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Thu 7 Jan 2021
Reclaiming Holderness
Peter Tomkinson // Research Volunteer
Peter Tomkinson
Research Volunteer
In the 18th Century William Constable was working to not only protect his land from flooding, but even to claim back some land for farming that had previously been part of the Humber itself... Our research volunteer Peter Tomkinson has been discovering the history of this fight for land which has shaped so much the East Yorkshire landscape we see today.

 ‘Of all the improvements that this country can boast, none are so strikingly great or of such public utility, as gaining lands from the sea and draining fens, carrs, swamps and drained lands’.                                                         19th century engineer


Flooding and Land Improvement have always been and always will be an important aspect of land ownership in East Yorkshire, where the soft soils and fierce sea mean that those who live along the coast face a constant battle to protect their property from coastal erosion.

This article looks at the major engineering challenges faced by the landowners of Holderness in an urge to not only turn the tide, but turn it to their own advantage.
The South Holderness Marshlands in 1660

When William inherited the Burton Constable estate in 1747, he wrote a letter to his half-brother Marmaduke Tunstall describing his land as ‘rushes, hillocks, deep ridge and furrow, rivers and swamps…’. William’s farmlands, mostly rented to tenants, provided the estate’s main income. As is still the case today, flooding from the Humber was a key threat – even in the 12th and 13th Centuries commissioners were appointed to oversee defences against this danger.

During the 17th century the Humber started silting up – a very real concern in an area where shipping was and is such a key part of the economy! Caused by Spurn Head lengthening, this caused saltmarshes to grow between the mouths of the Keyingham and Winestead Fleets, and reduced the depth of the main channel. Cherry Cobb and Sunk Island sandbanks grew rapidly.

Though a definite threat, the silting also posed some potential for landowners in the area.  In 1695 thirteen acres of Sunk Sands were embanked to form Sunk Island, with a further 20,000 acres added in 1744. 

Changes in the Extent of the Silt Zone of South Holderness
Tackling the Problem, Reaping the Rewards

As the silt piled higher the width of the North Channel was reduced, increasing floods in Keyingham marsh as it blocked Keyingham Fleet and Thorneycroft Drain. As flooding grew so too did the need for better drainage outfalls.

William had spent considerable time and money on embanking Cherry Cobb Sands. A huge investment, by the time the project finished in 1770 it had cost £8000 (equivalent to £700,000 today). As the situation grew William realised that an Act of Parliament would be necessary to allow the full work necessary to improve his land, writing in May 1769:


“Sir, after consulting the most understanding men, after the more careful inspection of the level, and the most mature deliberation, I am convinced that our land can only be effectively drained by Paul (i.e. Paull) and cannot be effectually drained by Keyingham … and I am likewise convinced tht such drainage cannot be brought about without an Act of Parliament.  This opinion which you are pleased to call an assertion against experience, I could support by undeniable agreement.” 

In 1772 William’s wish was granted as a private Act of Parliament created the Keyingham Drainage Authority. The Act recorded that 20,000 acres were vulnerable to flooding ‘for want of proper outfalls in the River Humber’ – a not inconsiderable amount!  William Constable owned 1,032 of the 2,610 acres the new Act covered, mainly in Halsham, Burstwick and Shackling. Unfortunately the drainage works were not effective in clearing the low lying areas of water; the resulting fall in land value caused William and his associates to require a new Act.

Keyingham Drain (image by Andy Beecroft)
Keyingham Drainage Act

William had recently paid for the construction of the new Cherry Cobb Drain, and he canvassed other landowners and parliament that water should be diverted there from Keyingham. The Keyingham Drainage Act of 1802 therefore allowed the creation of Keyingham Marsh Drain, still a key feature in flood prevention today, with a new channel to Stone Creek Clough and with enlargement work at Keyingham Fleet. The 1802 Act also meant that William could extend the Cherry Cobb Sands into the estate of Keyingham, adding 1,150 acres of farmland to his estate and giving the Constable family an additional £700 rent every year.

A final Act of Parliament in 1832 provided even more power to improve the drainage of Holderness’ low-lying grounds around Hedon and Winestead. Today the result is a broad belt of productive farmland growing wheat and vegetables, with wide drainage ditches leading to the river.

A huge workforce was required to carry out this masterpiece of engineering, but the rewards were enormous. Farm rents rose as the the drainage and reclamation work took effect, leading to economic benefits still felt by local farmers today.

The history and antiquities of the seigniory of Holderness, in the East-Riding of the county of York
Cherry Cobb Sands and it's environs in 1840 from Poulson

In the 1700s, the costs of drainage were:


Fencing, bricking and draining when resettling the farms and estate in 1775:    £800

Cherry Cobb Sand embankment                                                                         £8,000

Embankment at the point adjoining Paull Holme                                                 £100

Keyingham Drainage                                                                                           £4,092

Average rent totals for areas where drainage work had been carried out were high in 1780:
Keyingham estate £1,396 (19s 3½d per acre)
Paull estate £1,369 (£1 0s 4d per acre)
Burton Pidsea estate £1,279
Halsham £1,492
Thorngumbald £1 0s 3d per acre

By contrast, those areas which had not seen the work carried out were significantly less valuable:

Withernwick 15s per acre
Sproatley 10s per acre

The benefits of this work in the 18th Century continue to be a vital safeguard to protect Holderness from flooding, and to boost the farming economy in this region. 

The extent of the area which would otherwise be lost to the river or at risk of flooding can be seen in the geological map below, with the broad swathe of Holderness Plain made up of silty, muddy sediment representing past incursions by the Humber marked as alluvium. An impressive achievement for the landscape engineers almost 300 years ago!

East Yorkshire Geology; note the extent of the silt plains north of the Humber (C Wikimedia Commons)

Text by Peter Tomkinson; edited by Philippa Wood (Curator at Burton Constable)


Principal references:

DDCC/145/4   -  File of copies of letters from W.C.  1765-1784

DDCC/145/15  -  Miscellaneous papers relating to the affairs of William Constable 1780

DDCC145/16  -  Commencement of Mr Constable’s case 1775

DDCC/22/76  -  State of case of Mr Constable’s drainage