FEATURE: The fight to save the Fens

IN 1724, Daniel Defoe described how he saw the Fen country almost all covered with water like a sea . Thankfully, the Fens are not often overflowed now, but for centuries the area has been under threat of rising water levels and global warming means no

IN 1724, Daniel Defoe described how he saw the "Fen country almost all covered with water like a sea". Thankfully, the Fens are not "often overflowed" now, but for centuries the area has been under threat of rising water levels and global warming means nothing can be taken for granted. In the last century, serious floods took place locally in 1912 and 1928 and disaster was only just averted in 1937, but pleas to the Government for an Ouse flood protection scheme from local landowners went unheeded.

The threat of widespread flooding was always present in the Fens and the idea of a new relief channel around the east of the southern Fens had been discussed many times. The cost had always been a good reason for doing nothing and the system, to outside eyes, had coped more or less adequately for hundreds of years and then, of course, the Second World War came.

The system just about coped until the freak weather of 1947 hit the Fens. A combination of an exceptionally hard winter, a sudden thaw, high tides and hurricane force winds tested the banks of the south level rivers to the point of destruction. From March 10 1947, these conditions meant that 'The Battle of The Banks' had begun.


THE winter of 1947 produced a number of freak weather conditions that has set it down in the history records. The harvest of 1946 had been disappointing and the hill farmers in the north of the country were desperately aware that their winter fodder rations would not last if the winter was bad.

Before the Christmas of 1946, and again in the first week of January 1947, there were two cold spells across the country, both failed to last, then the weather became 'unseasonably mild'.

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From January 22 until March 17, snow fell every day somewhere in the UK. The temperatures were so cold that the snow accumulated and the high winds in February resulted in drifts of more than five metres (15ft) which blocked roads and railways.

Remote houses and villages were left entirely cut off for weeks on end, with only airlifted supplies from the armed services to survive. Livestock began to perish in the exposed hills, poorly nourished by the lack of food and grazing they became buried under mounds of snow.

1947 produced the heaviest snowfall since 1814. February, 1947 was the coldest February recorded and the second coldest month of the last century (January 1963 being the coldest). A minimum of -21C was recorded at Woburn, Bedfordshire early on February 28. It was so cold that icebergs were seen off the coast of Norfolk and the sea froze over Margate.

Locally, weather reports for Mildenhall show that the snow started falling on January 24, 1947 and until March 12, there were only two days when no snow fell. If February had been a hard month, March was much worse. The war produced fuel shortages and the cold weather exacerbated the problem, industry came to a shuddering halt and power was switched of for long periods throughout Britain.

On March 4/5/6, heavy snow fell over most of England and Wales, high winds caused drifting.

Then, on March 10, mild air with a temperature of 7-10C edged into the south west bringing rain and a rapid thaw. The ground was still frozen hard after so many weeks of frost. The melting snow could not soak into the ground and surface water accumulated, running into rivers and streams.

and eastwards. All over England and Wales meltwater poured into the river systems. On March 14, 1947 the River Cam had flooded Cambridge and the low lying areas of Waterbeach. At this point the River Great Ouse was still contained in the wash banks, but not for much longer.

Witness to the floods

Walter Martin Lane of Ely took many pictures of the 1947 floods. He was born in 1906 and worked for Foster Brothers, Outfitters, of Ely. His hobby was photography and when the floods took place in 1947 he went with army personnel to the frontline of the action, recording for future generations images of the devastation. He died in 1973 and his collection can be found in the Cambridgeshire Collection at Milton Road Library, Cambridge.

Timeline March 1947 - How the crisis unfolded

March 10 - Warm air from the west resulted in months of accumulated snow thawing quickly. The ground was still frozen and the melting snow ran across the surface into rivers and drainage systems. The water system filled rapidly but became blocked with ice and debris.

March 13 - The river system in the Fens was inundated with the melting snow. Sandbags were put in place at strategic points and those responsible for the banks walked them night and day checking for slips and small breaches. Reports reveal that the river gauges were all at just about safety level. The Ouse washes flooded and the causeways at Welney and Earith were impassable. Cottenham Lode overflowed.

March 14 - The order went out throughout the Fens to stand by the banks. At Fen Office in Bedford House, Ely, a control room was also set up. The army was called in and soldiers set up headquarters in the Preparatory School of the Girls' High School. This was called 'Operation Noah's Ark'. The River Great Ouse overflowed south of Ely.

Barges full of clay left Ely to embank the threatened banks. Eventually the rivers were too swollen and the boats were unable to get under the bridges, so lorries were used instead.

March 15 - At Littleport people were evacuated and the railway line was submerged. In areas all over the Fens people close to the rivers were leaving their homes and farmers moving equipment and some crops. The reality was not if the banks would burst but when and where.

March 16 - Ely Station flooded. The banks of the River Lark at Prickwillow, weakened by months of frost, were in serious danger of collapsing.

Here it was all hands to the pump, German POWs from Ely were taken to Prickwillow along with army personnel. Men from the local farms also worked tirelessly during the night of the 16th to save Burnt Fen from flooding and 100 people were evacuated. The pumping engines at Prickwillow worked full pelt to relieve the flood water. Overnight, a southerly hurricane with recorded gusts of 98 mph ripped across the area, bringing down vital telephone lines, trees blocked roads and debris was blown into the river system which were battered by large waves.

March 17 - By morning a huge 90ft breach had been ripped in the River Great Ouse near Over. Over and Willingham were flooded and the water reached Earith. Another breach occurred near Little Thetford and Thetford and Cawdle Fens were flooded. At Hockwold the banks of the Little Ouse gave way at Wilton Bridge and water poured into Feltwell and Lakenheath Fens.

March 18 - Flood water from Over Fen spilled across the Old West into Hillrow Fen and the area, including parts of Haddenham, were evacuated. The bank of the River Wissey broke, flooding Hilgay West Fen.

March 19 - Haddenham North Fen was flooded.

March 20 - Sandbagging continued across the river banks in the Fens. A one and a half length was built along the A10 near Southery to prevent water from the River Wissey reaching Feltwell Fen.

March 21 - The flow of water was diminishing but it was still too fast to consider plugging the breaches, water was still inundating land where these breaks had taken place. On the night of March 22 another gale blew hampering the work on the banks.

March 22 - Despite all of the efforts of those working along the A10 at Southery a damned culvert collapsed and water literally ripped through into Feltwell Fen.