Ever had to go scradging? How I spent my 15th birthday

It was March 1947, after a long, long winter. Father had two fields in Hall Fen, Little Thetford, and another by the Fish & Duck, and all were near the railway and the river. If it wasn’t sparks from passing locomotives devastating the summer corn crop or “pitting down” peat fires, which had to be dug out, it was the threat of winter flooding from burst banks. And this year turned out to be a real disaster.

With the long thaw the floods came rapidly and with a vengeance. Water from Bedford, Cambridge, St. Ives pouring down the Great Ouse, that bleak windy week-end every bank became topped with flood water, with the grim prospect of bursting banks and maybe flooding half of Little Thetford.

Cyclist in the floods of 1947

Cyclist in the floods of 1947

Standard emergency procedures crashed into action at the Great Ouse Catchment Board offices in Ely, where telephone calls were pouring in as fast as the water in the rivers. All the Board’s tugs and barges – together with tugs lent by the Beet Factory – were mobilised to get clay out quickly to reinforce some 125 miles of banks at risk, especially where wanted urgently. But the critically great height of the flood waters made it impossible for many of the strings of barges to get under several of the bridges, even with the tugs weighted down almost to deck level. This often meant it was a “You’re on your own, fellers” situation.

To make up the banks you have to have men and a supply of Gault Clay, but in a panic situation, if there is none, and the water is nearly over the top,the only alternative is scradging.

Hall Fen, Little Thetford, was looking bad – six inches or so to go and it would have been over the top. . Once it starts to come over you have had it – time to go home defeated and let it flood. The worst danger point was near Braham Dock where the Grunty Fen Catchwater discharges (or tried to discharge) into the Great Ouse just north of Hall Fen. Here the catchwater drain is banked up for its last half mile, and the build-up from the catchwater meeting the overloaded river makes a breach a high risk.

Scradging gangs – normally four men – each take a stretch of bank, say a hundred yards at a time. One man digs big chunks of turf out below the bank on the land side. Two men each carry turf up to the top of the bank. There the fourth man precariously packs these turfs in a line all along the bank top to raise it by three or four inches. If they’ve time – usually never – they repeat the process adding a second line along the top.

We all worked desperately from dawn to dusk and the bank held. But we woke wearily in the morning to find that the bank had gone near the Fish and Duck. I believe some barges even got washed through the breach. All land from the Fish & Duck to Braham Dock was under water, and the railway embankment was washed away at one point leaving the rails suspended.

Recovery took some time but all credit was due to the clear-up efforts of the Great Ouse Catchment Board, the Internal Drainage Boards, the Army, the War Agricultural Executive Committee (“War-Ag”), civic and voluntary workers and the Prisoners of War. See these two Getty Images photos here and here.

Thankfully scradgers are all redundant – the magnificent Ely Ouse – Essex Water Transfer Scheme which intercepts the highland water, tunnels it to Kirtling and tips it into Essex bound for London – has brilliantly precluded any repeat flooding. Hall Fen Little Thetford is safe!

John Kisby 2010

The 1947 floods

The river floods that began in mid-March 1947 affected over 1,000 square miles (2,600 km2) of England. Thirty counties were underwater for nearly two weeks, during the worst flooding for over 200 years. Before the flooding, snow had been falling continuously since 23 January, with drifts up to 23 feet (7.0 m) deep in places. The winter of 1946–1947 had been very severe, with mean average temperatures 4 °C (7 °F) below normal, for that time of year. As the thaw began in mid-March, the warmer weather brought heavy rains. The rain running off the frozen ground, combined with the thaw, overwhelmed multiple rivers in England and eastern Wales, which flooded.

John McCullough 2010