Pickering Flood of 1754

Pickering Market Place

Image: Mattbuck under Creative Commons Licence

Like most people I have been watching this winter’s dreadful floods in Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire with horror. In amongst the bad news my Facebook feed pointed me at this article from the Independent on how the town of Pickering in North Yorkshire successfully used natural defences to avoid flooding. Copying methods used by the medieval monks of  nearby Byland Abbey the town built a bund to hold back rainwater on the moors along with a series of leaky dams and other obstructions. According to the article the town had flooded four times between 1999 and 2007, but this time while other towns and cities were inundated Pickering stayed dry.

Curious about the town’s history of flooding I found this documentary record of flooding in the Vale of Pickering with descriptions of historic floods back to 1754 when “the River Derwent was never known higher in the memory of man” and the bridge at Thirsk was washed away. Thirteen people from two families were drowned. This description comes from the British Hydrological Society Chronology of Hydrological Events:

” A sudden inundation of the river Rye happened at Helmsley in Yorkshire, such as had never been known by the oldest people in those parts, probably occasioned by the late heavy rains.Two houses were entirely washed away , the one inhabited by James Holdforth, he and his whole family drowned, except his wife, who being sick in her bed, was carried down the stream half a mile, and at last washed off into a field, where she was found the next morning very little hurt. The other house belonged to John Sunley, was also drowned, and all his family. In the whole thirteen persons.(sic) Two other houses were greatly damaged, as was also the stone bridge at the entrance to the town; fourteen hay-stacks were driven down the river a mile, on one of which was a half year old calf, who kept its footing, and was taken off alive. The kitchen-garden walls, and part of those of the park, belonging to the fine seat of Thomas Duncombe esq were washed away. Two large bridges, one of stone, the other of wood, at Rivaulx, were driven down, as were several more lying upon the river Rye, and others damaged. A malt-kiln, with a large quantity of malt and cinders at Rivaulx, belonging to Robert Berry, were utterly destroyed. The water formed a vent for itself, by forcing through the wall of his kitchen, which prevented the house from being driven down; the man and his family saved their lives by getting up into the chambers. There had also been terrible havock among the inhabitants at Rivaulx, as well as at Helmsley, by damaging of houses and drowning of cattle. One Simpson, a farmer at Rivaulx, had seven calves drowned; and Robert Sandwith’s tanyard at Helmsley, were utterly destroyed, and leather washed out of the pits to a great value. The river Derwent was never known higher in the memory of man. Mr Creasor, of Ferby, near Malton, was drowned near Westow, in his return home from Pocklington fair.Thirsk bridge was entirely washed away, and the inhabitants suffered great damage, but no lives lost.”

Floodwater at Pickering, 26 July 2007

Image: Harkey Lodger under Creative Commons License (unaltered)

Previous efforts to prevent flooding have been rather less successful than those of 2015, with the law of unintended consequences producing worse floods downstream after efforts were made to reduce flooding  higher up. The British Hydrological Society Chronology records that the River Derwent “continued to overflow its banks following heavy or prolonged rainfall, and so an Act of 1846 authorized the elimination of the old mill weirs at Old Malton and Malton. This increased the river’s gradient …above Malton, but the Act made no provision for improving the river’s channel below Malton. As a result the Derwent rose higher there than previously in high-flow conditions; in 1868 the railway had to be raised, and neglect of the river’s channels contributed to ‘the worst flood ever known’ in 1878”.



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