Tuesday 7 April 2015

Memories of the 1947 Flood

Memories of the 1947 Flood and the plight of the families living in the disused wartime army camp at Dorney

by Mr E. Wilks

The winter of 1946-47 had been one of the worst winters on record. It was estimated that the ground was frozen to a depth of almost 3ft, and when the thaw came the water, instead of soaking into the ground, ran straight into the river.

I went out to see how high the water was but there was no hope of getting to work. The water was almost half way up Tilstone Avenue. I went up to the Eton Wick Road and the water had crossed the road and was flowing down Moore's Lane into the lower part of Eton Wick. Men had already started to build a bridge, making buttresses of kerbstone taken from the building site for the new houses on Tilstone fields. A few more men had fetched scaffold boards from the building site and laid them across the buttresses to make a substantial bridge.

We went to bed on the Saturday night thinking that the flood was at its worst. I was happily having a lay-in on the Sunday morning when there was a loud bang on the front door - outside there were a group of men. I asked them what they wanted and one of them called out "get your boat and help to get the people out of the common camp". I did not want to go - it was a new boat that I had been making in readiness for the summer. It was just forms and slats covered with fine canvas, with several coats of paint, inside and out. The last coat had on only been finished a few days before; it had never been in the water and I did not know if I could manage it. It was no use protesting - by the time I was dressed they had opened my garage and were off down the road with my boat, so I picked up the double paddle and followed them.

As we approached the common gates, I could see the water rushing out of the Camp over the road, I was really frightened. Then, as I reached the Common gate and looked inside the camp, I saw this galvanised bungalow bath coming through the flood. A woman was sitting in it holding grimly to the sides, and wading almost waist deep in the icy water the man we called 'Mad Jack'. As he came up the road, willing hands helped the woman out of the bath and as Jack staggered out of the water I felt ashamed of myself. Now that I was there some one took Jack away for a hot bath and dry clothes. I don't know how many people Jack had rescued before I arrived but I was glad to release him.

A policeman who was just standing there doing nothing told me "I'll leave you to get on with it - I want the men to come with me, there are some pigs to rescue at one of the farms" and nearly every body left. My boat, although it was constructed like a Kayak, I had made it much wider as I intended to take the family picnicking in the coming summers. This makes it almost impossible to paddle sitting down in the boat so I had a seat on the deck and sat with my feet in the cockpit, which left the large cockpit free for any passengers.

I pushed off and struggled against the swirling waters, learning how to manage the boat as I went along. Luckily, most of the wire fences were down, it was just the posts I had to miss. Reaching the first hut I pulled up to the hut windows and the people climbed out into the boat. The fierce flow of the flood water made it difficult to get into the shallow by the Common gate, and after the first rescue I had to come back through the gardens and steer around any obstructions - hard work with a loaded boat.

In the next hut was a family with a young boy and a sick baby who was in a pram standing on a bed out of the water which was lapping the top of the bed as this hut was in one of the deepest parts of the flood. I talked it over with the husband and, as the boat had a large cockpit, decided to put the pram in the boat. The wife did not approve. As they were arguing I lost my grip on the window, and by the time I had the boat under control and returned to the window the wife was almost in hysterics, crying and saying I would drown her baby.

I was about to leave and go to the next hut when the husband took the baby out of the pram, wrapped it in a blanket and then put it In his wife's arms. We told the boy to lean out of the window and help by holding the front of the boat then, after a struggle, we managed to fit the pram into the cockpit. I was lucky, there was still some room for me to keep my feet in the boat. However, the drama was not yet over, the wife hugged the baby to her and refused to let go. I was just wondering how much longer I could hold on, when the man slapped his wife's face and took the baby from her, then quickly put It In the pram. I called out to the boy to let go and although it was now all top weight, the boat behaved perfectly and I got the baby safely back to the Common gate. I must note here that I became friendly with this family and I am sure that was the only time that he ever hit his wife. The baby made a full recovery.

I got the rest of the people safely to dry land, but by this time I was so tired I was working in a daze. I cannot remember any details of those last trips. I asked the bystanders to bring my boat home and wandered home to a hot bath and bed, being too tired to eat any dinner. Later I dressed and came downstairs for a meal when there was another knock on the front door. The wife told the people that I was not fit to turn out again but as they were friends I went.

There was an unhappy story behind this request: the husband was due for demob on the Saturday and his wife, with the help of her family, had prepared a hut in the army camp for his homecoming. They had even erected dividing partitions, then furnished it with all new goods. The wife had gone to London to meet him to celebrate his homecoming by going to a show. When they returned to Eton Wick late that night, the Camp was under water. They wanted to collect items of clothing and other odds and ends.

I took the two women to the hut and their husbands waited by the gate to help on our return. We were all in our wellies and I had remembered a rope with which to tie up the boat. It was pathetic, the carpets and things floating about in the dirty water. We stood as many things as possible out of the water, mostly on the bed and table, hoping for the best as the water was still rising.

We loaded up and I started back but my arm was like lead and I was having a struggle to steer the boat. We were nearly safe when I saw an angle iron fence post in front of me. I was just too tired and the fast current took me straight on to it and a hole was ripped in the canvas at the front of the boat. I jumped out and lifted the front of the boat out of the water and waded to the dry land, luckily for me I was In shallow water and only got a little water In my wellies.

I left my friends to return my boat and staggered home to another hot bath and bed. On the next day I could hardly move, I could not even feed myself but the use gradually came back to my limbs and by the end of the week I was my old self again. When I look back, the one thing I remember most vividly about the flood - a frightened woman sitting in a tin bath being steered through the icy, swirling water by 'Mad Jack'.

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