People have lived in Abingdon and in settlements in the same spot before the town existed for millennia. One of the reasons why they chose that spot for living is the location by the river. A river is a handy source of water, and it can be a natural barrier but also a vital transport link. There are many advantages of living by the river, but there are also disadvantages, some of which the residents of Abingdon feel to this day. In times of heavy rainfall the waters of the Thames can swell so much that the river exceeds its boundaries, and the adjacent areas are inundated with water.
Residents in Abingdon today will probably remember several floods from the past decade or so, but the same thing has happened throughout Abingdon’s history.
A Chronology of British Hydrological Events, compiled at Dundee University, lists a number of floods and high water incidents since 1800, including those that happened at Abingdon. A look at the catalogue tells us that these happened regularly in the Thames Valley, but they did not always reach Abingdon. They were not always caused by rainfall either. In January 1809 the Thames Valley was flooded in a number of places because of snow melting. The same thing happened in 1842. 1852 was a bad year for flooding. In late November flooding was reported in many places along the Thames, starting in London and its outskirts, and reaching Maidenhead, Reading and Oxford. Rail travel was interrupted. This was caused by prolonged heavy rain all through autumn that year, and there was “wide-spread destruction and loss of life”, according to a witness who lived at Long Wittenham. With the ground saturated with all that rain, water was suddenly coming out of the ground as streams in places which had been dry for years. This happened in the first week of December 1852.
Further inundations happened in the area in subsequent years, particularly in Oxford and the Cherwell valley. These were all caused by rain and could happen during any season. In 1875, a rainfall observer at Oxford noted floods in the Thames and Cherwell Valleys and thought it was “the greatest flood since 1852”.
A particularly notable flood reached Abingdon in November 1894. We have quite a few details of what happened from the newspaper coverage of the time. Country roads suddenly had 3 feet of water on them. “Stert Street, Broad Street and Ock Street being converted to a semblance of Venice” wrote the Wallingford Herald. The inhabitants of the Long Alley Almshouses had to be evacuated. Belcher & Habgood’s brewery and the Tower Brewery were flooded, along with a number of private houses which suffered considerable damage. The incident is best described as a flash flood, though, in the sense that the water level rose very suddenly but only for a short time. It started early one Thursday morning, but “by mid-day the water had started to recede, and has now nearly disappeared from the roads and pavements”, according to the newspaper report.
The cause had again been heavy rainfall, which had gone on for several days and had caused flooding all along the Thames.
1902, by contrast, saw a dry period. “The springs were never known to be so low as they were the end of 1902”, noted a rainfall observer at Culham. The rainfall during autumn and winter was exceptionally low. This changed, however, in the summer with the floods of June 1903. “Very high floods in the middle,” noted the same observer at Culham, “unprecedented for the summer and only about 2ft. 2 in. below the great flood of November 1894”. It is clear that the flood of 1894 was still seen as a sort of benchmark for bad flooding.
And so it goes on, with a notable flood every 10 or 20 years or so, the majority of them caused by rainfall, whatever the season. The experiences of the people stay the same as well: streets under water, basements and ground floors of buildings flooded, people paddling boats through the streets. The early photos of flooding in the museum collection often show children, lined up for the photographer. Perhaps for them the waterlogged streets had something of an adventure playground.
More recent photographs of flooding are from 1950, and from the 21st century floods, which most residents of Abingdon will remember, in 2007 and 2012.
Clearly this is a long-standing problem, and one that comes with living on the banks of a major river. The records I’ve quoted don’t go back further than 1800, but the problem most certainly does.
What goes back a long time as well are the efforts of people to stave off the worst, though not always with great success. One report (by the Long Wittenham observer quoted above) claims that “after the great flood of 1852, a committee was formed, of which the late Mr Pusey was the Chairman. A report was published, stating the amount of injury inflicted by the floods, but no action was taken upon it”. Most of the immediate actions which people on the ground can take are probably still the same as they have been in the past: try to keep the water out somehow by using sandbags and other barriers. The problem with that is of course that the water can rise very suddenly. If the cause of the flood is not prolonged rainfall over days and weeks, but a sudden, very heavy thunderstorm, there is little one can do in terms of preparation. After all, one can’t have one’s door permanently blocked with sandbags!
These days there are sophisticated tools like computer modelling and estimates of the flood risk for particular areas, taking into account the history of floods, the terrain, drainage from the surface, and sometimes even the possible impact of climate change, which is likely to cause more frequent extreme weather events and more flooding. I haven’t mentioned this so far, but the kind of weather which causes flooding often is accompanied by high winds, which make the situation more dangerous. The Strategic Flood Risk Assessment commissioned by the South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils notes a history of significant and frequent flooding in the Stert Street area. “Flooding mechanism here is overland flow from excess flows unable to enter Stert Street culvert and surcharging from Stert manholes,” it says. The assessment also warns that the impact of climate change will be “significant in town centre”.
The floods within living memory of Abingdon residents show that the problem – although, as we have seen, a long-standing one – is far from solved.
Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer
Featured image: Abingdon in the “Great Flood” of 1894.