A visit to the Stretham Old Engine is a must for people glad to quit the usual tourist trail and willing to indulge in a bit of Fenland history and industrial archeology. Close to the village of Stretham near Ely this land drainage pumping station (now disused) is scheduled as an Ancient Monument and has been restored by the Stretham Engine Trust. It contains a fine steam powered double-acting rotative beam engine, and is the last surviving complete example of its kind in the Fens. The Trust has leased the pumping station for one hundred years from the Waterbeach Internal Drainage Board.

Until the 17th century Fenland was mostly a vast marshy swamp with some islands of higher ground - such as the Isle of Ely. In 1630 the Earl of Bedford employed the Dutch engineer Vermuyden to drain the southern Fenland in order to create land for agriculture. The drained soil then exposed to the air was mostly composed of peat which began to shrink and waste, and the ground level fell. Over the years it became necessary to pump rainwater from the fields up into the rivers which had remained at the pre-drainage levels.

At first, windmills driving large scoop wheels were used which pushed and lifted up the low-lying water. As land levels shrank further and further even the windmills could not deal with the height of lift required (in places the fen is now some 6 metres below river level). Fortunately the invention of the powerful steam engine arrived in the nick of time. The Old Engine at Stretham was one of over one hundred steam pumping engines installed throughout the Fens and which replaced some 800 windmills in the 1800's. In times of heavy rains and danger of floods, farmers were reassured to see smoke belching from its tall brick chimney and so to know that the Old Engine was at work in its slow but effective fashion, lifting the waters.

The Old Engine was installed in 1831 and laboured successfully until 1925, and was used as a stand-by until 1941. It was then superseded by a more convenient and efficient diesel engine connected to a centrifugal pump. In 1945 the diesel engine was itself superseded by another pumping station, now electrically powered, located some one and a half miles to the southeast on the bank of the River Cam.

It is not practical now to operate the Old Engine by steam, so an electrical drive has been installed to enable the manner of its former operation to be demonstrated on the days when the Engine is open to the public.

Displays about the history and development of land drainage and its machinery are shown in the Engine Room.

Principal Events at the Stretham Old Engine

1741 Waterbeach Level constituted by Act of Parliament.
1814 John Rennie reported on his survey of the drainage.
1829 Mr.Glynn invited to decide best situation for engine. (This station rests on a bed of hard gravel so no piling was required).
1831 Contract for engine, boiler and scoopwheel awarded to Mr.Glynn.
1831 Contract for building brickwork of engine house awarded to Mr.Briggs.
1847 Third boiler installed.
1850 New scoopwheel fitted 33 feet in diameter.
1871 Two original boilers renewed.
1878 Third boiler renewed.
1892 Crankshaft replaced.
1896 New scoopwheel, 37 feet in diameter.
1925 Mirrlees diesel started work driving a Gwynnes centrifugal pump. (Their pumping ability was three times that of the steam engine and scoopwheel).
1941 Steam engine last used
1947 Mirrlees diesel and the Station relegated to ‘standby’ duty.
1958 Preservation appeal for the engine on T.V by L.E.Harris.
1959 Stretham Engine Preservation Trust formed.
1966 Mirrlees diesel last worked.
1969 Electrically driven pump installed at Bottisham Lock (pumping from the Waterbeach Level into the River Cam).
1988 Stretham Engine Trust formed and a new 99 year lease obtained from the Waterbeach Level Internal Drainage Board.
1989 National Appeal for funds & Phase 1 renovation works started.
1993 Coalyard wall rebuilt, fencing above weed screen installed and Phase 2 renovation works completed.
1994 Concrete floor to Guinness engine shed laid.
1995 Electrical drive fitted to flywheel of the Engine; Guinness engine and Archimedean Screw pump installed; steps and walkway to the weighbridge installed.
2002 Partial electrical re-wiring; display lighting in beam loft and Guinness shed installed.
2003 Carpenter’s shed floor concreted; new lighting in scoop wheel house installed and the chimney was repaired.
2004 Scoop wheel ladles repaired.
2005 Mirrlees Engine House roof repaired.
2006 Shelter for Archimedean Screw constructed; river gauge renovated; oilers throughout repaired or replaced; all brasswork cleaned, polished and repaired; barrier plate behind flywheel secured.
2007 New fanlight for boiler room fitted; all outside doors (apart from main door) replaced with Oroko.
2008 Lighting in Engine House extended; half of the internal walls of the boiler room sealed and repainted; broken pipe on No. 2 boiler welded; Weighbridge hut repainted; shutters to Mirrlees windows installed.
2009 Mirrlees windows and door frame replaced with hard wood.
2010 Easton Amos & Anderson centrifugal pump installed on concrete plinth outside the Mirrlees Engine House.