The Plot Thickens

Hi, I’m Karen Meadows. Thank you for visiting The Plot Thickens.

I’m lucky enough to be the tenant of one of fifty large allotment gardens in the middle of the small and beautiful stone town of Stamford in England’s East Midlands. The gardens were first created by Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter in the mid 1800s and their layout has remained virtually unchanged. Between the plots we have some 200 old apple trees, many of them rare varieties, and in 2017 Natural England awarded the gardens heritage orchard status.

Over the centuries at least 500 people have worked these plots. Follow our quest to discover who they were, what they grew, and what shenanigans they got up to. Be prepared for numerous diversions and musings along the way about gardening life here in our quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) little corner of Stamford.

If you haven’t discovered our website yet, do head over to Waterfurlong Orchard Gardens, where you will find a wealth of information about our gardens and gardeners, past and present.

And now for the small print...

The Plot Thickens is a non-commercial blog. All recommendations are based on personal preference and my own or our other gardeners’ own experience. Payments or free goods are not accepted in return for reviews of products and services. If an exception is made this will be clearly stated.

All words and images, unless otherwise credited, are my own. If you would like to copy text or images, I’d kindly ask that The Plot Thickens gets a positive mention and a link back to this blog.

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This Day In ... 1880

THE MOST DESTRUCTIVE FLOOD THAT EVER VISITED STAMFORD

As we face the challenge of another weekend of drought, let’s look back to this day in 1880, when Stamford endured extreme weather of the opposite kind and one of our gardeners nearly lost his livelihood.

It had been a summer of downpours and 'the town was awoken on St Swithin’s day by a fearful thunderstorm.'(1) Rain lashed down relentlessly and in the early evening the Welland burst its banks. By 10 pm Bath Row and Water Street looked like rivers themselves, with dozens of houses flooded up to the ground floor ceiling. Nearby, the platforms of Stamford East railway station (now a private residence) were completely submerged. As the Town Crier urged women, children and the elderly to make their way to the Town Hall for ‘shelter and coffee’,(1) the surge of water grew so great it swept away Albert Bridge by Water Street, Hudd’s Mill Bridge by Barnack Road, numerous walls and railings, and a huge lead cistern from Messrs Roberts’ builders’ yard in Wharf Road. There was much concern for the stone Town Bridge as the water rose above the archways, but it held strong.

Whilst the residents of Lord Burghley’s Hospital were being led to safety, across the road at The George Hotel the water reached the top of the billiard table and guests looked down on the bizarre sight of dislodged wine, beer and spirit casks bobbing around in the courtyard.

As the Stamford Mercury of 23 July reported, the drama escalated during the night.

‘A child was left by itself in a bedroom in Bath Row & remained there in safety. When the flood reached the floor of the house the mother rushed out to fetch her husband, & though only absent a very few minutes the water had risen so rapidly that she was unable to return, some attempts were made during the night to rescue the child, but they were unavailing until about 4 o-clock when the Town Clerk obtained a boat, & by dint of cautious management it was floated to the house where the child was imprisoned & heroically rescued.’(1) Meanwhile, ‘One good lady anxiously watching for her spouse well-nigh fainted at the sight of a half-submerged tub which had no legitimate business there, and which was mistaken for a drowned husband.'(1)

As dawn broke and the full extent of the damage became apparent, Waterfurlong gardener John Swan realised the extent of his losses:

‘The interior of the lower apartments and out-buildings of Mr John Swan, veterinary surgeon, Wharf Road, looked like the inside of a bad sailing man-o’-war in a gale – nearly everything that was there was in its wrong place, and a good many things which ought to have been there were not there at all: the window of the surgery had passed into the Welland, followed by saddles and bridles and brushes; and some of the water and mud from the Welland had entered into close relationship with the costly drugs, a valuable stock of which had only been received a few days before. Mr Swan’s pony had a narrow escape; the poor animal, which nobody could get to, saved itself by putting its fore-feet on the iron rick of the stall, and thus managed to keep its head above water… Mr Swan’s loss estimated to be £150.’ (1)

John Swan, who both lived and worked from his 16 Wharf Road premises (long-since demolished), gardened one of our plots for decades and was a keen exhibitor in the town’s horticultural shows with his prize-winning melons, cucumbers and pinks. As you can read in this brief biography, John never really seemed to recover from the ruinous event.

Amazingly, no-one died in the flood, although many cottagers’ pigs, sheep and chickens were washed away. After the waters eventually subsided, people spent unhappy weeks ‘with their belongings covered in slime and surrounded by stench.(1)

They were not helped by the continuing bad weather and many must have been alarmed by the ancient St Swithin’s Day prognostication.

Only three days into the cleaning-up operation: ‘After premonitory showers and brilliant sheet lightning, a thunderstorm of almost unparalleled violence broke over Stamford. The lightning flashes were intensely vivid and almost continuous for about an hour, and the thunderclaps were literally stunning. Rain again descended in sheets rather than in showers, and in a few minutes the streets were overflowed with rushing torrents, which carried off the surface of the macadamized roadways, leaving the hard granite as clean as a slated roof.’(1) There was considerable damage to chimneys and trees and ‘an enormous discharge expended itself on the Ryhall road, near the gardens, by which a portion of the hard stone path was raised by a foot, and four holes 8 inches deep were punched out, as if by dynamite. So sudden and violent was the accumulation of water that the drains were at once filled, and the backwater surged many inches deep in some streets and ran into the adjoining shops and houses.’(1) Scotgate and All Saints Street were the worst affected. Mr Flower, the grocer, and Messrs Phipps, the spirit dealers' cellars flooded, and a lad named Edward Wise lost a finger using the pumping engine from the Rutland ironworks trying to assist them.

The town pulled together to help everyone affected. Wealthier residents distributed coal and another of our gardeners, grain-merchant Herbert Hart, allowed his maltings to be used for drying out clothes and bedding.

The mayor, John Paradise, set up a relief fund and arranged for an urgent assessment of damages; these were initially estimated at £300, excluding cleaning and minor repairs. ‘Many of those worst-affected were labourers and mechanics’ (1), but several shopkeepers and business owners also sustained heavy losses. 166 claims were submitted, totalling in excess of £1,100, and there was much debate in the Town Hall chambers about the qualification criteria and the propensity of some individuals to over-claim. By the end of August £441.2s.5d had been donated, including the less-than-overwhelming sum of £45 from the Marquess and Marchioness of Exeter.

At first it was believed to be the highest flood ever recorded in Stamford, but digging in the annals revealed that in 1641 ‘a great rain and high westerly wind made the Welland flow half-way up to St Mary’s church.’(1) It was eventually determined that the 1641 flood had been higher by 16” and the Corporation decided that both tide-marks should be scored into the Town Bridge.

However, the weather problems of 1880 were not yet over. Heavy rains continued throughout September and storms in October caused a second flood in Bath Row and Water Street and created overflowing cesspools throughout the town.

How did our Waterfurlong plots fare in the floods? There is no specific mention of them in the newspaper reports, but the railway line at Tinwell was submerged and numerous other town gardens ruined, including eight large Corporation allotments near the Newstead turn on the Uffington Road, which stood under six feet of water.

Although Hudd’s Mill Bridge was retrieved from the deluge and eventually reinstalled, Albert Bridge proved

unsalvageable. There was a strong movement (supported by Herbert Hart) in favour of replacing it with a road bridge, a scheme much favoured by the Great Northern Railway Company, which offered to contribute £500 towards the

estimated cost of about £5,500. Meanwhile, Lord Exeter saw

an opportunity to sell the Corporation a redundant bridge

from the Nene at Sibson for the knock-down price of £225, but in December 1880 a decision was finally reached to commission Everards of Leicester to design and build a replacement iron footbridge – the one that still stands today.

Yet more flooding that winter meant work could not begin

until mid March. Eventually the ‘New Albert Bridge’ was opened in late July 1881 after further delays and with surprisingly little ceremony. ‘The contractors for the iron work have been much behind their time; they did not send sufficient hands for putting the parts together.’(1) Plus ca change!

(1) The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.


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