Hunting meeting changed face of the area forever

St Andrews Church in Epworth. Picture: Holly Allen.

St Andrews Church in Epworth. Picture: Holly Allen.

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Hatfield Levels is the name given to the area of land (and water) about ten miles north-east of Doncaster. It derives its name from the different levels of water that were produced when the area was drained in the 17th century.

At one time the main villages such as Hatfield, Thorne, Crowle and Epworth which surrounded the flooded land could only be reached by boat. This meant that wedding and funeral parties had to be transferred from outlying villages to the nearest church across the water with the ever-present risk of a storm blowing up during the journey.

The land above the water was rich in wildlife and hunting was a favourite pastime of the local nobility, as well as Royal visitors who called quite regularly. Deer were present in large numbers, as was wildfowl and fish in the marshlands.

In 1609 an important meeting took place which lead to dramatic changes, altering the Levels area for ever. Sir Robert Portington, who lived at Tudworth Hall just outside Hatfield, was entertaining Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, to a deer hunting expedition. The story has it that 500 deer were rounded up and driven into one of the large lakes called Thorne Mere, where the hunting party was waiting in around 100 boats. As the deer floundered in the water the huntsmen speared or clubbed the animal of their choice. It was indeed a strange and barbaric way to hunt such fine animals. One of the guests in Prince Henry’s party was a Dutch engineer by the name of Cornelius Vermuyden, who had already much experience with land drainage in his own country and thought that, with some thought, the land could be improved. The question of draining the Levels area - then known as part of Hatfield Chase - was discussed, and Vermuyden agreed to employ his experience as well as a large number of Dutch, French and Flemish workmen to do the job. An agreement was made to share the drained land equally between the King, the participants (Vermuyden and 56 others, mostly Dutch, who put capital into the venture) as well as a number of commoners (local inhabitants).

The drainage operation was an enormous task which involved the re-routing of rivers, including the Don, Idle and the Torne - the cutting of many straight drains and the building of flood banks and roads, all carried out with an array of primitive tools. The operation was not welcomed by local inhabitants, many of who opposed the drainage with riots, murders (of some of the workmen), fires, deliberate flooding as well as court cases. Despite such challenges, the drainage work was completed in about 18 months, which was a remarkable achievement. The reclaimed land was then divided up amongst the participants, who came over from Holland and France to claim their land. A valuable practice in the improved productivity of the land was a system called ‘warping’, ‘Warp’ is river or estuary carried sediment which, by natural or artificial means, settles on land after shallow flooding. Many acres of the land on the Levels were ‘warped’, thereby increasing its area of dry land.

The peat moors of Hatfield and Thorne played a significant part in the economy of the area, the peat having formed many centuries ago from a combination of heath, moss and bogland plants in which artefacts and even bodies have been found.