The day the dam burst | Looking Back

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In this month’s Looking Back column, Roger Guttridge describes a disastrous – and yet miraculous – day in North Dorset’s memory

Flood damage in Wyke Bridge Street, Gillingham, proves a popular attraction for the townsfolk. Picture from the Barry Cuff Collection, published in Lost Dorset: The Towns, by David Burnett

To those who’ve suffered water damage recently it will be no consolation, but Dorset has rarely seen flooding like that which hit the county’s northernmost reaches 106 years ago.
The event was both a disaster and a miracle – the latter because there was no loss of human life, although there were numerous narrow escapes.
It all began at 6pm on 28th June, when the mother of all thunderstorms deposited 10 inches of water on Bruton in Somerset, and 5.75 inches on Bourton here in Dorset.
The rainfall proved too much for the dam at Gasper Bridge, which held back 18 acres of water to form Stourhead’s lower lake.
During the night of June 28-29th, the lake suddenly burst through, destroying both bridge and dam and releasing millions of gallons into the valley. Witnesses likened the roar of rushing water to ‘continuous thunder’.
The force of the water gouged a 30-feet-deep chasm from the roads on either side, uprooted trees and washed out the foundations of Gasper Mill.
As it entered Dorset, the flood first encountered Hindley’s Bourton Foundry, a former mill which traditionally manufactured heavy machinery. Since the outbreak of the First World War it had produced three million hand grenades known as Mills bombs.
The Western Gazette reported that a ‘great wave’ swept through the workshops, causing ‘damage of a most extraordinary character’.
Sheds and outbuildings were ‘swallowed up’ by the torrent, walls demolished, heavy machinery, a steam lorry and a 15cwt safe overturned, a large boiler swept from one workshop to another and 200 to 300 tons of coal washed away.
A large cart was carried several hundred yards downstream along with fences, posts and other objects.
The main part of a flatbed lorry was later found half a mile away.
The water and mud were up to 10ft deep in parts of the foundry and the caretaker – the only person on site at the time – only escaped by climbing on to a roof.

The road to Bourton bridge on the day after the flood. Picture from Maggs and Hindley, by Robert Mullins

When pigs swim
The bridge that carried the London to Exeter road over the river collapsed, but in doing so probably saved the life of one Bourton resident, a Mr Tufts. His cottage was flooded up to its ceiling but would almost certainly have been demolished had not the main force of water been released by the bridge collapse.
Many other houses flooded to depths of three or four feet, including the police station.
The impact on the community was ably described by Bourton Parish Council chairman B. Pope Bartlett in an appeal for money to help residents.
He wrote: ‘In many cases their homes have been flooded out, their furniture, clothes and food washed away or destroyed, and their gardens and allotments, on which they had spent so much time, wrecked beyond repair.’
As it headed for the village of Milton, the floodwater continued to wash away ricks and freshly cut hay, poultry from their pens and even pigs from their sties, though some pigs swam to fight another day.

Locals survey damaged Bourton bridge from a temporary structure. Picture from Maggs and Hindley, by Robert Mullins

Evacuation
At Gillingham, a supplementary drama unfolded at Plank House, which the Red Cross had taken over as a hospital for wounded soldiers from the front.
Miss Brock, the night nurse, first noticed the rising water at 1.40am.
It was only ankle-deep at that point but by the time Dr Farnfield arrived it was chest-high.
As Miss Brock and Sister Jones continued to evacuate the downstairs wards, the doctor and two relatively-able patients raced to rescue others from shelters and summer houses.
‘Half-swimming, half-walking, one by one these three men rescued the helpless patients from the open-air shelters,’ reported the Western Gazette.
‘Only just in time were all rescued, for by 3am the flood had risen to a depth of 4ft 6ins in the house and 6ft outside.’
The water also washed away an oak tree and 16yds of stone wall. It flooded numerous houses, shops and other Gillingham businesses to depths of up to five feet.
Grocer Mr Hayden and butcher Mr Toogood were among those hardest hit, along with Wilts United Dairies whose engine room was flooded and churns and equipment washed out of the yard.
At Town Mills, the water reached one of the highest levels ever recorded.
In the immediate aftermath, Gillingham Grammar School head Alfred Mumford loaded a 25lb joint of beef and all the trimmings on to a farm wagon and delivered it to Plank House to feed patients and staff.
Repairs to many of the bridges and buildings took months but production of Mills bombs at Bourton Foundry resumed with lightning speed due to their importance to the war effort.

• In 2017, the Bourton Players performed a play that followed the fortunes of five women Mills bombs makers at the foundry.

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