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Home / About Us / Club History

Club History

Originally founded in 1946 by a group of local enthusiastic sailors, over the years, Ely Sailing Club has provided leisure and enjoyment to thousands of people.

After after a request to The Earl Of Bedford (who owned 20,000 acres of fenland) from King Charles I to drain the area, Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was tasked with re-routing many of the Fenland's rivers. Work started in 1630, but was halted after a few years by The Civil War until 1650 when work restarted through to completion in 1652. Following completion of the task, the fens drained and became the rich and fertile land as we know it today. However, in the years that followed Vermuyden's engineering masterpiece, the peaty soils began to dry out and shrink. This led to the land shrinking to below the height of the rivers and subsequently led to flooding of the newly formed agricultural land. In order to prevent this, the need to build up the river banks to protect the land caused a need to source impervious clay. Fortunately, Ely is sat upon large sources of gault (Kimmeridgian clay). Roswell Pits were first excavated in the 1700-1800s, starting with just one pit, and eventually ending up with the patchwork of pits left behind today. The most recently excavated pit started work in 1947, but ceased operations shortly after. Ely Sailing Club are situated in the largest pit at Roswell Pits.

The clay was excavated by men working in groups of threes. Known as Gaulters, they were led by a Chief Ganger, and worked five boats at a time, each carrying eight tonnes of clay. Each worker received around three pence per tonne of clay delivered to the work sites. Many of the barges were horse drawn, and some of the original horse towpaths remain today. The men operated cranes and excavators to scoop the clay into their barges, and some of the original anchorage points for this heavy machinery also remains. The pit where Ely Sailing Club is situated had a depth of 25m of clay excavated, totalling more than 4 million square metres of clay.

Photos of the Gaulters at work can be found here:

The formation of Ely Sailing Club led to a strong fleet of National 12s being resident at the club. In later years, Mirrors and Enterprises had large fleets and competitive racing.

In June 2008, the Roswell Pits area was granted Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status, due to the area's natural wildlife and fossil collection. The clays have preserved many specimens of ancient creatures. The largest fossil found on site was that of a Pliosaur - a Jurassic and Cretaceous marine reptile that grew up to 15m in length and is a distant relative of the Turtle. In fact, it was the largest specimen of a Pliosaur ever found! Hundreds of ammonite fossils are found in the clays, as well as the remains of a 65 million year old Sauropod dinosaur nearby. Crocodile fossils have also been found. In addition to fossils, the nature reserve is a successful breeding ground for birds. Several species ranging from herons, grebes, woodpeckers, reed warblers, moorhens, and king fishers are regular residents at the lake. There are also six different species of bat. Furthermore, rare species such as marsh harriers and bitterns are found at Roswell Pits. As a result, the site gained preservation status.

To see a fascinating map produced in 1610 by John Speed, a renowned cartographer of the Stuart period that shows his representation of Cambridgeshire, click here:

More can be learnt about the wildlife around Roswell Pits from this page: Ely Wildspace

A large collection of memories and pictures can be found here:

Last updated 20:56 on 30 January 2024

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