FEATURE: When the river banks bent

HISTORIAN Lynne Turner continues with her fascinating feature on the 1947 floods. REPORTS from the Ely Standard during the 1947 floods make grim reading. Friday, March 21 1947, the headline read: Thousands of Acres under Water, Position Expected

HISTORIAN Lynne Turner continues with her fascinating feature on the 1947 floods.

REPORTS from the Ely Standard during the 1947 floods make grim reading.

Friday, March 21 1947, the headline read: "Thousands of Acres under Water, Position Expected to Get Worse". On Friday March 14, the river overflowed at the mooring stage in front of Messrs Appleyard and Lincoln Boathouse at Ely. The following day, the water continued to rise and on Saturday it flooded the boathouse and adjoining houses, including The Cutter Inn. On Monday, the river flooded at Over and Little Thetford and as I outlined last week as the week progressed the situation worsened.

The Ely Standard of March 21, explained how local MP, Major E A H Legge-Bourke had been taking very active interest in the situation and in addition to visiting various danger points, has made practical moves towards assisting in the great fight against the waters.

One of these practical moves, during this harrowing week for those battling against the water and those being evacuated, was to ask sight-seers to stay away. The Ely Standard published the following:

"Sightseers on Wednesday hampered evacuation work in the Haddenham area and at the instigation of Major Legge-Bourke, the BBC broadcast a request to the public to keep away from the flooded areas. The Fen people are fighting a grim battle against their great enemy and there is no room at the danger spots for persons whose only excuse for being there is idle curiosity".

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Pamela Blakeman was a sixth form pupil at the Girls' High School where the Army had their headquarters in the Preparatory Department for Operation Noah's Ark. She remembers that everyone listened to the BBC broadcasts on the wireless for updates of the floods. This brought numbers of sight-seers to witness the event first-hand. She said: "Richard Dimbleby was covering the floods on the wireless he said he was on the riverbank, but locals said he was broadcasting from The Lamb."

March 28

The headlines for the Ely Standard of Friday, March 28 read: "Nearly 100,000 Acres of the Fens Under Water, Over 1,400 People Evacuated from their Homes". Although the waters were now falling and the situation was apparently 'under control' immediate practical help for people affected was essential. An Isle of Ely appeal for funds for the relief of distress arising from the floods was called for by Ald L Childs OBE, chairman of the Isle of Ely Branch of the National Farmers' Union.

In a letter to the Ely Standard he said:

"At the request of many people in the Isle of Ely, I have decided to open a fund in order to relieve the distress which will be caused throughout the county by the disastrous flooding which has occurred in this area."

Money had been pouring in before this fund was set up. The paper reported that nearly £200 had been received at the Urban Council offices that week, including a £50 cheque from a Miss Naylor of Cheltenham Nursing Home who wrote: "I hope you can read this ghastly writing, but I am nearly blind and over 80. With my heartfelt sympathy."

Major Legge-Bourke raised the issue of relief for the Fens in the House Of Commons and the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Bracewll Smith, formed an emergency committee with a £1,000,000 donation from the Government.

On a more practical basis a room at the Peacock Inn, St Mary's Street, Ely 'is a hive of activity. Members of the WVS the Women's Institute, the Red Cross Society and Girl Guides are working ceaselessly from 9am until 5pm, many without a break cutting sandwiches for the men and women who are working day and night fighting the flood waters. Under the watchful eye of Mrs Comins, President of the Ely WI, more than 3,000 cheese meat and jam sandwiches were made every day.

Despite the fact that rationing was still in place, people all over the country donated gifts. From the same edition of the Ely Standard:

"Throughout the whole country, people who are sympathetic to those who have suffered devastation of the Fens. The WVS organiser has received a parcel of books toys and children's clothes from Leigh-on-Sea. More offers came from Thetford."

April 4, 1947

On Sunday, March 30 the area received a royal visit. The Ely Standard of April 4 reported: "The Duke of Gloucester, as councillor of State in the absence of the King, accompanied by the Duchess, on Sunday made a tour of the flooded area of the Fens, and they saw for themselves some of the devastation which has been caused. After inspecting the gap in the Ouse bank at Bluntisham, the Royal visitors came on to Ely, where they saw the Fen offices of the Ouse Catchment Board and Military headquarters at Ely High School, nerve centres in the battle against the floods. Afterwards the party proceeded to Hilgay, where the Duke and Duchess travelled down the River Wissey in a 'duck' and watched soldiers at work stopping the great reach in the river bank.

On Bluntisham railway station the Duchess left the main party and spoke to a group of women. She told them that it was very sad to see their country Looking in such a state."

Perhaps the most poignant description is from a local reporter based at Sutton:

"To the water's edge comes flotsam and jetsam, timber of various lengths, corrugated iron, steel drums, chicken houses, bedded in an ever-heaving mass of straw, mangolds and what not. At one point an agricultural roller appeared and was hauled to high ground. Pathos is manifested at every hand. A dog sniffs at the door of a vacated house, retraces its steps to the unflooded region, throws back its head and howls. A boy who has scrambled by fence and ladder to a flooded building returns with a cat that clings with its front paws to the youthful rescuer's hair."

This is the reality of the situation. Whilst those around them were putting plans into action to rebuild the banks and most importantly pump out the water from the flooded Fens, everyday folk whose lives had been affected had to cope.

A visitor to the Fens was surprised that the people did not "rail against their fate" but got on with it each helping the other. As the Sutton reporter states "As the Fenman of old, the Fenman of to-day faces up his battle with nature with a spirit that inspires."

Nights of unending terror for Patrick and his father

MORE heavy snow fell in the early part of March, 1947 and Patrick Cox remembers being unable to reach Ely.

"We had to take a day or two off school," he said.

He also remembers that his sister, who lived in Norwich, was on the last train to Ely with her daughter and heard water and debris banging up against the side of the carriage. She later told her family that she could hear women in the next carriage praying loudly.

Patrick says he clearly remembers the night of March 16. He said: "I could see the wind pushing waves across the top of the bank with the men working on top. It was pitch-black with only paraffin lanterns and a few vehicle headlamps for light. The water was so high the barges couldn't get under the bridges."

Born in Prickwillow where his father Reg was a foreman at Clarke's Farm, Patrick was 13 at the time of the floods.

"I remember it was all-hands to save the banks. We had a lot of help from the German prisoners-of-war who were still in the area at a camp, which is now Ely Golf Course, and engineers from the command centre at Bedford House.

It was estimated that about 11,000 acres of farmland at Prickwillow were at risk.

"As foreman my father was the bank bailiff and was responsible for the length of riverbank between Prickwillow to King's farm, which was a distance of more than two miles. For the entire time, the banks were under threat, he and his men were out walking around to watch out for any tiny cracks that could mean the water was breaking through. He did not sleep for at least two or three nights.

"The worst was that Sunday night (March 16) when the banks were literally moving under the pressure from the water. Early the next morning, wooden stakes arrived and these were quickly put in place to stop the bank from going."

"They used tarpaulins taken from local farms and one man pointed out that he had put his name on his as he wanted it back."

The engines at Prickwillow pumping station were working for more than six weeks to help alleviate the problem.

"The Mirrleees was going full pelt and they even had to use the steam engine housed next door - the last time it was ever used. The biggest problem was the lumps of ice in the water as they blocked the flow of water, making the pumping process harder.

Those engines were going for six weeks at least to clear the floodwater."

Today, 60 years later, Patrick says: "Although it was a worrying time, one good thing was that the Government sent supplies to help get the land ready for that summer's harvest. Of course, in those days, everyone had their own little piece of land to grow food for the family and after the winter of 1947, we all got some shiny new shovels."


# Official Government figures for the damage caused by the 1947 floods show that: 4,000,000 sheep and lambs nationwide were lost. Fifty head of cattle died of hunger and cold or had to be shot. 60,000 acres of winter corn and 40,000 tonnes of potatoes were destroyed.

A farmer in Haddenham estimated that it would cost £5,000 to restore the buildings on his farm. He lost 107 "fowls" and 60 tonnes of Irish seed potatoes. He also lost 200 tonnes of ware potatoes, 15 tonnes of oats, 11 tonnes of beans, 15 tonnes of hay, 45 tonnes of mangolds. He also told the Ely Standard three-quarters of his machinery on the farm was under water for nearly three months.