Last year I was asked to undertake a piece of work in Wisbech to inform some ongoing work the Council was undertaking to improve community cohesion and social integration in the Fenland District area. I arrived in the town by the curiously named South Brinks which meanders along the River Nene and leads into the heart of Wisbech. There stands the statue of Thomas Clarkson – the Wisbech Grammar School boy whose voice informed that of Wilberforce, and reasoned out the blight of the triangular trade in African enslaved labour to the Caribbean 200 years ago. In some earlier research on the dismantling of the West African slave trade, I had read his words in the cloistered environment of the reading room of the University Library in Cambridge. In that somewhat sterile environment his passion was nevertheless palpable as he brought his intelligence and focussed passion to bear against the appalling trade in lives which was being undertaken under the flag of early Empire and the script of English civilisation. He was resilient, courageous and persistent in his research and lobbying to inform the consciense of eighteenth century politicians, churchmen, and ordinary citizens to see this particular form of slavery ended. In Wisbech his statue divides the route which leads on into the high street of that which once was a thriving commercial hub for this part of Eastern England, and the arterial routes out to another ancient estuary port of Kings Lynn.
In the mid- seventeenth century the inhabitants of Wisbech had been known as the Fen tigers because of their resistance to the draining of the fens. Their cause echoed the resistance that the burgers of Cambridge had put up half a century earlier as the Great Fen of Cambridgeshire was drained. One Cambridge historian remarked in 1655 that “the fens preserved in their present property, afford great plenty and variety of fish and fowl, which here have their seminaries and nurseries; which will all be destroyed on draining thereof.” Ecological concerns and private interest nestling together in a political package which inspired resistance.
The draining or ecological sabotage of East Anglia, depending on which way you look at it, was initiated through the economic speculation of English noblity, received political approval from Westminster in the person of Oliver Cromwell, was enabled by local investment from French Hugenot refugees who had been granted landholding in the area, and masterminded by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden using technology pioneered in the Netherlands. This mixed bag of ‘outside’ interests, confronted the indigenous population with enormous changes in their physical and economic landscape. It resulted in the migration of the town’s founding river – the River Ouse, and the introduction of a miniature Canal system echoing the inland port of Amsterdam just over 200 miles away, with dutch gables to match on the warehouses and substantial homes that line the North Brinks of the town. The draining of the fens turned Wisbech into a wealthy port handling the agricultural produce of the newly drained hinterland which was shipped out to London and across to Europe, and attracted inward investment in other mediums of commercial infrastructure. These were days of pride and innovation, with the banking dynasty of the Quaker inspired Peckovers, easing the town into a time of opulence, which the graceful Georgian buildings of the Crescent and the North Brinks stand eloquent testimony.
The same financial acumen of the Peckovers and their canny management of the local Banking system weathered a run on their credit and steered the town through the financial collapse which cut through the banking sector in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Inward investment into two harbour quays and three railway companies brought rail hauliers and passenger trains into the heart of a thriving hub. No wonder that a local vicar settled happily into authoring one of the iconic pieces of mid twentieth century children’s literature from here. The Rev. W Audry creator of eponymous Thomas the Tank Engine series, a global phenomenon which has reached to Japan in its popularity, wrote about engines, carriages, trams, field tractors and local bureaucracy, from the quiet retreat of his rectory in Enmeth only a few miles from the town’s centre.
But not all was sweetness and light. Awdry has the steam engine Gordon, resistant to change, resentful of the arrival of diesel engines and unyielding in the light of a changing portfolio of work. Gordon – proud in the passing glory of the North West Railway express passenger service – is the signature of recalcitrance and the fear of change which Awdry writes into his tale of post-war Fenland. And there were a number of grumpy Gordons present in the documentary shown in the BBC The day the Immigrants Left last night. The busy and industrious Tomases and Tomasinas, from Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Poland and Latvia, harvesting asparagus, packing potatoes, getting up at 5.15am and working relentlessly until their 8 – 9 hour shift came to an end. Awdry’s Gordon was inhibited by his philosophy that “tender engines don’t shunt”. Gordon looked down on tank engines and tender engines who did the shunting, an activity which was beneath him. In The day the Immigrants Left Evan Davis and his team had persuaded local unemployed residents to take up work which they wouldnt have necessarily envisaged alongside some of the European ‘incomers’. Gordon in Awdry’s tale ends up going on strike and being locked up in the railway sheds by a frustrated Fat Controller. In Evan Davis’s piece we watch somewhat shriven as opportunities to ‘take back the jobs’ apparently ‘stolen’ by accession workers are missed by those bearing sick notes, failing to show, or overwhelmed by the learning curve which any change in work culture and environment necessitates. Not all were Gordons however. There were some moments of learning taking place even in the short 48 hours of the experiment of change. There were one felt some Thomases in the sidings just waiting to be given a chance to shine. It was good to see some openness to change, and a verbalised at least for the cameras appreciation of the work-ethic of their newest neighbours. However even between the end of filming and the screening of the documentary one of the young skilled Wisbech carpenters had left the town seeking opportunities elsewhere, and two of those involved in the experiment had failed to be moved ‘out of the engine shed’.
Perceived economic advantage, change and adaptation. Winners and losers. Opportunities grabbed hold of, and those missed. Its a pattern which has shaped the human and physical landscape of Wisbech and its hinterland over the past four centuries. From the arrival of the French Hugenots, the draining of the fens, the banking acumen of the incoming Quaker Peckovers, the interest of railway barons, the diversion of the River Ouse, the loss of the port, the arrival by air, eurorail and southern ports of a new wave of energy and change from the continent. Families from Portugal, refugees from Africa, thousands of young men and women from the Accession countries of post communist Europe ready labour to harvest and pack crops, start businesses in the town, reinject the commercial life of a town which the old Industrial revolution had moved on from. It was all here, retranscribed for the third millenium. Over the last five years the economy of the town, in terms of commercial activity in housing, purchasing of white goods, a thriving sunday market, a steady increase in council tax revenue, has all resulted in a tremendous injection of activity and life for the area. Percieved economic opportunity, change and adaptation. I was left wondering what Cornelius Vermuyden, Thomas Clarkson, Wilbert Awdry, Jonathan Peckover and the previous generation of Fen Tigers would have made of it all. And reminded that in the end Gordon had to be assisted in getting over his grumpiness and undergo a refit. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00r3qyw/The_Day_the_Immigrants_Left/