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The Fenlands

A set of hands in dirt
Photo by Joe Mazza.

First things first: what is a fen? A fen is a wetland saturated by freshwater rivers that have passed through mineral soils. These waters carry with them decaying bits of vegetation—mosses, reeds, shrubs, and trees—which settle at the bottoms of their riverbeds and floodplains, creating layer upon layer of nutrient-rich peat. A fen is technically different from a bog, whose water source is rainfall; or a swamp, which is forested with woody vegetation; or a marsh, which does not necessarily accumulate peat.1 Each of these environments has its own unique ecosystem.

The Fens are a region on the east coast of England, about 70 miles north of London, surrounding a bay known as the Wash and straddling the counties of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, and Lincolnshire. The Fens encompass some 1,100 square miles of territory, and these lands lie at the convergence of several important rivers, where they pour into the sea—the Great Ouse, the Nene, the Welland, and the Witham. Taken with their tributaries, these rivers collectively drain one-eighth of England’s land area2. In the not terribly flattering words of Daniel Defoe, the Fens are “the Sink of no less than thirteen counties.”3

Through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, much of the Fens consisted of “common wastes,” lands that were not earmarked for any specific purpose and which were considered to belong to everyone. Fenland inhabitants developed ingenious strategies for thriving on these communal lands and for living in tandem with the cycles of flooding that seasonally overtook their region. They navigated their way from place to place atop stilts; they farmed reeds and sedge to make thatching for rooftops; they dug up and dried out peat for selling and burning as fuel; they caught waterfowl, fish, and eels.4 Against incredible odds, they successfully cultivated a delicate balance with their natural landscape, which served them in good stead for many a century.

That all changed in 1630, when King Charles I, in need of cash, allowed himself to be persuaded that if the Crown just drained the Fens, then profits aplenty would be in the offing. Wealthy investors were champing at the bit to transform the Fens’ “wasted,” shared wetlands into “productive,” privatized farms and pastures.5 With the Crown’s blessing, Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden swooped in to rid the Fens of their pesky fens, and to generate entirely new plots of arable real estate out of tracts of land reclaimed from the waters of the Great Ouse and the North Sea. Fen cottagers and smallholders did their utmost to sabotage this profiteering takeover of their way of life, smashing sluices and silting up drainage ditches while they were still under construction. But in the end, the locals were no match for the early-modern rise of global capital and the burgeoning empire’s hunger to commandeer natural resources. The Fens indeed were drained, the newly enclosed estates were divvied up among the venture’s well-heeled backers, and the project’s completion gave rise to the map of England we know today. Writing of the episode in her recent book Fen, Bog, and Swamp, Annie Proulx laments, “It has to be the oldest story in the world—taking ‘worthless’ lands from people deemed defective and inferior.”6

From these already storied instances of their rebellion, people from the Fens earned a reputation for being fighters and agitators, known popularly as Fen Tigers. Their ongoing catalog of labor uprisings further bore out this notoriety. In the “Bread or Blood” Riots of 1816, which rocked the Fenland burgs of Littleport and Ely, laborers and their families, ravaged by inflation and unemployment after the Napoleonic Wars, busted into shops of millers and butchers in order to steal and redistribute food. During the Swing Riots of the 1830s, farm laborers protested starvation wages by setting fire to employers’ haystacks and mutilating their livestock in the night. These acts of resistance were especially frequent and ferocious in the Fens, where incidents of arson and animal maiming took place well into the 1840s, long after the Swing disturbances had been quelled in other regions.7 Between 1906 and 1908, the early branches of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers were established in Norfolk by labor organizer George Edwards, who rode his bicycle over 6,000 miles around the Fens enlisting new recruits to join the movement.8 (You’ll hear the character of Ivy make reference to this.)

Though these glimmers of defiance might gratify the much-vaunted legend of the Fen Tiger, the region’s socioeconomic reality has long remained mired in poverty and patterns of labor exploitation. The gangmaster system of farming, whereby landowners contract a mercenary intermediary to secure and oversee gangs of workers for temporary agricultural needs, was an invention of the 19th-century Fens, where large farms needed lots of irregular work. Gangmasters came to be common all over rural England, though, in due course, they were reviled as so unscrupulous that their use fell into disrepute. For several decades in the 20th century, gangmasters disappeared from the UK labor landscape altogether, only to return with a vengeance in the early 1980s—in, of all places, the Fens.

Writing Fen in late 1982, Caryl Churchill had so many reasons for inviting us to consider a constellation of characters rooted in these manipulated wetlands. Margaret Thatcher was soon to be at the peak of her political powers, eagerly undertaking a massive scheme to privatize state utilities, public housing, and national industries. Growing awareness of human-caused damage to the environment was sparking heated conversation about agricultural corporatization and the defiling of public lands. The reemergence of rural labor gangs, which at that time consisted mostly of women, underscored the gendered stakes in the unevenly lucrative and increasingly globalized industry of food production. Sadly, the questions of economic inequality, climate change, and the gender pay gap are no less relevant now than they were then. Fen invites us to consider how its characters’ exploited circumstances are cognate to the land’s, and how they are ghosted, quite literally, by the land’s painful histories of greed. By its conclusion, the play dares us to reimagine their situations altogether, and to consider the ecstatic possibility of what it might be like, for them and for us, to reclaim emotions and desires, and to persist in progressing forward without ever, in the words of Nell late in the play, turning back for anyone. 

Derek Matson is a dramaturg and translator of theater and opera. His Chicago dramaturgy credits include Photograph 51The Mousetrap, and Titanic: Scenes from The British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912 (Court Theatre); The Wheel (Steppenwolf); United Flight 232 (The House Theatre); and Columbinus (American Theater Company), among many others. Derek studied acting at the Cours Florent in Paris. His translations of French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, and Catalan have been featured on ARTE in France and at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Wolf Trap Opera. He’s a former recipient of a Fulbright Assistantship to France and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to Russia.


[1] William J. Mitsch and James G. Gosselink, Wetlands (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015) 34-35.

[2] Eric H. Ash, The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2017) 25. 

[3] Quoted in Jacquelin Burgess, “Filming the Fens: A Visual Interpretation of Regional Character,” Valued Environments, Eds. John R. Gold and Jacquelin Burgess (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982) 44.

[4] See Ash 2-6.

[5] Ash 9.

[6] Annie Proulx, Fen, Bog, and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis (New York: Scribner, 2022) 61.

[7] John E. Archer, “Under Cover of Night: Arson and Animal Maiming,” The Unquiet Countryside, Ed. G. E. Mingay (London: Routledge, 1989) 65-79.

[8] Howard Newby, Green and Pleasant Land? Social Change in Rural England (London: Hutchinson, 1979) 140.

Posted on January 6, 2023 in Productions

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