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West Suffolk memories from flooding and Zeppelin bombings in Bury St Edmunds to President Nixon visiting RAF Mildenhall



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We have delved into the archives and taken a nostalgic look at Millennium Memories, a Bury Free Press special publication from January 2000.

Bury Free Press publication Millennium Memories, from the year 2000
Bury Free Press publication Millennium Memories, from the year 2000

Wind, rain and blizzards

Bury St Edmunds has had its own share of natural disasters over the years, with major flooding and damage to trees in the 1987 hurricane being one example.

There have also been blizzards which brought down power lines and blocked roads.

The Great Blizzard of 1881 brought chimneys crashing down and blocked country lanes and rail lines. Another monumental blizzard followed in the winter of 1927-28.

One of the vehicles to get into Bury St Edmunds from Sicklesmere - this picture is taken by the Rushbrooke Arms, where the River Lark runs under the A134
One of the vehicles to get into Bury St Edmunds from Sicklesmere - this picture is taken by the Rushbrooke Arms, where the River Lark runs under the A134

In 1947, the combined force of melting snows, heavy rains, winds of up to 98mph and surge tides combined to overwhelm the fens as the River Ouse burst its banks and created a giant inland sea.

Bury suffered hurricane-force winds which pole-axed trees along Sicklesmere Road.

Fifty trees were lost in Nowton Park, while German prisoners of war joined schoolchildren and workmen clearing the Bury to Sudbury road.

Eastern Electricity engineers ferry equipment down Baker's Lane, in Bury St Edmunds, on a makeshift raft during the floods of 1968. Most of Bury was without power as a transformer in Raingate Street was flooded
Eastern Electricity engineers ferry equipment down Baker's Lane, in Bury St Edmunds, on a makeshift raft during the floods of 1968. Most of Bury was without power as a transformer in Raingate Street was flooded

As the River Lark overflowed, floodwaters poured through Eastgate Street, Raingate Street and Horringer Road.

The electricity pumping station in Raingate Street had to be shut down and the lights went out all over town.

In darkness, by the light of a couple of candles and torch, Bury Free Press staff stripped down heavy forms from the printing press and drove them to King's Lynn to ensure the news got out to people the following day.

Tenants in Eyre Close, off Westgate Street, move in sandbags in an attempt to keep water out of their homes
Tenants in Eyre Close, off Westgate Street, move in sandbags in an attempt to keep water out of their homes

Further floods hit the town in 1968.

Again, waters poured down Raingate Street and floods overwhelmed The Butts.

Council officers were sent out to rescue livestock from flooded fields. This followed a storm of tropical density in September.

Army units with amphibious vehicles helped police and firefighter to evacuate stranded residents.

In many streets, cars and buses were replaced by boats, dinghies and rafts.

A policeman swam through swirling waters to rescue a mother and two children in Sicklesmere and a 14-year-old convent girl dived into swollen waters to rescue a horse in Bury.

In the 1987 hurricane trees were lost in Nowton Park, although the damage had a positive side effect as it enabled some wildlife plants to flourish which would not have done so under tree cover.

The markets and retail

Market day in Bury has been a feature of town life throughout the ages
Market day in Bury has been a feature of town life throughout the ages

Markets have been important in Bury for centuries and the town centre still hosts markets every Wednesday and Saturday.

The first market recorded in Bury was in 1086, when butter, horses and corn were sold.

The Corn Market was built in 1583 by the Guildhall Feoffees, but was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1608.

Glasswells used to occupy these premises in the Corn Exchange, Bury St Edmunds. Haart estate agents now occupies the spot
Glasswells used to occupy these premises in the Corn Exchange, Bury St Edmunds. Haart estate agents now occupies the spot

It was rebuilt in 1620, with the Cornstead below and a clothes hall above.

It was in the 13th century that Bury developed a reputation throughout Europe for its high-quality cloth.

London fashion houses purchased materials from cloth makers in Bury, including Fulk de St Edmunds.

The first Curry's shop was established on the corner of Etna Road and Northgate Street, in Bury St Edmunds, and is pictured here at about the turn of the 20th century. CHarles Curry, Ben Curry and Samuel Curry are pictured
The first Curry's shop was established on the corner of Etna Road and Northgate Street, in Bury St Edmunds, and is pictured here at about the turn of the 20th century. CHarles Curry, Ben Curry and Samuel Curry are pictured

Trade was especially good with Flanders and parts of Italy.

Bury's reputation was so good Henry III purchased his fur robes from the town.

If you were buying bread on the market in the 1600s you would have seen a special mark on the loaves to identify the bakery.

43 Abbeygate Street used to be occupied by Stead and Simpson shoe shop
43 Abbeygate Street used to be occupied by Stead and Simpson shoe shop

The mark was to prevent 'foreign' bakers trading in the town and taking away business.

In more recent times Cornhill Walk shopping centre was built in November 1988, becoming the first modern shopping mall for the town.

It has now been empty and closed for several years.

The Black Boy, in Guildhall Street, in times past
The Black Boy, in Guildhall Street, in times past

As the town has evolved large supermarkets have been built, including Sainsbury's in Bedingfeld Way, Waitrose on the older Robert Boby factory site and Tesco where St Saviour's Church once stood.

The Arc shopping centre opened on the former Cattle Market site in 2009.

The Night Zeppelins dropped on Bury

Devastation caused by a Zeppelin attack in 1915, when shops in the Buttermarket were destroyed by incendiary bombs
Devastation caused by a Zeppelin attack in 1915, when shops in the Buttermarket were destroyed by incendiary bombs

For the first time in modern war history, the battle was brought to civilians in Britain when Germany unleashed the Zeppelins.

Twice, Bury was hit by falling incendiary bombs, destroying shops in the Buttermarket.

The first attack, in April 1915, saw more than 40 bombs rain on the town, but the only casualty was a collie dog.

Further bombings damaged Bury St Edmunds in 1916
Further bombings damaged Bury St Edmunds in 1916

However the second attack, in March 1916, killed Bury resident Mrs Durball and two of her children, injuring the other three. Her husband was serving as a drummer with the Suffolk Regiment.

Due to Government censorship at the time, the Bury Free Press could only report a 'certain ancient and well-known town received the attention of Zeppelins twice during Friday night'.

Fighting for the King and country

An early biplane from the Royal Flying Corps during World War One had an unexpected landing near its airfield on the Shadwell estate, near Rushford. The pilot survived and was helped from the wreckage by five men from the estate's own fire brigade
An early biplane from the Royal Flying Corps during World War One had an unexpected landing near its airfield on the Shadwell estate, near Rushford. The pilot survived and was helped from the wreckage by five men from the estate's own fire brigade

During World War One, the Bury-based Suffolk Regiment fielded 27 battalions to the war effort and lost nearly 7,000 men in conflicts across Europe.

Men of the regiment won 81 battle honours on nearly every front, including two Victoria crosses.

The second battalion fought hard at Wancourt in 1918 when, in the face of a great German offensive, they fought on until cut off and surrendered. The men continued to hold their positions, despite running out of ammunition, until they were either captured or killed.

The unveiling of the Suffolk Soldiers' Memorial, in Bury St Edmunds
The unveiling of the Suffolk Soldiers' Memorial, in Bury St Edmunds

The war effort was also felt at home, with factories including Boby's, in Bury, and Charles Burrell, in Thetford, becoming munitions plants.

Within days of war being declared, Thetford claimed the record of sending the most men to fight for their country, with 10 per cent of the population volunteering.

World War One also saw the beginnings of what was to mark out East Anglia during the second conflict – air power.

Women from Boby's are pictured while taking a walk with wounded soldiers in the Abbey Gardens in 1917
Women from Boby's are pictured while taking a walk with wounded soldiers in the Abbey Gardens in 1917

An early airfield was set up at Snarehill, near Thetford, and also Feltwell, where the Royal Flying Corps trained with their planes.

By World War Two the flat landscape of East Anglia led to it becoming a huge aircraft carrier, with more than 70 airfields dotted across the region.

Honington had been built in the 1930s along with the American bases at Mildenhall and Feltwell.

Sorties left England's shores for Germany from sites at Shephard's Grove, Rougham and many more which have long since gone, even though relics – including runways and control towers – can be seen dotted across the landscape.

Although the main American involvement was not until later when the US entered the war, the USAF had been working at Feltwell, Lakenheath and Mildenhall since the 1930s.

Lakenheath was originally set up as a decoy base to lure the Luftwaffe away from the real bases in the area, but became fully operational itself in 1941.

The Suffolk Regiment fought again during World War Two, which included its 1st battalion landing at Normandy on D-Day and the 2nd serving in Burma.

Two Territorial Army battalions, the 4th and 5th, were taken prisoners of war by the Japanese in Singapore and suffered the rest of the conflict in captivity.

Land for training was needed by the Army and, again, the East Anglian landscape was ideal.

Whole villages near Thetford, including Stanford and Toddington, were evicted as the land was requisitioned.

Today, the land is still used by the Army for training and the villages have been used as target practice, although the three parish churches remain standing.

The Desert Rats, who fought Rommel in the African desert, spent only seven months of their wartime existence in Britain and that was spent training in Thetford Forest for their role in the D-Day landings.

Today, a Cromwell tank stands on a plinth near to their barracks to remind people of their only UK home.

Bury and Thetford were also home to German prisoners of war during the second conflict.

Nissen huts used to cover Hardwick Heath and houses nearly 60 PoWs in Camp 260.

Over the entire war, 2,000 prisoners lived in Bury and surrounding villages and worked on road building and farms.

The Hardwick camp closed in 1948, three years after the end of the war.

In the grip of the Cold War

President Nixon and Harold Wilson's visit to RAF Mildenhall was watched by crowds waving flags
President Nixon and Harold Wilson's visit to RAF Mildenhall was watched by crowds waving flags

After World War Two, Bury and surrounding areas remained closely involved with the military as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe.

President Nixon visited the American bases during the Cold War.

NATO was established as the Cold War set in and the USAF bases at Lakenheath, Mildenhall and Feltwell continued to play a large part, alongside their RAF counterparts at Honington and Wattisham.

President Nixon and Harold Wilson's visit to RAF Mildenhall was watched by crowds waving flags
President Nixon and Harold Wilson's visit to RAF Mildenhall was watched by crowds waving flags

During World War Two RAF Barnham was one of the country's largest ammunition dumps, complete with its own rail branch line.

Now, parts of the old ammunition storage areas are used as an industrial estate.

Meanwhile, Thetford will forever be linked to the war time effort in the nation's imagination as it doubled for Walmington-on-Sea as the location for the BBC comedy Dad's Army, about the Home Guard.