Skip to content

Record Rainfall At Martinstown

July 18, 2015

By Paul Homewood 



From The Book of Martinstown, Margaret Hearing


Today marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most extreme weather events of the last century, when 279mm of rain fell on Martinstown in Dorset in a single rainfall day, (9.00am to 9.00am). This remains the highest such total on record in the whole of the UK.


News reports and photos are actually quite thin on the ground; it seems that people just got and dealt with it, without making a big fuss. Information Britain have this brief account:


July 1955 was generally a sunny month, but out of the blue as it were conditions changed in Dorset, such that from early afternoon on the 18th to 5am the next day what stood for half a century as the greatest recorded downpour in Britain occurred. A storm moving across the Channel from France (as ever) was held in place by conditions around it, so the downpour was very localised.
The place most hit was Martinstown, on which 279mm of rain fell in that 15-hour period. Happily no casualties were caused by the storm, but it was so great that it was possible to swim along the main street, and the only vehicles that could be used were lorries and tractors.


The BBC report that the rain actually fell in a period of nine hours, showing just how heavy the downpour was.


Comparisons have been made with the Cumbria floods in Nov 2009, when 495mm was recorded at Seathwaite in four days, an official record. During this period, a total of 316mm was measured in a 24-hour period, though not in a single day.

In reality, the two events are not comparable. The rain at Seathwaite was prolonged, but certainly not as intense as at Martinstown. Furthermore, Seathwaite, which lies high up in Borrowdale in the Lake District,

Indeed, according to the Lake District National Park, Seathwaite is actually the wettest inhabited place anywhere in England, experiencing around 3500mm of precipitation each year, surrounded as it is by mountains over 2000 feet high.


The Met Office archives show the weather chart for that day:



Local weather historian, Mark Ching, offers more insight, as the BBC report:


The rain on that day in July 1955 fell within a period of nine hours, and was concentrated directly above the village of Martinstown, west of Dorchester.

Forty-five years later, around 12 inches (30cm) of rain were recorded in a period of 24 hours in Cumbria.

‘South and eastern parts of Dorset are drier than the north and west’

Mr Ching said: "Parts of Cumbria are some of the wettest places in Britain, while much of Dorset is known to be quite dry.

"So in some ways the Cumbrian record is not quite the same because it is 1,500 – 2,000ft (457 – 609m) up [and more prone to heavier rain].

"And although many parts of Dorset are hilly, it is all counted as lowland."

One of the reasons for the intense burst of heavy rainfall could be a ‘Spanish Plume’.

This is where hot and humid air is drawn up northwards from the area south of Spain towards the UK.

The warmer air meets the cooler Atlantic air and this clash creates instability.

Mr Ching believes that several different storms joined forces over the Channel.

But by the time the storms reached Dorset, the wind force dropped significantly, which created a fierce and concentrated rainfall in that part of the county.

He said: "The storm stopped dead, and even places like Weymouth and Dorchester had around eight inches of rain.

"It sounds silly when you think of it – this amount of rainfall occurring so close to Weymouth, which is one of the sunniest places in the UK.


Interestingly, the Met Office list of extreme rainfall includes three separate events from the 1950’s, certainly one of the worst decades for flooding in recent times. The list, of course, does not include the great North Sea Flood of 1953 either.





The nearby village of Upwey received over eight inches of rain, and personal accounts from their village archives offer an intimate insight:



During the afternoon of Monday 18 July 1955 it got very very dark.  By 4.00pm it was as dark as night and heavy rain was falling, continuing until about 7.30pm.  Army lorries went up through Church Street shouting out ‘don’t worry if it gets any worse we’re ready on Dorchester Rd to evacuate you.  Children thought it was quite exciting. 

Roy Shepstone had an interest in the weather and measured rainfall at his home in Elwell Street.  On the fateful day, a quarter of an inch fell before 10 am, the rain then eased, but by the end of the day 8.39" were recorded in his garden.

At 104 Church Street, Mr Dominey found he couldn’t stand in road because of force of water, he said ‘something’s wrong up top -  that gate’s come down from the farm’, later on a car came juddering through, sweets from wishing well and even flagstones from paths.

The family went upstairs to be safer, the water didn’t come in,  but all of a sudden there was a sound like an explosion and the wall opposite came down. The water went through to the river and flooded out the gatehouse of Upwey House.  The lights went out because the falling wall had snapped the electricity cable.  Sweets, crisp tins and groceries floated out of Mr Eckersall’s shop and on down the road. 

Further along at 32 and 34 Church Street the houses had flagstone floors.  Ron Critchell got a chisel and knocked down between the stones and the waters went down.  Bunty Gee did the same – but the water came up!  The family put the settee on the table and took as much as they could upstairs. The flood waters came from the field down through the scullery.  A couple of pigs floated down the road (some pigs at North Manor Farm were drowned), a greenhouse, John Hare’s car was  taken from corner (near Masons Arms) to Island Gardens gate by the force of the water.

Two men in a van got stuck in the floodwaters.  Les Hilton  and Jack Gee threw them a rope; the force of the water took the smaller man off his feet and he would have been swept away if he hadn’t held on to the rope. 

In Stottingway Street, the waters poured off the gardens at the back of numbers 11 to 17, and rushed through the cottages from back to front.  Fred Virgin shouted to his wife, Beryl,  to wedge the back and front doors open to let the water go through.  The Cave’s who lived next door, had gone to the pictures, so Fred went in and opened their doors, taking some of their possessions upstairs.  In those days this was possible because people didn’t lock their doors when they went out.

At North Manor Farm in Watery Lane, the flood water dammed up against the garden wall between Broadwey House and the farm house; then the wall gave way and the water pushed the farm machinery and Bill Ward’s car against the wall of the farmhouse. The water entered the house with terrific force, flooding the house to dining room table height.

Due to the railway bank of the Abbotsbury line acting as a dam,  Meadow Cottage on the double bend in Watery Lane, was flooded to within an inch of its ceilings.  Beneath the railway bridge, the force of this water gouged out a very large and deep hole in the road.  The flood waters took days to recede and it was here that 12 year old local lad, Robin Crump, lost his life when he fell into deep water, whilst out looking at the damage the flood had caused.  In February 1956 John Jewers, 17,  of Chapel Lane was presented with the Royal Humane Society’s certificate by the Mayor for ‘having on 19 July 1955, at personal risk, gone to the rescue of a boy who drowned in an area disturbed by floods … but whose life he gallantly tried to save.’

  1. tom0mason permalink
    July 18, 2015 4:37 am

    Other exceptional historical weather events culled from Chronology of Notable Weather Events by Douglas V. Hoyt when Co2 was at much ‘safer’ levels —
    In England, on October 10, the following is stated: “Remarkable drought in the Thames Valley on October 10th, 1114AD: ……Simeon of Durham…records: ‘In this year, the river which bears the name of Medway, for a distance of some miles, receded so far from its bed, on the sixth day before the ides of October, that in the very middle of it not even the smallest vessel could make the slightest way.'”
    Considered to be one of the driest years on record: on the 10th October, the Thames at London was so low that men and boys were able to wade across the river. (Combination of notably low tide & the aforementioned drought). (Some sources have the date as the 15th) [Note that the river had a completely different character to that of modern times.] (B)

    Then starting in the latter part of this year and continuing in 1115, England has the most severe winter to date. Several wooden bridges are destroyed by the frost.
    Very severe winter: the frost lasted for about 9 to 11 weeks and nearly all the bridges in England were damaged by ice. (B)
    1116AD A year of ‘excessive’ rains in England (B; “The Weather” (Kimble & Bush))

    Quoting Warkworth’s Chronicle of the first 13 years of the reign of Edward IV (i.e. 1461-1474), edition of 1839, published by the Camden Society, pp. 23 & 24. “In the same yere (XIII of King Edward the 4th 1473 [new style, 1472 old style]) Womere waters ranne hugely, withe suche abundance of watere, that nevyr manne saw it renne so moche afore this tyme. … And this Wemere [sic] is vij myle [4.3Km] from Sent Albons [St Albans, River Ver], at a place called Markayate [Markyate] ; and this Wemere ranne at every felde afore specified, and nevere so hugely as it dyd this yere, and ranne stylle to the xiij day of June next yere folowynge. Also ther has ronne suche other waters, that betokeneth lykewyse [refers to ancient superstition that bourne flows presage “derthe or pestylence or grete batayle”] ; one at Lavesham in Kent [modern Lewisham in S.E. London], and another byside Canterbury called Naylbourne and anothe at Croydone in Suthsex [Croydon, Sussex], and another vij myle [4.3Km] a this side the castelle of Dodley [Dudley, W. Midlands?] in the place called Hungeravale ; that whenne it betokenneth batayle it rennys foule and trouble watere ; and whenne betokeneth derthe or pestylence, it rennyth as clere as any watere, but this yere it ranne ryght trouble and foule watere.”

    In England, droughts with very hot summers occurred in these three successive years – assumed to be applicable to South/Central England only. (In the period 1473-1479, there were 5 fine summers in this seven year period: 1473, 1474, 1475, 1477 & 1479). (B)

    A terrible bubonic plague that struck London last year ended this year killing sixty eight thousand people and this year most of London is destroyed by fire including eighty seven churches, thirteen thousand homes (about 80% of the city) and a new law required they be rebuilt of brick and stone. The Great Fire of London lasted 4 days in September. The fire however helped contain the plague.
    January Thames frozen over.
    In the summer, a severe drought in England reduced the flow of the Thames River so much that it seriously threatened to ruin boatman; the dryness may have contributed to the Great Fire in London that September.
    On 27th June: Heat wave began: mostly dry in London since the 12th.
    On 5th July, 1666, Pepys writes: “extremely hot … oranges ripening in the open at Hackney”.
    July 6th: Beginning of period with occasional showers/heavy rains though often warm.
    July 26th: Hail ‘ as big as walnuts ‘ in London and 27th on Suffolk coast.
    The climatological summer (June, July & August) of 1666 was amongst the top 10 or so of warm summers in the CET series (began 1659). (B)
    In August and September, the drought over these two months is noteworthy because it preceded the Great Fire of London; apparently the east wind, which prevailed during that period, had dried the wooden houses of London until they were like tinder. When the fire started early in September (12th/New Style), the east wind drove the flames before it and helped the fire to spread rapidly; smoke from this reached Oxford in the days thereafter. The prevailing weather was noted as ‘hot and dry’, and strong east Winds during the fire caused great problems with fire-fighting. On the 2nd/old-style (the first day of the fire), a ‘strong’ east wind is noted – Evelyn notes this as a “Fierce” eastern wind in a very dry season. It is not clear though whether the wind was caused by the fire, or was there anyway. However, Evelyn does note that there had been a….”long set of fair and warm weather”. On September 4th (14th new-style), Evelyn still notes: “The eastern wind still more impetuously driving the flames forward.”Later on the 5th, the wind is noted as ‘abating’ — again not certain whether this was due to the fire burning itself out. In any case, this was effectively the end of the Great Fire.
    On 15th September: Foul weather in the southern North Sea began the breakdown of the long dry warm summer weather (see previous).
    On 19th September: The first considerable rainfall quenched London fire: rainy autumn followed. (B)


    In England on May 25 at Deptford, p428: “There had scarce fallen any rain since Christmas.” Also on June 12 p428: “It still continued so great a drought as had ever been known in England, and it was said to be universal.” Also “Drought from end March – mid July”

    The arrival of Europe’s worst ever storm. Records of it destruction can be found for France, Holland/Belgium, and Germany.

    On November 26-27, the “Great Storm” struck England wrecking over 100000 homes and crippling the Royal Navy. Thousands died. 30000 sailors were lost at sea. The poorly built Eddystone Lighthouse is destroyed. “Sea salt is often contained in rain, and after the ‘great storm’ of November 27th, 1703, salt was found on the trees fourteen or fifteen miles from the coast. A letter from John Fuller, of Sussex, dated December 6th, 1703, published in the Philosophical Transactions for 1704, says, ‘We live ten miles off the sea in a direct line … but that the sea-water was blown thus far, … all the twigs of the trees the day after were white, and tasted very salt.'”

    In England, Thames frozen for 2 months, frost fair took place. Ice on Thames in London lifted around 15 feet by a flood tide but remained intact! The ice must have been astonishingly strong.
    In early 1716, the Thames was frozen at London; a great number of shops and stalls were established on the river. A frost fair is held on the Thames (previous ones in 1564, 1608, 1620, 1634, 1677, and 1684).
    In September, “A year of drought. A cold dry spring was followed by an equally dry summer, though without great heat……On September 14th the bed of the Thames lay dry above and below London Bridge. This was caused by a combination of drought, strong westerly winds and high tides…. ”
    On September 14, the Thames was dry above and below the London Bridge.

    A drought started in England and would continue of and on to last until June 1734.

    Second year of drought.
    Drought in England. A dry year in England (see 1741). Very dry, after a ‘great frost’ at the start of the year. Very cold first period of the year, with much snow and ice. London recorded -18c. A warm summer. This year resembles 2003 quite closely, very dry with a minimum of -18 recorded in London (-18c recorded in Aviemore January this year? (2003)) followed by a warm summer (ours has been hot 100F reached and breached) But the similarities are evident, especially on the side of drought.

    1732AD Third year of drought.
    Drought in England continues for its fourth straight year. Also noted in England, for 1733/34, one of the warmest winters (by CET) in the series which began in 1659. Up to 1997, rank=9 Value=6.10; Dec=7.6, Jan=4.3, Feb=6.4 (Others: 1686, 1796, 1834, 1869, 1935, 1975, 1989 and 1990.) (B)

    Drought in England continues for its fifth straight year, but finally ends in June.

    On November 23, a tremendous hurricane throughout England that did considerable damage to shipping.

    In summer, the warmest on record in England. In July, the great drought in England leads to spontaneous fires

    In England, continued cold from last year. Severe winter. Continuous frost from the 23rd to 31st December, 12th to 19th January, and 31st January to 6th February. Ice on the Thames from late December to late January. Some places completely blocked. 25th December 1830 was cold, with -12c recorded in Greenwich.

    In January, the Thames is completely blocked by ice. Murphy’s Almanac predicts 20 January as coldest day of the year in UK. It is coldest day of the century.

    On February 4, Holmfurth England is flooded by a bursting reservoir with many lives (90) are lost and factories destroyed.

    On September 5, heavy rains brought widespread flooding to England, causing the Severn Valley to be turned into a continuous sea.

    On January 14-February 24, a severe frost in London with continued cold weather to June 26.

    On November 16-17, great floods in the north of England with farms destroyed, mines flooded, mills thrown down, etc; 20 people drown at Leeds.

    In 1868-69, England experiences its warmest winter of record.

    On November 15, the Thames rose by more than 28 feet flooding London.

    In England, the winter of 1878-1879 is another snowy one. In the north, snow cover remained for 3 months. Snow recorded in November, December, January, February, March and April.

    On November 15, the Thames overflowed between Oxford and Windsor causing extensive flooding and damage.

    In February in England, reports of “The upper Thames frozen over at Windsor”.

    In December in Nairnshire, England, a severe drought. For the past few months, complaints have been made among farmers and rural residents in Nairnshire as to the scarcity of water to such an extent as has not been experienced within the memory of older inhabitants.


    Just think of the alarm that the triad of the Met Office, the BBC, and the Guardian would generate if any of these happened today!

  2. A C Osborn permalink
    July 18, 2015 10:11 am

    Does the time period of 60 Years ring any bells?

  3. Christopher Booker permalink
    July 18, 2015 10:50 am

    As you know, I have a personal interest in these matters, since my Dorset home in 1955 was only a few miles from Martinstown and I was aggrieved at missing that downpour because I was away at school at the time, But I was very much present throughout the even more extreme rainfall event on 14 August 1975, when 6.74 inches (171mm) fell on Hampstead in London, by far the greater part of it in just 40 minutes,
    I was in Charing Cross Road to catch a 24 bus back to my home in Hampstead just after 5pm when we could see a quite monstrous cumulo-nimbus cloud piled up over north London, coloured a really sinister dark yellowish-gray. When the bus reached Camden High Sreet, we were halted by a massive storm of hailstones the size of those legendary golf balls, drumming so loud on the bus’s roof that we could not hear ourselves speak, After 25 minutes or so, we were able to inch slowly forward, to be greeted by a torrent of water pouring down Chalk Farm Road, Cars parked half up on the pavement (as they could be in those days) had water pouring through their open windows (until then it had been a hot sunny afternoon).
    By the time we finally arrived at South End Green terminus, the rain had almost stopped, and I walked up Pond Street to my home in only a light spotting of rain. I lived in a basement flat at the top of a steepish hill on Thurlow Road, and returned home to find our flat flooded to a depth of several inches (as were all other basement flats in the street, despite it being on a hill).
    Newspaper reports the next morning said that 6.74 inches had fallen in 40 minutes over only quite a small area of Hampstead and Kentish Town (I seem to remember they also said that this constituted 40 million tons of rain). I know the Met Office and other records now say that this rainfall lasted for nearly three hours, but having been there, I can say that well over 90 percent of it must have fallen in just that mighty 40 minute deluge when the heavens first opened. ,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: