In 1630 a group of wealthy landowners (the ‘Gentleman Adventurers’), headed by the Earl of Bedford, set out to drain the fens so that the peat soils could be used for summer cultivation and to prevent serious winter flooding. The Adventurers would be repaid for their investment by a grant of land. They hired in the Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, to mastermind a drainage scheme using drains and wind power. Despite local opposition, by the end of the 17th Century much of the project had been completed, with the Bedford River and New Bedford River and Nene carrying water more quickly to the Wash.
Windmills formed an important element of Fen drainage
When civil war broke out, Peterborough was divided between Cavaliers and Roundheads. The city lay on the border of the Eastern Association of counties which sided with Parliament
Horsey Hill fort was constructed by Parliamentarian forces in 1643-4 between Stanground and Whittlesey. It was a large gun emplacement (or sconce) to defend the Nene crossing – and the earthworks survive to this day.
War reached Peterborough in 1643 when soldiers arrived in the city to attack Royalist strongholds at Stamford and Crowland. The Royalist forces were defeated within a few weeks and retreated to Burghley House, where they were captured and sent to Cambridge. While the Parliamentary soldiers were in Peterborough they ransacked the cathedral, destroying the Lady Chapel, chapter house, cloister, high altar and medieval records. Their beer bottles, clay pipes and musket balls were found in abundance during the 2016 dig in the Dean’s garden.
Parliament disposed of Church property to raise money and Oliver St John bought the lease to the manor of Longthorpe and built Thorpe Hall (completed in 1656)
Thorpe Hall (c1915)
The Guildhall (or Butter Cross) in Cathedral Square was built by John Lovin between 1669 and 1671. It was originally a market building but was used as Peterborough’s town hall from 1874 until 1933.
Guildhall and Market Square 1795 (N Fielding)
In 1670 the Stamford Canal was completed enabling goods to reach Stamford from The Wash by way of Spalding and Crowland.
The 18th century saw regular investments to enhance the navigation of the Nene both downstream and upstream. These included Smith’s Leam, a straight cut from Peterborough to Guyhirn in 1728; and facilitated by a series of Acts of Parliament, the navigation to Northampton was completed in 1761.
By 1750 Peterborough has a population of about 3,000 and in 1774 the first theatre is built.
In 1790 the Custom House is built, and a body of men called Improvement Commissioners are given powers to pave, clean and light the streets of Peterborough.
In 1797 there was a further economic boost when Norman Cross was chosen as the site of the first purpose built prisoner of war camp – or “depot”. The prison was built by the Admiralty to hold prisoners from the Napoleonic wars and housed up to 6,300 prisoners, guarded by 500 soldiers.
The Norman Cross Depot