Fenland banks burst

PUBLISHED: 13:20 08 February 2007 | UPDATED: 13:48 04 May 2010

WHILST women and children listened to the howling gales on the night of March 16, 1947, their menfolk were working to stop the banks from breaching. At HQ in Ely, the chief engineer of the Catchment Board, his staff and the head of Land Drainage Division

WHILST women and children listened to the howling gales on the night of March 16, 1947, their menfolk were working to stop the banks from breaching. At HQ in Ely, the chief engineer of the Catchment Board, his staff and the head of Land Drainage Division from the Ministry of Agriculture huddled over maps as news was relayed to them over the telephone.

The information was recorded by those who had an intimate knowledge of the Fen river system. As the hours passed, news was so sporadic, incomplete and sometimes exaggerated that engineers set out from the Fen office to try and get through to the places deemed most at risk and clarify the situation.

The most highly perceived risk was at Prickwillow. Yet by the middle of the night, the first severe breach was taking place in the floodbank of the main stream of the Great Ouse above Earith, towards Over. But the news failed to reach HQ, because the lines were down.

This bank of solid clay, 12 feet high, had not been viewed as a serious risk and in living memory the river had never overflowed. Villagers later recounted the story of an 80-year-old local man, who, as a child, had been shown by his grandfather the highest flood mark reached in his lifetime.

That night the waters rose two feet higher. Earlier in the day warnings had been given to residents of Over Fen, who apparently needed little encouragement, to gather a few precious belongings onto any vehicle they could muster.

Some time after 9pm they knew they were beaten, the breach was getting wider and wider and another small breach had started downstream. Exhausted and demoralised, they were fearful that breaches could occur in a dozen other places or more, cutting them off from safety or washing away the banks beneath them.

Nobody saw the bank burst that night, but those living on the opposite bank of the Ouse realised that soon after midnight the water that had been steadily rising into their homes, had receded. They had been saved, but those living in Over Fen had not.

The following morning, Monday, March 17, the news of the breach at Over Fen reached Ely.

By now, the floods had extended across the farmlands of Willingham Fen and, more disturbingly, were now battering against the protection banks of the Old West River (from the wrong side), the river and her wash plain lay six feet lower than the flood water behind the bank. If the floodbanks broke, the water would flow into and across the Old West and on into Hillrow and Haddenham fens.

Immediately, gangs of workers and prisoners were sent to build defences along the Old West. Troops drafted in by the Government were soon at hand. This huge gang of manpower worked constantly through Monday and Tuesday, but by midday on the 18th it was once again obvious that the elements were about to beat them.

By daybreak, the farmers were already getting out, rescuing what they could. Leaving behind land sown with precious winter wheat and huge clamps of potatoes desperately needed to feed the people of war-torn Britain.

The men were withdrawn from the banks and as the water poured in, the force of the waves ripped through houses, tearing down walls, carrying off furniture, possessions and livelihoods in its wake. A few resilient souls doubted the warnings and refused to move, professing never to have seen water in the area in their lifetimes. Needless to say, they later had to eat humble pie after being rescued from the upper windows of their houses by boat.

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