Formed in 1986 at a regional meeting held at Peterborough Museum, the Project fosters interest in the traditional East Anglian river-craft that were known as 'Fenland lighters' and also in the seagoing trade with which they co-operated. In combination, these two forms of water transport provided a highly effective freight-system in pre-railway times, and this played a key role in the development of a large region.

The Fenland Lighter Project's work involves publication of historical research and also the promotion of public awareness regarding the role of water transport in earlier times. The Project does not undertake preservation work, but it provides publicity for efforts of that sort by others.

Fenland lighters represent one of the great pillars on which much of the regional history rests, and the Project has been able to emphasise this fact while co-operating with a number of organisations including the BBC and Anglia Television.

You can contact the Fenland Lighter Project by email at hjkpkjenkins@yahoo.co.uk.

A Mile of History

Ongoing Co-operation during 2013

The mile or so of the River Nene just downstream of Peterborough Town Bridge is rich in historical associations that tell of water transport’s bygone significance in the region.

The encouragement of careful riverbank walking has resulted in valued co-operation with a number of organizations, including Peterborough Central Library (Archives and Local Studies); the riverside Key Theatre; and the Society for Nautical Research, to which particular thanks are due from the Fenland Lighter Project.

Historical links include such varied matters as: medieval barges that brought stone to build the great church that became Peterborough Cathedral; Fenland lighters that provided commercial interface between North Sea trade and river freight; a small naval vessel (MTB 777) that became ‘Peterborough’s Warship’ for several years after the Second World War; and the 1957 arrival at Peterborough of one of the Royal Navy’s last midget submarines, the aptly named Sprat.

Remember that the Nene, like all rivers, should be treated with respect. Take care when walking along its banks … keep dry … and enjoy yourself!

Further information will be found on the following website pages – and, of course, in the growing Fenland Lighter Project Collection, maintained at Peterborough Central Library for the past twenty years.

Public Awareness Activities

BBC involvement has been highly important in terms of public awareness - a notable instance being the radio series Floating Trade, produced by Steve Somers and made with the active co-operation of the Project. Broadcast on various stations, the six programmes deal with the effect of river and seagoing trade on the region through the centuries.

During 2001, the Fenland Lighter Project was approached by Anglia Television (Granada) regarding historical advice for the River Nene programmes in the very popular 'Riddles of the River' series. This led on to actual participation in filming on board the passenger-boat Key Ferry. Produced by Alison Starsmore, and presented by Bryan McNerney, the resulting programmes were broadcast during August 2001 (with repeats in later months). In terms of fostering public awareness, the effect has been remarkable.

To supplement the printed word, and an extensive correspondence, the Fenland Lighter Project provides lectures to a range of organisations. Moreover, co-operation with Peterborough College of Adult Education has resulted in numerous day-schools and field-trips: these have proved very successful, attracting participants from far afield. The Project has also acted as consultant (regardingn old-time river traffic) for Peterborough Cathedral's visitor facilities.

A particularly interesting development has involved co-operation with Peterborough Environment City Trust, and its Millennium Green Wheel. Opened in the summer of 2000, this £11 million scheme has been funded in part by the Millennium Commission, and it provides a network of leisure-pathways complete with facilities including elaborate information-boards which carry text and graphics to throw light on various aspects of the region's heritage. The Fenland Lighter Project is glad to be associated with Peterborough Millennium Green Wheel: as a result, waterway matters figure prominently on the information-boards, involving such varied matters as: medieval barge traffic for cathedral construction, the heyday of Fenland lighter traffic in the 18th century, Lord Orford's Fenland pleasure-cruise of 1774, the vanished lake of Whittlesey Mere, and bygone efforts to establish Peterborough as an 'inland port' for shipping brought upriver on the Nene, from the Wash.

The Fenland Lighter Project is also in touch with Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, regarding its splendid collection of prisoner-of-war artefacts from Norman Cross. It is hoped that in due course some of this material (from the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars) may temporarily figure in major exhibitions in France. N.B. Fenland lighters were used for prisoner-of-war transport in the period indicated.

The remains of fenland lighters on the River Nene in the 1990s.

Recent news (Summer 2006)
The current number of the Northamptonshire Record Society’s journal includes an eleven-page illustrated article which discusses prisoners-of-war in the Peterborough area during the French Revolutionary Wars, and the movement of prisoners by means of Fenland lighters in that period. (1)

A paper on the trading activity of Fenland lighters in the eighteenth century, and attendant social relationships, is included in the programme of the December 2006 conference of the Institut du Monde Anglophone (CREA XVIII), Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris University III. (2)

Regarding the Norman Cross Collection of prisoner-of-war handicraft from two centuries ago, held by Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, there has been recent correspondence as to the possibility of selected items going on temporary exhibition in Paris. In this connection, Fenland Lighter Project communications have involved Professor Gerald Butler, San Diego State University; Mrs Shelagh Grant, Peterborough’s Director of Community Services; and Professor Serge Soupel, Paris University III. (3)

(1) H.J.K. Jenkins, ‘Privateersmen at Peterborough: Controversial Captives during the French Revolutionary Wars’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 58 (2005), pp. 70-80.

(2) H.J.K. Jenkins, ‘Boisterous River Traffic and Northampton’s “Demonstration of Joy” in 1761’.

(3) See Newsletter of the Society for Nautical Research, May 2006, pp. 12-13.

Model Ship at Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery (Catalogue: PETMG:E90)
This is an impressive item, seemingly intended to depict a French privateer of the larger sort, circa 1800. For a range of reasons, this model would be particularly suitable for inclusion in a Paris-based display. It is an unusually large “beef-bone model”, part of what is termed the Norman Cross Collection (1). However, it seems likely to have been made by some officer (or officers) living on parole outside the prison-camp (2).

With the esteemed co-operation of the Museum authorities, the model was examined and measured during July 2006. A number of unusual characteristics were noted: moreover, some misconceptions appear to have affected cataloguing and labelling in the past. At the time indicated, the model showed some signs of minor damage and imperfect repair. Items such as guns and anchors were absent.

Ship-rigged and pierced for eighteen carriage-guns, the model has a hull-length of approximately 71 cm, and a beam of approximately 17 cm. It depicts a flush-decked vessel with a “round bow”. Wheel-steering is shown: only three sets of pintles are fitted to the rudder. Allowing for projecting spars, the model measures (for casing purposes) approximately 120 by 37 cm, with a height of approximately 90 cm (this to include the stand).

(1) For comment on the Norman Cross Collection, as well as discussion of such matters as politico-juridical problems linked with aspects of French privateering, see H.J.K. Jenkins, “Crime, Punishment and International Relationships: Norman Cross Depot, Huntingdonshire, 1797-1814”, in Serge Soupel (ed.), Crime et châtiment dans les Îles Britanniques au dix-huitième siècle, (Paris, RuBriCa, 2001). N.B. This collection involves papers given at the Institut du Monde Anglophone, Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris University III.
(2) See H.J.K. Jenkins, “Privateersmen at Peterborough: Controversial Captives during the French Revolutionary Wars”, Northamptonshire Past and Present (Northamptonshire Record Society), 58 (2005).

The Heyday of Fenland Lighters

The importance of Fenland lighters was at its height around 1700-1850. A typical lighter was about thirteen metres long, with a cargo-capacity of about twenty tonnes. Such vessels generally operated in 'gangs': a gang involved several hulls being coupled head-to-tail by an ingenious arrangement of chains, poles and ropes.

On the Ouse-Nene complex of waterways (giving access to the Wash), the lighter gangs provided low-cost transport which brought agricultural produce downstream to the seaports, from which effective markets could be reached. Also, the lighters carried inland the coal and timber imported by sea: they served not just the Fenlands, but also hinterland counties such as Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire.

Fenland lighters were sometimes used for unusual tasks. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, they carried French prisoners of war to the great depot at Norman Cross.

In the type's heyday, propulsion generally depended on sailing (when the wind was suitable), running with a current, or horse-tow. When a gang was proceeding under sail, the horses were commonly taken on board a 'horse-boat' towed at the end of the line.

A dwindling number of Fenland lighters remained in service until well into the twentieth century. Latterly, however, propulsion was provided by small tugs.

Liaison with Seagoing Trade

The term 'lighter' signifies a barge used for lightening seagoing vessels by trans-shipping cargo from them.

Over the centuries, various types of merchant vessel traded into the Wash: grimy colliers from such ports as Sunderland and Newcastle, 'timber-ships' that brought wood from the Baltic, handy little coasting sloops that carried general cargoes, and so on.

Via the seaports of King's Lynn on the River Great Ouse, and Wisbech on the River Nene, the Fenland lighters served as a highly effective link between seagoing commerce and centres as far inland as Bedford and Northampton.

Privateering Links

As indicated in the preceding section, the river trade of the Fenland lighters served in effect as an inland extension of seagoing traffic. A sort of 'floating-transport-chain' existed, within which salt and fresh water links were joined together for commercial purposes.

However, there is an old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link...

During the eighteenth century, for instance, this meant that commerce raiding by French privateers (les corsaires) out in the North Sea could, in wartime, seriously affect the supply of coal and other necessaries to inland communities.

(A French Privateer)

Privateering was an important (but often misunderstood) component of bygone warfare, and some incorrect beliefs regarding the privateers and their activities have persisted into present times. For recent discussion of these matters, see

H. J. K. Jenkins, 'Images in Peace and War: British Sea-Going Trade and French Commerce Raiding, circa 1790-1801', in P.-G. Bouce (ed.), Guerres et paix: la Grande-Bretagne au XVIIIe siecle, (Paris, Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998), I, 83-95.

Medieval Fenland Stone-barges

The notable wave of ecclesiastical building in the medieval Fenlands (eg. Peterborough and Ely Cathedrals) depended upon barge traffic for transport of stone and other materials. However, little is known for certain with regard to the vessels and routes employed: monkish records tended to ignore such matters.

In function, if not in structure, such medieval stone-barges were the ancestors of the much later Fenland lighters - hence this present item on the website.

Early in the 1990s, the Fenland Lighter Project was consulted by Peterborough Cathedral on the question of water transport history. One result of this is a semi-permanent display, within the Cathedral, which throws light on such matters, and on various medieval building techniques.

It has been tentatively suggested that a typical medieval stone-barge, as used in the Fenlands, would have measured about nine metres in length, with a cargo-capacity of around eight tonnes.

Some suggested reading:

  • H. C. Darby, The Medieval Fenland (Cambridge, 1940), pp. 104-106
  • H. J. K. Jenkins, 'Medieval Barge Traffic and the Building of Peterborough Cathedral', Northamptonshire Past and Present, Northants. Record Society, vol. VIII (1992-3), pp. 255-261
  • H. J. K. Jenkins, 'Medieval Fenland Stone Barges: A Fragment of Evidence', Mariner's Mirror (Society for Nautical Research), vol. 79 (1993), pp. 458-460.

    Lord Orford's Fenland Cruise in 1774
    In the summer of 1774, George Walpole, third Earl of Orford, made a flamboyant pleasure-cruise along various Fenland waterways, his route extending between the Lakenheath district and Peterborough. The vessels used were a 'gang' of Fenland lighters, modified with cabins so as to serve as a sort of articulated yacht.

    In the lead, the Whale accommodated female servants and cooking facilities. Next came the Alligator and Shark, providing the main accommodation for Orford and his guests. Astern of them, the Dolphin provided quarters for the crewmen and menservants. The oddly-named Cocoa Nut, at the end of the line, served as horse-boat.

    Highlights of the cruise involved sport on the lake of Whittlesey Mere (later drained in Victorian times), rendezvous with the Earl of Sandwich (at that time First Lord of the Admiralty), a visit to theatricals at Peterborough, and hospitality at the Bishop's Palace.

    The manuscripts of three journals kept during the cruise are now preserved in the Lewis Walpole Library, in the USA. For a printed version, see the Lord Orford's Voyage entry in 'Further Reading' at the end of this website, and also the American Neptune article cited there. See also H. J. K. Jenkins, 'The Boating Earl: Lord Orford at Peterborough, 1774', Northamptonshire Past and Present, Northants Record Society, vol. IX, no. 4 (1997-98), pp.345-349.

    Second World War Links
    During 1999 the Royal Navy Presentation Team contacted the Fenland Lighter Project. This led on to renewed regional interest in the curious Fenland episode which involved the presence of Motor Torpedo-Boat 777 at Peterborough, 1946-51, on special duties. This wooden-built veteran of European hostilities arrived at Peterborough under tow from a small steam-tug which normally pulled one of the last 'gangs' of Fenland lighters. Disarmed and without engines, the 777 remained, nevertheless, a naval vessel until disposed of by the Admiralty in the early 1950s.

    (M.T.B. at sea, c. 1944-45)

    Co-operation with the British Armed Forces Small Craft Historical Research Group, and with the Coastal Forces Veterans Association, has been supplemented by varied research, resulting in a well-documented record of the 777's strange career. Brief comment on this appeared in the Newsletter of the Society for Nautical Research (No. 41, February 2001). For a substantial article, with illustrations, see H. J. K. Jenkins, '"Peterborough's Warship": Motor Torpedo-Boat 777, 1946-51', Northamptonshire Past and Present, Northants Record Society, Number 55 (2002), pp. 73-78.

    Regional and Interdisciplinary Matters

    Involving links between old-time seagoing and river traffic, the work of the Fenland Lighter Project raises various questions of approach. In these times of change, it is important to consider new ideas - or at least the development of old ones.

    In that regard, two published letters are given below: their themes are linked, and they appeared in The Mariner's Mirror (Society for Nautical Research) during 1997 and 1999, respectively (vol. 83, p. 349 and vol. 85, p. 223).

    The letters are reproduced here with grateful acknowledgement to The Mariner's Mirror, for the necessary permission.

    Interdisciplinary Conferences

    During the past year or so I have given papers, on maritime historical matters, at various interdisciplinary conferences organised by such bodies as the Institut du Monde Anglophone, Sorbonne Nouvelle; and the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. In my experience, papers involving maritime history are very welcome at such gatherings; it would appear, however, that not many papers of this sort are offered.

    Interdisciplinary conferences provide valuable scope for the exchange of views and findings within the scholarly community - and one might add that such functions generally prove very enjoyable. It seems to me that some good opportunities are currently being missed: if more maritime historians were to attend interdisciplinary conferences, the cause of maritime history might well benefit.

    Chairman, Fenland Lighter Project, Peterborough.

    Regional History in the Coming Century

    The promotional publicity for Issues of Regional Identity (E. Royle, ed. [Manchester University Press, 1998]) points out that 'regionalism is assuming new importance'. Moreover, the book, published in honour of John Marshall, seeks to break away 'from the traditional parochialism of local history while maintaining a focus on those particular and contrasting experiences which contribute to the national experience'. 'Regional' history is, indeed, a very different matter from 'local' history - although the making of that remark implies no criticism.

    Within the movement towards greater emphasis on regional history, there appears to be a particular opportunity for maritime historians, especially those interested in the question of linked seagoing and river commerce, and the influence of such varied activity on the economic development of pre-railway Britain. All too often there is a tendency for outsiders to put maritime history 'into a box of its own', so to say, thus relegating it to the role of a rather obscure or even arcane specialism. Such a notion certainly reflects a misconception, but it is a widespread misconception, nevertheless: experience of interdisciplinary conferences during recent years has convinced me of this. Regional history might well prove particularly useful in helping to overcome attitudes of the sort indicated.

    The image of 'sow and piglets' has sometimes been applied to the pattern of heavy transport which involved linked coastal and river traffic in eastern Britain during pre-railway times. The long body of the 'sow' would be represented by the extended coasting trade, and the 'piglets' would be the various river-systems that connected with it. Although this image is inelegant, and unsatisfactory in other regards also, it does at least provide a striking 'diagram' of what was involved. It directs attention, for instance, to the fact that many inland parts of the kingdom depended on a chain of 'domestic' waterborne commerce that was markedly vulnerable to interference in time of war - a point illustrated by the way in which the newspapers of inland regions often took particular interest in French privateering activity out in the North Sea.

    The preceding paragraph indicates just one sort of material which maritime historians might contribute to the expanding field of regional history. I am aware, of course, that much has already been done in this area, but the expansion of such activity, so as to involve more fully the non-coastal regions, seems worthy of consideration.

    Chairman, Fenland Lighter Project, Peterborough.

    Further Reading

  • H. J. K. Jenkins, 'Lord Sandwich, Lord Orford, and Whittlesey Mere, 1774',The American Neptune, (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem), vol. 57 (1997), pp. 253-256.

  • H. J. K. Jenkins, Along the Nene, (Cambridgeshire Books, 1991).

  • H. J. K. Jenkins, 'Fenland Lighters and Their Heyday, c. 1700-1850', The Mariner's Mirror, (Society for Nautical Research), vol. 79 (1993), pp. 155-169.

  • H. J. K. Jenkins, 'Anglo-Russian "Vermiculars" on the Dnieper, 1786-1787', RuBriCa, (Moscow), issue 3 (1997), pp. 5-11.
    [This article discusses possible design links between eighteenth-century Fenland practice and Russian freight-boats introduced by Samuel Bentham.]

  • Lord Orford's Voyage round the Fens, (Cambridgeshire Libraries Publications, 1993).
    [A new edition of eighteenth-century waterway journals edited by J. W. Childers, with introduction by H. J. K. Jenkins, notes by Mary Liquorice, and historical map by Geoff Jenkins.]