Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.
St Neots was constantly under threat from floods. The River Great Ouse flows roughly southwest to northeast in a narrow, alluvial flood plain through a series of gravel terraces.
Almost every other winter during the 19th century there were floods after heavy rains on frozen ground or during winter snow melt. They covered the river meadows and the road by the mill at Little Paxton.
The additional discharge of water from further upstream in the Ouse’s catchment area of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire meant the flood waters last three days, sometimes longer.
About every three or four years the level would be higher and flood parts of Brook Street, Church Street and St Mary’s Street in Eynesbury. Sometimes the floods covered the Market Square and the west end of the High Street.
Violent thunderstorms in summer with heavy rain often caused Cambridge Street brook to overflow the road, parts of Huntingdon Street and flood houses. They quickly subsided though. The flooded houses on lower ground belonged to the poorest people and their lives were constantly made a misery, too poor to afford new decorations, furniture or fuel to dry out the houses.
It was the responsibility of the town authorities to provide horse and carts for continuous free transport along flooded streets. People got off the cart onto a line of chairs leading through the downstairs of their house to the stairs and the dry upper storey.
Bakers’ carts used to deliver bread on pitchforks to customers at bedroom windows.
In 1370 the monks at the Priory, despite shop rents and market tolls, did not have enough money to repair three watermills that had been destroyed in a bad flood.
A serious flood occurred in 1571 when boats floated over the walls of St Mary’s churchyard.
In 1591 swans were seen swimming in the Market Place during a flood.
The worst flood was on 30th October 1823. Incessant rain with a strong NE wind which became a hurricane during the night with sheets of water.
At eight o’clock in the evening of October 30th, when the flood was at its highest, not a house in the town but was inundated to a considerable depth; in many the water ran over the shop counters and in some it was more than five feet deep; indeed in one or two instances it was up to the ceiling… One poor woman who had been compelled to take refuge from the flood in the garret remained from Saturday night to Monday morning without food… persons were rowing about the Market place in boats and brewing tubs, endeavouring to render aid; and amongst other things swept away by the destructive element a pig-stye was seen floating down the streets.
At Eaton Socon a poor man was rescued from his dwelling in a boat only a minute before his home was overwhelmed.
The greatest height this flood reached was 10 ft. 8ins (3.2m.) above normal and lasted for three days. Houses by the Corn Exchange were under 3 foot (1.05m.) of water. St Mary’s parish church was under 2 feet (0.74m) of water. Every house in town was flooded. The floodwaters reached the bottom of Priory Hill. Ingersole, the grocer in the market Square lost goods valued at about £1000 and Bedells on the High Street lost £500.
In 1869 the countryside all around ‘had the appearance of an inland sea’, and in the flood in 1872 the High Street was flooded. In the flood of 15th to 20th October 1875, water rose 8 feet (2.95m.) A mail coach driver was thrown from his vehicle in Cambridge Street and almost drowned. There was another flood in November, with 18 inches (0.55m.) of water in the High Street.
In 1880 the river was 5 feet (1.85m.) above normal and in 1883 the press reported four severe floods in the past six months. Town flooding occurred again in 1891.
In most years the river rose about 5 ft (1.85m.) but in November 1894 it rose over 7 ft. (2.59m.). Homes and shops had to be evacuated by boat and the waters spread over most of Eaton Ford and Eynesbury as well as St Neots. Many shopkeepers lost their produce. Parts of the road by the Paper Mill were washed away and a floating tree trunk bent the floodgates. The vicar read a sermon on the ‘Deluge’. There was no water fit to drink. The Local Board, worried about an epidemic, printed and distributed a leaflet to every house advising them to filter and then boil their drinking water. A Poor Committee was set up to collect money to distribute bread to those in need and coal to help dry out their houses. The fire engine was used to pump water out of cellars and wash the sewage away.
The St Neots Advertiser described the scene after the water had subsided.
‘After 11.00 p.m. the fall was very rapid. Of course the lower lying parts were still flooded for several days. Saturday was a fine bright day and in all directions were to be seen furniture, carpets, and other household goods put out or hung up to dry. The water had left behind a slimy mud, everything seemed damp, and even after huge fires had been in evidence there seemed a musky smell about everything for days. May houses can hardly expect to get thoroughly dry before next summer. Almost everyone has sustained loss of some kind through the flood’.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century there were still serious floods after a heavy snowfall followed by equally heavy rain on 30th April 1908. Water was 6 feet deep (2.1m.) There were severe floods again in 1910, 1918, 1939 and 1940.
The worst in the 20th century was in 1947 which caused havoc over a wide area. Heavy snowfalls had followed a hard frost in February and, suddenly, on 11th March, there was a rapid thaw. The melted snow, unable to soak into the frozen ground, poured into the brooks and rivers.
Food had to be delivered to marooned families in Eaton Ford by army amphibious vehicles. A swan was seen pecking at the window of a partially submerged house. People used boats on the Market Square.
The height of the flood can be seen marked on a stone in South Street. You can see photographs in Tescos showing the 1947 flood. As a result of the flood the Great Ouse River Board rebuilt the floodgates at the Paper Mill in Little Paxton.
It was estimated that only 20% of the floodwater was in the river channel. About 800 houses were flooded and over £8,000 was paid out in claims for damages.
At Easter 1998, the Great Ouse flooded again. Although it was lower than the 1947 flood, exact figures are unavailable as all the gauging boards were washed away. The rise in water level is thought to have been just over 3 feet (1.0m.) in 24 hours! Some of the riverboats broke their moorings and smashed into the floodgates at Little Paxton.
The River great Ouse has been an important waterway for centuries. It was promoted under Acts of Parliament in 1670, 1751, 1795, 1796, 1805, 1810, 1816, 1818, 1819, 1827 and 1830.
The locks at Eaton Socon and Little Paxton were rebuilt in the 1930s when the newly formed Great Ouse Catchment Board restored this part of the river.
In 1951 The Great Ouse Restoration Society was formed and in 1963 legislation enabled the River Authority to licence boats and charge fees, at last providing money for navigation to a body mainly concerned with drainage.
To control the discharge of the River Great Ouse the National Rivers Authority constructed a weir by the River Mill. A sluice gate was installed to allow controlled amounts of water through. This, and other weirs further upstream, kept the storm waters and snowmelt under better control.
Under the Environment Act of 1995 a Regional Flood Defence Committee (RFDC) was set up for East Anglia. It regulated and improved the Great Ouse to alleviate flooding, drained land, protected property, and provided flood-warning systems. On 1 April 1996 the National Rivers Authority became part of the Environment Agency.
The Environment Agency arranged for all its flood defence functions to be carried out by RFDC's except certain financial ones, such as collecting levies (rates) from local council authorities with land in the area of the RFDC. St Neots has a Local Flood Defence Committee (LFDC).
The osier (reed) beds by the river in Eaton Ford were drained to create Riverside Park. This is allowed to flood during periods of high discharge.
Some local people suggest dredging the river upstream from St Neots to further reduce the chances of flooding.
(Young, R. (1996), 'St Neots Past', Phillimore, pp. 48, 91, 122; Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers, pp.91-94; www.environment-agency.gov.uk)