Pulling together in a common cause

PUBLISHED: 13:09 22 February 2007 | UPDATED: 13:51 04 May 2010

IT was all very well drafting in soldiers to Ely during the 1947 floods, but it was not just the armed forces which joined in to save the Fens from flood. Some commented that it was just like the war all over again, when everyone had pulled together to he

IT was all very well drafting in soldiers to Ely during the 1947 floods, but it was not just the armed forces which joined in to save the Fens from flood. Some commented that it was just like the war all over again, when everyone had pulled together to help after bombing raids in the cities. In 1947 it was claimed that "the whole population of the Fens had mobilised to fight the floods".

One of the things needed was food and shelter for the workers. Women rallied around with improvised kitchens and meal services. The Old Elean Magazine reported in the summer of '47 that the boys from the King's School Ely had the term cut short during the floods in March, so that accommodation could be provided for the troops in 'these extreme situations'. How the pupils left Ely is not that clear, but one wonders if they rowed out.

The Minister of Agriculture immediately announced that the cost of all of this work would be met by Government funds. Resources were given to the local river authorities. It was just as well that they worked as fast as they did because all that week, from Monday, March 17, the waters just kept on rising, placing the banks under intolerable strain. Near Denver, the fear was that the tidal River Ouse would compound the problem.

For nearly one week, they had managed to check the water along this section, but eventually the water burst through a culvert beneath the Southery Road into Hilgay Fen and into other section of Feltwell Fen. One small-holder at Feltwell watched as the water, in the space of less than two hours, washed all of the topsoil away from his land and left it as just bare peat. Large quantities of sugar had to be rescued from the local sugar factory.

The increased numbers of manpower were able to deal with the problems at Southery and provide a damage limitation exercise. This was not so easy in the Haddenham area, where the river system was more complex. In addition, the winds had not abated over the course of the week and waves from the newly formed 'lakes' of floodwater were eroding the banks of the New Bedford River. If this burst the waters would destroy thousands of acres of farmland.

The problem was that the bank they were trying to save was surrounded by water, there was simply no access. The men could walk along the bank, but the materials they needed to secure the bank could only be arrived at by water. The answer was to set up a base in Sutton, north of the floods. Here, they collected coco-matting, straw bales, brushwood and army track. In Ely, thousands of bags were filled with clay and sent to Sutton on army trucks.

All of this had to be taken to the bank in army amphibious vehicles called ducks. These small land and water vehicles worked both day and night taking the material needed to build the banks back and forth, their task was successful and the bank held.

What is incredible is that despite these tales of seeming disaster, with the floods covering more than 200,000 acres of prime farming land, the efforts of those who fought The Battle of the Banks managed to saved a far greater area in terms of land than was destroyed. The incentive was food production.

However, for those who were caught up in the flooding, the tale is probably different and remains largely untold. It would be a wonderful addition to local oral history if these memories could be recorded.

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