Elly Robson (Cambridge), RHS Centenary Fellow

Custom, Improvement, and Landscape in Fenland Drainage, 1560-1719

Elly Robson is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, under the supervision of Dr Clare Jackson. Her research examines the 17th-century drainage and enclosure of the northern fens of Hatfield Level; one of the English crown’s first major projects of ‘improvement’, which was facilitated by Dutch capital and expertise and cultivated by continental Protestant refugees. This ambitious engineering project fundamentally transformed the fenscape and provoked the most prolonged and violent agrarian riots of the century. Analysing the fens as an environment shaped by conflict, Elly’s doctoral thesis bridges longstanding disciplinary divisions between intellectual and social history to show how political ideas were used as weapons with material force in disputes over land.

By the early 17th century, statesmen and commentators alike lauded the benefits of agrarian ‘improvement’, advocating intensive, profitable cultivation of land as a means of national prosperity and material betterment. Drainage was a flagship project of improvement, promising to alchemise fens from drowned wilderness into enclosed, productive terra firma. Contrary to the progressive claims made by contemporary commentators and subsequent historians, Elly’s detailed archival research investigates improvement as a process of spatial, social, and environmental reconfiguration, revealing that it was both differential in its impacts and profoundly contested. Drainage transformed ownership, organisation, and use of the fen environment and redistributed flood risk to promote cultivation, rendering vulnerable communities that previously regulated seasonal fen floods to benefit a pastoral economy. It also engendered riots spanning a tumultuous century of civil war and social change, as fen commoners’ ideas of ‘just right’ to common lands legitimised violent resistance and propelled critical engagement with central legal and political institutions. Fen conflict thus crossed different spheres of political action and discourse, spanning courtroom, parliament, and common to bring fractured sovereignty into dialogue with the local politics of fen custom.

Analysing rich legal testimony, printed pamphlets, petitions, and maps in concert with evidence of violent conflict in the landscape itself, Elly’s research reveals how drainers, statesmen, and local people used different ideas of property, value, and justice to forge rival visions of the fenscape. Her doctoral thesis therefore illuminates how ideas acted and actions spoke in the contested transformation of political ideas, social relations, and environments.

Elly’s research has taken her to archives in London, north-eastern England, and California and she has spoken at conferences on environmental, agrarian, social, spatial, and intellectual history in the UK, Zagreb, and Ghent. Elly is also an editorial fellow at History Workshop Online, a digital magazine continuing the spirit of the History Workshop movement.

Research and publications