In pictures: Remembering the 'Great Flood' of 1878 in Norwich

Norwich Floods: the view from Carrow bridge, looking upstream. Date: November 18, 1878 

Norwich Floods: the view from Carrow bridge, looking upstream. Date: November 18, 1878 - Credit: Archant Library

It was on this day, November 16, back in 1878, when what was then called the Great Flood struck causing death, destruction and misery.

The people of Norwich has been assured that improvements to the drainage system and engineering works earlier in the 19th century would save the city from flooding.

They didn’t.

Norwich Floods with a view from Trowse Hythe on 18 November 1878

Norwich Floods - the view from Trowse Hythe. Date: November 18, 1878 - Credit: Archant Library

Norwich floods view from railway swing bridge, looking downstream. Date: November 18, 1878.

Norwich floods view from railway swing bridge, looking downstream. Date: November 18, 1878. - Credit: Archant Library

There had been a snowstorm followed by a rapid thaw and heavy rain.

Our man on the spot at the time was journalist Mark Knights who wrote how the rain didn’t stop with everyone regarding the unusual weather with “deep anxiety.”

He described how the first fears were raised at Carrow where the waters were “stealing steadily” over marshes, towing paths and Clarence Harbour Road.

The Norwich floods of 1878 where Bellman William Childerhouse stood on a plank to shout out his mess

The Norwich floods of 1878 where Bellman William Childerhouse stood on a plank to shout out his messages. Pictured is Orchard Street. - Credit: Archant Library

Norwich Floods, view from Napier Street in Lower Heigham. Date: November 18,1878.

Norwich Floods, view from Napier Street in Lower Heigham. Date: November 18,1878. - Credit: Archant Library

Colman’s Carrow Works flooded as the raging torrent swept into the city. 

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The river burst its banks at New Mills and neighbouring streets were quickly underwater.

Once again it was the low-lying neighbourhoods around the Wensum that took the full force. In the streets the water was waist-deep. It flooded factories and homes causing widespread damage.

Norwich floods, view from Carrow to Thorpe Railway Station. Date: November 18, 1878 

Norwich floods, view from Carrow to Thorpe Railway Station. Date: November 18, 1878. - Credit: Archant Library

Norwich floods, view of Meadows between Carrow and Thorpe Hamlet. Date: November 18,1878

Norwich floods, view of Meadows between Carrow and Thorpe Hamlet. Date: November 18,1878 - Credit: Archant Library

Darkness fell and the waters continued to rise. Thousands of people were terrified about what would happen to them. Many already lived in appalling slums.

It was time for heroes to step forward – and they did.

Mark wrote: “Many a deed of heroism was performed by worthy citizens, who plunged fearlessly up to their armpits in the muddy waters to help frightened women and children into boats.

Norwich floods , view of Thorpe Valley from Carrow Works. November 18, 1878

Norwich floods , view of Thorpe Valley from Carrow Works. Date: November 18, 1878 - Credit: Archant Library

“By nightfall on November 18 the city was quiet; but 4,000 people were lying uneasily in strange places, their minds filled with sad pictures of desolated homes.”

Two heroes who came to the rescue were two very different public figures.

One was beer baron Sir Harry Bullard and the other city bellman and town crier William Childerhouse.

William Childerhouse, Norwich's renowned Bellman.

William Childerhouse, Norwich's renowned Bellman. - Credit: Supplied

Just about everyone knew William, the little man with the big heart, who balanced on a plank to shout his messages about where food and shelter were to be found.

At one time falling into the water, dragging himself out, bell and all, to carry on his good work.

Meanwhile the much-loved Sir Harry, the mayor at the time, led the relief work to help the people.

SUBMITTED PICTURE OF HARRY BULLARD ESQ., SHERIFF OF NORWICH 1877-78, MAYOR 1878-9 AND 1879-90.

SUBMITTED PICTURE OF HARRY BULLARD ESQ., SHERIFF OF NORWICH 1877-78, MAYOR 1878-9 AND 1879-90. - Credit: Supplied

When he spoke the people listened and acted. Relief centres were set up in schools, food was handed out and the Guildhall was used as a storeroom.

And no less than 200 homeless people spent a night at the home of the governor of Norwich Prison.

We reported: “The whole of Norwich turned out to look upon this great calamity and to render aid. From the mayor to the humblest citizen, the one prevailing desire was to afford relief and comfort.

“The people who could afford to help others did just that and the disaster also strengthened the links between the police and the people.”

Those who died included:

  • Thomas Arnup, who had been delivering coal. He and his horse were drowned.
  • William Buck, a tailor, of Heigham Plain, swept away while trying to get home.
  • Mrs Barber, who was bedridden. It was said she died of shock as the waters rose to the edge of her bed.
  • George Churchyard, found in a warehouse in Heigham Street. He was 17.
  • Robert Rudderham, who fell into the river from Carrow Works.

“The flood,” wrote Mark at the time, “was not an unmixed evil, for it scoured foul alleys in parts of Norwich and called public attention to the wretched hovels in these neighbourhoods.”

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