Monday 16 October 2023

The Eton Flood - November 1894


IT IS now satisfactorily established that this generation can hold its head high on the subject of floods. We can now no longer have the " Wellington " flood, as that of 1852 is called, cast in our teeth. We have seen with our own eyes the highest of the century; in fact it is even probable that this has been higher than the historic flood of 1774, recorded in the buttery of College Hall, the measurement of which is reckoned from the floor of the cellar,— and since that time it is believed that the floor has been raised. It is a remarkable coincidence that the last three high floods—those of 1852, 1875, 1894—have all been at their highest on November 17th. On that day, in 1852, the great Duke of Wellington was buried, and it is re­corded that rain had then fallen every day since his death. On a previous occasion, the exact date of which we can­not determine, he was returning to the Queen in a coach and four, and his horses were carried off their legs between Fifteen Arch Bridge and Beggar's Bridge. In those days sanitary matters were of little account, and the outside world did not, on the news of the rising water, at once jump at the conclusion that the boys would either be drowned or die of a pestilence; and in 1852, with the exception of a few houses, the School placidly pursued. its usual course, though with limited amusements.

This year on Thursday evening, the 15th Nov., the water was half-way up Brocas Lane, and the lane between Winter's and South Meadow could only be reached in a punt ; moreover telegrams from Oxford and Reading made it clear that there was the certainty of a heavier flood impending, although the result must have exceeded all calculation: at the same time, had this only been fully realised on Thursday, or even Friday morn­ing, much confusion and want of organization might have been avoided. On Friday morning the water was slowly finding its way into the street down the Vicarage Lane, and rose rapidly all day, soon sweeping away planks which had been placed for pedestrian traffic. By the time it was dark, the street from Halliday's shop to the Local Board offices was only passable in carts, and in Eton we were practically on an island.

There was a very brilliant moon,-and the present writer, making his rounds at io o'clock, found the road dry as far as Barnes' Pool; the water, which was coming down Mr. Hale's passage, satisfied as it seemed with the wreck of Mr. Benson's house ran steadily away down the drain. The stream was running very strong down Baldwin's Shore. Mr. Vaughan's house we believe had gone home. Mr. Luxmoore's only means of communication with the world was by a ladder into the Chapel yard. How the hinges of those gates leading into that solitary wilderness must have creaked and groaned when their rest was disturbed.

The house on which we once read in gigantic letters of Eton blue "50 not out" is now a stronghold of wet-bobs, and the famous blues who inhabit it were certainly in their element; the water must have been over a foot in the pupil-rooms and was just running into the rest of the house. At the end of Keate's lane a powerful man was making great efforts to keep the drains clear, which, on the authority of one who saw them working, were eventually the means of arresting the entire in­undation of the College. Rumour says that all night long did this undaunted spirit work, defend­ing his position with a broom against an incessant fire of Euclids and small books, intended to prevent the escape of the water and so precipitate the breaking up of the School. We could only get as far as the corner of Judy's passage when the water was pouring through the gate into Mr. Donaldson's garden. Mr. Durnford was working hard getting up carpets, and none too soon, for on the next day the water was four inches over the whole of his ground floor. There was a punt stationed for the night at the end of Mr. Mitchell's passage, and the last thing we saw was a little knot of Masters gazing at the water on the Slough Road, which prevented them going further than the stile into the Field. The moon made the scenes very vivid. There was no wind, but a low roar coming from the river by the weir, and from the water rushing over the Slough Road and through Fifteen-arch Bridge.

It is necessary to realise that at Upper Hope the river divided, the mass of the water keeping its usual course, but a great stream poured through Cuckoo-weir, thence through the arches along the bottom of Warre's field over the Eton Wick Road, which formed the first cataract. All across the Slads and Babylon the water was deep and broken but ran on steadily across Mesopotamia and Jor­dan to the second cataract on the Slough Road. It carried away the palings of Upper Club, two being taken right across the Playing Fields, knocking down the iron rails of Ward's cottage. Old Ward slept that night with the water pouring through the house deep enough to actually wet the mattress. The flood went on its course through Datchet, to lose itself on the great stretch of low-lying land between Datchet and Wraysbury.

We shall most of us remember the morning of Satur­day. All those who were in early school heard the notice which came round, but the first sign that the school had broken up was the headmaster in cap and gown escorted by a figure in complete armour of waterproof. From a very early hour, in fact as soon as it was light, we had been watching the proceedings, and had observed the masterly preparations for immediate evacuation, con­ducted by adjacent householders. An eminent exponent of natural science had been heard to express his opinion that Barnes Pool Bridge was bound to be blown up, and it was very reassuring to find him at the post of danger watch­ing the wonderful scene of confusion which began about 9 o'clock.

Everyone had to send a telegram and get an answer, and not even the urgent demand for journey money could make the bank open before lo. The South-Western line was blocked, the train having had to come through Datchet on Friday night with the water a few inches from the level of the top of the platform. The Slough road was unsafe, so the stream of cabs, carts and punts up the street to get to Windsor Station lasted the whole morning, and the cabmen must have voted that the flood should become an annual institution.

After the school had gone, we, who were left, settled down to three days steady work of relief in the town, dis­tributing coals, soup and bread, which everyone was most generous in providing.

Private enterprise was first in the field, but the local authorities soon came to the front, and a great effect was produced by a large cart full of supplies, hauled up the street with the Chairman of the Local Board and one of his colleagues, borne as it were in triumph, like the gods of Peace and Plenty. Drinking water was also a serious difficulty and had to be taken in barrels from the College pump.

In the afternoon the Queen drove as far as the bridge and offered to send carts from the farms to carry people, and to deliver supplies. This was an admirable thought, and indeed no better suggestion could have been made.

The poor people were all most patient, spending their-- days looking out of their upper windows, and thankful and grateful for anything that was brought them. The Spectator was right in saying that one of the best effects of this great flood was in bringing all classes together.

The weather throughout was beautiful and the strange effects of the water, especially as seen from Boveney and Dorney, were very memorable. The nights were gloomy and made more so by the failure of the gas, which gave out in Eton on Sunday night.

The most successful light we saw was a flaming torch, a relic of the jubilee procession; these in any number would have been most useful.

Many are the deeds of heroism, real and imaginary, recorded in the few days when the water was at its highest, and though we have not space for them individ­ually, we feel we cannot conclude without venturing to sincerely congratulate those who had so narrow an escape under Fifteen arch bridge, on Saturday, November 17th.

This article was published in The Eton College Chronicle 6th, December 1894.


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