The Earls of Bedford and early settlers
The Earls of Bedford started to take a major interest in their lands at Thorney in the early part of the of the 17th Century. This was linked with an influx of Walloon settlers. Some had been driven off their lands in Sandtoft, further North in England, in 1628. Other workers had come from Holland to work on the drainage of the Fens.
The 4th Earl, and others, called the Adventurers, gained permission to drain the Fens. Cornelius Vermuyden was employed to carry out this work. The Bedford Levels were
created and many drains and pumping stations established enabling our rich farming lands to be exposed.
The ruined abbey Church was rebuilt in 1636/38 and services were held there from that time. There were a minority of local people who also held services in the same church, but the Huguenots were allowed to have their own Pastor and conduct their own services in French. Transcriptions of some of the records of the period are available in the museum.
In 1650 the local people tried to drive them away but due to the size of the estate, and the protection of the Earl of Bedford, they did not succeed. Eventually the Hugeonot population rose to about 500 people. This identifiable population dwindled at the turn of the 17th/18th century for many reasons, amongst them being the anglicising of the family names, inter-marriage with local people and emigration.
The Huguenots were skilled in land drainage and farming. Many of them became tenant farmers under the Earl.
After the Civil War of 1642-1646, and the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, the Earl built an extension to Abbey House in Thorney. This was similar in design to Thorpe Hall in Peterborough where the Chancellor lived.
The museum displays documents and maps of this time to demonstrate the effect of the drainage of the Fens and the way of life during this century.