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Photo gallery: Writer Derek James looks back on the storms and floods of 100 years ago

PUBLISHED: 09:47 27 August 2012

Wonderful old photos from private albums on display at the Norfolk Heritage Centre Millennium Library exhibition.
Westwick Street in the floods do 1912.
Photo by Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service.

Wonderful old photos from private albums on display at the Norfolk Heritage Centre Millennium Library exhibition. Westwick Street in the floods do 1912. Photo by Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service.

Archant Norfolk Copyright

The summer of 1912 had been of one sunshine and showers – not so different to the summer of 2012 – then in the early hours of Monday, August 26 it started to rain.

At first, the men and women of Norwich took little notice of it as they went about their business. It wasn’t a good drying day for the weekly wash.

But this was no ordinary shower. There was no thunder or lightning – just a continuous downpour which got heavier and heavier.

In those days Norwich was a far more compact city, with thousands of people living in what today would be considered appalling conditions. It was a tough life in the dozens of courts and yards and in the low-lying areas around the river.

The richer you were the higher you tended to live and when the rains came it was the poor who suffered most.

As the day progressed the rains were accompanied by strong winds. Some reports said rain was falling at the rate of an inch an hour. Roads were turning into rivers and then houses, factories and bridges began to crumble under the sheer weight of water.

The waters continued to rise. The rivers burst their banks as the people ran for cover. The floods cut Norwich off from the rest of the country and covered a 40-mile radius around the city.

People were forced to take shelter in upstairs rooms as rescue parties in boats took to the roads and streets. Countless lives were saved – at least four were lost.

Rescuers reported seeing the grief-stricken faces of men and women in upstairs windows, while all around was the awful wailing of children.

Dogs and cats never stood a chance and were swept away.

Among those to die was a baby, Edward Poll, who slipped from his mother’s arms and was lost. Another was brave rescuer George Brodie (Brody) who saved many lives before losing his own.

But this was a disaster which helped to unite a divided city with people turning out to help each other at a time of need.

A report at the time said: “Without distinction of position or social standing, men and women of high and low degree responded to that one touch of nature which makes the whole kin.”

The actions of former Norwich MP Louis Tillett illustrate how so many people came to the aid of their fellow citizens. He was at a police station offering his services when a man rushed in saying his wife was expecting a baby and he could not get a nurse or doctor to her.

Louis somehow found two nurses from and, together with a police inspector, they carried them shoulder high through the floods for 50 yards – climbing brick and garden walls – before getting the nurses through the window of the room where the women was.

The former MP cut his hand badly on some wire and for a while his condition gave rise to some anxiety.

There were so many deeds of heroism during those dark days and even darker nights as Norwich struggled to survive on what became a very tight island.

Seven schools opened as shelters along with many other public buildings and thousands queued outside St Andrew’s Hall for emergency aid – food parcels and clothes.

When the Lord Mayor, Henry Copeman and his wife Harriet, returned to the city early from their summer holiday, he launched a national appeal which went international.

Members of the Royal Family donated £300, the King and Queen of Norway £21, but the biggest gift of all came from J & J Colman – many of their workers had been victims of the floods. They gave £1,000.

The total amount of money raised to help the people of Norwich came to £24,579 14s 7d and the following year a report outlining how every penny was spent was published.

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