What Happened To Your Weather In 1960, Julia?
By Paul Homewood
Andrew Montford carries the story about the University of Exeter holding an “extreme weather day” in March, as part of their WAM Festival.
What is happening to our weather? An entertaining and informative evening full of surprises with one of the country’s leading science communicators, Helen Czerski and the Chief Scientist of the Met Office, Prof. Dame Julia Slingo OBE FRS.
In the first half of the evening Helen Czerski and leading climate scientist, Dr. Peter Stott of the Met Office will embark on an exploration of extreme weather, including here in Devon, and how this fits into a pattern of changing climate. As they will discuss, there is so much more to climate change than global warming. Find out how the climate varies from a host of fascinating natural processes, and how science is making progress at helping all of us be more resilient to its vagaries.
After the interval, Helen is joined by Prof Dame Julia Slingo OBE FRS, Chief Scientist of the Met Office and other leading experts to explore with you, the audience, some of the intriguing questions raised earlier. Chaired by Prof. Paul Hardaker, Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics and with Prof. Peter Cox of the University of Exeter, our panel will invite your questions and take you on an entertaining journey through the science of weather and climate and what it means for you.
Perhaps they might care to explain how the Exeter floods of 1960, the worst in living memory, fit into their exploration of extreme weather?
The Exeter Memories website gives a graphic account:
During October 1960, Exeter had in excess of 380mm of rain, half the annual average. On 26 October 1960, a further 60mm of rain fell over the Exe catchment area causing the river to rise alarmingly. On the next day, the 27th October, or ‘Black Thursday’, 700 cubic metres of water per second (cumec) rushed down between the banks of the Exe and overflowed the river from above Exwick down through St Thomas and towards the low lying parts of Alphington. St David’s Station was flooded on the east side of the river, but it was the western bank that took the brunt of the torrent that day.
In Exwick, Station Road acted as a barrier to the water and caused mud, silt and boulders to be swept through the streets – the water depth was as much as 2 metres (6ft 6 inches). A raging torrent flowed on the west side of the railway embankment, over the Exwick playing fields, along Western Road, Okehampton Street, Haven Banks and Alphington Road.
The rising ground in front of Redhills Hospital and along Exwick Road and Buddle Lane saved these areas from inundation. Another area that was spared was around Flowerpot Fields, because surprisingly, it is slightly higher than the surrounding ground.
Water rushes down Okehampton Street.
Trapped by the water
The water was deepest in Okehampton Street where almost 2 metres (6 ft) of water raged and roared past the front and rear of buildings. One resident of an upstairs flat in Stephens Buildings, Mrs Louisa Avery said "We were all terribly frightened. You could feel the vibration as the water roared past. None of us could possibly have got out of our homes and we were scared stiff that the foundations would crumble. We went to bed but couldn’t possibly sleep." Just before midnight, a Royal Army Service Corp DUKW reached the building and rescued the trapped residents through a window. At the rear of the building a £1,000 worth of coal and coke from a coal yard was washed away.
A ground floor resident, Mr J Davey spoke to the Echo "As soon as we saw that the water was getting too deep outside to wade away, we decided to go while we could. We went to the upstairs of my mother-in-law’s house opposite and from there we watched the floods surging over our window-ledges. My wife and I carried our seven-month-old baby Julia away with us. We watched last night as the Army DUKWs tried to negotiate the floods, but they had a tough time of it. One of them was swept round and knocked a lamp-post down, and another trying to help it was washed against a garden wall which tumbled over. Some people had to climb through one of the houses and walk through the back to get to another of the DUKWs."
Peter Palmer swam through five feet of water to his home, near the Okehampton Street railway bridge, where his mother and younger brother, Tony, were trapped. " I had to let myself float down on the current and grab hold of the wall and work my way until I could get into the house. Then with Tony we took our two dogs, Judy and Tiny, upstairs and left them some food. We dragged ourselves back along the front of the buildings against the current until we reached a shallower part and were able to walk to a bungalow to stay the night."
Western Road around Beach Brothers was flooded to a depth of 1.3 metres (4ft 3 inches) above ground level. The flood was so sudden that more than 150 employees were trapped on the first floor of Beach Bros. premises for nine hours before being rescued by an army DUKW at midnight. It was reported that people were walking along the main railway line towards St David’s Station as it was above the flooded surrounds.
A barrel of beer from the Royal Oak pub in Okehampton Street was picked up by the Royal Navy ship, HMS Highburton on 8th December, seven miles off Portland. This courageous act from the crew was well repaid by the brewery and the barrel was turned into a seat (see link above) complete with explanatory brass plaque, and placed in the public bar of the Royal Oak. Timber, cork and corkwood from Beach Bros was also found floating in the Channel. In total, 2,500 houses, factories, churches and pubs were flooded. Carpets, furniture, electric wiring, shop displays, stock and decoration were covered by a layer of thick, muddy red slime. Along the Alphington Road the flood water reached as far as the Crawford Hotel.
Twice is too much
Recovering from flooding takes a long time – a house has to be cleaned of the stinking mud and it takes time to dry out before redecoration, which can take many months and it can be expensive if space heaters are used to speed the process. Beach Bros lost a total of £21,488 in the October flooding, and this was a fraction of the loss in Exeter. Five and a half weeks after the October flood, the waters surged back and on Sunday, 3 December a further 80mm of rain fell to swell the river waters and again, flood 1,200 properties. Shops, factories and houses that were recovering from the October drenching, suddenly found that they were returned to the sodden, muddy condition of a few weeks earlier. Beach Bros sustained another big loss, this time to the value of £20,983. Something had to be done to prevent such a catastrophe again.
Since 1960, flood defences have been upgraded, in particular a new flood channel at Exwick. Nevertheless, the weather was truly exceptional in October 1960, and Exeter has seen nothing like it since.