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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

Flooding through the centuries

Flooding has been a constant theme throughout our research of our Blue Green Bristol project including of the Rivers Frome and Avon. Names like Canon’s Marsh and Marsh Street are a reminder that Bristol was built on a ridge of high ground in marshland bordering those two strong rivers. 

The following centuries saw the city spread over the Avon flood plain with inevitable consequences that still threaten the city.

Photo via Paul Townsend

November 1703 A great storm swept over the whole of the land and the tide forced its way up the Avon with such force that half of Bristol was underwater!

The creation of the Floating Harbour from 1804-1809 did lessen the threat of these high tides but flash floods remained a real danger.  Long lengths of the River Frome and Malago were covered over as the city expanded but far from reducing the risk of flooding the culverts actually increased the danger of flooding in some places as some were too small and others frequently blocked with debris (including with dead dogs!).

October 1882 In October 1882, nearly 8cm of rain fell in just 48 hours inundating Baptist Mills overnight and flooding the Frome.  A baker delivering bread nearby was swept away in the torrent and both he and his horse drowned. The Corporation ended up with a pile of claims for damages (which they denied!) and wisely decided to build a culvert from the Frome to the Floating Harbour to prevent further floods – but not quickly enough!

The floods of 1889 In early March 1889 the city was covered in a thick blanket of snow.  When it quickly thawed, soaking the ground beneath and filling the waterways and when continuous rain fell for 36 hours by Friday 8th March much of the area around Baptist Mills and the city centre were once again under water.

This time there was no serious casualties but many suffered as mothers and children were stranded in upper rooms without food and other children were unable to leave school.

Even into the early hours of Saturday 9th March water was rushing down Merchant Street and through Broadmead throwing the Merchant Tailors’ Almshouse into panic as elderly almsfolk on the ground floor woke to find they were in danger of drowning. As the new day broke the city resembled Venice with streets becoming canals.  Crowds flocked to witness boats in Broadmead before the water fell quickly in the afternoon. 

Again the Council was held responsible especially as they were seen as having been inactive following the floods of 1882.  The Headmaster of Clifton College the Revd. James Wilson branded their lack of progress as a scandal and sin.  This provoked the Mayor to call for a civic fund to aid the distressed and finally prompted the Council to begin culverting the Frome and Malago.

The deadly floods of 1968 On Wednesday 10th July 1968 the worst storm in half a century hit Bristol.  More than 5 inches of rain fell in less than 24 hours and added to the water that was already running dangerously high in the City’s rivers following a very wet spring.

On this unseasonably wet day in July 1968 the normally placid, stream-like Malago burst its banks in Bedminster (as well as Hartcliffe Way).  This BBC video explains how the worst floods in 100 years occurred.

WD & HO Wills on the Malago in Bedminster The Malago, itself a tributary of the River Avon is around 5 miles long and rises in springs on the north side of Dundry Hill that rises to the south of Bedminster.  'Malago' means 'Mill Place' in Brittonic (British Celtic), so called because there were tidal mills all along the river. The Malago’s main tributary is the Pigeonhouse stream, which also rises on Dundry.  Like the River Frome, the Malago has a long history of being covered and culverted, in series of flood relief channels in response to the floods of the 18th and 20th centuries.  Again like the Frome, the course of the Malago has been much altered in the past and it now joins the River Avon through storm drains at the New Cut opposite the old entrance to Bathurst Basin.  Originally the Malago flowed in to the River Avon nearer to Redcliffe at Treen Mills.

Bedminster In 1800 the Malago would have flowed through rolling fields all the way to the small medieval market town of Bedminster, which pre-dates Bristol. Bristol isn't mentioned in the Domesday book, but Bedminster is – it had 25 villagers, 22 smallholders, 3 slaves and 1 priest. The village grew suddenly when a coal seam was discovered running beneath it - from 5,000 people in 1801 to 80,000 in 1881 - but it still lacked sewers, piped water and street cleaning. The level of the roads rose by just under a meter because of compacted rubbish, which came up to ground floor windows.

At the height of the flood of 1968 the City Engineers’ Department received calls for help at a rate of one every 15 seconds and many families were evacuated from their homes to emergency centres in Luckwell Road and Parson Street Schools.

Just under a meter of water (91.4cm) brought East Street to a standstill, halting production at the WD & HO Wills factory and closing dozens of shops as they were flooded out. Tragedy also struck when a 33 year old man was washed away in the fierce current as he went to the rescue of 2 women who were trapped. The 2 women were rescued by the body of the man was later recovered in water over 3 meters deep.

Crew’s Hole on the Avon On 15 November 1894 Crew’s Hole was badly flooded.  The Avon above this point in Bath is known to have been about 6 meters above the normal river level as can be seen in the picture below.

The highest mark shows the flood of 15th November 1894 further upstream.

On 5 December 1960 the Crew’s Hole tar works, William Butler & Co (Bristol), the flood level equalled the high water mark of the 1864 flood.  The then Company Secretary, Stanley Thomas, had an oil drum raft made to ‘sail’ into his office to rescue some confidential papers!  His capsizing caused much laughter amongst his colleagues!

The flood of 1968 rose just 15cm short of the highest recorded floods of 1894 and 1960.  One manager at the old Bristol tar works in Crew’s Hole remembers ‘In my office, only the telephone was visible on my desk! Believe me, that much water sorts out your filing system!’.


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