Surrounded by Water – Almost

Part 1.  The 1947 Floods.  A Torrent of Darkness

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the bending trees.  The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas.  A terrible gale was rushing in from the west, blowing down trees everywhere, demolishing telegraph poles, blowing the roofs off farm buildings and knocking over chimney stacks on numerous houses in the southern fens.  Many local people were too afraid to go to bed because of the risk of a chimney pot crashing through the bedroom ceiling.  It was the evening of Sunday 16 March 1947 and during the night the river Great Ouse burst its southern bank just north of Brownshill Staunch and a wall of water poured into Over Fen.  The worst flood of the 20th century had begun.  

The East Anglian Fens had flooded often throughout history and even within living memory there had been a great flood only ten years earlier, in 1937.  After that, plans were drawn up to strengthen the riverbanks but eighteen months later the country was at war, so the work was never started, and the task was not revisited by 1947.  

In 1946 there was a prolonged period of wet weather from June to November.  Hay making and cereal harvesting were difficult and autumn work on the local heavy land was delayed.  Wheat yields were slightly above average, but grain quality was poor although sugar beet yields were the highest ever recorded at 26 tonnes/ha on average because of the wet growing season (today, in 2020 the annual average yield is around 75 tonnes/ha).  December weather was cold and unsettled then on 23 January 1947 severe frost set in which persisted for just over six weeks.  Blizzards and heavy falls of snow occurred until the first half of March right over the country by which time 6 million sheep and 30 thousand cattle perished across England.

Throughout the six weeks of extremely frosty weather there were exceptional falls of snow and a vast part of the rainfall which had fallen as snow stayed where it had fallen on frozen ground. The snow was 2 or 3 metres deep on the higher ground of the Great Ouse’s catchment in Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.  Then on 10 March the rapid thaw began in the Swavesey area and it was accompanied by even heavier rain. The melted snow ran across frozen ground and entered the rivers which simply could not move it away to the sea.

On Wednesday 12 March water from neighbouring villages was flooding into Swavesey both overland and along the two main watercourses, Covell’s Drain in the west and Swavesey Drain in the east, and by Friday 14th it was also flowing over the bank of the Great Ouse directly into Swavesey along much of the northern edge of the parish.  By Sunday 16 March, the flood level in Swavesey village was already the highest ever known.

Meanwhile, there was a short delay while the waters gathered and came rolling down the rivers. In the Great Ouse at Brownshill Staunch in Over Fen the discharge of water was 50% higher than ever previously recorded with the height of the water about a metre above the previous record.  Then the rush of water came very swiftly.  At the Fen Drainage Office in Ely, the control centre for the area, it was obvious that an extraordinary flood was on its way.  Already by the evening of 13 March Cottenham Lode was the first watercourse to start to overflow its banks and a gang of men hurried there with bags of clay to hold it back.  The order then went out to patrol all the riverbanks.  

By Saturday 15th the whole organisation of the Great Ouse Catchment Board, reinforced by men from farms and villages and by large numbers of German prisoners-of-war, was working at full stretch and continued working throughout the night.   Ominously, on Sunday morning the wind began to freshen then blow harder until it reached gale force when darkness arrived.  Average wind speed, measured at Oakington airfield, was 67 miles per hour with one gust recorded at 98 miles per hour. During  that night of 16th March, the river Great Ouse breached into Over Fen. Over the next ten days 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) in the local area were flooded.

The next instalment will report the frantic struggle against the water on a stormy night.