Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595–1683)

Cornelius Vermuyden was one of the most talented of Dutch drainage and waterways engineers, and was responsible for transmitting the technologies developed in the Netherlands to Great Britain.

He was born at Tholen in the province of Zeeland, and when a young man went to England to work on embankments in the Thames Estuary. He returned in 1626 at the invitation of Charles I to supervised the drainage of Hatfield Chase in the Isle of Axholme, on the border of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. He was frustrated in completing the project by local prejudice against workers from overseas.

In the 1630s he was involved with lead-mining in the Wirksworth region of Derbyshire, and with a scheme to make navigable the River Derwent in that county. From 1629 until 1637 he was engaged in the drainage of the Great Fen or Bedford Level in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where he was responsible for building the Old Bedford River and the Forty Foot Drain, waterways that remain crucial components of the drainage system that has made possible the cultivation of wide expanses of very fertile land. Much of Vermuyden’s work was destroyed during the Civil War of the 1640s, although he returned to work in the Fens after the execution of Charles I, and between 1649 and 1652 directed the excavation of the new Bedford River, draining some 16,000 ha of land.

From 1653 he served as ambassador of Lord Protector Cromwell to the Netherlands. In the late 1650s he projected a drainage scheme for Sedgmoor in Somerset. Some of the skilled workers he took with him to England settled in colonies at Sandtoft on Hatfield Chase and around Thorney in the Cambridgeshire Fens.