In 1947 a catastrophic combination of high tides, meltwater and a wind surge caused a breach in the flood defences north of the town Crowland which inundated 20 square miles of farmland which surrounded the town and reached the nearby villages of Eye, Thorney and Newborough to the south, the former March to Spalding railway to the east and Queen’s Bank in the north.
Winter of 1947 was a cold one, Woburn in Bedfordshire registered a low of -21 °C on the 25 February and snow lay over much of the country throughout February with temperatures remaining in negative figures for most of the month. In March the weather worsened, during the first half of the month, there were strong gales and heavy snowstorms, making for blizzard conditions. On 4 and 5 March, more heavy snow fell over most of England and Wales, with severe snowdrifts forming. On 6 March, drifts up to five metres deep in the Pennines and three metres deep in the Chilterns were being recorded.
As the cold weather ended the temperatures rapidly got into double figures, and the snow began to rapidly thaw. This created a serious problem as the ground was still frozen due to the weeks of cold weather, leaving the melting snow with nowhere to go except into the streams and rivers. Severe gales then swept across the country on Sunday the 16 March, this compounded the problem with winds over southern England averaging about 60mph, with gusts of up to 100mph. These severe weather conditions persisted until March 24. With a strong southwesterly wind, the waves coming across the wash would have been pounding the eastern bank. It was reported that an upper portion of one of the pinnacles of the cathedral in the nearby city of Peterborough was blown off, about 5ft long it crashed into the grounds below. Water levels in Crowland Low Wash were rising to critical levels…
Thursday 20 March 1947
A recording taken on this day recorded that 5,500 cubic feet per second was calculated as going in the wash, the equivalent of almost four Olympic swimming pools of water per minute, but only 2,400 cubic feet per second was leaving it at the Spalding end.
Friday 21 March 1947
Men were already working to protect the barrier bank at Welland when the bank slipped and the breach occurred on Friday 21 March at around 12.15pm. The breach quickly grew to 180ft or 54m wide, about the length of four double-decker buses.
Saturday 22 March 1947
Flood water reaches Postland Railway Station to the west. A wall of sandbags is put in place to prevent the water from going any further east.
Sunday 23 March 1947
Water continues to pour through the breach onto the surrounding Fenland until Crowland itself was completely surrounded in water becoming a virtual island. The Sea Cadets were called in to provide support to the police and military. This included ferrying food to cut off families and rescue others. Their ‘fleet’ consisted of a jolly boat and two dories.
Monday 24 March 1947
Due to the difficult access to the site a three quarter mile stretch of light railway was laid from Crowland to the breach so stone could be transported to build an encircling wall. The stone to fill the breach came from quarries at Helpston and Yarwell so it had to take a longer route via Thorney. Village residents, R.E cadets and German Prisoners worked to build stone causeways on either side of the breach.
Tuesday 25 March 1947
Brigadier G Younghusband, Deputy Commander of the North Midlands District decided to bring amphibious tanks from Cambridge to speed the sealing-off operation.
Wednesday 26 March 1947
The first of 16 Amphibious “Water Buffalo” tanks (or LVT’s (Landing Vehicle Tracked)). The plan was to reduce or stop the flow of water so repairs could progress faster. The tanks were placed at the extremes of the stone causeways. An engineer at the time explained that the tanks could not be placed directly in the breach as the tremendous pressure of the water had eroded a hole 28 feet, 8.5m (the height of two double-decker buses) below ground level.
Friday 28 March 1947
The Peterborough Standard led on the story. “Inundation of 10,000 acres of farmland, mainly in the Postland area, followed the breaching of the North Level barrier bank of Cowbit Wash, three-quarters of a mile north of Crowland, on Friday. Water poured through a local Farm and encircling Crowland and swept on towards Boro Fen and Newborough. It reached three miles east to Postland Station and Queen’s Bank, where it was turned by a sandbagged wall towards Dowsdale Bank. To the west of Crowland, the waters of Crowland Wash completed the encirclement of the town. At one time floods reached the outskirts of Eye village, and the road to Crowland was impassable beyond the hump-backed bridge over the railway. By Tuesday the Peakirk Thorney road was open but the road to Crowland beyond Mason’s Bridge was flooded to a depth of several feet. The only remaining line of communication lay through Thorney.”
Saturday 29 March 1947
The breach is finally sealed.
Tuesday 8 April 1947
Work continued to strengthen the rampart. Equipment was put in place along the north bank to pump water from the fenland back into the wash. Eight heavy diesel pumps and nine extra heavy pumps from the Home Office Depot at Warboys were pumping 50,000 gallons a day back into the wash.
Wednesday 9 April 1947
Such was the flooding the Minister of Agriculture at the time, Mr Tom Williams paid an informal visit. He promised full co-operation of his department and said his department would look sympathetically at an application for 90% grant to make permanent repairs to the breach. The Minister was escorted from Thorney to Newborough, along the bank to Crowland before he headed off to Tydd.
Friday 11 April 1947
A second breach occurred at 7am when the water swept away five of the LVT’s. A local newspaper reported that one of the vehicles whirled away like matchsticks and was sucked down into the 28-foot hole created by the original breach.
As the pumping had continued no one had noticed that the Buffaloes, which had been flooded to weigh them down, had also been emptying. The weight of the water found it’s way under the Buffalo’s and broke the barrier of the dam. Buffalo 47 had floated over the hole and as the bung was removed it had sank to the bottom of the 28 feet, 8.5m deep hole that had been created by the pressure of the water flowing through the breach.
Saturday 12 April 1947
A further 12 Buffalo’s were brought in from Northern Command whose headquarters was in the city of York to repair the damaged rampart.
Sunday 16 April 1947
It was reported that the town crier of Crowland went round the town while most of the inhabitants were settling down to their Sunday dinner and made a call for volunteers to work the flood defences. They were offered four shillings an hour for some heavy work in manipulating steel girders and heavy baulks of timber to shut off the breach. This would of been a good wage for the time. There was a good response, and two shifts were formed to work throughout the night.
Sunday 21 April 1947
This time the New River was diverted and the breach was sealed for the second time. The last of the twelve Buffalo tanks were put into position between steel interlocked piles. With tarpaulins, wire mesh and sandbags, the construction was finally waterproofed.
The permanent sealing cost was around £100,000, around £3 million in today’s money, and was undertaken by the Dredging and Construction Co, King’s Lynn, now Visser & Smit Hanab. Over 200 men were employed in the task.
It is due to the determination of local farmers that after the breach had been repaired a harvest was brought in later that year from farmland that had been underwater. It was also reported that one enterprising farmer used a Miles Aerovan to sow seeds from the air.
After the floods subsided, new works such as the Coronation Channel in Spalding which opened in 1953 were constructed to control flooding in Spalding and the surrounding area.
In the end, 1947 was quite a dramatic year weather-wise. March 1947 was one of the wettest on record with 119.5mm rain recorded in the Central region, which includes Crowland, against an average of 43.9mm, a 270 per cent increase over the normal quantity of rain. The River Thames saw the worse flooding it had seen in over 100 years. The summer of 1947 was the 6th warmest on record on record at the time and October the 6th driest since records began in 1766.
Information for this page was gathered from archives, local newspapers and reports.
© Crowland Buffalo LVT Association