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News  »  70 Years ago .... (Commemorating the Breach of the Ouse Bank in Over)

   70 Years ago .... (Commemorating the Breach of the Ouse Bank in Over)    9 February, 2017

70 years ago Britain was in the grip of one of the longest and coldest winters that anyone could remember. For three months the ground froze hard, snow fell in enormous quantities and gale-force winds blew relentlessly. Rivers froze over, and even the sea froze in many places too.

The great thaw began in the Great Ouse catchment area on 10th March. Further heavy rain and snow helped to raise the river levels to record heights - reaching 3 feet above the previous highest recorded level at Earith. The minor drains were overtopping their banks by 13th March and bags of clay were rapidly used to reinforce areas where water was escaping. By the following day all available people were sent out to patrol the banks, reporting any areas of weakness that needed reinforcement. Most of the leaks were stopped, but still the water rose.

The river was now so high that the barges carrying clay couldn’t get under the bridges, and many roads were becoming impassable too. Then on 16th March the wind changed direction and strengthened to gale force, creating waves on the swollen river which added to the strain on the banks. Eventually the bank gave way at Sharps Corner, between Brownshill Staunch and Earith and the water began to pour into Over Fen. News of the catastrophe took many hours to reach the control centre in Ely because the telephone lines had been brought down by falling trees and many roads were flooded.

We need to remember that the rivers are much higher than the fenlands anyway, kept in place by strong banks as the previously waterlogged fen soil dried out and shrank. If a bank ever burst, much of the water in the river would escape and flood all the low-lying land for miles around – and this is what happened now. In the very small hours of 17th March, water started to pour out through the broken bank, spreading relentlessly towards the next bank where the B1050 runs between Willingham and Earith. For a while they tried to reinforce that barrier, but it too was overwhelmed and the floods spread further towards Haddenham and Sutton.

For days the floods kept spreading and getting deeper, inundating farms, destroying crops, sweeping away stocks of hay and spoiling all the potatoes that were stored in ‘clamps’ (large earth-covered mounds) in the fields. Eventually the floods stretched almost to the A10 at Stretham.

The situation was dire, not only for local people, but also for a nation that was still reeling from the effects of six years of war. Food was severely rationed and the loss of so much high-grade agricultural land was a national disaster – and it soon attracted a national response. Every available resource was thrown at the problem – firstly to mend the breached bank, then to pump the water back into the river, and then hopefully to get a summer crop from the drained fields. (It helped that the floods were of fresh water, not salt water, so recovery could be very rapid.)


The full story is too involved to recount here, so the Parish Council has arranged a meeting to commemorate these historic events. It will take place exactly 70 years to the day since the bank gave way.

7.30pm – 9.30pm, Friday 17th March in the Community Centre

Mike Petty, a well-known local historian and raconteur, will explain what happened in his inimitable and highly entertaining way, illustrated by slides. Following an interval, the well-known local vocal group, Hobson’s Voice, will round off the evening with some topical songs.

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