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Martinstown’s record storm

Martin Claytor recalls the day sixty years ago that the heavens opened over Dorset

The Brewers Arms in Martinstown in July 1955. The 'road' in the foreground is called Burnside. Martinstown's alternative name is Winterbourne St Martin, although perhaps Summerbourne might be more accurate.

The Brewers Arms in Martinstown in July 1955. The ‘road’ in the foreground is called Burnside. Martinstown’s alternative name is Winterbourne St Martin, although perhaps Summerbourne might be more accurate.

If you’re travelling from the Bridport direction and heading for a day on Weymouth beach, you might leave the Dorchester Road just after Winterbourne Abbas and cut through some small villages on the way to the coast. Journeying down through Winterbourne Steepleton and on to Martinstown, it is difficult to imagine that sixty years ago – in one of the most violent rainstorms of modern times – the road was a raging torrent several metres wide.
Martinstown villagers with long memories will remember that this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of a sensational summer storm that hit the national headlines. Eleven inches (28cm) of rain fell in less than twenty four hours in July 1955, causing devastating flooding across the area and creating a national rainfall record that stood until the Cumbrian floods of 2009. Such was the intensity of the storm that it is held as a benchmark by the Environment Agency when comparisons are made to more recent examples, such as the 2004 Boscastle flooding.

The amount of water dumped on Dorset was astonishing. Fourteen square miles of the county received more than ten inches (254mm) of rain in 24 hours; well over a quarter of the county received over four inches of rain in one day, which is three times the average rainfall for the whole month of July in normal circumstances. In other words, a substantial portion of the county received NINETY times its normal daily July rainfall on 18 July 1955, a small portion of it, 250 times its normal daily rainfall

The amount of water dumped on Dorset was astonishing. Fourteen square miles of the county received more than ten inches (254mm) of rain in 24 hours; well over a quarter of the county received over four inches of rain in one day, which is three times the average rainfall for the whole month of July in normal circumstances. In other words, a substantial portion of the county received NINETY times its normal daily July rainfall on 18 July 1955, a small portion of it, 250 times its normal daily rainfall

Local residents are familiar with flooding problems – the July rains of 2012 saw an example of the damage caused by surface water to properties and roads as well as hampering everyday travel. In 1955, however, the effects of the almost apocalyptic storm – centred over Martinstown – not only caused previously unimaginable havoc but continued to swamp villages further down the valley all the way to Weymouth. The suffering did not end there as Dorchester and other nearby Dorset towns were also hit by the unparalleled rainfall.

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Mid-summer in 1955 was particularly dry, hot and sunny – as July wore on, people in Dorset were basking in temperatures approaching 30°C. However, hopes that conditions would continue into the holiday period were soon to be cruelly dashed. After a sweltering weekend, the afternoon sky of Monday 18th July turned ominously dark as a thunderstorm approached.
Moving in from southern Europe, a volatile weather pattern, called a Spanish Plume, brought hot air to the Channel area where it met cooler air. As the storm conditions headed over Dorset, the wind suddenly dropped – halting the drift northwards. When the rain finally came, the storm clouds didn’t move – concentrating the deluge over an unusually small area.
By late afternoon, Martinstown and the nearby villages had already received several inches of rain. The Winterbourne stream, running alongside the Winterbourne Steepleton to Martinstown road and usually dry in summer months, was starting to fill up. By the early hours of Tuesday the 19th, the rainfall measured eleven inches in Martinstown, but the worst was yet to come.
The initial downpour was soaked up by the absorbent chalky ground, but the sheer weight of rain soon began to flow over the surface and the stream could not flow properly under the burden. As fast-rising levels of water cascaded down the hill from Winterbourne Steepleton, Martinstown was hit by the delayed torrent. The road between the two villages became a surging river, over four metres wide, and by Tuesday morning, Martinstown was flooded – the two sides of the village separated by deep, fast-flowing water and cut off completely from the surrounds.
The community rallied and villagers did what they could to stave off the worst, but they were fighting a losing battle against an extreme of nature. Comparing the flooding to the Cumbrian storms in 2009, the Dorset Echo commented that its own reports from 1955 stated that ‘almost the entire male population of the village banded together making sandbag barricades and digging trenches in an effort to ease the flooding’.
By the Wednesday, the water was still pouring down the hillsides and into the villages, as river banks collapsed under the strain. In Martinstown, cottages flooded as water came up through the floors as well as through the doors – forcing people to move upstairs. Travel was only possible by tractor and deliveries from outside were impossible as the road, now a widening river over a foot deep, was impassable at both ends of the village.
In surrounding villages, the incessant flow of water being funnelled down the valley was causing similar distress and anxiety to locals. In Portesham, houses were flooded up to first floor level, whilst the nearby road at Coryates was washed out and damaged. As the torrent headed towards Weymouth, Upwey and Broadwey were next in line; tragically, a local boy drowning in the
swollen waters.
To the east of Martinstown, further down the valley at Osmington Mills, the pressure of water was so great that a dam broke – flooding houses, destroying bridges and uprooting trees. Throughout the whole area, the picture was the same – floating debris; rocks strewn about; severe road damage: drowned animals and power lines destroyed. The storm’s aftermath was even more destructive than its initial burst.

This table shows the rainfall in inches on 18 July 1955 then expressed as a percentage of the annual average rainfall. A dash means over 100%

This table shows the rainfall in inches on 18 July 1955 then expressed as a percentage of the annual average rainfall. A dash means over 100%

The larger towns did not escape the storm’s intensity as the waters spread from rural areas. Dorchester, Weymouth and Bridport all suffered from the immediate rainfall and delayed flooding – cars and caravans were submerged and houses were damaged. At West Bay, even the harbour couldn’t cope and was overcome.
By the end of Wednesday 20 July, the waters had peaked in Martinstown – although they did not recede for several days as the pumps were overwhelmed by the amount they had to clear. Gradually, over the next few months, life returned to some semblance of normality – roads were mended; riverbanks eventually widened; streams cleared out and houses repaired. Financial help was given through an Appeal Fund and, as was the case in Martinstown, the close-knit villagers helped neighbours and friends who had suffered particular damage.
Whilst the 1955 July flood had appalling consequences at the time, some lessons were learned by the authorities and subsequent measures have been put in place to try to reduce the impact of such storms. In an area of the country that tends to be drier than most, the irony of being unprotected from rare and violent southern storms has not been lost on Martinstown residents. For villagers sixty years ago, however, the ‘once in a lifetime’ events over several days in July were a frightening and devastating experience that they hoped would never be seen again. ◗

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