It was almost certainly the biggest natural disaster in Bristol’s history.
It saw a loss of life on a single day that probably outstripped the worst of the Bubonic Plague, and on a scale not seen until the Nazis began the Bristol Blitz.
But what exactly happened when a huge wall of water came thundering up the Bristol Channel, and surging up the Avon Gorge to the heart of Bristol city centre?
Tristan Cork found confusion still reigns 412 years later – but discovered a Bristol-specific source that has been largely overlooked.
When did it happen?
There are lots of things we don’t know about the Great Bristol Channel Flood, and even when it happened is one thing we’re not completely sure of.
It was late January 1606 – but actually this was 1607 because back then, before the adoption of the modern Julian calendar in 1752, the New Year in England didn’t start until March.
Various reports at the time put the day the Great Flood happened between January 20 and January 31.
In 1823, Rev Samuel Seyer wrote what was, at that stage, the most detailed history of Bristol yet, and he put the event as happening on January 20, albeit later admits other sources he’d seen put it on January 27.
In fact, researchers and historians have settled on January 30 – around noon, in fact.
What happened in the Bristol Channel?
A great wall of water surged up the Bristol Channel, overcoming sea walls and rudimentary flood defences, inundating coastal towns and villages, and rushing inland.
On the Somerset Levels, the sea went inland as far as Glastonbury. In South Wales, the water was so powerful it washed away half the church by the river in Cardiff.
The waters came up suddenly.
Some reports said the waves rushed inland faster than a man could run, or even a horse could run.
The village of Brean was washed away, as were many others all along the coast of North Somerset. Anywhere low-lying was inundated with sea water, and hundreds – probably thousands of people died on both sides of the Channel.
North of Bristol, going up the Severn Estuary, the water travelled hard and fast inland by as much as six miles.
The florid descriptions of the aftermath give some hint of the depth of the water and the speed it came in.
William Jones wrote: “So violent and swift were the outragiouse waves, that pursued one an other, with such vehemencie, and the Waters multiplying so much in so short a time, that in lesse then five houres space most part of those cuntreys (and especially the places which lay lowe) were all over flowen, and many hundreds of people both men women, and children were then quite devoured, by these outragious waters, such was the furie of the waves, of the Seas, the one of them dryving the other forwardes with such force and swiftnes, that it is almost incredible for any to beleeve the same”
Why aren’t we sure what happened?
Contemporary accounts are few and far between, and it took sometimes weeks for the early journalists and writers of the day to get from London to the Bristol Channel after word arrived of the great calamity.
There were no newspapers as we would understand the term today, back in the winter of 1606-07, but there was money to be made in pamphlets. These were one-off, little two, or four-page sheets about a single event, and there were plenty written in the days and weeks after the Great Bristol Channel Flood.
They were the early forms of sensational journalism, and often written to a particular end. The writers with the most motive for telling and re-telling the story of the Great Flood were those with a religious axe to grind.
In 1607, it was little more than a year after the Gunpowder Plot, where the great propaganda of the time was vehemently anti-Catholic and increasingly Puritan. Within a lifetime those forces of Puritanism would be such that England would have a revolution, Civil War and behead its own king, but in 1607, when presented with a great natural disaster like this, the reason was obvious – it was God’s wrath on England for not being Puritan enough.
William Jones wrote the best surviving pamphlet and, like several others, were rich in dramatic descriptions of the horror, but lacking in the kind of concise descriptions of what exactly happened.
“From Chepstow to the further end of Carmarthenshire it came on so fast, that it was supposed 500 persons, on a moderate computation, lost their lives, beside many thousand cattle, and other substance perish, and sometimes their wives and children, without being able to afford them any assistance,” wrote one commentator, in the Gentleman’s Magazine, in 1762.
“There is little now remaining there to be seen, but huge waters like to the main ocean: the tops of churches and steeples like the tops of rocks in the sea: great ricks of fodder for cattle are flouting like ships upon the waters, and dead beasts swimming thereon, now past feeding on the same.
“The tops of trees a man may behold remaining above the waters, on whose branches multitudes of turkeys, hens and other such like poultry were fain to fly up to save their lives, where many of them perished for want of relief, not being able to fly to dry land by reason of their weakness,” he added.
What happened in Bristol?
The focus of researchers looking into the Great Bristol Channel Flood of 1607 have focused on the accounts written at the time, piecing together the histories of the event that continued to be written in the weeks, months and years afterwards.
But there is one description that has been largely overlooked. In Bristol, the flood was a huge event – the worst in the city’s history – albeit it appears that the twists and turns of the Avon Gorge protected the city from the worst of the violence of the water’s speed.
In the early 19th century, using local sources and stories handed down, Rev Samuel Seyer wrote what was, at the time, the most comprehensive history of Bristol, and he devoted two whole pages to the events of that day.
His words give a fascinating insight into the flood and how it impacted the city.
What was Bristol like in 1607?
Obviously Bristol is unrecognisable from the small town of just 10,000 or so people who lived pretty much entirely within the city walls that stretched from modern day Redcliffe Way to the bottom of Broad Street.
But there are buildings, churches mainly, that remain from that time, so we can get a good idea of just how incredibly high the sea rose.
The tide rose and fell such a prodigious amount on any given day that any boat that wasn’t ‘ship-shape and Bristol fashion’ might well break up when the tide went out, and it was left stranded.
When the waters rose
Rev Seyer described the rising waters. His descriptions tell of a city left in ruins by the moment the sea suddenly invaded.
“In the city it rose on the Back four and a half feet above the street, so that a small boat about five tons came up laden to St Nicholas crowd door; and the boatman put his hook against the lower step and thrust off his boat again.”
The ‘Back’ he refers to is Welsh Back, which then was the main river through Bristol and the site of the city’s only bridge across it – Bristol Bridge. The Crowd Door is still there
The High Street rises gently away from Bristol Bridge, with St Nicholas Church on the left. The Crowd Door he refers to is probably the door inside the archway halfway down the building on the Baldwin Street side.
As anyone who cycles that little stretch of cyclepath away from Bristol Bridge down Baldwin Street knows, the rest of the street descends towards The Centre, so if the water reached that church door and was deep enough for a five ton boat to float up to it, it must’ve been much deeper the further down Baldwin Street.
“All the lower part of the city was covered, it was in every house on the Back and most part of the Key, doing much hurt in cellars to woade, sugars and salt butts of seeks swam in the cellars above ground, therefore worse in vaults under ground.”
Rev Seyer recounts from long-lost contemporary documents, and probably from tales handed down, just how much damage was done to the city’s infrastructure.
This was a time before the great warehouses of the 18th and 19th century were built along the docksides, and homes would have been built with large cellars for storage.
“In Redcliffe, Temple and St Thomas streets, the water was so high as men’s girdles. In St Stephen’s, St Thomas and Temple churches, it was halfway up the seats.”
On the south and east side of the River Avon, the water flooded streets that still exist today. St Thomas Street is in Redcliffe, with the famous ‘leaning church’ just set back from modern day Victoria Street.
By the sounds of the description, this area had floodwater four feet deep, a quarter of a mile or so from Bristol Bridge.
We can ascertain just how high the water rose from that last description. St Stephen’s Church is still standing exactly where it was in 1607, and the pews then would probably have been the high-backed wooden panels of the day.
The Church is just off The Centre – which then would have had the River Frome flowing in down Broadmead to the quays of St Augustine’s Parade and Broad Quay.
Over the centuries, the area either side of the River Frome in The Centre has been built up, with the river culverted beneath in a tunnel.
Anyone standing on the river bank at the time would have had the water surface high above their heads. Even today, someone waiting for a bus near the Cenotaph would have been entirely submerged under water.
Rev Seyer’s description also gives a hint of the movement of the water – this wasn’t just a gradual rising tide, but a wave.
“The bridge was stopped and water bayed back higher towards Redcliffe Street..
It rose five feet at Trin-mille. At its return it brought great trees down the river, but did no harm to the bridge.”
Trin Mills is the short quayside area opposite the Ostrich pub and across the Floating Harbour from the Thekla.
The suburbs of Bristol
Back in 1607, Bristol was confined largely to the area around where the River Frome met the River Avon – at a spot where now the Arnolfini and the amphitheatre are.
What are now suburbs were rural villages, but within Bristol’s local area.
Rev Seyer outlines just how badly affected those villages were, especially on the lower-lying western side of what is now Bristol.
If the city centre had water deep enough to submerge a man, out in Henbury, people died.
“Some lost their lives, and many saved themselves by climbing up on the roofs of their houses, and others on trees and mows.
“In the marsh country about Aust and Henbury, the flood was so high that it could not all run off again, but remained a fathom deep, and the people on the trees could not come down, but remained there two or three days.”
A fathom is six feet, and the water remained that deep even days later after most of the wave or tide had drained back into the sea again.
In 1607, Henbury was a large ‘hundred’ taking in several parishes, not just where we know Henbury today. It would have included modern day Shirehampton, Avonmouth and Lawrence Weston.
Rev Seyer describes how a rescue mission was launched.
“The Mayor Mr Barker, hearing thereof commanded cork boats to be hauled thither and fetch them off, that they might not perish.”
What was it?
The Great Bristol Channel Flood of 1607 is almost certainly still the biggest single natural disaster in English history, in terms of lives lost, and there was no doubt among the chroniclers of that century what caused it – it was God’s wrath.
Historians and scientists that then began to study the event assumed for decades the Great Bristol Channel Flood would have been a huge storm surge – the deadly combination of an exceptionally high tide with a deep low pressure.
That weather system would have included strong westerly winds that literally blew the sea into the land with tremendous force.
But in the first years of the 21st century, a new theory emerged – that the flood was in fact a tsunami, caused by some kind of earthquake or undersea landslip that would have sent a wall of water eastwards, funnelled by the geography of the Bristol Channel, by the time it reached low-lying areas of the Somerset Levels and south Wales, it would have been travelling faster than a horse could outrun.
It seemed initially fairly preposterous in 2002, when a research paper by Prof Simon Haslett, of Bath Spa University, and Australian geologist Ted Bryant, of the University of Wollongong in Australia, suggested that the evidence actually showed the Great Bristol Channel Flood was a tsunami and not just a high tide and storm surge.
The evidence they pointed to was three-fold. Firstly, they found eye witness accounts which suggested that the weather wasn’t actually stormy that day.
The second was geological – wherever they looked on the coast of the Bristol Channel on both sides they found evidence that a huge force had pushed boulders up the beaches, and created a layer up to eight inches thick of sand, shells and stones in an otherwise constant deposit of mud from Devon to Gloucestershire, which could be dated to 400 years ago.
And the third was perhaps the most contentious. They claimed the eye-witness accounts of the water rushing in quickly was not consistent with a storm surge. They said that while popular mythology described a tsunami as one huge wave, often they are just quickly rising seas, spreading inland faster than people can run, but without a great, breaking 20ft wave at the head.
Their hypothesis was terrifyingly borne out just a couple of years later, when the Boxing Day tsunami hit the Indian Ocean in 2004, and again when an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan a few years later.
For the first and second time then, a major tsunami was captured on video, multiple times. It showed not a huge wave, but a rushing sea sweeping aside everything in its path – just like the descriptions of the Great Bristol Channel Flood.
A storm surge
For decades, scientists had assumed the flood of 1607 was a tidal surge, and some were unconvinced by the tsunami theory.
Kevin Horsburgh, an oceanographer from Liverpool, and Matt Horritt, a civil engineer from the University of Bristol, wrote a paper outlining the scientific evidence for a storm surge.
Their paper reaffirmed the facts – that multiple eye witnesses and accounts described a terrible storm that came in the day and night before, with powerful winds.
They challenged the tsunami evidence by pointing out it would almost certainly have caused damage, or at least been reported, in other places along the British and Irish coasts – and it wasn’t.
We’ll probably never know precisely what caused the Great Bristol Channel Flood of 1607, but it should always remain a timely reminder of the power of nature – especially if we live by the river or the sea.
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