Looking back at Ipswich’s ‘Forgotten Flood’ 80 years on
PUBLISHED: 12:41 29 January 2019
January marks the 80th anniversary of Ipswich’s ‘Forgotten Flood’. Sheena Grant delved into recent history
Eighty years ago this month heavy rainfall and melting snow combined to cause devastating floods in Ipswich and other parts of Suffolk.
The events of those few days at the end of January 1939 are etched into the memory of 91-year-old Alice Piotrowski, who was then an 11-year-old schoolgirl – and fortunate to escape with her life. Others were not so lucky.
At least three deaths were connected to the floods. A 19-year-old girl lost her life at Otley and an 85-year-old woman died after being rescued from her flooded home at Martlesham, while in Ipswich a man collapsed and died while watching the floods at Stoke Bridge.
The homes of many thousands more were inundated with up to 5ft of water and the disaster was so great that the mayor of Ipswich launched a relief fund to help those affected.
News of the disaster even reached the town’s namesake in America, which offered to help out in any way it could. But despite all this, to Alice the events of January 1939 are ‘The Forgotten Flood’. She believes they have passed quickly from public memory because those affected were mostly people living close to the River Gipping in Ipswich or around the dock area – the poorer people of the town.
“I have vivid memories of the Ipswich floods,” says Alice. “(My sister) Irene and I owed our lives to heroism of many townsmen who risked their lives to help people in this time of distress.” Alice Butcher, as she then was, lived with her mother, bricklayer father and two older sisters, Irene and Joyce, in the town’s Hadleigh Road.
The morning of January 26, 1939 was wet but to Alice much the same as any other as she set off for school. It soon turned out, however, that nothing else was to be normal about that day.
“I feel sure we took the bus to school as we were in the midst of 24 hours of continuous rain,” says Alice, who now lives in Felixstowe. “I didn’t notice anything untoward but melting snow and torrential rain had caused the River Gipping to overspill, resulting in widespread flooding in the lower reaches of the town.
“The streets and houses close to the river were swamped with floodwater and my father, realising the danger, cycled through the floods to get to my school in Bolton Lane. He spoke to the headmistress, who was totally unaware of the problems, and anxiously told her to let the children go home as much of Ipswich was under water.”
Alice managed to get onto a trolleybus from Electric House but floodwater prevented it going any further than the junction of Handford Road and London Road. “As we were ushered off the trolleybus I felt completely alone,” Alice recalls.
“Luckily, the townsmen were pulling together and a small rowing boat arrived to take the smaller children to higher ground just beyond the first bridge crossing. Adults and older children had to wade up to their waists through the floodwater.
“I then walked to West End Road where I saw that the old Seven Arches Bridge had collapsed and a rope had been strung across to replace the handrail. The water was gushing through and I knew that it would be impossible for a child of my size to get through it.
“Suddenly, a man picked me up and carried me through the swirling floodwaters to safety. It was such a relief, but more of a relief for my mum who was anxiously waiting for me at our home in Hadleigh Road.
“Her worries were not over though as Irene had still not arrived home nor had my father who was still out looking for her.”
Irene worked at Phillips and Piper in the town and, unaware of the floods, did a detour to the doctor’s surgery after work to try and get some medicine for sister Joyce’s earache.
“The doctor refused to prescribe anything until she had seen Joyce and agreed to a home visit and Irene continued on her journey home but, on reaching Handford Road, saw the floodwaters for the first time,” says Alice.
“Irene was determined to get home and asked a house owner in Handford Road if she could leave her cycle there and then she set off wading through the water. By the time she reached the Royal William, the water was waist high. She kept going but came to a standstill at the Seven Arches Bridge, the river now gushing through the broken structure like Niagara Falls.
“Sheds, dead pigs, chickens and rats were amongst the tons of debris that was being washed down from further upstream. Irene was terrified but an elderly man came to her aid and carried her on his back towards the broken bridge.
“As he reached the rope, he lost his footing and almost tumbled into the churning waters with Irene on his back. It was a heart-stopping moment but eventually he got her to safety. Irene arrived home distressed and bedraggled, but much to the relief of my mum. Dad eventually arrived home safe and sound and also relieved that all is children were now home.”
Incredibly, says Alice, the doctor also made it through to see Joyce, driving via the still-intact Stoke Bridge. The tragedy was covered by Pathe News, which was shown in cinemas, but Alice was none-too impressed by the accompanying “frivolous” commentary that was totally inappropriate for such a catastrophic event.
“My dad often spoke about the flood, saying that had the floodgates had been opened the tragedy would have been avoided,” she says.
“It took several weeks for things to get back to normal and traffic was prohibited from crossing the damaged Seven Arches Bridge.”
From the pages of the East Anglia Daily Times
Whole streets of houses were inundated by flood water in Ipswich and road and rail communications cut off, reported the East Anglian Daily Times on January 27, 1939.
“Britain was experiencing the worst weather conditions for years with fog, snow, ice and floods and gales reducing telephone and telegraph communications to chaos. When the River Gipping overflowed late in the afternoon hundreds of houses in Ipswich were flooded. Bramford village was marooned with water, gas and telephones cut off.”
The flooding was said to be the worst in 40 years and while many parts of the county were affected, reported the EADT, “the most graphic story of the weather came from Ipswich, where the water in parts of the town rose to 5ft. Police in rowing boats rescued bungalow dwellers in the early morning while furniture floated about in the streets. Ipswich police, assisted by the Boy Scouts, firemen and other helpers were last night at work in shifts rescuing marooned families. People clambered into boats from their upstairs windows because it was impossible to descend the stairs.”
On January 27 it was reported that Martlesham’s “oldest resident”, 85-year-old Emma Robinson died after being rescued from the floods. “She displayed great fortitude, remaining calm throughout the ordeal and made inquiries as to the welfare of others.”
On January 28 it was reported that 19-year-old Gweneth Beryl Last died while trying to cycle from her home in Gibraltar Road, Otley, to her job as a general servant in Charsfield, and in Ipswich, an “elderly” man of about 50 collapsed and died while watching the floods at Stoke Bridge. Other casualties included a woman evacuated from her flooded Ipswich home, “taken to the Borough General Hospital and detained”.
Outside Ipswich a bridge at Bramford collapsed. There were several feet of water around Wickham Market, Stowmarket, Norwich and Beccles. People living in bungalows near the “doomed” Wilford Bridge at Melton had to be evacuated by boat.
Residents were rescued from homes in Needham Market, Framlingham was cut off when the River Ore overflowed and houses inundated. The Post Office at nearby Bruisyard was flooded by the rising River Alde. Great Glemham was “marooned” and homes, gardens and businesses near the River Gipping in Stowmarket were under up to 6ft of water.
There were many animal fatalities too. Pigs drowned at Stowmarket and Needham Market and in Ipswich, Gaza, and the billy goat mascot of the 232nd Suffolk Medium Battery “met a watery end” at the Gipping Street drill hall.
On January 28 it was reported that “owing to Portman Road being under 4ft of water today’s Third League match between Ipswich and Reading has been postponed”.
As the waters subsided a relief fund was opened by Ipswich mayor Alderman EL Hunt. In a letter to the EADT he said the flood was an “unprecedented catastrophe in Ipswich” and appealed for people to come to the aid of those affected.