Review number 47 – September 2008

Walsham Under Water

In October 1968 The Walsham Observer published the following letter:

Linnside The Path Walsham-le-Willows

Dear Sir,

May I, through the Walsham Observer, express the thanks of my wife and myself for the assistance given us by so many people to clear up after the recent flood disaster. There are so many that it is impossible to give their names, so I hope they will know that we appreciated what they did and will be forever grateful.

Yours faithfully,

H.E. Nunn

And this Public Notice appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times:

BASSET – Mr & Mrs Basset of Walsham (Avenue Cottage) wish to thank all who helped them after the recent flooding of their home.

It was late in the evening on Sunday, 15th September 1968 when some forty households in Walsham le Willows were struck by disaster. There was no forewarning, although some of those steeped in local knowledge and hearsay would have read the signs.

There had already been a week’s bad weather, with the demonstration of a new style tractor brought to a halt in torrential rain in Framlingham on Wednesday. The West Suffolk Motor Club’s second autocross event was cancelled in conditions “not fit for ducks” on Saturday, the day when Bury Town footballers entertained Bletchley and played on a waterlogged pitch in pouring rain.

A hand drawn map of the UK showing isobars as at 18:00 hours on 15th September 1968
click to enlarge

The problem was caused by an area of low pressure, around 992 mbs, sitting over the western end of the English Channel, with an associated thundery trough lying across southern England, and almost stationary from Friday to Monday. On Sunday some three inches of rain fell in twenty-four hours on land already waterlogged.

Everywhere watercourses and ditches filled quickly, emptying into the main stream which soon overflowed at low points along its course. People were taken by surprise at the speed with which the waters rose.

It was after tea and getting dusk at the Cranmer Bridge cottages: water was flowing very fast and had risen to cover the footbridge when Audrey and Ted Hubbard decided that they had to abandon their home. With baby Claire in a carry-cot and two-year old Sarah they formed a human chain with their neighbours Daphne and Kenneth Hubbard and their daughter and boyfriend in a dramatic escape to the safety of Cranmer Farmhouse standing on higher ground across the road. Here they all spent the night. On Monday morning they moved by tractor and trailer to Ted’s mothers’ house behind Sunnyside. When they returned to Cranmer Cottages they lived upstairs for two months until the lower four feet of the downstairs walls had been relined.

A copy of an old photograph showing a flooded street with a Shell petrol signs.
click to enlarge

Ralph Hubbard and his brother were enjoying an evening drink at The Six Bells when news of impemding disaster reached them at about 9.30 p.m. They rushed down The Street to offer help, but with water waist-high, they gave way to Victor Hubbard and Graham Nunn who, with tractor, trailer and a ladder, rescued Mr and Mrs Clarke from the upper storey of Jolly Coate Cottage. Sadly, the Clarke’s dog drowned. Next door, in the School House, Ethel Sturgeon had returned in pouring rain from the evening service at the Gospel Hall in Palmer Street. Water entered her house and, soon after 9.00 p.m. she waded across the road to where the water was less deep. She then went to knock on the door of Mr & Mrs Welch at Avenue Stores where a cup of tea was made. Before she could drink it, water entered here too and everybody moved upstairs for the night. Many people unable to return home stayed with friends overnight.

The depth of water can be appreciated if you consider that, at its height, it reached the windowsills of “Coopers” on Swan Path, the front doorstep of “The Limes” and the counter top of Rolfe’s the Butchers. Here, fridges filled with water, and all the contents had to be condemned. Subsequently rebuilding raised floors to their present level. But damage was not solely due to rising water levels in the stream and its valley. A cart-shed, situated between Rolfe’s and the chapel, was constructed of clay-lump walls with a timber loft above. The clay-lump walls collapsed from the pressure of the water running off the fields to the rear of the shop. The ditches and piped culverts could not cope with it.

At The Chestnuts, Dora Berry and her family suspected that a tap was dripping in the bathroom, before confronting the reality of a sheet of water running off the fields and through the back door of the house, eventually rising to a depth of 18 inches. There followed frantic efforts to move furniture upstairs. Long after midnight, when an exhausted Dora sought her bed, she found it occupied by a long- case clock, its face resting on her pillow.

Elsewhere, residents of Millars Close were evacuated on Police advice to the new school nearby, but water did not enter their homes. The Congregational Chapel was flooded and had to cancel its special Harvest Festival service previously arranged for Monday 16th September. One third of Alec Russell’s garden was under water and the only way out of Hartshall Farm for John and Margaret Wight was by tractor. Joyce Randall recalls talking to the Smith brothers in an upstairs window of Bridge Cottage in Grove Road at 5.30 on Monday morning. Water was up to the lower windowsills but they were fine and intended to stay put. In a cellar at The Lawn, Catherine Martineau found a chest freezer, still in working order, but floating in water which had risen through the drains.

Across the road, Brook Farm Cottages sit very low in the valley, and here water entered the properties to a depth approaching 3 feet. Roy Peters remembers seeing sandbags being swept away from the door by the force of the waters. Goods were piled high on the table, and other furniture was moved upstairs. At Brook Farm itself, home of Charles Martineau and his wife, the barley twist legs of a fine dining table were permanently stained by the floodwaters. At 3.00 am. the Fire Brigade came by, shone their torches, and receiving assurances thet everyone was safe upstairs, moved on. The floods moved on too, with water levels falling appreciably during Monday.

At the time, Walsham’s situation claimed little attention in an even worse scene over south-east England. The railway was washed away at Burston between Norwich and Diss, and at Kennett, between Bury and Newmarket, a rail-bridge partially collapsed. Seventeen schools in Suffolk were closed due to flooding. Bury was without electricity between 8.00am. and 4.00pm. on Monday. Further south the situation was much worse with five main roads out of London declared impassable, and Kent, often referred to as “The Garden of England” described by the Automobile Association as looking like a paddy-field in China with 700 square miles under water.

As always, the worst part came afterwards. Sewerage works were flooded. For a while water had to be boiled because floods had contaminated the Water Board bore-holes at Ixworth. Betty Jordan remembers the mess and the smell as she worked to restore some sort of order to her uncle’s home, Bridge Cottage, at the junction of Grove Road and The Causeway. She also had to sort out her cousin’s home on Swan Path. Roy Peters’ recollection is of fungi thriving on flood-soaked clay-lump walls. Yet the Electricity Board proved most helpful in servicing and refurbishing electric cookers and in supplying heaters to help dry properties. Hilary Russell negotiated the loan of three industrial drying machines from the United States Air Force at Mildenhall. Mr W.N. Valentine, Chairman of Thedwastre Rural District Council, launched a fund aimed at raising £6,000 for flood victims, most of whom were in Walsham. A village fund was opened to receive donations which would cover uninsured losses. For a good many people, any return to normal life was months away. Indeed, just a few days later the bridge on the Badwell Road collapsed, causing lengthy detours.

Many people living in Walsham today will have no knowledge or recollection of the disastrous floods of 1968 and will maybe consider the event as a “one-off”, a freak occurence. Indeed the chances of another flood are considered by Insurance Companies to be once in a hundred years. However family photograph albums contain flood scenes not just from September 1968 but also from August 1912 and from January 1939 (when Mr Dory of Sideways Garage, was caught on camera paddling a canoe past the Congregational Church). Three floods in a century: but don’t tell the Insurance Companies!!!!

ROB BARBER

Acknowledgements

  1. Issue 12 Walsham Observer published by Walsham Community Council
  2. Meteorological Office, Bracknell
  3. Bury Free Press
  4. East Anglian Daily Times
  5. Eastern Daily Press
  6. Ethel Sturgeon’s letter of recollection
  7. Many individual reminiscences, scrapbooks, and photographic albums.