Saturday, 29 March 2008

Memories - The Great Flood Of 1879 And The Great Gale Of 1987...

Jesus Locks footbridge and the River Cam, August 1879.

Fascinating reading to be found in the Cambridge Daily News of August and September 1934, with readers recalling early memories in a series of articles. The great flood of 1879 was recalled by one reader - or rather it wasn't.

The Cambridge Daily News recounted the events beginning late on the night of 2 August 1879, and dominating the 3rd:

The storm, which preceded the floods, broke after 11pm on Saturday night, and after a brief lull returned with the greatest violence, continuing until daybreak. "The lightning and thunder," one account states, "were awful in grandeur, and the downpour of rain and hail terrible... Trees were torn up, mills wrecked, cattle were killed in the fields and more died from drowning; farms were set on fire by the electric fluid and churches were striken." And now of the flood:

During the six hours in which the tempest prevailed, there fell in Cambridge three inches and one-tenth of rain, the equivalent to 310 tons per acre. The greatest damage to property appears to have taken place in the underground warehouses, several of the town's leading traders suffering severe losses in their stores. Hundreds of dwellings were flooded in the lower apartments, some to a depth of several feet, and in a few cases "houses were in hourly peril". Parker's Piece early in the morning was one vast lake, hardly a blade of grass being visible, and in two or three hours the river rose about eight feet. "The suburb of Newnham" was entirely cut off from communication with the town except by vehicle. The main stream was "travelling with a velocity that threatened destruction to the bridges," and its effects to the residents of Merton Hall, Merton Place, etc, was particularly severe. In Merton Place the water rose to such a height that the inhabitants had to take refuge in their bedrooms and many were the families that had no Sunday dinner.

On Midsummer Common the water rose to within 50 yards of Maids Causeway. Of the Cambridge traders, the principle sufferers were the drapers, Mr W Eaden Lilley, had the whole of an extensive basement flooded and damage to his goods are estimated at £2,000. Mr Robert Sayle's loss was stated to be not less and Mr WT Palmer had 1,168 pairs of boots and shoes of the value of £270 damaged. To quote again from the report: "All along the valleys of the Cam and Ouse, as well as in every village boasting a brook, similar scenes were visible. Roads were torn up, railways stopped in places, houses were inundated, farms flooded and stock and crop destroyed."

One correspondent to the Cambridge Daily News Early Memories strand wrote:

Sir, - When I was ten years of age I got up one Sunday morning - it was August 1879 - and went to work for a milkman by the name of Miller for one and sixpence a week. We started on our round a little after seven o'clock from South Street, East Road. I was sitting beside him in the cart, and when we turned into Parkside I remember him saying: "God bless my heart, soul and body; that's the first time I've ever seen Parker's Piece flooded."

I said: "What, has it been raining hard then, master?"

He looked at me, and said: "Why, you little thick head, you never mean to say you slept through all that. I thought the world was coming to an end."

I soon found out that it must have been bad, for people were pumping water out of basements all along the route, and when we got to Silver Street bridge we could see nothing but water, which was up to the horse's stomach. The height of the flood is carved in the side of King's College bridge.

When I got home I remember asking my mother about it, and she said: "I thought the end had come.


"I came in and looked at you boys, and you were sleeping sound and I would not wake you up."

There has been nothing like it since. -
Yours, etc,

R Bainbridge


This story reminds me of my own experiences during the Great Gale of 1987. I was living in a flat at 51c Victoria Road, my bedroom was actually in the roof of the building, which was - and is - one of the tallest in the vicinity. My bedroom window commanded a fine view across Cambridge, the envy of my friends.

During the week leading up to the gale, I had been suffering from a painful ear infection and sleep had been virtually impossible. On the night of the Great Gale, the course of antibiotics I'd been put on by my GP finally started to take effect and I slept soundly, almost completely free of pain. I woke up at one point simply because I was feeling thirsty.

Aware of sounds from outside, and in a sleep-induced haze, I went to my bedroom window and saw that several small trees in Grasmere Gardens were bending backwards to a very pronounced degree in the wind and I could hear gusts, bangs and rattling sounds. My brain was absolutely thick with sleep and I remember thinking: "It's rather windy," fetching myself a glass of water, having a drink, and then dropping back into oblivion.

The next day I awoke to tales of absolute chaos and devastation on the radio and television and found myself going quite pale with fright: had I not been so completely dead to the world after my several sleepless nights in the run-up to the gale, there is absolutely no way I would have spent the night in the roof of that tall building!

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