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The great floods of 1947

March 10, 2017
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By Paul Homewood


In the second half of March 1947, the most catastrophic river floods for at least 200 years occurred in the United Kingdom. Aerial view of flooding from the River Thames, Walton, Surrey in 1947


In 1947, Britain had hardly started the job of recovering from the war which had only ended barely a year before.

The economy was in tatters, many homes and factories were little more than bomb sites and food was still rationed.

As if this was not enough, the country had to endure the snowiest winter for 200 years. Six weeks of snow, which began on January 23, led to thousands of people being cut off by snowdrifts.


But that was only the beginning of the problems the weather was to bring.


Seventy years ago today, the weather was to change disastrously. A depression moved rapidly east across southern England bringing heavy rain.

Between then and the end of the month, depression followed depression across the whole of England. The month ended up being by far the wettest March on record.


England Rainfall - March


By the end of the month, the country had experienced the worst floods in living memory.

The Guardian published this account in 2007:




The great floods of 1947



Policemen in a rowing boat rescue inhabitants of Spring Lane, London, where flood waters reached alarming heights after the River Lea burst its banks in March 1947

Policemen in a rowing boat rescue inhabitants of Spring Lane, London, where flood waters reached alarming heights after the River Lea burst its banks in March 1947. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty images



Britain is no world-beater when it comes to flood prevention and control, but the country has few equals in putting up memorials to great soakings of the past. Everywhere from York to Gloucester via London, notched poles mark the riversides, engraved with historic high-water levels. Prominent on them all is the date 1947, the benchmark year in living memory for every subsequent flood.

Back then, the country, still dazed by the aftermath of war, was gripped by an iron winter and the biggest snowfall anyone could remember. Hundreds of villages were marooned, trains were buried in drifts and queues formed at gasworks during powercuts to fill sacks with coke for fires at home. Then, on March 7, a thaw began in the least helpful way possible. An inch of rain fell in a few hours and could not soak into the still icy ground. Snowmelt followed rapidly and the big rivers rose by a foot an hour. At Windsor, where water streamed off the Great Park "as if off a slate roof", according to royal officials, the borough engineer Geoffrey Baker lamented bluntly, "We could only cope if we had a spare Thames, or two."

Flood defences were pitiful by today’s standards and this summer’s victims, such as Gloucester and Tewkesbury, became rivers almost at once. Valleys turned into lakes in 40 counties and East Anglia’s fens were a sandbagged inland sea. More than 100,000 properties were damaged – at least twice this year’s toll – and, then as now, heroic battles were fought by the military to keep water-pumping plants and power stations dry. There was no internet but the sense of crisis was felt worldwide. Canada sent food parcels to stricken villages in Suffolk; the prime minister of Ontario even offered to help dish them out. Relief work in Gloucester was aided by volunteers from the Australian Red Cross.

The floods hit north, south and the flatlands in between, where towns such as Long Eaton, near Nottingham, had just seen furious recriminations about flooding the previous year. No sooner had the town council agreed on warnings from loudspeaker vans and the purchase of six punts and a store of disinfectant for future crises, than the river Trent was rising by a foot an hour. Down the railway line at Nottingham, trains docked like tramp steamers at the city station, taking passengers from platforms which were islands in the flood.


Evacuation was primitive and often unwanted by families who clung to their homes and "upstairs living", with few of the white goods and TVs which lock modern households to the ground floor. Bakers in Upton upon Severn and Shrewsbury – the latter islanded even more completely than Tewkesbury was this year – earned a name for cricket-bowling accuracy in lobbing loaves from skiffs into upstairs windows. In Chiswick, a fleet of small boys earned a relative fortune by going shopping for marooned neighbours in boats converted from zinc baths, equipped with baskets and string. On the river Ouse at Barlby, near Selby, North Yorkshire – spared this year but a major victim in 2000 – national servicemen in the Royal Engineers recounted a different sort of trick.

Their dinghies took bread along the flooded streets but were ordered only to deliver milk if families could show a baby at the window. Street after street produced the necessary infants – "so similar," one veteran of the military operation recalled half a century later, "that we wondered if they had their own boat at the back to pass them from house to house."

The floods peaked after a week and took another 10 days to subside completely, leaving immediate damage estimated by Clement Attlee’s Labour government at £12m (£300m at current values). The final cost, after repairs to infrastructure and totting up the devastation to farmland, was between £3bn and £4.5bn, in line with this summer’s toll.

Then, as now, saw harking back to even greater swampings. "I was in the 1915 flood and this was only a pond by comparison," a farmer called John Laws told the Ontario PM at Southery Fen. "You can’t discourage a man who was born in mud."


Perhaps the most outstanding thing about the floods of 1947 was that pretty much the whole of England was affected, from North to South, and East to West.


The Guardian mentions that the East Anglian fens looked like an inland sea. I have come across this collection of films from the Cambridgeshire Fens, which shows just how frightening the floods must have been to the inhabitants at the time.

The first couple of minutes gives a few high-angle shots, but I would recommend watching some of the stuff that follows. (Click on link).




Unless they were alive at the time, nobody now can even begin to understand what life was like in those times.

Years of war followed by ongoing austerity and food rationing, shortages, poverty and an economy that was truly on its knees.

Most people had little enough to start with, and some lost that as well in the snow and floods. Even if not directly affected, many found themselves laid off work, or unable to even buy essential foodstuffs from the shops.

Yet they just got on with life. In reality, they had no other choice.

They did not think of blaming the government, God, and least of all climate change.

Society now has a lot to learn from that generation.

  1. March 10, 2017 9:53 am

    Excellent. Thank you, Paul.
    As you know, “Attribution Science” has been used to attribute the floods of 2000 to fossil fuel emissions. I have written a critical evaluation of that procedure. You may find it of some interest. I would be grateful for your comments if you have the time to read it. Cheers.

    • March 10, 2017 12:08 pm

      Attribution science is as old as the hills, religions and politicians have always done it, always will, now it is a major employer of “environmental” “scientists”.

  2. March 10, 2017 10:27 am

    The floods were obviously caused by a massive release of CO2 due to all that bombing towards the end of the war. Nobody at the time realised it, but I am sure that there are some “climate scientists” out there now with nothing else to do who could reconstruct, using proxy data and a model, the massive pall of CO2 hanging over the UK in the first three months of 1947.

    • Dave Ward permalink
      March 10, 2017 11:36 am

      “The massive pall of CO2 hanging over the UK”

      Never mind the CO2, Philip – what about the particulates that must have been given off by years of bombing, fires, and coal powered industry, ships and trains!

      • Paddy permalink
        March 11, 2017 7:23 am

        And do bombs produce Nox?

    • Joe Public permalink
      March 10, 2017 11:43 am

      C’mon Philip & Dave

      We all know global temps dropped during & slightly after WW2

      Gotta love their update:

      ‘UPDATE: The sudden drop in temperatures in 1945 now appears to be an artefact of a switch from using mainly US ships to collect sea surface temperature data to using mainly UK ships.”

      OK there’s a sentence after that, but what the heck. 😉

  3. March 10, 2017 10:54 am

    ‘Between then and the end of the month, depression followed depression across the whole of England.’ — Possibly an example of an atmospheric river.

    ‘Atmospheric rivers have a central role in the global water cycle. On any given day, atmospheric rivers account for over 90% of the global meridional (north-south) water vapor transport, yet they cover less than 10% of the Earth’s circumference.[2]
    They also are the major cause of extreme precipitation events that cause severe flooding in many mid-latitude, westerly coastal regions of the world, including the West Coast of North America,[11][12][13][8] Western Europe,[14][15][16] and the west coast of North Africa.’

  4. Ex-expat Colin permalink
    March 10, 2017 10:57 am

    Not sure if this has been seen. Roger Helmer (UKIP Energy Spokes) at EU Parl and posted on Youtube yesterday:

    “Climate Change – the other side of the story”

  5. March 10, 2017 1:24 pm

    As you go back in time and look at weather events, there is a term that was very common but isn’t used much nowadays. The term is “freshet”. The term freshet is most commonly used to describe a spring thaw resulting from snow and ice melt in rivers located in the northern latitudes. The reason why it has fell out of usage is because this condition is less common today. Generally during a hard winter, the rivers freeze. During spring thaw, these sheets of ice break up and flow downstream out to the sea. But many times they get hung up around the bends of rivers or other obstacles, such as manmade bridges. If this condition occurs during a heavy rainy period in the spring when the ground is saturated with water, major floods will occur.

    So if we slide into another Little Ice Age due to the sun going magnetically quiet, then there are two natural threats that will occur in greater frequency. These are great freshets. It will be important to have the capacity to break up these large ice dams when they occur. And secondly, a large increase in the number of ocean icebergs some of which will find their way further and further towards the equator.

  6. Richard Bell permalink
    March 10, 2017 3:50 pm

    I was born in WALTON-ON-THAMES and walked on the RIVER THAMES when it froze over in the winter of 1963 …… Bloody global warming !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Martyn G permalink
      March 10, 2017 8:32 pm

      i, too, remember that year. I was on leave in Bognor Regis for Christmas and it started snowing on Boxing Day. 24 hours later the town (and many other coastal towns) we were completely cut off with all roads under many feet of snow. It didn’t really all thaw out in some parts, so cold was it for month after month, until just before Easter.

  7. March 11, 2017 5:31 am

    I wonder how today’s snivelling snowflakes would have coped in that era?

    • David Richardson permalink
      March 16, 2017 4:44 pm

      Careful what you wish for JB – if we get a Little Ice Age now, it will all be the fault of us baby boomers!!!!

      In the winter of 62/63 I was a baby weather man and as Martyn G says above it all kicked off during the Christmas Hols. I was on a training course in Stanmore and our first task when we returned after New Year was dig out the instrument enclosure where the snow drifts were 3 to 4 feet deep.

  8. Mick J permalink
    March 11, 2017 3:21 pm

    This document gives a view of the extent of the flooding in the UK that year.

    Click to access fl_1947_uk_river_floods.pdf

    The Environment Agency published a document with the title:
    After the Flood. Fifty years of inland flood protection in East Anglia.
    This search will list it and other related documents.

    This paragraph may interest. 🙂
    Channel capacity – the most serious problem was the lack of
    adequate capacity in the rivers. This was a legacy of the
    drainage policy which had been adopted for many years of
    trying to get flood water off agricultural land and into the
    rivers and away as quickly as possible. With efforts focused
    on speeding the run off, insufficient attention had been paid
    to making sure the rivers, channels and structures were able
    to cope with volume and rapid build up of the water.
    Because the rivers were relatively shallow they were unable
    to handle the massive onslaught in 1947 when flows were
    more than twice those of any flood recorded previously or


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