Oxford’s Flood History

Oxford’s Flood History

Development too near and too far?

Introduction

This article examines Oxford’s flood history, and considers its relevance to the many flood plain proposals before the Council  and asks whether current proposals such as Barton West, Oxpens, West Area AAP, Westgate and the 9 bedroom development on Fiddler’s Stream among others represent developments too far, yet too near to the water.

Oxford has been visited repeatedly by severe flood events which swamped entire suburbs and vast swathes of the surrounding countryside.

Flooding is regular, is very much part of the ecology of the Thames , and highly unpredictable in effect for a given area due to Oxfordshire’s gentle topology – the events can be very sudden and intense, and impact a given area only.

The Local Lead Flood Authority (Oxfordshire County Council) admits its knowledge of flood risk, in particular that of surface and groundwater , is remarkably poor, consisting of a study based on partial evidence exclusively from the 2007 flood event, with no analysis and little awareness of the history described here.

Flood events in the Thames have occurred approximately 4-5 times a century since records began – this article concentrates on those of the nineteenth century.

The intention of this is article is to increase awareness, and more importantly analysis of, historical flood events due to the current dangerous reliance on computer modelling.

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Setting The Scene

Oxford is near the confluence of the Thames, Cherwell, the Ray, Windrush and Bayswater Brook, (at the Barton development site) part of one of the greatest catchment areas in Britain, rain falling anywhere upstream in this vast area can create a flood event in Oxford.

Oxford's Flood History - www.headingtonheritage.org.uk - approximate flood extents

Oxford’s River Systems – Showing approximate flood extents based on place names

The Thames and Bayswater Brook flow very approximately north, before the Thames turns south, which causes a loss of flow energy.   Thus, there is a large, flat basin centred at Port Meadow which fills in time of flood, discharging through a gullet at Oxford and Kennington.

Oxford's Flood History - www.headingtonheritage.org.uk Flood Extents

Oxford – Locations Mentioned In Historic Floods And Approximate Extents

Flood History

Flood Summary

Serious flooding has occurred every 10-20 years to 1900: –  1692 (Oxford),  Jan 8th 1734, Jan 17th 1764, March 10th 1774, (Thames)1, Jan 27th 1809, (snow thaw), Dec 21st 1821, Jan 1842, (thaw), Nov 16th (on) 1852, March 29-31st 1862, 1875 and 1894 (Oxford) and occurs very often in November – December : 1

it is  curious coincidence that the three floods of 1852,1875 and 1894 were at their height within hours of each other on November 15th and  16th 2

The exquisitely named Reverend Clutterbuck of Long Wittenham, a leading light in the Thames Conservatory, made height observations “above the high navigation mark” which are listed after each flood in the reference section for comparison purposes.

A number of deaths occurred due to boating and coaching accidents or infirmity.

Detailed accounts of each flood from newspapers are given in appendix 1, but would be repetitive.

However certain common themes stand out.

Flooding Was Very Extant

St Ebbes, St Thomas’s, St Frideswide’s, Jericho, Osney, Botley Road, the railway station, Abingdon Road, Cold Harbour and Hinksey are frequently flooded, and of course, Port and Christchurch Meadows with Old Marston often cut off. 

Parts or all the residential areas listed are in at least 1:1000 year flood risk zone 2 as defined by the Environment Agency.

The railway, although lower than today, was frequently flooded, with damage both to the line and the tunnel at Wolvercote.

GWR Near Oxford 1875 Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: G.A.Oxon a.70 Rivers and Waterways p27

GWR Near Oxford 1875
Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: G.A.Oxon a.70 Rivers and Waterways p27

– “The whole of the surrounding country is flooded – Oxford literally standing in a sea of water.  The large meadow of Christ Church is covered with water, the Isis having overflowed its banks, and the river is even now continuing to rise, and there is great fear of the lower part of the college being flooded[1852]

Oxford's Flood History - Headington Heritage www.headingtonheritage.org.uk

The Great Wellington Flood Of 1852
Battered and Bedraggled – The Old Lady Stands Proud
See location map for approximate viewpoint
Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: M.S. Top. Oxon G.A. 70 p27 56c

Click Here For A Full Screen Image of The Great Wellington Flood Of 1852 as above
“It seems as if a few houses and the tops of a number of trees (for only the high branches can be seen) were floating on the surface of some boundless river for as far as the can reach nothing is to be seen but water.  The Charwell [sic] has overflowed its banks, and continues rising… light boats, rowing nearly up to their college walls [1852]”

Oxford's Flood History - www.headingtonheritage.org.uk

Oxford In Flood Dec 4th 1852
Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: M.S. Top. Oxon G.A. 70 Rivers and Waterways p27 56c

“The valley around Oxford has a very solitary appearance, for as far as the eye can reach, nothing is discernible but water, out of which trees and haystacks project in every direction..”

“Oxford, the seat of literature and learning …with its forest of spires ..is for the present at least converted into The City of The Dismal Swamp.  The almost incessant rain which has fallen for the last four weeks has caused the rivers Thames, Windrush and Cherwell, and Isis to overflow their banks .. has the appearance of a vast inland sea… Port Meadow..has now from three to four feet of water over its entire length and breadth … nothing but a huge sheet of water can be seen .. From the railway station through Botley, Osney … land with very few exceptions is completely inundated ..the dwellings along Abingdon Road are flooded.. the dwellings at Upper and Lower Fisher Row are threatened with inundation the water.. in some instances entered the houses[Star 1875]”

Oxford's Flood History - www.headingtonheritage.org.uk

Rowers – 1872 or 1875
Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: M.S. Top. Oxon G.A. 70 Rivers and Waterways p26 pt51

“In the streets in Osney, Friars, St Thomas’s  and Hincksey [sic], the water made its way into hundreds of dwellings, .. four schools were  closed by order of the managers during the height of the flood .. about midday on Friday the water was at its highest, and the discomfort and inconvenience it produced in the low-lying portions will not easily be effaced from the memory of the sufferers.  In some cases children were taken to school in a boat.. and various articles being handed up to the bedroom windows in baskets it is estimated the planks would extend a distance of about three miles..” [1894]

Flooding Could Be Very Rapid

The omnibus that runs from the railway station to the city yesterday attempted to pass under one of the arches of the railway-bridge [Hythe Bridge Street?], when a large body of water suddenly came down from the neighbouring hills, encountering the vehicle in its course, breaking through the windows and doors and filling it entirely” [1821]

“In the night of Monday last, the floods increased so rapidly, that the greater part of St Thomas’s was under water” [1821]

“She [A Mrs King] had been overtaken by a sudden rush of water while walking in the meadows, and was too old and infirm to gain the high ground.”[1852]

“At the commencement of the week the weather was beautifully fine, and in consequence haymaking in the neighbourhood became very general …and about 6 o’clock the rain began to pour down in torrents, which continued almost without intermission, until noon on Thursday.  The banks of the Charwell [sic] speedily became overflown…”[1853]

“On the way to the Abingdon Races it was noticed by visitors by road fields only partly submerged , were, on the return journey, completely covered” [1875]

St Frideswide's Church - 1875 Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: M.S. Top. Oxon G.A. 70 p27 55

The Flooding Of St Frideswide’s Church, Osney- 1875
Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: M.S. Top. Oxon G.A. 70 p27 55

Flooding Mostly Affected The Poor

Most of the suburbs mentioned were inhabited by poor people “the whole of the garden stock upon which the poor families chiefly depend, is entirely destroyed “

Or in 1894, “The mayor said they were all aware that the city had been visited by one of the most disastrous floods ever remembered in Oxford.  They might have had the waters as high as it was on the present occasion, but they now had hundreds of houses built on the low-lying districts to contend with which they had not had previously.  He had seen women wheeled in barrows and children running through the floods to get bread for breakfast….  Mr C. Underhill was quoted as “At the same time, a strong feeling of indignation was passing through his breast with those who permitted buildings and put up buildings in such a miserable situation. “ to which Mr Kingerlee retorted he “had voted that these houses should be built in these very districts, and then he wished to pass a censure upon himself and others who has passed those very plans..”  He thought they ought not to blame the people who built, but the authority that passed the plans” [1894]

Weather Patterns

Even UK wide rainfall is very variable, but shows a gradual increase:

Oxford's Flood History - www.headingtonheritage.org.uk

U.K. Wide Rainfall and Oxford Flood Dates (Met Office)

As indeed are other variables as this shows:

Oxford's Flood History - www.headingtonheritage.org.uk Coaching On the Isis

Coaching On The Isis – A Memorable Event
Copyright: The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford. Shelfmark: M.S. Top. Oxon G.A. 70 Rivers and Waterways p30 pt61

Should We Be Worried ?- Yes

The Environment Agency has traditionally concentrated on flooding from rivers, and less so on risk from ground water and surface water. 

Groundwater is particularly dangerous as it is hard to defend against water that wells up from underneath:

Groundwater flooding occurs when the water table in permeable rocks rises to enter basements/cellars or comes up above the ground surface”

The British Geological Survey has categorised most of Oxford, including the Barton site in the highest category of susceptibility to groundwater flooding hazard.

http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/groundwater/datainfo/GFSD.html

Surface water is defined as water that flows over the land before arriving in a water course.

As a direct response to the floods of 2007, Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFA ) were established, with  Oxfordshire Country Council  acting in that capacity producing  its Preliminary Flood Risk Assessment (PFRA), Report in June 2011 3

The main points to emerge were:

  • It was not clear which agency collected historical flood evidence due to unclear responsibilities, and “little incentive” therefore data is sparse [3.3.2]
  • Very little knowledge or analysis of historical flooding events, relying almost entirely partial data of the 2007 flood event – only the 1894 event is even mentioned [4.3.2]
  • Global warming will lead to more intense rainfall events [5.7.4] with three times more heavy rain days in winter, with storms containing 40% more water, increasing local surface run off
  • No local future flood risk monitoring has been undertaken [5.1.2][5.2.3]
  • No parish flood reports for the 2007 event  were submitted for the Oxford City Council area, ie no evidence was collected
  • Flood risk from ordinary watercourses, eg: Bayswater Brook are not well represented
  • The Oxford area is in the highest level of hazard/risk of groundwater emergence [5.4.3]

The limitations of the preliminary report are acknowledged, and include no analysis whatever of the actual historical realities of Oxford’s flooding, relying instead on computer modelling.  Further, the subsequent flood of 2012 could not be included.

What Has Changed?

Positive

    • Extensive clearance and improvement work of locks, mills and weirs coupled with dredging has resulted in a very substantial improvement in water outfall drainag
    • Warning systems and construction materials are much improved

Negative

      • The water retaining capacity of the land is substantially reduced with very much larger field sizes coupled with hedgerow destruction
      • The map of Oxford even as late as the first OS map of 1876 shows little building outside of central Oxford and traditional villages such as Headington and Marston – the water holding fields are all gone, leading to more rapid runoff.
      • Both average rainfall and its intensity have increased, in particular wet summers saturate the soil, reducing its retention capacity in winter

The conclusion must be that input into river systems will now be much faster, as will their drainage, the risk therefore is not lower, but changed – we are more vulnerable to flash flood events occasioned by very heavy rain over short periods, and less vulnerable to prolonged wet periods, at least in isolation.

The most dangerous juxtaposition for Oxford would be therefore heavy rain in the catchment area, followed by heavy rain directly in the local area.

The Little Ice Age

The very substantial flooding in the last half of the nineteenth century could be related to the ice melt occurring at the end of the mini ice age which lasted approximately 1350 – 1850 [Fagan] ,which was, in effect, a global warming event –  a situation not unlike the current period.

The Riverine Developments

All these developments are located on, or very close to, land for which many flood records exist, improvements in drainage, most of which had already occurred before the 1894 flood, may be cancelled out by the negatives listed above.

The Barton Development

The Barton development is on the Bayswater Brook flood meadow or “Headington Meade” as marked on most historical maps.   The site is 62m above sea level at its lowest, with proposed development at slightly higher levels.

The site has mostly impermeable rock or thick clay underneath and is normally very damp and marshy.

It has high groundwater levels as shown by The PFRA 4, Map 7, “Groundwater Flooding” which identifies the 1 km square in which Barton West is in as having 25% – 50% of its area as susceptible, with much of the this square on higher ground.

However, The British Geological Survey states “The susceptibility data should not be used on its own to make planning decisions at any scale, and, in particular, should not be used to inform planning decisions at the site scale. The susceptibility data cannot be used on its own to indicate risk of groundwater flooding.” 

Located next to Bayswater Brook between the surrounding hills of Headington and Elsfield, with poor drainage and little height difference with the Cherwell , it may be susceptible to a combination event of high riverine levels and a localised flash flood event, as occurred in the nearby Cherwell valley in 1853 when local farmers lost hay due to flash flooding:

“Mr Greaves of Elsfield, has lost the whole of the produce of 14 acres of land; while Mr Sanders of Water Eaton, Mr Chillingworth of Marston, and others of Water Eaton, have suffered considerable loss.”  

However it is not clear where these fields were.  Mr Greaves had a very extant 475 acres in total.

As evinced above, the Barton NPPF Flooding Report 5 is quite wrong to assert:

“with the largest flood extents being those from the Spring 1947 event and the New Year 2003 event,”  

It goes on to state:

However, in a 1992 event, a small area of land 700m upstream of the site on the right bank of Bayswater Brook was inundated”

The 2012 event, which saw flooding in this area, was caused mostly by 400mm of rain in the Cotswolds only.6

Given the large height differential between the north and south side of the A40, the permeable nature of the embankment, the following assertion seems also dubious:

“Pluvial/Sheet Flow:

4.2.16. Land situated to the south of the Site [ie Old Headington] is situated at a higher level and may therefore provide a potential source of overland flood flow. The Site is largely protected however, by the presence of the A40, which will intercept overland flows and divert them in a westerly direction away from the site.”

One observer calculated that 3”of rain in the 1894 flood was 73,000 gallons of water per acre – it seems hard to believe the intended Barton flood defence of holding tanks could possibly hold this amount of water.

The site is in effect a source and destination for flood water, with SUDS systems proposed to prevent downstream flooding.

The flooding to which the development is most susceptible is, as explained above, the least understood, and the most likely to change if climate models prove correct.

Conclusion

There is incontrovertible evidence that severe flooding has occurred on, or very near to, many of the future building sites repeatedly, with the possible exception of Barton, possibly as it was not considered worthy of recording.  

 Either the Environment Agency’s 1:100 and 1:1000 floodlines have been exceeded so many times it will be millennia before flooding happens again, or the modelling is wrong,  or that something has changed – and to an extent , it has. 

Drainage is improved, but in the Thames valley stiles go over long gone hedges, vast arable swathes above Barton replace the pocket sized fields Lord North’s Elsfield map of 1703, the sprawl of Headington is where Antony A Wood gathered ears of rye in 1682, fields exist where most of ancient Wychwood used to be.   If the water comes, there will be little to slow it as nature’s SUDS systems are no longer exist.

A bunch of blokes in “hi viz” manning flood defences at Osney may be a comforting visual metaphor for a caring patriarchal state, but those are river defences – when the water goes by, but there is little defence for groundwater which comes up from under, and surface water, that flows over, which is precisely the risk at Barton – we  advance to the water, when we  should retreat.

Flood risk has not declined, but changed.   Global warming, bringing heavier and more intense rainfall, and vegetation loss may mean vulnerability to flash flooding via ground and surface water has increased, whereas that of long term rainfall has declined – although actual flooding will normally be a combination of several factors.

Recent flood events have surprised both with their frequency and extent many of which have exceeded the 1:100 and 1:1000 flood lines defined by the Environment Agency.

What is most disturbing is, as admitted by the Local Lead Flood Authority, a very poor state of knowledge regarding flood risk coupled with an excessive reliance on computer modelling, and the almost complete absence of either awareness or analysis of past events by either the authorities or developers.

The Thames has surprised again and again with the sheer magnitude of flooding events –  it is now incumbent on these parties to prove that historical floods are no longer relevant and if so why  not.

 

Headington Heritage

headingheritage@outlook.com

Follow me on Twitter at : @headingheritage.

This Article : http://bit.ly/HfNJCb

Footnotes

The Dec 4th 1852 vista of Oxford in flood appears to be extremely accurate in its representation of individual buildings, and was clearly drawn from the hills above Hinksey, however the building alignments appear impossible from any given angle.

Possibly the artist combined various views to achieve the vista shown – by Dec 4th the floods had receded.

Caveat

The information presented here should be interpreted with a healthy degree of scepticism. 

Sources, particularly newspapers outside of Oxford, must not be considered reliable.   All the material should be treated with caution both as it is based on partial information and the author has no qualifications whatever in the subject area.

This article raises questions, but does not provide answers.

Flood extents are based on place names mentioned in sources and some visual and photographic evidence – no detailed analysis of height has been undertaken.

Important Copyright Notice

The images used are under copyright and may NOT be reproduced without permission of the copyright holders identified in the captions.

Text in this article is licenced under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA ( http://bit.ly/YLfYPW )

The author has no academic status or qualifications in history and no other help has been received, therefore all misinterpretations and erroneous conclusions remain his alone. 

Acknowledgements

Permission to use images owned by Oxford University is very gratefully received. 

Clearly, this help does not imply endorsement of either the article or content of the Headington Heritage web site. 

M.G. Rowley’s compilation of U.K. weather was useful as a point of departure in particular for the BGS data from the Metrological Office  at:

www.booty.org.uk

as was Stephanie Jenkins’s Oxford History site at:

www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/floods/index.html

All images presented here were independently researched and sourced.

Very regrettably, prohibitive and self defeating licencing costs charged by the Oxford History Centre prevented incorporation of photographs of later 19th century floods which provide evidence of past flood extents – these are mostly Henry Taunt images and can be found by clicking :

http://bit.ly/1dr2MEt

and searching with the terms “HenryTaunt flood” and images.

 

Bibliography

1. Clutterbuck JC, 1801-1885. The perennial and flood waters of the upper thames. London: London : Printed by William Clowes and Sons; 1864.

2. The floods, serious destruction of property. Oxford Chronicle. Nov 24 1894 1894:8.

3. England’s most dreadful calamity by the late floods electronic resource] : Being a most lamentable account of the great damages sustained by the fearful invndations, caused by the unparalell’d rain which fell on the 24th of april, 1682 : And the late rains which have lately hapned : Containing the several houses, barns, cattle, out-houses, stacks of hay and corn, being carried away : Together with the number of persons drowned, and of some thousands of acres of ground layed under water : Giving a relation of the particular damage sustained in the city of london, and the suburbs thereof, at branford, camberwell, dulwich, depford, on the river thames .. London?: London? : Printed for P. Brooksby ..; 1682.

4. Oxfordshire County Council. Preliminary flood risk assessment report final report<br />June 2011. . 2011;3.

5. WSP. NPPF FLOOD RISK ASSESSMENT land at barton, oxfordshire. . 2013.

6. Environment Agency. Flood event report – winter 2012/13 west thames area. . 2013. www.environment-agency.gov.uk.

7. Records of the past 1764. Jackson’s Oxford Journal. Dec 28 1895.

8. Jackson’s Oxford Journal. January 28, 1809 1809.

9. The weather. The Times. Dec 31, 1821 1821:3.

10. Inundations. The Times. Nov 17, 1852 1852.

11. Great floods at oxford. Jackson’s Oxford Journal. Nov 20th 1852 1852.

12. The inundations. The Times. Nov 27, 1852 1852:7.

13. The innundations. Bell’s Life. Nov 27th 1852 1852.

14. The floods. Daily Star. Nov 29th 1852 1852.

15. The floods – oxford. The Times. Dec 20th 1852 1852.

16. The inundations. The Times. Jul 16, 1853 1853.

17. The floods – latest details. The Standard. Jul 24, 1875 1875.

18. The great floods of 1852 and 1875. Jackson’s Oxford Journal. Nov 24th 1894 1894.

19. The floods – serious destruction of property. Oxford Chronicle. Nov 24th 1894 1894:8.

20. The floods. Jackson’s Oxford Journal. Nov 24th 1894 1894.

 

Appendix – Flood History 1662 – 1900

1682

On 24 April 1682 “it began to rain (as it indeed it has for the greatest part of this spring) .. till at last it fell with such unwonted fury, that several people were beaten down with its Impetuosity…as a water   spout.. long hovering in the air..the River Isis at Oxford over-flowing, laid most of the Level under water which continued for the space of three days and likewise by the Rain which was there accompanied by Thunder and Lightning, much damage was sustained in the City..”

and concludes it is a divine punishment :

“the clouds sucked up the sea, and poured it down in streams; or as Moses has it “The Windows of Heaven were open.. the Earth likewise obeying her Creators voice opening every watery part; when Rivers gushes [sic]” 3

1764

On Jan 7th 1764, “the long continued rains have kept the floods out upon all the rivers in these parts for a longer time than ever before.. and such a vast extent of the country under water, forms as it were, a little ocean “ [Dec 28 1895]7

1809

On Jan 28th 1809, “the sudden thaw of a great accumulation of snow, accompanied by much rain, has produced in this neighbourhood a flood of greater extent and depth than has occurred here for the last thirty years.  Several streets in the suburbs of the city have been inundated, particularly St Thomas’s parish, where water runs in torrent thro’ the streets, the inhabitants being obliged to remove to their upper apartments.

The beautiful walks round Christchurch and and Magdalen meadows, which have been considerably heightened, and judged to be above the high water mark, are completely covered.” 8

1809 : Clutterbuck : 9’ 1”

1821

The Times reported on Dec 31 1821 “the late heavy rains have caused the river to near this city to overflow to a most alarming degree. In the night of Monday last, the flood increased so rapidly,that the greater part of St Thomas’s was under water, boats were rowed backwards and forwards, the inhabitants compelled to take refuge upstairsThe road from Holly Bush to Botley Turnpike was   totally impassable to passengers” 9

1821 : Clutterbuck : 8’ 10”

The Great Wellington Flood of November/December 1852

The great Wellington flood swept the country in November  and December 1852 so named due to his death on the 14 September 1852 and subsequent funeral on 18 November of the same year.

The Times reported on Nov 17th :

“The whole of the surrounding country is flooded – Oxford literally standing in a sea of water.  The large meadow of Christ Church is covered with water, the Isis having overflowed its banks, and the river is even now continuing to rise, and there is great fear of the lower part of the college being flooded.  From the force of the current a boat full of undergraduates was upset, and one of them, belonging to Jesus College, unfortunately drowned.  The omnibus that runs from the railway station to the city yesterday attempted to pass under one of the arches of the railway-bridge [Hythe Bridge Street], when a large body of water suddenly came down from the neighbouring hills, encountering the vehicle in its course, breaking through the windows and doors and filling it entirely.  Fortunately no passengers were inside, or they must have been drowned, as in a very short time the water so accumulated it was six feet deep under the arch, and spread for a long distance on all sides.

It seems as if a few houses and the tops of a number of trees (for only the high branches can be seen) were floating on the surface of some boundless river for as far as the can reach nothing is to be seen but water.  The Charwell [sic] has overflowed its banks, and continues rising… light boats, rowing nearly up to their college walls. …. The floods continue to pour into Oxford at this moment and the inhabitants of even the central parts are beginning to feel apprehensive” [end]10

Jackson’s Nov 20th [INDB] “GREAT FLOODS AT OXFORD – … in the last three weeks we have been almost surrounded by water and it was only in elevated parts that grass could be observed…” 11

Nov 24th – more rain and two feet on line, on Times Nov 27thafter a brief cessation, the heavens began again last night to pour down their torrents…so the floods are again rising… Thanks to the “gentle eminences” on which Oxford is situated, she is still able to hold her head above water, but if the present rate of rain continues much longer, she will soon be in greater difficulties.

At this point [Abingdon and London Road Bridge] the valley of the Isis is lowest and the confluence of waters greatest in seasons of flood, a condition of things which does not appear to have entered into railway reckoning in constructing  the line”  [ Nov 27th 1852] 12

Bell’s Life on Nov 28th 1852 reported “The valley around Oxford has a very solitary appearance, for as far as the eye can reach, nothing is discernible but water, out of which trees and haystacks project in every direction..” 13

The Daily News of Nov 29th 1852 quoting the Oxford Chronicle, reported the waters still to be high, with damage to the rail line 1 mile south of Oxford.  “South and west of the suburbs large breaths of meadow land is still submerged, and boats are seen rowing where the eye was accustomed to recognise tracts of fine pasturage” 14

Six lives were lost according to The Morning Post Nov 29th 1852 “The greatest excitement prevails in this city in consequence of the floods, which have risen to an alarming extent.  The Cherwell and Isis are more like seas than rivers, for the width of each could now be measured by miles instead of yards.  … On Thursday last, a boatman found the body of a Mrs King.   She had been overtaken by a sudden rush of water while walking in the meadows, and was too old and infirm to gain the high ground.  In the course of the inquiry the coroner said it was the third inquest he had held during the day alone on the bodies of persons who had been drowned.  …  Yesterday the driver of a waggon was suddenly jerked from his seat into the road, owing to the vehicle dropping into a deep pool.  The poor man was killed on the spot.  No fewer than seven boats have been upset ..and several of the occupants have escaped with the greatest difficulty.   The railway passengers have for several days been rowed to and from the station to the city in boats…”

Times Dec 20thalthough the floods have considerably abated from what they were some weeks ago,.. they cover the fields around Oxford…Cases of fever are reported to have occurred from low-lying houses near the river near the water, and attention to this cannot be too earnestly given.

A house in Summertown ..was undermined by the long continuance of water in its cellars .. but the inmates were very providentially alarmed by a boy in the house, who, finding his bed sinking under him, sprang up and alarmed the family who had time to make their escape in their night clothes.”15

The Cherwell Flash Flood of 1853

Times, Jul 16, 1853 – Banbury – “the country immediately contiguous to this town is now completely inundated, and for miles on the Eastern side there is little to be seen but a vast expanse of water.  At the commencement of the week the weather was beautifully fine, and in consequence haymaking in the neighbourhood became very general …and about 6 o’clock the rain began to pour down in torrents, which continued almost without intermission, until noon on Thursday.  The banks of the Charwell [sic] speedily became overflown, and before 9 o’clock at night the meadows adjoining were flooded in all directions.  The immense quantity of hay outlying ready for being carried has been in the majority of cases completely swept way by the force of the current.”16

The Standard Jul 20th 1853 “SERIOUS EFFECTS OF THE FLOOD. – OXFORD, JULY 19th The valley of the Cherwell, and also of the Isis, has been much flooded in the last few days, to the very serious injury of the farmers occupying the meadows adjoining.   Yesterday and Sunday the rain fell in Oxford and the adjacent neighbourhood in exceedingly heavy showers, very considerably adding to the floods in these low lying districts.  On the banks of the Cherwell hundreds of tons of hay have been swept away by the sudden swelling of the water.   In the immediate neighbourhood of this city great damage has been done.    One farmer, Mr Greaves of Elsfield, has lost the whole of the produce of 14 acres of land; while Mr Sanders of Water Eaton, Mr Chillingworth of Marston, and others of Water Eaton, have suffered considerable loss.   King’s Weir on the Cherwell [This seems to refer to King’s Mill, not King’s Weir on the Thames] , and within ½ mile of Oxford was Sunday and yesterday and completely blocked up with an immense quantity of newly-cut hay, the growth of several meadows between that weir and the village of Islip, so much so that Cox, the occupier of the weir, thought it worth his while to something like a dozen hands to get it out of the water.   The blockade of the stream in the rear of the stream was so complete that a person could walk, without the slightest difficulty,  on the top of it, right across the stream, the embankment ..being upwards of eight feet.  The quantity that Cox has already secured is something like 30 tons … an immense quantity has been washed over…Port Meadow.. is virtually covered with water..the meadows and fields are inundated.”  (Morning Chronicle Jul 19th v. similar)

1852: Clutterbuck 7’ 10”

1875 – Summer and Winter Floods

The Standard, July 24th 1875, “The floods in Oxfordshire have vastly increased due to a great rise in the river Cherwell.. the result is perhaps the greatest summer flood ever known. The fields and meadows are completely inundated. On the way to the Abingdon Races it was noticed by visitors by road fields only partly submerged , were, on the return journey, completely covered”  17[1875]

The Star Nov 18th 1875 reported “Oxford, the seat of literature and learning …with its forest of spires ..is for the present at least converted into The City of The Dismal Swamp.  The almost incessant rain which has fallen for the last four weeks has caused the rivers Thames, Windrush and Cherwell, and Isis to overflow their banks .. has the appearance of a vast inland sea… Port Meadow..has now from three to four feet of water over its entire length and breadth … nothing but a huge sheet of water can be seen .. From the railway station through Botley, Osney … land with very few exceptions is completely inundated ..the dwellings along Abingdon Road are flooded.. the dwellings at Upper and Lower Fisher Row are threatened with inundation the water.. in some instances entered the houses.. At Marston the roads have been almost impassible, people on Saturday morning having to wade knee-deep to get into town.. on Sunday afternoon the junction between Cranham and Union Streets were rendered impassible due to a dense mass of water that had rushed down from Walton …” 17

See also : 18

1875 : Clutterbuck 8’ 1”

The Great Flood Of 1894

Oxford Chronicle, Nov 24th 1894 “The Mayor said they were all aware that the city had been visited by one of the most disastrous floods ever remembered in Oxford.  They might have had the waters as high as it was on the present occasion,  but they now had hundreds of houses built on the low-lying districts to contend with which they had not had previously.  He had seen women wheeled in barrows and children running through the floods to get bread for breakfast….  Mr C. Underhill was quoted as “At the same time, a strong feeling of indignation was passing through his breast with those who permitted buildings and put up buildings in such a miserable situation. “ to which Mr Kingerlee retorted he “had voted that these houses should be built in these very districts, and then he wished to pass a censure upon himself and others who has passed those very plans..”  He thought they ought not to blame the people who built, but the authority that passed the plans”19

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Nov 24th 1894, “– the volume of it, however, was so unusually large that in all the low-lying meadows, especialy those adjacent to the rivers, and in the basements and cellars of many houses it has by no means disappeared. In the streets in Osney, Friars, St Thomas’s  and Hincksey [sic], the water made its way into hundreds of dwellings, .. four schools were  closed by order of the managers during the height of the flood .. about midday on Friday the water was at its highest, and the discomfort and inconvenience it produced in the low-lying portions will not easily be effaced from the memory of the sufferers.  In some cases children were taken to school in a boat.. and various articles being handed up to the bedroom windows in baskets it is estimated the planks would extend a distance of about three miles..

The roads on Botley-road and Abingdon-road particularly  were considerably damaged by the water, .. the waters passed over the line as it were a weir.. 20

1894 : Clutterbuck : 4”-5” of rain 8 p.m. Nov 11 – 8 p.m. Nov 14th only 24 hours without rain.

1894 : Clutterbuck 8’ 8”

Appendix 2 – Extracts From PFRA

[3.3.1] The main data limitations from the perspective of the PFRA are with the recording of past flooding information.  Prior to the Pitt Review (2008) there was uncertainty regarding responsibility for collecting data on local sources of flooding and little incentive for any party to collect such data.

[3.3.2] This means the availability of past flooding information is generally sparse. Due to the historically poor recording of incidents of flooding from non-main river sources many of the flooding records are descriptive, incomplete, or not geographically referenced..”

[3.3.5] In particular it seems that flooding from ordinary watercourses may not be well represented in either dataset”

 [5.1.2] There is little locally specific information on future flood risk for Oxfordshire.

 [5.2.3] It is important to note that the choice of the Flood Map for Surface Water as the “locally agreed surface water information” is solely made for the purposes of the PFRA and high level strategic work. More detailed flood risk studies should utilise the best available local information and carry out more detailed modelling as appropriate to the level of the study.

[5.7.4] …. For example we understand rain storms may become more intense, even if we can‟t be sure about exactly where or when. By the 2080s, the latest UK climate projections (UKCIP09) are that there could be around three times as many days in winter with heavy rainfall (defined as more than 25mm in a day). It is plausible that the amount of rain in extreme storms (with a 1 in 5 annual chance, or rarer) could increase locally by 40%.

[5.7.7] Wetter winters and more of this rain falling in wet spells may increase river flooding in both rural and heavily urbanised catchments. More intense rainfall causes more surface runoff, increasing localised flooding and erosion.

[5.9.3] It is concluded that there are no major developments planned of the kind described in section 5.7.15 that would be expected to increase flood risk from local sources.

 [5.4.3] … However it is reasonable to say that large areas of the county [Oxford] are in the highest category of risk of groundwater emergence.

 [4.5.1] “ The flood was especially notable on the Assendon Spring because the watercourse is normally dry. Prior to 2001, the stream had last flowed in 1969. [2012]”

Keywords

Oxford, Flood, Flood History, Barton Development, West Barton, Oxford City Council, Oxford County Council, Westgate, Oxpens.

One Response to Oxford’s Flood History

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