Family who survived huge sinkhole which swallowed three homes and killed their neighbours look back 80 years on

Working on a boring at subsidence behind houses on Merton Road, May 1936

Working on a boring at subsidence behind houses on Merton Road, May 1936 - Credit: Archant

The arresting image of a 1988 double decker bus teetering over a gaping hole in Earlham Road is not easily forgotten.

Mercia Duffield and Marcus Goodson's in front of the gap left when their father's home vanished into

Mercia Duffield and Marcus Goodson's in front of the gap left when their father's home vanished into an 80-ft deep sinkhole on Merton Road in 1936, which killed their two neighbours and made them homeless.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

But subsidence in Norwich has produced more devastating consequences over the years, not least on May 11, 1936, when an 80ft-deep sinkhole swallowed three homes on Merton Road.

The disaster, almost eight decades ago, claimed the lives of Thomas Hall and his wife, whose immediate neighbours were Russell and Rosa Goodson.

Their son Marcus, now 74, had not been born at the time but remembers, as a child, his father regularly walking him back to the spot where their home had been destroyed.

Little had been known in the early 20th century of the meandering chalk tunnels carved out beneath the streets of Norwich, which had once been open for children to play inside.

How the Eastern Evening News reported the disaster in May 1936

How the Eastern Evening News reported the disaster in May 1936 - Credit: Archant

Known as 'the vaultings' by locals, one section in particular became notorious as 'Devil's Hole' as the topsoil would regularly give way.

Mr and Mrs Goodson had no idea of the risk before they moved into Merton Road, where they lived for only a few years before their home was turned to rubble.

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Marcus Goodson explained how his mother and older brother managed to escape with their lives. 'It is something my family did not really talk about,' he said. 'All I was told was my mother was woken by a strange noise in the early hours. She grabbed my brother and ran out of the front door as the rest of the house collapsed behind them.

'They lost everything. Of course there was no insurance for subsidence in those days; this was an 'act of God'.

'When I was quite small, in the early 1950s, my father used to walk me down to the old place, and there would still be the front wall standing alone, with nothing around it.'

Russell Goodson Jnr, who was aged four at the time, survived and went on to be a successful inventor and businessman in Norwich, before suffering a stroke in 1989.

'He would have been a great loss to the city,' said sister Mercia Duffield, now 71. 'It was about one in the morning and mum heard a strange noise. She looked outside and saw part of the house had disappeared.'

An Eastern Evening News reporter at the time described the scene on Merton Road as 'pitiful'.

'Neighbours were standing in the road obviously shaken by the tragedy,' one report said.

'The whole of the rear of the house was missing. Nothing remained but a pile of dust and rubble.'

Mr Humphrey, who lived two doors down from the Goodsons, recounted his experience.

'I heard an explosion about five minutes to one,' he said. 'I got up and helped my wife out of bed, when I heard the second explosion. 'We had just got downstairs into the street when the back of the two houses collapsed. I heard the neighbours shrieking for help, and we got their little girl out of her bedroom window from the roof of a shed.'

The chalk workings beneath Norwich date back to medieval times, when flint was being mined for buildings, and chalk used to make lime for mortar.

Norwich City Council will often intervene in cases of subsidence, but only when it affects public highways or property.

Carol Marney, head of operational property services at NPS Norwich, said: 'When sink holes appear in Norwich they only become the city council's responsibility if they appear on the highway or when it relates to property owned by the council.

'Sinkholes can occur in any part of the city but tend to form where water is channelled into the chalk, resulting in a weakness that's eroded by the water draining over a period of time.

'Our advice is that property owners should check that drains close to the property are not leaking into the ground and that water mains are not leaking. In addition, soakaways should not be constructed adjacent to property – CNC Building Control monitors this particular aspect of new build.'

-Do you remember the 1936 Merton Road sinkhole? Contact Dominic Gilbert on

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