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Originally published 2018
In the face of Storm Emma last week, Norwich valiantly battled the weather, to keep going for visitors and residents of the city. However in August 1912, a devastating flood brought Norwich to its knees, and turmoil to 15,000 people.
This week – with the help of resources from the archives of the Norfolk Heritage Centre – we’ll tell you the story of the worst flood that has ever been recorded here.
On Monday, 26th of August 1912, Norwich looks very different to how it does now. There is a tram system, and horses and carts roll through the streets. North of the river there are slums, in what are now familiar ‘yards’ and ‘courts’, where tenants cram as many people as possible into one residence.
It’s been a wet year so far – the ditches are as saturated now as they were in February, and August has proved cool and miserable. On that Monday at 3pm, there is a rainstorm and 7.34 inches of rainfall is gauged (this is three months the average rainfall for the district).
The next day – Tuesday the 27th of August – rain still falls. At noon you can walk down the lower lying parts of Heigham Street and still keep your feet dry. However by 2pm the same place is 12 inches underwater. At 3pm a 4ft torrent rages through Westwick Street.
Norwich was bursting at the seams. The city had not seen anything like it since the famed Great Flood of 1614, when the river Wensum rose 15 feet. This time, the same river rose 16.5 feet above the mean high level, as heavy rainfall combined with high tides and strong north-westerly winds, breaking man-made and natural river banks.
The city was “hopelessly isolated by road, rail, telegraph and telephone” (A.E. Coe & Son), and sewers burst. The pavements – which were at that time made from wood or granite – rose with the water, and it was calculated that 50 bridges around the county were wrecked. That Tuesday evening, Norwich also lost all light, power and water supplies to houses, as the Electricity station flooded too.
It’s hard to imagine what the city would have looked like, but these photographs go some way to illustrating the magnitude of what happened. In each book that I found these photographs in, there was a disclaimer to the effect of ‘it was unable to capture images of the flooding at its worst, due to the threat the waters posed to the photographer’. So as you look at these pictures – some locations more recognisable than others – bear in mind that at the height of the flooding, things would have looked much, much worse.
4 lives were tragically lost during the floods, however many more people lost their homes. 15,000 people either had their property severely damaged or destroyed altogether. Maddeningly, poorly built homes washed away as the floods retreated.
Amidst it all though, there was a city of people helping each other. Daring rescues were made and many lives saved thanks to the hard work of many brave people. In Yarmouth railway station, all trains were cancelled, and the Station Master helped stranded passengers by lighting fires in the waiting rooms, allowing people to sleep in train carriages, and distributing tea, bread and butter to children. Amidst people queuing outside St Andrews Hall for food and clothes, an appeal was raised that touched thousands of hearts across the world. Donations from as far afield as America, South Africa and Australia was sent to help the people of Norwich.
It took many months for Norwich to recover from the devastation of that August, but out of the devastation came a city more united, and thankfully Norwich has not seen flooding like it since.
This post was written with thanks to:
The Norfolk Heritage Centre at the Millennium Library; Alan Robinson’s book ‘The Day that the rains came: the great Norfolk flood of 1912’; A.E. Coe & Son’s book in aid of the Lord Mayor’s Relief Fund, ‘Photographs of the Floods in Norwich + Norfolk August 1912’.