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Take a look at Bury St Edmunds' famous flood of 1968 more than 50 years on




As residents in Bury St Edmunds recover from heavy flooding over the weekend, we take a look back at the town's famous flood of 1968 more than 50 years later.

On the morning of Monday, September 16, 1968, Bury St Edmunds was under water.

More than three inches of rain – the equivalent of seven weeks’ worth – had fallen within 24 hours on the previous day, flooding more than 280 houses in and around the town centre.

Fences and railings were swept away, animals drowned, and the interiors of homes destroyed as water levels rose to as high as 6ft in some areas.

Flooding of 1968 - Eastgate Street, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph by Grenville Wilson. (40723679)
Flooding of 1968 - Eastgate Street, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph by Grenville Wilson. (40723679)

Seventeen primary schools in the area were forced to close, which saw children line the streets on the Horringer Court estate instructing drivers on which ways to go to avoid getting stuck. Residents banded together to help the elderly and animals to safety while the borough council arranged temporary accommodation for those who had been forced to abandon their homes.

Jackie Cook, who was 17 at the time, lived with her parents, younger sister and younger brother in the aptly named Raingate Street, which was one of the roads hit hardest by the floods.

“We knew there was going to be a storm and when we woke up in the morning we were aware that water was rising because you could see it coming over the fields out my mum and dad’s bedroom window,” she said.

View of Winthrop Road, Bury St Edmunds (40723676)
View of Winthrop Road, Bury St Edmunds (40723676)

“It was when we looked out the front that we knew it was bad because we could see water coming up the front of the house with lots of yucky stuff in it like dead chickens from the hatchery.”

Like many other families, Jackie and her parents hauled their possessions upstairs to save them from being engulfed, but left behind the teenager’s favourite roller skating boots, which lay forgotten at the back of a downstairs cupboard.

Fortunately, her dad did have the foresight to make sure his raft, which he kept in the back garden, wasn’t lost and used it and an old door to help elderly people get out of their basement flats which were filling with water. He also managed to float Jackie, who had just started work at Marks & Spencer in the Butter Market, to the end of the road just in time for her shift starting.

“I don’t remember dad even entertaining the idea of me not going to work or my sister not going to school. That was just what we had to do and he and our neighbours spent the day helping people get about. There was no panic, everyone just knew that’s what had to be done,” said Jackie.

Flooding of 1968 - Spread Eagle Junction, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph by Michael Smith (40723667)
Flooding of 1968 - Spread Eagle Junction, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph by Michael Smith (40723667)

The worst hit area in the town was Eastgate Street, which took the brunt of the Rivers Lark and Linnet bursting their banks. There, boats and inflatable dinghies were brought in to save stranded residents from top floor rooms, with RAF personnel helping with the rescue mission.

Local historian Martyn Taylor said: “Most of that area was completely filled with water. It was incredible. The amount of water being swished around the town was totally abnormal.

“The water just kept building up and building up. Farmers had to save their livestock from fields and the Abbey Gardens were completely under water which was obviously highly unusual.”

Flooding of 1968 - Tayfen Road, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph credit unknown. (40723682)
Flooding of 1968 - Tayfen Road, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph credit unknown. (40723682)

In the days following the floods, the Bury Free Press reported that more than £70,000 of damage had been caused to country roads, with residents also having complained of broken pianos, soaked carpets, lost books and ruined floorboards. There were even reports of an elderly man having his hearing aid swallowed up by the water.

In response to a flood report given at the time, Stephen Davies, the chairman of the borough highways and sewerage committee, said the event was ‘an act of God’ that residents must ‘accept’ – a claim which was branded ‘nonsense’, ‘pedantic’, ‘laughable’ and ‘not good enough’ on the Bury Free Press letter pages in the weeks which followed.

Flooding of 1968 - St Botolphs Lane, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph credit unknown. (40723670)
Flooding of 1968 - St Botolphs Lane, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph credit unknown. (40723670)

In a bid to find the answer, the demolition of Eastgate Bridge was carried out and a more effective drainage system was installed throughout the town centre. Residents also started petitions, calling for the council to keep both rivers clear of grass, weeds and litter to avoid any build up or blockage, which they were convinced had been a main cause of the problem.

But a borough engineer and surveyor, Mr G.S Standley, who carried out the flood report, was quoted as saying that even good husbandry of watercourses could not guarantee it wouldn’t happen again.

So far, the highest rain levels recorded since that dark day 50 years ago was in June last year, when 2.3 inches of water fell in 24 hours.

View of Winthrop Road, Bury St Edmunds (40723673)
View of Winthrop Road, Bury St Edmunds (40723673)

Today, following a weekend of heavy rain and subsequent flooding, it may not be hard to imagine opening your front door to floodwater up to your knees.

And according to those who came before us and who witnessed the danger and destruction that the floods brought with them, it could and probably would happen again. It’s just a question of when.

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