An Account of the Mode of Draining Land:
According to the System Practiced by Mr. Joseph Elkington p 101-104 (2nd ed. 1801)

John Johnstone



THIS being a part of the draining system not coming within the limits of Mr. Elkington's practice, and founded on principles different from those that are applicable to the drainage of bogs, and other swampy ground injured by springs, I have thought it more proper to add it as a Second Part, than to have incorporated it with the preceding account.

When the wetness of a field arises from rain water that cannot sink through a tenacious soil, and must, if there is no declivity, remain till evaporated, the principles which govern the practice of Mr. Elkington's art are not applicable. But,

In all cases (and such are very numerous) where the wetness proceeds from springs, a farmer ought certainly to examine his field carefully, in order to ascertain whether the evil proceeds from the above cause only, or whether it proceeds from springs. If from the latter, he should endeavour to discover if such springs are distinct: and unconnected, or whether they do not flow from some main one, which being cut off, would drain a considerable tract of land below the spot where it rises; as has been explained and exemplified in the latter part of Chap. III.

From want of due attention to this necessary discrimination, it is very common in Essex, Suffolk, and other counties where draining is very generally performed, to see many superfluous drains marked out in directions where they can have very little effect, and where a single one, well directed, would have completely dried the field. As the expence, which might thus he saved, is an object of consequence, too much attention cannot be paid to the inquiry.



That the Romans were not unacquainted with most of the modern methods of hollow-draining, appears from all their writers de re rustica. Cato, Palladius, Columella, and Pliny, mention them particularly, and describe some circumstances which have lately been considered as modern improvements. Upon strong tenacious land, where the water could only be received at top, they preferred open drains; on other soils, where the water could be drawn equally from both sides, or could rise from the bottom, they used covered ones. They knew the propriety of directing them obliquely across the slope of the field; a point in which modern drainers are often erroneous. Their general depth was from three to four feet, filled half way up with small stones; for want of these, with willow poles, and even with the spray of wood twisted into a rope; one of the latest practices with straw that has taken place in England. Of that material, also, the Roman farmers availed themselves, when others were wanting. The ends of their drains they were careful in fortifying with larger stones, in form of bridges, and the mouths, or outlets, were laid in masonry; a circumstance in which Mr. Whyn Baker, of Ireland, thought himself original.

*The passages of the ancient writers on this subject, are quoted and translated by Mr. Dickson, in his "Husbandry of the Ancients," vol. i. p.358, where the reader may see the details at large.

From the depth, it appears that their drains were designed to carry off the water of springs, as well as that caused by rain on a flat or retentive surface soil; for both which they were, in some cases, equally well adapted*.

To the proper direction of the water-furrows, in order to convey all surface water into the drains, and to the clearing and cleaning out of the ditches round the fields, they paid particular attention. These circumstances are sufficient to prove that the Romans understood the business of common draining in great perfection, and that our best cultivated counties had little to boast of in this respect, in superiority to the ancients, till Mr. Elkington made the discovery of a method with which they were wholly unacquainted. The best of the French writers on agriculture, De Serves, who wrote in 1600 his Theatre d'Agriculture, describes hollow drains particularly: they were filled with stones.



*Fltzherbert wrote his book of husbandry in 1534.
†Eastern Tour, vol. iii. p. 141.

It would demand a very careful perusal of all the earlier writers on husbandry, to ascertain when this practice was first introduced; but a circumstance occurred in Sussex, which shews that hollow-draining was in use long before any mention would be found of it, were such authors consulted, as no notice of it occurs in Fitzherbert or Norden*. In 1770, Mr. Poole of that county informed a farming traveller, "that near one hundred years ago, a very large oak, two hundred years old, was cut down at Hook. In digging a ditch through the spot where the old stump was, on taking up the remains of it, a drain was discovered under it, filled with alder branches; and it is remarkable, that the alder was perfectly sound, the greenness of the bark was preserved, and even some leaves were sound. On taking them out, they presently dropped to powder. It is hence very evident, that under-ground draining was practised three hundred years ago in this kingdom. We find, also, that alder is, of all other wood, the best for filling drains. Probably no other, except aquatics, would endure nearly so long. Bushes are generally used, but sallow or willow probably better†."

The Board of Agriculture has been informed by Richard Preston, Esq. one of its correspondents, that land-draining, according to the present practice, is not of more than forty years standing in his neighbourhood, in Essex.

This deserves inquiry; for it is generally supposed to have been used there long before such a period.