Shaping the Landscape / The River Severn

The Great Flood of 1607

This article is a summary of a talk presented by Rose Hewlett on Tuesday 4 October 2016 as part of our Tuesday Talks series. Rose was researching the 1607 flood for her PhD at the University of Bristol.

In January 1607 low-lying communities along both coasts of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary suffered a devastating tidal flood. This included the area covered by A Forgotten Landscape. The vicar of Almondsbury wrote an account of the event on the cover of his parish register and noted that around Redwick the water was six or seven feet deep, with some householders experiencing the waters rushing in at one window and out at another. Rose explained that there were several reports of strong south-westerly winds and a storm (and therefore low pressure). These weather conditions, combined with a very high spring tide, caused the surging waters to flood five or six miles inland onto the South Gloucestershire Levels.

Pamphlets (the forerunners of newspapers) published in London reported on extensive loss of life both in human terms and of livestock. Thousands of cattle, horses, sheep and lambs were said to have been lost. The floodwaters lay on the land for one or two weeks; the mayor of Bristol sent boats to the area around Aust to help rescue people and presumably bring in supplies of food. In Bristol the morning tide was said to have been nine feet higher than the evening tide and the waters damaged warehouses and the commodities stored inside them. In the centre of Bristol, goods brought in by traders from all over the country for St Paul’s Fair, were also destroyed. Many of the bridges over the tributaries of the Severn from Bristol to Gloucester were said to have been damaged or swept away as the surging waters inundated; this must have caused difficulties with travel and communication.

Rose is currently researching the response and recovery aspects of the 1607 flood at the University of Bristol. Her work includes studying the records of the courts of sewers (sewers mean watercourses) which will further our understanding of how the sea defences and drainage systems of the South Gloucestershire Levels were maintained and repaired. In the early seventeenth century individuals were responsible for the sea walls and sluices on their lands and the commissioners of sewers (now the Lower Severn Internal Drainage Board) tried to ensure that the repair and maintenance work was carried out. Sometimes, particularly when large stretches of embankment were destroyed, it was necessary to work collectively and share the costs of the work through the raising of a rate. At Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset, five hundred men were said to have been employed in mending the breach in the sea defences caused by the 1607 flood; the situation was so urgent that even the local magistrates physically helped.

Rose’s illustrated talk was in the form of a journey up the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary and she described the devastation caused by the tide at various places en route. The Somerset Levels and Gwent Levels were also particularly badly affected and Rose suggested that wet weather beforehand had meant that the tidal water met little resistance as it travelled over already saturated ground. She explained that while it seemed that the 1607 flood was the greatest in terms of the height that the waters reached, there have subsequently been other tidal flooding events, notably in 1703 and, more recently, in 1981 when the embankment of the M5 motorway acted as a second sea defence when the wall at Burnham had been breached.

Rose ended her talk by discussing the theory held by some that the flood was caused by a tsunami. She felt sure that if an underwater earthquake had occurred and created a tsunami this would have been widely reported, much as the Dover Straits earthquake of 1580 had captured the public’s attention. While she accepted that physical evidence along the coasts of the Bristol Channel indicated that a sizeable event had occurred, she could not ignore the numerous and unconnected reports of the strong winds and a storm, and that also the same weather system appears to have caused a large surge on the evening tide at King’s Lynn, Norfolk.

 

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