Floods (Updated 19/11/23)
From very early times one of the conditions of the leases of land given by the Dean and Chapter of Wells was that, among other service, the tenant should "also do and perform their work towards digging and cleansing and scouring the Lord's rivers, according to the rate of the premises, and when and as often as need shall require." Each tenant had a certain specified portion of 'walling' on the river to take care of. In the Stoke St Gregory accounts are charges for doing the the portion of river and wall belonging to the Church House, which was held by the parish under a copy of the court roll. An entry for 1775 reads: "for righting ye wall at Stanmoor belonging to ye Church House - 6d; for doing ye wall and rhine belonging to ye Church House - 1s 6d"
The great flood of 1929 (see below) will remain as the best recorded in Stoke’s history, but maybe just because it could be captured on camera. It’s always been a bit damp round here, and in 1607, it was just one of those wet days days we’re all used to. Living at sea level is always chancy. You’re only as secure as your flood defences this time those defences weren’t good enough. The sea broke through, and flooded the low-lying levels around the Bristol channel, even encircling Glastonbury. As one commentator later wrote, ”Men that were rich getting out of bed in the morning, were poor before noon the same day”. Possessions, land and buildings disappeared. For others it was much worse. The water came without warning, submerging farms and towns. Perhaps 2000 people died, unable to flee from the floods. More than 400 years later, this still ranks as the UK’s worst flood disaster.
The flood came in furthest in the Somerset Levels, a flood plain protected by less than solid banks and dykes. Based on the flood marks on the churches, the water reached over 7.5 metres on the Somerset Levels. This is actually not as high as might have been expected, as this would have been about the peak tidal level and the surge must have been well above that. It has been suggested that the land has sunk by 1-2 metres since 1600, due to the improved drainage.
Both of Stoke's rivers have always been prone to flooding. In 1819 James Dugdale referred to nearly 30,000 acres being regularly under water. There was a particularly severe flood in 1860 and this co-incided with the Land Drainage Act of 1861. Apart from improving the river banks the drainage boards were able to start using pumps to drain the moors, enabling a longer growing season. The steam powered boilers used about four tons of coal a day. This was brought up river and unloaded in wicker baskets. However, this did not prevent the dangers of annual flooding, even though the steam engines were replaced by more powerful diesel powered pumps.
The danger was always there, as the newspaper records tell us. On Saturday 13 January 1877, the Weston Mercury reported: “THE GREAT FLOODS IN SOMERSET No one who has not been an eye witness can form any conception the enormous area of country at present under water between Bridgwater and Langport and Taunton. The Baltmore Bank, which pens back the Tone, has again broken its banks, and a vast volume of water is thus finding its way from Currymoor into North Moor, spreading over the surrounding country and also submerging the main line of the Great Western to a depth of over two feet. The water is still rising, and it is only with the assistance of a second engine that heavy trains can be run between these two points. The Durston branch to Yeovil is also under water for as great a length as two and half miles in one part, lying principally in Stoke St Gregory parish, but hitherto the traffic has not been suspended, nor for the moment is there any apprehension of such an event taking place, as the greatest volume of water has been diverted, the river Parret to the north of the line having burst its banks in two places, and having been cut intentionally—at least so the commissioners assert—in two more. Four gaps are now pouring an immense volume of water, collected by the Parret from the whole of the southern portion of the county.”
The trains crossing West Sedgmoor were proceeded by a boat, checking that no debris was lying on the submerged rails. On one occasion the engine pulling a goods train packed up as the flood was so deep that water had risen so high it had put out the fire in thefore box! But what is amazing is the importance that must have been attached to getting trains to their destinations despite the prevailing conditions.
On Thursday 22 February 1883, the Wells Journal reported: “THE FLOODS IN WEST SOMERSET The water upon Northmoor rose considerably on Friday and Saturday and the main line of railway was submerged from eighteen to twenty inches, whilst a portion of the Yeovil branch line running through Wick Moor and West Sedgemoor remained flooded quite as deeply, some portion of the lines being also covered between Durston and Lying. The road between Boroughbridge and Athelney is covered four or five feet in depth. It is anticipated that before the water upon the lower moors finds it level with that upon Curry Moor and the upper levels a much larger tract of country will be inundated than at any previous time. The flooding of the lower moors will seriously aggravate the prevailing distress.”
Later, in 1936, there was more water about on our roads, but more like what we expect today. Here are two photos taken at Stathe. Arthur Miller, driving the cart load of withies, used to live in the first house in the terrace on Dark Lane before you turn into Polkes Field.
The Great Flood of 1929
Although the floods of 2013/2014 will be remembered both locally and nationally, the worst local flooding in recent times was, perhaps, in December 1929, when the Tone burst the bank that protects Stanmoor and Athelney. Although numbers of farm stock and family pets perished, no human lives were lost, but the last of the resulting evacuees did not return home until the following March. The summer of 1929 had been unusually dry, but October and November were much wetter than usual. In late November the Drainage Board convened a meeting and urgent efforts were made to strengthen the banks of the Tone. Many locals helped to fill thousands of sandbags to be placed at the worst danger points along the bank. On the night of 6th/7th December the bank was breached. the water sweeping away a cottage garden and rushing across the road. Minutes later a greater gap appeared, millions of gallons of water pouring across the road to the withy beds and grazing lands of Stanmoor.
Some of the Photos Taken at the Time
The Three Heroines of Athelney
(From the Evening World, 11th December 1929) "When the rain falls these days I think of three women: Mrs Hill, Mrs Champion and Mrs Dare. These women did not awake suddenly one night to find their homes in danger. For a week before I stumbled across those sad villages of Athelney, Stanmoor and Stathe, they had been fighting silently. Their eyes showed it. The despair with which they watched the waters, that morning at three o'clock, showed me their fatigue, though their lips were shut. They had struggled with the heavy sandbags, straining their backs with the mud they had shovelled desperately against the rising floods.
"Mrs Champion stood in her cottage, her feet in inches of water. Tall, strong built, fresh faced in spite of the tiredness under her eyes. I saw Mrs Hill in the bar parlour of the Athelney Inn. She looked as if she had just risen on a sunny summer day. She stood straight, and apologised for the water on the floor. Then she laughed. We both laughed, because it is said that King Alfred burnt the cakes at Athelney. "He wouldn't burn them now," said Mrs Hill.
"Mrs Dare was the third of the heroines. She had left her home, and before she went to the glimmering fire of a neighbour, had forced her way through that windy, uncertain night across a road that was now a torrent, her baby in her arms. That was after midnight. Water trickled thrpough the rifts in the sandbags. The macadam of the road already shook with the power thrusting against it and under it. Lit by a single lantern,the small figure with the babe in arms had struggled across the hundred yards of rain swept road. An hour later none could pass.
"Walter Bell, the baker, worked in his flooded bakehouse. The fire glimmered and spurted. Grey faced and grimy, he still worked. After all, a baker was there to bake bread. Out on the country roads the postmen and carters were saying that Stan Moor was out of reach. All the more reason, therefore, for a baker to bake."
The Refugees Return Home