Watford has experienced its share of floods, storms, thick fogs, high winds and snow.

I particularly recall one Easter in April in the 1960s when a storm led to snow lying for several days. My father and I walked to Oxhey Park, which was filled with snowball throwers, toboggans and local photographers capturing the unseasonal 'spring' scene.

In the 19th century, the Colne valley between Bushey Mill and Hamper Mill (sic) was regularly flooded each winter and spring. One year, after thick snow, a sudden thaw and rain caused flooding, followed by a severe frost. Ice formed beyond the Loates Lane arch and people seized the opportunity to skate. For several nights the ice was ablaze with torches that looked 'very grand' from the banks of the railway. But, all too soon, the ice began to crack.

On the night of October 13, 1881 and the morning after, a tempest of 'unprecedented violence' passed through Watford and the surrounding area. Historian Henry Williams tells us that hundreds of trees were uprooted and thousands of others damaged. On the Cassiobury estate, so many trees were destroyed that they could not be counted and at The Grove, 79 trees were blown down. Between 30 and 40 trees fell at Munden estate, some 12 feet in girth, as did 62 elm, eight oak and five ash trees at Moor Park.

Watford Observer: Storm damage to a car by a fallen tree in Grove Mill Lane on March 28, 1905Storm damage to a car by a fallen tree in Grove Mill Lane on March 28, 1905 (Image: Frederick Downer)

More 'recently', there was the Great Storm on the night of October 15, 1987. All eyes had been on the approaching storm but popular weather forecaster Michael Fish lulled us into a false sense of security by announcing that the expected hurricane-force winds would hit Spain and France; not us. But they reached Force 10 and the countrywide devastation was massive. In our own back garden, a large tree bough from the Rounton estate bordering ours in Nascot Wood snapped off and fell onto our lawn. I remember Miss Jefferis, owner of Rounton, coming across to look, then sending her gardeners with saws and a sizeable trailer to remove it.

Watford Observer: Lower High Street flooding, June 16, 1903. Note the roaming cow!Lower High Street flooding, June 16, 1903. Note the roaming cow! (Image: William Coles)

Lower High Street was subject to frequent flooding, becoming impassable to pedestrians, horses and carts. In the late 1800s, workmen charged one penny to take people across the flooded High Street in their carts whilst, in the early 1900s, Bushey Urban Council provided a free cart ride across flooded Water Lane. After the flooding of June 1903, a new raised footpath was constructed, but it was washed away four months later when the road was submerged under three feet of rainwater. I recall the flooding there by the short-lived George Stephenson College built in the mid-1960s, albeit on stilts.

Watford Observer: Bushey Urban Council free ferry across Water Lane, June 16, 1903Bushey Urban Council free ferry across Water Lane, June 16, 1903 (Image: William Coles)

Henry Williams tells us that in 1841 and 1878 flood water reached three-and-a-half to four feet, filling cellars and downstairs rooms of houses. Residents took their pigs, ducks and hens to their bedrooms, where they remained until the water receded. There was an instance of a Dorking cockerel perching quietly on top of a bedstead until dawn when it took to loud crowing, waking the sleeper! Another story relates to a large pig taken to a couple's bedroom. It crawled under the bed but, during the night, it suddenly jumped and lifted the bed, probably frightening them into thinking the bed - and they - were being carried away by the flood. He reported that food, coal and wood were lost underwater and cold and hungry residents were seen walking on chairs in their flooded downstairs rooms, searching for what they could retrieve. At the Rookery silk mill, three elderly women were rescued by a man named Butler, probably William Butler, a labourer living there. One by one, he carried them on his back to safety.

Watford Observer: Aldenham Road flooding, October 12, 1903Aldenham Road flooding, October 12, 1903 (Image: Frederick Downer)

A number of businesses suffered in the floods, including Jonah Hampson, grocer of 260 High Street, whose cellar-stored goods were ruined. Butcher William Dumbleton of 234 High Street, who had previously experienced flooding in Lower High Street, quickly moved his horses and other animals from his yard to safety, but the rush of water made the task difficult. Frederick King, corn merchant of 262 High Street, found his granaries flooded and the brick wall at the end of his garden damaged. His loss amounted to £300 (around £30,000 today). An empty barrel, one of a number submerged at Sedgwick's brewery, floated with such force through fields at the rear of Mr Dumbleton's garden and yard, down the High Street and into Mr King's yard! When the water subsided, the cottages in Lower High Street were full of debris and their walls soaked three to four feet upwards. Bedrooms were filthy after animals had been confined there.

Watford Observer: Water Lane flooding, looking to the town. Lesley's father with cine camera on left, May 7, 1978Water Lane flooding, looking to the town. Lesley's father with cine camera on left, May 7, 1978 (Image: Lesley Dunlop)

As a result of the flood, brewer John Sedgwick collected subscriptions and provided the unfortunate residents with coal to help dry their homes and Frederick Sedgwick lent the brewery's steam fire engine to pump water from cellars.

So, Happy Easter and here's hoping it's snow - and flood - free!

  • Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the 'Evening Post-Echo' in 1982-83 which have since been published in 'Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey', available at www.pastdayspublishing.com and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on 'Two Lives, Two World Wars', a companion volume that explores her father's and grandfather's lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey's history will take to the stage once again.