The Work of the Low Dutch in Reclaiming and Draining Land, and its Influence on English Vocabulary
The pioneers in marsh reclamation in northern Europe were the men of Flanders and Holland, and in Flanders there appeared, about 1150, the first polders, that is, diked land reclaimed from the sea. The Flemings and Hollanders did not confine their activities to their own countries; bands of peasants were setting out, by the beginning of the 12th century, to drain the Mooren on the banks of the Elbe. It is extremely probable that the Flemings who settled in England in such numbers undertook the draining and clearing of the lands allotted to them, and although such drainage could not have been on an extensive scale, it was nevertheless likely to introduce new words.
By the 15th century the Dutch had become the leading drainage and harbour engineers in Europe, and for the next two centuries there is record of their being called to England for consultation and to undertake schemes of reclamation and harbour construction. In 1410 a Hollander was employed to work on the sluice at Romney, and Flemish masons constructed a sluice and dam at Boston in 1500. In the reign of Henry VIII a Brabanter, Cornelius Vanderdelft, was employed to drain the Stepney Marshes outside London. By reason of the expansion of the English fleet and merchant shipping in the reign of Elizabeth considerable works were carried out in the harbour at Dover; Flemish workmen were employed upon them, and the Brabant engineer Humphrey Bradley was consulted. This man afterwards interested himself in the drainage of the Norfolk Fens and brought forward his suggestions in a pamphlet entitled A Discourse of Humphrey Bradley, a Brabanter, concerning the Fens of Norfolk. Foreigners were again consulted about the reclamation of parts of Holland in Lincolnshire, but a practical attempt to drain a part of the Fens in the reign of James I failed.
No attempt at reclamation on a really big scale had yet been made; for the draining of land is a most costly process and needs
the backing of large funds. These were at length forthcoming from the powerful body of alien financiers who had made a position for themselves in the city of London. These Dutch capitalists financed the schemes, and the great Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, a native of the island of Tholen in Zeeland, was called in to direct the work. He had been employed in 1621 to repair the breaches which the Thames had made in its banks at Havering and Dagenham in Essex and to drain the marshes. In 1626 he entered into agreement with Charles I for his first big undertaking, the draining of Hatfield Chase in the isle of Axholme, a district of about 70,000 acres of fen, subject to inundation from the Don, Ouse, and Trent. Additional financial backing was obtained from Amsterdam and Dordrecht, and Vermuyden brought over Dutch workmen for the execution of his plans.
The drainage schemes met with bitter opposition from the fenmen, whose common rights were taken away, and whose occupations of fishing and fowling were destroyed, and the feeling was aggravated by the general English dislike for foreign workmen. The Dutch were attacked from the outset, and their embankments were cut as soon as they were built. Vermuyden became discouraged and sold his interest to the French engineer Gibbon, who brought in Picards and Normans to work alongside the Dutch. The attacks of the fenmen culminated in the great riot of 1650-1, when 82 houses and the church at the Dutch settlement in the isle of Axholme were destroyed, and quiet was not completely restored for several years.
Many of the Dutchmen now removed to the Great Fens in Cambridgeshire and settled first at Whittlesea and then at Thorney Abbey, where they founded a church in 1652. Vermuyden used these workmen on his schemes for draining the ‘Great Fens’, afterwards the Bedford Level, which he described as ‘a great continent of 400,000 acres’ lying within Lincolnshire, Northants., Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire. The first scheme was under the patronage of the Earl of Bedford and others and was not very successful, largely because the funds ran out and because interruption came through the outbreak of civil war. The undertaking was resumed after the war, and Vermuyden was again appointed engineer after competition with another Dutch engineer Westerdyke. Here also the workmen had to contend with the violent opposition of the
fenmen, who destroyed drains and sluices. The final effort upon Vermuyden's plans was made in 1649, and the work was completed in 1652.
A smaller scheme for the reclamation of Canvey Island in Essex was carried out by Dutch workmen under the direction of Croppenbergh, and the settlers built a church for themselves in 1641.
In the Middle English period a number of words appear which deal with the drainage of land and the construction of ditches. Groop (c. 1330, R. Brunne), to dig a trench; (1412-20, Lydgate), to groove, hollow out, incise. The sb. is later, Groop (c. 1440, Pr. Parv.), the drain or gutter in a stable or cowshed, a small trench, ditch; (c. 1440, Pr. Parv.), a groove, mortice; ad. M.Du. groepe (Du. groep, LG. grôpe).
Spay (1415), a sluice; ad. M.Flem. speye (Kilian spije, W.Flem. speie, spei, related to M.Flem, spoye, Flem. and Du. spui), in the same sense. Spayer (1450), a sluice; from the above and -er.
Wilkin (1495), a ram, a pile-driving engine; perhaps originally a proper name, probably of Du. or LG. origin, Willekin, diminutive of Willem.
In the modern period we get the following terms. A most difficult word is Suds, sb. plur. (1548), dregs, leavings, filth, muck; (1599), flood-water, the water of the fens, water mixed with drift-sand and mud, drift-sand left by a flood; (1581), water impregnated with soap for washing; (1592), foam, froth; O.E.D. states that with the existing evidence it is difficult to establish the chronology of the senses and suggests that perhaps the sense ‘flood-water’ is the original, in which case the immediate source may be MLG. and M.Du. sudde or M.Du. sudse (Kilian zudse), marsh, bog.
Scut (1561), of doubtful meaning, but probably an embankment; perhaps ad. e.mod.Du. schut, schutte, an embankment.
There are two terms for drainage officials. Dike-grave (1563), in Holland, an officer whose function it is to take charge of the dikes or sea-walls; in England (esp. in Lincs.), an officer who has charge of the drains, sluices, and sea-banks of a district under the Court of Sewers; ad. M.Du. dijcgrave (Du. dijkgraaf), from dijk, dike, and grave, count. Dike-reeve, Dyke-reeve (1665), of similar meaning; from dike and reeve, but perhaps an alteration of dike-grave, -greave by identifying its final part with Eng. reeve as in port-reeve.
Put-gally (1584-5), a bascule or lever fixed on a high fulcrum and having a counterpoise on the handle, by means of which water is lifted from a pit or well; ad. Du. and Flem. putgalg, a bascule to raise water from a well; in Hexham put-galge, ‘a swipe to drawe up water out of a well’, in Kilian put-galghe, from put, well, pit, and galge, gallows, post of a draw-well.
Rode (1616, in W.H. Wheeler, Hist. Fens), to clear a dike or stream from weeds; probably ad. e.mod.Du. roden, roeden (Kilian, LG. roden, raden), to root out, extirpate. Sasse (1642, Sir C. Vermuyden, Disc. Draining Fens), a lock; ad. Du. sas, which is probably also the source of F. sas, of the same meaning. Rode (1662, Dugdale, Imbanking and Draining), a certain length of dike; probably ad. Du. roede, measuring rod (of 10 feet long).
Camp-shot (1691), the facing of poles and boarding along the bank of a river to protect it from the action of the current; O.E.D. states that the term has been plausibly conjectured to be Du. or Flem. with the second element schot, boarding; *kant-schot would be side-boarding, but no trace of this or any similar compound is found in those languages, although the thing is well known there and is called schoeiing, i.e. shoeing; Bense would derive it from M.Du. camp, campe, field, and schot, boarding, influenced by schut, embankment, and so ‘the fence or boarding’ which protects the field extending along the river from the influence of the water; it is noteworthy that Dutch workmen were employed in the 17th century in improving the banks of the Thames.
Risbank (1731), an artificial bank, properly one faced and strengthened with brushwood; ad. Du. rijsbank, from rijs, rice, brushwood, and bank.
Dale (1851), an outlet drain in the Fen country; probably from Du. daal, a tube or trough for carrying off water; the same word as Dale, p. 77. Grift (1851), a channel shaped out by water for itself; perhaps ad. Du. grift, channel.
A.I. 181, 208-11; Pirenne, 81-2; D.N.B.
art. ‘Vermuyden, Sir Cornelius’.