Thursday, June 7, 2012
WE had a reminder last month that rivers flood in summer as well as winter.
And it was in early June 1725 that the River Great Ouse flooded higher than anyone could remember. Or in the more picturesque language of the parish clerk at Houghton: “On Wednesday June 9th was such a prodigious flood in Houghton and Witton as never was known before in the memory of man. Boats and lighters swam through Houghton and Witton and all along the road from Witton to Hartford.”
A couple of miles downstream, St Ives man Edmund Pettis described the terrifying speed with which the water rose. “June the 8th at nine in the evening no thoughts of a flood, but at 11 the water began to rise and so continued until nine the next morning, when twas so high that it almost touched the coping of the Wharf”.
It’s a rare flood that reaches the top of the quayside at St Ives. But just six months later, in January 1726, an even higher flood followed. Bridges were swept away and large areas of the Fens were under water.
In those days, every flood seemed to be the highest anyone could remember. In September 1797, a flood at St Ives was “greater than ever known in so short a space of time.” November 1823 brought “the highest flood ever remembered”.
The 19th century was more scientific. July 1875 saw “the highest flood that has occurred here for upwards of 50 years” and November 1894 “the deepest flood for 71 years”. In both cases it was 1823 they were looking back to.
This year is the centenary of a flood in the Ouse Valley that was particularly destructive because it came at harvest time, in August 1912. It was also the first flood when lightweight, portable cameras were available, so there are lots of photographs of it.
The pictures are a bonus for historians because the floods lured photographers into the unfashionable back streets of the Ouse Valley towns.
There are endless photographs of main streets, market places and parish churches. But if you want a picture of the yards and alleyways that once surrounded our town centres, you’ll probably find that it shows water over the cobbles and children paddling in the floodwater.