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LABELYE, Charles

The result of a view of the Great Level of the Fens, taken at the desire of His Grace the Duke of Bedford, &c. Governor, and the Gentlemen of the Corporation of the Fens, in July 1745.
London, George Woodfall (printer), 1745

The draining of the Great Level, 300,000 acres of East Anglian fenland was the biggest British civil engineering project of the 17th century, creating vast new areas for agriculture.

Carried out in stages between 1640 and 1656, the drainage was planned and carried out by Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch engineer, involving colossal works, notably the New Bedford or Hundred Foot River and the associated Denver Sluice.

Denver Sluice diverted the tidal waters from the Ouse into the Hundred Foot River whilst maintaining the river level between King’s Lynn and Ely for navigational purposes. It collapsed in 1713 and the condition of the drainage in the area, known as the South Level, began to deteriorate. However, owing to years of debate over whether or not the sluice should be removed, nothing was done until Labelye was called in to inspect the area and to comment on a report by John Leaford, who wished to retain the sluice.

In his own report Labelye, who at the time was on special leave from his work as the architect of Westminster Bridge, goes fully into the intricacies of land drainage before commenting on the present state of the fens, being strongly critical of much of the work that had been carried out so far. He also pours scorn on Badeslade's 1724 scheme for improving the navigation of the Ouse ("If Mr Badeslade's Calculation was true, Lord have Mercy upon the Fens"). However, Labelye was broadly in agreement with Leaford's views and thus the sluice was rebuilt in 1746-50 under Labelye's direction.

Labelye's report perhaps also exerted influence on two later engineers, both involved in fen drainage. It was first owned by Thomas Telford, whose signature is on the title page. Between 1818 and 1821 Telford on behalf of the River Ouse Navigation Commission advised on the construction of the Eau Brink Cut, designed by the elder John Rennie to bypass the river above King's Lynn. When the cut proved too narrow, Telford widened it in conjuction with the younger John Rennie.

The book then passed to Michael Andrews Borthwick, whose signature is below Telford’s. Borthwick worked with Robert Stephenson in 1847-9 on the improvement of the River Nene and on the Norfolk Estuary scheme for the River Ouse before working with Stephenson and Bidder in 1852 on a proposal for land reclamation in the Eastern Scheldt. He was also involved in railway construction, again in association with Stephenson and Bidder.


Small 4to. vi + (ii) + 74pp. Quarter calf. Ownership inscriptions of Thomas Telford and M.A.Borthwick. Skempton No.815.



Catalogue No: 5284