The 1917 Flood

HOW IT HAPPENED

On the evening of Thursday 28th June 1917, following unusually prolonged and continuous heavy rain, water levels at Stourhead’s Gasper Lake were already reaching a dangerously critical level.

The Lake’s Dam system built early in the 19th century of mostly earth & clay was under threat of collapse.  Gasper Lake’s waters directly fed into the River Stour below and further downstream to Bourton Foundry which depended on it for waterpower.

To control water flow levels into the Foundry a complex system of small dams and a much smaller Foundry Lake had been built on the river above the Foundry.  These mini-dams and lake were controlled by a system of hatches which dedicated workers adjusted day and night to keep an even flow through the Foundry.

At around 2am Gasper Dam, unable to contain the Lake’s swollen waters, suddenly collapsed sending thousands of gallons of water careering down the Stour river valley, completely overwhelming the Foundry’s water-flow control system, and smashing its way into and through the Foundry and beyond.

Main Foundry entrance the morning after the Flood 

Following the deluge Bourton Foundry and Gasper Lake Workers who’d witnessed it first-hand were asked to present handwritten testimonies to an official enquiry describing exactly what happened:

 Walter Suter, Bourton Foundry Caretaker & Yard Foreman

‘On the Thursday it was stormy and the rain set in steadily about 6 o’clock.’

Mr. Poole: Head Keeper, Stourton

‘I was down at the Gasper Lake. I had often seen the water ankle-deep over the top of the road. At seven thirty I drew the hatch.’

Walter Suter

‘The wheel had been going all day up to 7.45pm and the pond level was down as low as the wheel would draw it.

About 8pm Mr Welch came down to his horse and I spoke to him as he had more experience than I and asked him as the rain was coming down steadily what I had better do.  We decided to remove all the 4½” flights from the hatches and some of the 9″ ones. I went up to the pond bank. Saw that all was right.

 About 9.30pm I went back up to the pond bank again and the water was running over the whole width of the weir. As I came back I met Tom Welch … and decided that it was all right for the present and went home.’

Mr. Poole: Head Keeper, Stourton

‘I was down at the Gasper Lake again at 10.30pm and didn’t think anything would hurt so went home to bed.’

Jim Baker, Mill House, Pen Mill, Engineer at the Foundry

‘Between 11.30pm and 12am Friday morning I noticed that my bottom garden was under water and from that time the water rose higher and higher ’til it go to my back doorstep.’

 Walter Suter

‘Some time after 12 o’clock I went again and the water was just lapping the bridge. We came down by the Engine House into the Machine Shop and found there was some water on the floor. We opened the doors to let the water out.

 I went again at one and two o’clock… water was coming round through Milham Close and it was not safe. I stayed baling water and seeing to my house.

 … I next heard a rumbling noise like vehicles in the Yard and went to open the Yard Gates but before I could do so they burst open and a wagon came through on the flood… There was thunder and lightning and rain all the time.’

 Walter Harcourt

‘At 3.30am I was woken up and called out. I came down to the stables. There was water on the weighbridge 3′ deep and a rushing torrent of water. I attempted to wade across the weighbridge to get to the cottage but the water was too deep and rising.

 Mr. Standford and I went up to the Factory and Mr. Standford attempted to get through the Suters’ window at the back. Water was standing against the wheel 2’6″ deep. We decided to cross over the roof and found Walter Suter had got his wife and children out through the Drawing Office window and was in the cottage.’

An article in the Western Gazette subsequently recounted the extent and ferocity of the Flood:

 “Shortly before two o’clock on the Friday morning, by which time the lake had received an addition of many thousand tons of water by direct rainfall, and also as a result of the drainage from surrounding hills, a thunderous roar wakened inhabitants in the vicinity. Subsequent investigation revealed the entire disappearance of the lake through a channel created by the destruction of the road of about 20 yards and to a depth of about 20 feet.” 

(Western Gazette, 6/7/1917)

 

THE AFTERMATH

The next morning while the Gasper Lake lay serene and empty, a short way downstream the true extent of the devastation caused was becoming clear.

GASPER MILL

The raging torrent had leapt forward at great speed and poured toward Gasper Mill which was about 500 yards distant and the mill house was flooded to a depth of from six to seven feet.’  (Western Gazette, 6/7/1917).

“The flood caused … family disruption as my maternal grandfather (Samuel Miles) was the miller at Gasper Mill… which took the full force of the flood, and never to mill again. My mother remembered the whole mill shaking while she threw valuables out of the bedroom windows to her brothers on the north side… Grandfather then farmed, from the Mill, until the late 20s.”

 John Farthing (grandson of Samuel Miles – now living on the Isle of Wight)

PEN MILL

At Pen Mill the next small community downstream from Gasper Mill, cottages were flooded with water having risen to the ceilings of the lower rooms. Some buildings fronting directly onto the river were torn down never to be replaced.

OUTSIDE THE FOUNDRY

The flooded meadow on Foundry Lane just beyond the Foundry itself

‘300 TONS OF COAL DISAPPEAR’ – Western July Gazette 6th 1917

‘Amongst the more portable materials in and around the works there were some extraordinary disappearances. Some 200 to 300 tons of coal disappeared from the yard, and, with the exception of occasional lumps scattered about the fields and gardens hundreds of yards away, there is no clue to its whereabouts. Trolleys and heavy chests of metals were carried away, and some have been found stranded in fields or by the riverside distances away. A heavy cart was carried from the yard down the stream, and was eventually discovered resting on a small wooden bridge near the main road…The bed of a lorry was found discovered half a mile away… iron fences, wooden posts, etc., have been scattered far and wide. …. The allotments with their crops at the southern end …were practically washed out of the ground, and in some places the earth had disappeared as well.’

INSIDE THE FOUNDRY

All Hand Grenade-making on the Foundry’s 24-hour a day production lines stopped while the whole workforce removed huge quantities of silt and flood-water then greased and oiled machinery and finally collected as much coal/coke as possible from the surrounding area.

In the Foundry’s Casting Area, and once the mud was removed, drying-out was paramount. Casting Workers inspected every area of the furnaces to ensure they were bone dry. Then yet more valuable manufacturing time was lost restarting the furnaces first with a very low heat then gradually building in intensity so the firebrick lining in the smelter areas didn’t crack.

Most of the casting-sand stored in the Foundry had been completely saturated by the Flood meaning more lost time bringing in new supplies. Fortunately some of the Grenade Moulds and Cores had been stored above water level so were dry. And in the drying room some of the Grenade Moulds were stored on slatted shelving so had been clear of the floodwater.

Without documented evidence it’s difficult to say exactly how long it was before Grenade production restarted but it will have been surprisingly soon after the flood.

However more lasting damage on the Foundry site had very evidently occurred particularly to the vital underground water-flow culvert system (see drawing below).

 

An Engineer’s diagram showing flood damage to the Foundry’s underground culvert

Nevertheless it’s estimated the Foundry’s invaluable contribution to the War Effort will have been back in full swing within just a few days.

DAMAGE & DESTRUCTION FURTHER DOWNSTREAM

Down 200 yards from the Foundry on the main London to Exeter road Bourton Bridge had been completely washed away and the road closed to traffic for many weeks. Fortunately several temporary rope & timber bridges in the village were quickly and skillfully constructed.

Beyond Bourton further damage was reported in the newspapers:

‘At Silton, a district road bridge was swept away. From this point the water began to extend its course on either side. Pierston Farm…was flooded to a depth of about five feet…smaller articles of furniture were swept out of the rooms by the force of the water, in which a piano was subsequently discovered floating…

Plank House Gillingham, which is now used as a Red Cross hospital, received the full shock of the torrent… The nurse on duty promptly telephoned for assistance… by the time she had despatched her message the water was nearly up to her armpits… An almost convalescent patient, (Pt. W. Robinson), valiantly assisted in the rescue of two severely wounded soldiers, and, with Dr Farnfield, brought in the men with the water reaching up to their necks. The doctor got into difficulties, and Robinson swam back into the torrent and after a struggle succeeded in bringing Dr Farnfield to safety.’ (Salisbury Journal 7/7/1917)

MORE-LASTING HARDSHIP

While many Bourton people living on higher ground and at the westerly end of the village were able to quickly recover from the effects of the Flood, others particularly those living on low ground and close to the river were left with practically nothing to eat, clothe and warm themselves. Which is why within days the Bourton Parish Council set up an Emergency Fund:

WHO WAS ULTIMATELY RESPONSIBLE?

Though many people suffered as a result of the 29th June 1917 Flood it was Bourton Foundry’s owner/trustees Harold Hindley and Major George EH Maggs who pursued the issue of why the flood happened and ultimately who was responsible for the damage caused.

A London-based civil engineer P. I. Cotterell was commissioned to make an assessment of reasons for the collapsed Dam at Gasper Lake. On November 24th  Major Maggs, a solicitor by profession, wrote to Sir Henry Hoare owner of the Lake requesting ‘full compensation without recourse to litigation’.

 

The reply from Sir Henry’s solicitors Longbourne & Co was swift and to the point:

‘Sir Henry feels every sympathy for those who have suffered loss by abnormal rainfall but declines to recognize any responsibility in the matter.’ (26th November 1917)

Less than a month later Major Maggs demanded compensation for ‘damage done to Bourton Foundry of which I am a trustee by the bursting of your new lake last June.   Please take this as a formal claim for compensation as the contract for repairs will be completed this week.’  (19th December 1917)

No one could have predicted the reply:

‘Sir Henry has forwarded to me your letter of 19th.  His son – and only child – Captain Hoare has died of wounds in Egypt and Sir Henry is quite knocked out at this time and cannot give his mind to business at present.’  (22nd December 1917)

Major Maggs quickly offered ‘every sympathy’.

The building of the new Gasper Dam was completed in 1920 fully taking into account civil engineer P. I. Cotterell’s critical assessment which stated the original Dam’s spillway had been too narrow, its barrier wall built 5ft. too low, its overflow safeguards inadequate, and the earth-backing too porous.

A settlement between Major George Maggs, Harold Hindley and the Hoares was eventually agreed.