Jump to content

The Great Fens Floods


Recommended Posts

  • Location: Eastbourne, East Sussex (work in Mid Sussex)
  • Location: Eastbourne, East Sussex (work in Mid Sussex)

    After the extreme Winter of 1947, mild air starting edging towards the UK around the 10th March 1947, bringing rain and gales. At times the South Westerly reached sustained speeds of 65 mph with gusts of 100mph and on this day in 1947 the wind started whipping up the flood waters making substantial waves.

    Years of drainage in the Fens had left much of the area under sea level and it wasn't long before the flood waters were out of control. Local authorities, the army, the fire brigade and even some remaining prisoners of war were drafted in to man the pumps.

    The warm air spread northwards and eastwards. Meltwater from the Welsh mountains poured into the valleys of the Severn and Wye, flooding Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. The rivers of the English Midlands burst their banks and, by 13 March, Fenland rivers were close to overspill.

    On the 15th, a deepening depression from the Atlantic approached the UK, bringing rain and severe gales. During the afternoon of the next day, mean winds over southern England reached 50 knots, with gusts of 80-90 knots. Buildings were damaged and waves were whipped up on floodwaters. In East Anglia, where the major rivers flow north-eastwards, the south-westerly wind drove their waters ahead and waves pounded the dykes. Water levels rose, the dykes were breached and most of Fenland was inundated. Troops were called in, but could do little to stop water racing through the breaches.

    River levels rose relentlessly. For example, the Trent burst its banks at Nottingham on 18 March, flooding hundreds of homes - many to first floor level. When floodwater reached the tidal part of the Trent, it was impeded by a spring tide, and the whole of the lower Trent valley was flooded.

    The floods in the West Country subsided after the 20th, but rivers continued to rise in eastern England. The Wharfe, Derwent, Aire and Ouse all burst their banks and flooded a huge area of southern Yorkshire. Selby was almost completely under water, only the ancient abbey and a few streets around the market place escaped inundation. Seventy per cent of all houses in the town were flooded.

    The cold and snowy weather had, at last ended, but the misery of the floods continued into the spring. And to make matters worse, the severe difficulties caused by the winter of 1947 were aggravated by the fuel and food shortages that remained after World War II.


    Aerial photograph of a submerged Swavesey Railway Station 1947

    The ‘47 Flood combined a number of adverse factors at their worst, with the addition of heavy winter snow, followed by a quick thaw after a long frost. The ‘Big Freeze’ tended to make cracks in the river banks and the sudden thaw found drains and ditches frozen up. Waterlogging of the land moreover made the rush of water down from Northampton and Bedford area exceptional. To add to the adverse conditions the Spring tides were high and a raging hurricane approaching 100 miles an hour caused great waves of water to beat against the banks.

    It became obvious that the Fens’ defences were due for a severe strain and work was put in hand immediately to strengthen the banks of the River Ouse and its tributaries by topping them with bags filled with gault but, as events proved, much of the work was in vain.

    Diary of Events:-

    Sunday 16th March. With the water in the Wash, and the Ouse and its tributaries rising rapidly, bagging went on throughout Sunday at all vital points as the floods rose perilously near to the peak of the banks. The position became critical and matters were precipitated by a hurricane which swept the district, and forced workers to abandon their task.

    Monday 17th March. Although the day broke quietly after the over-night hurricane it became apparent that the weary workers’ efforts to keep the flood in check were in vain. First light revealed a 12 foot breach in the bank of the Ouse at Over and thousands of acres were inundated. The water reached Earith and the Old West River, and the low lying areas of the villages of Over, Willingham, Fen Drayton and Swavesey, and the surrounding fenland.

    Tuesday 18th March. The rising waters swept remorselessly on and began to flow over the bank of The Old West River, resulting in the flooding of Haddenham Fen, in many places 12 foot deep, and eventually reached the low-lying outskirts of Haddenham and Sutton.

    [One week later the Army had temporarily staunched the flow through the gap at Over, reducing it to a trickle. With the fall in the Spring tides and the steady drop in river levels attention was turned to pumping the vast quantities of water from the various fens.]

    Swavesey: stranded ..... but not submerged: Swavesey was virtually encircled with flood water and the flood revealed much about the village and surrounding Fens. Mow, Middle and Cow Fen droves; and Mare Fen were deep under muddy water. Access to the village was only along Boxworth End to the A14 (formerly A604).

    Three parts of Swavesey, however, remained above the water line and few people had to leave their homes. The gravel ‘island’ at Church End, site of the church and former priory, although cut off by Church Brook was approached from High Street by the high causeway at Swan Pond. The flood thereby revealed the size of the causeway and none of the houses on the cobblestones was flooded. Shoppers were ferried by boat or dinghy at Turn Bridge linking the Middle Watch ‘suburb’ with High Street. The village green was also under a sheet of shining water.

    The castle mound remained exposed and stood sentry over the ancient Hale Road track leading to Fen Drayton. The railway track from Swavesey to St Ives was submerged in places and badly damaged by the rushing flood water and the railway station and goods yard were under 3-4 feet of water

    Courtesy: www.swavesey.org.uk

    Taking England and Wales as a whole March 1947 is the wettest March on record with 177.5mm recorded on the England and Wales precipitation series. Many parts of the UK record more than 3 times their average March rainfall in 1947, Torquay, for example, recording nearly 3 and three quarters their average March rainfall. Most of England and Wales recorded more than 23 days with rain in March, and Birmingham recorded the greatest number of rain days; 28 in all. Meanwhile, in central London it rained in Camden Square for 122 hours - between 1881 (when records here began) and 1947 only two other months recorded more hours rain - March 1916 (134) and December 1927 (127).

    Courtesy: www.dandantheweatherman.co

    According to the Environment agency nearly 300,000 hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Kent, and dozens of major towns were flooded. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated and food supplies were gravely hit.

    Some of the worst flooding was in Nottinghamshire, where more than 14,000 homes and factories were inundated by the Trent and its tributaries. At least 70% of Selby was reportedly flooded, and many of the towns partly under water today in the Midlands and Oxfordshire were devastated as meltwater from the Welsh mountains ran into the Wye and Severn river basins.

    The Fens were completely awash, and in Worcester the Severn reportedly rose three metres in 24 hours. Meanwhile, 1,400 homes in Maidenhead, 3,000 in Oxford and 1,350 in Windsor were swamped.

    But direct comparisons are difficult. For a start, there was no attempt at the national level to collate all the information about the crisis. The country was in dire economic straits after the second world war, with widescale rationing and poor communications. It was, said the Environment Agency yesterday, "another world", with far fewer houses and no home insurance as we know it today.

    Courtesy: www.guardian.co.uk

    The great Fen floods of March, 1947, were caused primarily by heavy rain following the deep snow and prolonged frost which had held the whole country in their grip since the beginning of the year. The rivers of six counties drain into the Great Ouse and reach the sea through its single outlet at Lynn, but here again northerly winds and high tides helped to keep the immense volume of flood water bottled up in the river, with the result that the Little Ouse at Southery, the Great Ouse near Ely and the Wissey at Hilgay all burst their banks and flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of the eastern Fens. Hundreds of men toiled day and night to fill the breaches with clay, while behind them their land was flooded and their families took refuge in the upper rooms of their houses.

    Afterwards Dutch pumps were borrowed to help clear the flood water. Miracles of industry and ingenuity by the Fen farmers contributed to raise a harvest that year from some of the richest land in England, which in April had lain under water. The outcome of that flood was a six-million-pound scheme, which is still proceeding, to make relief channels to contain the water of the Fen rivers and give it a second outlet to the sea.

    However, the banks strengthened in 1947 withstood the effects of the gale and high tides of March, 1949, although the tide rose in the Great Ouse to the highest level ever recorded, and again patrols were out along all the banks and men worked furiously with clay and sandbags wherever the water threatened to break through.

    Courtesy: www.happisburgh.org.uk

    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    • Replies 2
    • Created
    • Last Reply

    Top Posters In This Topic

  • Location: just south of Doncaster, Sth Yorks
  • Location: just south of Doncaster, Sth Yorks

    Very interesting read there Coast-I do remember local rivers in the Chesterfield/Sheffield area flooding quite badly.

    The local bus service could not get into Chesterfield for a few days using the normal route due to the river flooding under the main railway bridge-its still a problem and in the floods of 2007 (I think the year is correct) that area flooded again.

    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    • 2 weeks later...

    Create an account or sign in to comment

    You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

    Create an account

    Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

    Register a new account

    Sign in

    Already have an account? Sign in here.

    Sign In Now
    • Create New...