wracked the Level. Recording the event in his diary, Abraham de la Pryme, a local landowner, speculated that if Thorne sluice had been destroyed, ‘the whole country would have petitioned against its ever being built again’. One day – he predicted – the Level ‘will come to its ancient state again’ to ‘the ruin of all those that have land therein’. Flood risk in Hatfield Level therefore remained uneven, precarious and politicised, long after drainage.
In both the present and the past, there is a politics to risk. Like many ‘natural’ disasters, flood is profoundly human in both causes and impact. Who makes decisions about flood defence, and who pays for them? What do we choose to protect, or not to? Which risks are acceptable? These perceptions and structures determine when water is seen as catastrophic and when we take action. We can also ask further questions about the politics of recovery – who is resilient? How do communities, companies, and central and local government interact in responding to flood and resourcing recovery? Crucially, flood decisions are subject to debate and dispute.
Like Covid-19, floodwaters lay bare any pretence that we are ‘all in this together’. At Fishlake in 2019, central rescue and recovery efforts were too little, too late. Immediate aid came from neighbours, with the local pub providing refuge and hot food to stranded villagers. Pay-outs from insurers have been slow and troublesome, with some residents not able to return home, weathering the pandemic in temporary accommodation. Local officials have been demanding a greater say in central action to improve flood defence, so that ‘prevention and resilience works [are] based on local knowledge and consultation’ – and with good reason. When Storm Christoph hit in 2021, early warning and rapid local action averted disaster: Doncaster Council was able to mobilise hundreds of people to put in place temporary sandbag defences. These stories don’t command as much airtime as striking images of drowned homes. But they signal that there remains an important role for community participation in making decisions about risk, resourcing, and responding to flood. The example of seventeenth-century Fishlake presents a cautionary tale about top-down initiatives to eliminate flooding and highlights the potential for environmental crisis to act as a crucible of widening inequality and conflict.
Elly Robson is the managing editor of History Workshop Online and a research fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge. Her research examines social, environmental, and intellectual conflict over land rights and water management in early modern England and the Atlantic world. You can follow her on Twitter @EllyRobson9.