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Britain’s flood disasters: a brief history

As the 70th anniversary of the Lynmouth flood disaster this August brings focus to the once deadly period of flooding in Britain, Dr Malcolm Smith investigates the most shocking flood disasters in Britain’s history

Troops clear damage after the Lynmouth flood disaster of 1952
Published: August 14, 2022 at 9:21 am
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Seventy years ago in the late evening of the 15 August 1952, a storm of tropical intensity dropped a huge quantity of rain on an already water-saturated Exmoor. Floodwaters emptied into the tributaries of the West and East Lyn Rivers. Laden with trees, boulders and other debris, their walls of water crashed down like thunder on the picturesque village of Lynmouth on the North Devon coast.

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The disaster killed 34 people, made 420 homeless, destroyed or seriously damaged over a hundred buildings and 28 bridges, and swept 38 cars out to sea. Well over 100,000 tons of rubble had to be cleared from the village, which took six years to re-build. Shocking it certainly was, yet it was not one of Britain's worst flood disasters. Not by a long way.

A car among debris after the 1952 Lynmouth flood
The Lynmouth flood disaster of 1952 swept 38 cars out to sea. (Image by Getty Images)

Britain’s deadliest floods

On 13 and 14 December 1287, an enormous storm surge in the North Sea killed hundreds of people on the coast of eastern England (and up to an estimated 80,000 in The Netherlands and northern Germany). 180 drowned in Hickling, Norfolk, one of the English towns worst hit. In its priory, the water rose more than a foot above the high altar. Across East Anglia, 500 were killed. Also known as St Lucia’s Flood, the disaster took place on the Scandinavian and Italian celebration of Lucia of Syracuse, a fourth-century martyr who distributed food and aid to those in need.

The British death toll from the 1607 Bristol Channel Floods was much higher still. At least 2,000 people were killed; houses and entire villages were swept away, seemingly by an unusual combination of a high tide surge and a severe onshore storm. Devastation along much of the coast of southwest England and particularly South Wales was extensive. A chiselled mark on the wall shows that the water rose to a height of nearly eight metres in the Church of All Saints at Kingston Seymour near Weston-super-Mare.

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An etching of people and animals in the water during the 1607 Bristol Channel floods
At least 2,000 people were killed in the 1607 Bristol Channel floods that devastated the coast of southwest England and particularly South Wales. (Image by Getty Images)

In the Great Storm of 7 December 1703, a devastating cyclone (regarded today as a category 2 hurricane) caused enormous destruction. Up to 15,000 were thought to have died, mostly at sea rather than on land, though numbers vary wildly. Hundreds drowned in flooding in the Somerset Levels; many others, too, across the southern half of England as thousands of chimney stacks, roofs and veteran trees collapsed because of its associated gales. An estimated 1,500 seamen died on the treacherous Goodwin Sands off the Kent coast as numerous ships became swamped by high waves and battered by wind. The Church of England attributed the destruction and loss of life to God’s vengeance for the nation’s sins. Daniel Defoe had a typically more prosaic explanation. He considered it divine punishment for England’s poor showing in the War of the Spanish Succession, which had begun a couple of years earlier.

Through the rest of the 18th century, and into the 20th century, there were more deadly river floods and storms flooding our coasts. The Thames flood of 1928 killed 14 people and made thousands homeless. The North Sea flood of 1953, similar to that of 1287, killed over 300 people along the east coast of England and six times that number in the low-lying Netherlands.

Flood-prone Britain: why floods have been such a historical threat

  • Thanks to its island status, Britain is no stranger to tidal flooding, especially when high tides coincide with onshore gales. Vulnerable towns and villages dot the coastline. 
  • Britain’s uplands and mountains receive large rainfall totals, while the gradual removal of native upland woodlands means that rainwater can surge down smooth, sheep-grazed slopes. 
  • While winter snow on hills used to be the norm until several decades ago, melting slowly in spring, more winter precipitation now falls as rain.
  • Many rivers are relatively short and deposit vast amounts of water downstream. It’s on their riverbanks where many towns were built historically to aid transport, supply water and take away excrement. 
  • With climate warming, heavier and more sudden episodes of rain are predicted.

The changing dangers of flooding

But in the last half century, flooding events have claimed far fewer lives. The Great Flood of 1968, in which exceptionally heavy rainfall caused enormous property and infrastructure damage in southeast England, caused no fatalities. The North Sea flood of 1978 – worse than its predecessors in 1953 and 1287 and which caused destruction along the east coast of England – resulted in just one death. Although the Easter 1998 floods in the English Midlands claimed the lives of five people, the more severe flooding of autumn 2000 in central and southeast England didn't result in any fatalities. The 2004 Boscastle flood on the north Cornish coast – a river flood very similar to the Lynmouth disaster – caused considerable damage but no deaths. The worst physical injury was reported to have been a broken thumb.

Damaged cars in the mud, following the 2004 Boscastle flood
Damaged cars in the aftermath of the 2004 Boscastle flood, which caused considerable damage but no deaths. (Image by Getty Images)

So why have flood fatalities declined? In recent decades, weather forecasting and warning systems, flood protection for vulnerable urban areas, and emergency responses have all improved enormously. Very basic weather forecasting in Britain began as a by-product of the development of storm predictions, which were used to make seafaring safer. It began in 1860, six years after Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy founded what would become the Met Office – but it wasn’t until 1955 that modern, data-based weather forecasting began. The lack of satellite weather data meant that forecasting a flash flood like that at Lynmouth was almost impossible.

But with climate warming causing increasing storminess and higher, more extreme rainfall peaks, meteorologists predict a resurgence of more damaging floods, taking place with greater frequency. While damage to property and livelihoods is still likely to be substantial as a result, the number of deaths caused by flooding is today miniscule compared with the horrendous flood disasters Britain has experienced in the past.

The Lynmouth Flood Memorial Hall, open daily 11am-4pm, houses a permanent, free exhibition including a scale model of the village pre-flood, images of the destroyed buildings and many personal accounts of the disaster.

An evening heritage walk, open to everyone, to commemorate the Lynmouth flood disaster is being held during the evening of 15 August 2022 in the village together with the unveiling of a new plaque listing those killed.

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Dr Malcolm Smith was a Board Member of The Environment Agency, 2004-2010 and a writer on wildlife and the environment

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