Water, Water Everywhere

The floods of 1889 were among the worst that Bristol has ever experienced.

Among the nightmare visions of global warming are cities awash like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Will Bristol suffer? It certainly has in the past.

Silver Street under water in 1889

Watercolour of the floods in Silver Street in 1889. (Bristol Central Library).

Names like Canon's Marsh and Marsh Street are a reminder that Bristol was built on a ridge of high ground amid the marshland that bordered the Rivers Frome and Avon. Over the centuries the city spread out over the Avon flood plain. The dangers of that broke upon Bristol in November 1703, when a great storm swept over England. The tide thrust up the Avon with such force that it submerged half of Bristol.

The creation of the Floating Harbour in the early 19th century diminished the threat from high tides, but flash floods remained a danger. The growth of the Victorian city put ever more people at risk. In the quest for building land, a long length of the Frome and various streams were covered over. You might imagine that this would reduce the danger of flooding, but the culverts were in some places too narrow to cope with storm waters. It was a disaster in the making.

In October 1882 three inches of rain fell within 48 hours. Baptist Mills, Stapleton Road and Newfoundland Road were inundated overnight. A baker delivering bread in a cart in Mina Road was swept away by the torrent; both man and horse were drowned. The Corporation ended up facing a pile of claims for damages. Although the Council denied all liability, it wisely resolved to build a culvert from the Frome to the Floating Harbour to prevent further floods. But before talk could be translated into action, a worse disaster struck.

In early March 1889 Bristol was covered in a thick blanket of snow. As it rapidly thawed the ground was sodden and watercourses swollen. Then came continuous rain for 36 hours. By midnight on Friday 8 March Ashley, Bishopston, Eastville and Montpelier were under water. Stapleton Road was inundated again. Although there was no loss of life this time, the people of Mina Road and the streets around it suffered badly. The district looked like a vast lake. Mothers and children were stranded in upper rooms without food. Children at Mina Road School found themselves cut off from home; one kind-hearted man took many of them home in batches in his horse-drawn trap. Amazingly the trams were still running through the water, so hundreds of workers managed to reach home that way.

Police delivering bread by boat

The Water Police helped a baker to deliver bread to the water-besieged houses in 1889. A sketch by Samuel Loxton (Bristol Central Library)

All this chaos had been caused by the overflowing Frome and nearby brooks. Meanwhile to the south of the Avon, the swollen Malago had also brought floods to Bedminster.

Still the waters had not done their worst. In the early hours of Saturday morning water was rushing down Merchant Street and through Broadmead like a millrace. There was panic in the Merchant Tailors' Almshouse. Aged almsfolk sleeping on the ground floor were in danger of drowning, until they were rescued by some constables in the police wagon.

So as the dawn rose on a bright Saturday 9 March, Bristolians found their city looking like Venice. Streets had turned into canals. Crowds flocked to witness boats in Broadmead. The water fell rapidly in the afternoon, draining away from most flooded streets that day. But the floods left a bitter legacy of damage to property and possessions.

Public fury was directed at the dilatory Council. The Revd. James Wilson, Headmaster of Clifton College, thundered that Council inaction was a scandal and sin. The Mayor promptly called for a civic fund to aid the distressed and the Council was galvanised into culvert creation.

Today Wessex Water is preparing for the worst before it happens. Anxious to improve the city's storm drainage, it is constructing a half-mile long tunnel from Frogmore Street to Woodland Road in Clifton. This massive undertaking is part of a system that should keep Bristol dry in worsening weather.