Floods across Surrey

1968, September: Serious flooding across Surrey: The summer of 1968 had been exceptionally wet and at Hambledon over sixteen inches of rain was recorded, compared with just over six inches the previous year. On 14 September heavy rain fell across Surrey and continued the next day when the first reports of flooding were received.

By 10 am there had been eighteen reports of roads and houses being flooded, followed by another fifty three reports by noon, this time covering landslides, collapsed bridges and fallen trees and telephone lines. Officers throughout the county were involved in helping the public, diverting traffic and setting up evacuation centres. Military assistance was also sought.

By 18 September the situation began to improve in most areas but two people lost their lives and more than one thousand eight hundred people were evacuated. A dog handler who had been sent to a house at Buckland near Dorking, where people had been trapped by the rising floodwater, had a lucky escape.

The policeman left his vehicle and the dog and warily waded through the flooded garden towards the house. It is very difficult to walk in deep water particularly when you cannot see what is underfoot and there is always the danger of tripping over. Suddenly he disappeared having discovered the swimming pool. Fortunately he was a swimmer and able to extricate himself and was obviously uninjured by the flow of dog handler obscenities that rang out above the sound of rushing water.

Dorking formed a boat section using a boat won in a cornflake competition by PC Eddie Armstrong. The boat with DS McFadden and PC Bob Bartlett along with Eddie undertook a number of rescues in the towns and villages.

Richard Bond: 1968 Serious flooding we (Underwater Search Team) were deployed in dry suits with the inflatable dinghy to Guildford, Woking and Weybridge Division. My main memory is of going to a big modern house in Hersham; there were pigs and horses swimming in the flood; we led the horses to higher ground and were surprised that they were very calm. There was a garage with a top storey and a staircase leading to the first floor, the door was open so we pushed the pigs up the stairs. We later found out that somebody lived there!

John Stone: At the time I was on leave as our daughter Melinda was born on 11th, and I wasn't called in. We lived in Meadowside where there were four police houses with another two round the corner in The Furrows. We had taken up carpets and moved what we could upstairs but fortunately, though the water was lapping at the front step, it didn't get into the house.

Other houses in the road were not so lucky, and I remember watching business people walking down the road from Hersham Station with their trousers rolled up and carrying their footwear. Some children took the opportunity to get their rubber dinghies out too. Our gardens were foot deep in water, manholes were up, and there was sewage floating around in the back garden.

Alan Bridgeman: I was a probationer PC at Farnham then, still mildly upset at having been moved from Guildford, just to fill a police house, which I promptly set fire to hence my lifelong nickname "Sooty". Perhaps I was more upset than anyone realised!

My old pocket book – number eight of my service – shows that I was due to work 7-3 am on Sunday, 15th September, 1968. It was pouring with rain, as it had been for a couple of days, so I managed to spend two hours writing up an accident file from the previous day before venturing into foot patrol of the town at 9 am. I got as far as The Borough, and located myself in a very dry shop doorway, from where I watched the rain continue to fall heavily and ceaselessly.

I probably pondered on my likely future in the Surrey Constabulary, should it ever stop raining, but was stirred to life by a call back to the nick from APS Fred Page. Fred was a little guy, but absolutely competent and confident, and I learned a lot from him.

Fred was rapidly calculating the chances of him managing to deal with monsoon conditions on an early turn, with only three men working, and the switchboard completely overwhelmed by calls for assistance with flood-related problems. He called all troops back to the nick, and Chief Superintendent Ferguson, who was not best pleased to be disturbed on a Sunday rest-day.

Poor old Mr Ferguson soon realised that even he, at the revered rank of chief superintendent, had very little clue as to how to combat a problem caused by the Clerk of the Weather. Nonetheless, to set an example, he decided to defend the A31 at Coxbridge, and chose me to accompany him.

On arrival we took up position at the junction with River Lane, and started diverting all Alton bound traffic northwards up Runwick Lane, where it might bypass the deepening three foot pool of water blocking the westbound A31.

Naturally, every single car we stopped and signalled to turn right up a narrow country lane, off the main dual carriageway, wanted to ask questions about the route ahead, as motorists do, especially when they are stupid enough to be out driving in flood conditions, but failing to recognise that they are doing so.

We carried on for some two hours, then after about the five hundredth motor was stopped by me, and directed into Runwick Lane. The driver of this car was a senior solicitor, and like many pompous individuals of that ilk, did not wish to be diverted. He wanted to proceed westerly on the A31. Had I had more experience at the time, I would gladly have granted his wish, and enjoyed the spectacle of him submerging his car and family in the one hundred yard long pool of three feet deep water just ahead.

Fortunately Mr Ferguson insisted that he digress from his preferred route, and off he went, threatening letters of complaint to the chief constable, etc, etc. Shortly afterwards we left the scene, having decided that it was obvious to anyone with half a brain that the A31 was flooded and impassable.

By the time we returned to the nick we found that it too was now marooned, the River Wey having burst its banks and flooded Lower Church Lane, Longbridge, and Red Lion Lane. The entrance to the nick's rear car park was now a six foot deep pool of water, and police patrols were being conducted by boat. Where we got the boat from I never did discover, but PC John Kenna was enjoying himself as Captain.

As I left the nick to go and change into dry clothes for the first time in ten hours, at 6 pm, I saw a double deck bus drive along Union Road, heading towards the three foot deep torrent of water gushing out of Church Lane into Downing Street at a speed of some thirty mph. We had strung a thick rope across the road, from lamppost to lamppost, just to enable police officers to cross the road without being swamped by the torrent.

I computed that the bus driver was not expecting to find his route into Downing Street blocked by swirling floodwater on a Sunday evening, and was carrying on regardless. The water reached his headlights, his exhaust filled with water; his interior lights went dim as his engine cut out. The driver and his few passengers were now marooned in the flood, and began feebly crying for help.

Only one uniformed policeman was nearby – 'twas I. "Bugger you" I thought as I strode off into the dry land of Central Car Park.

The long day had taught me something. I got home, got dry, ate, and went back to work at 8 pm, delivering assistance to flooded houses in Badshot Lea until 11.30 pm. Well, that's how it was when overtime units were not eligible for payment. How things change.

Brian Muchmore: I had just moved, two days prior, to the police house in St Georges Road, Badshot Lea. I knew nobody and was unknown to any locals. The police house was built up a bit, and was one of the few in the road which was not subject to flooding.

I woke that morning to a very wet scene and immediately started to do what I could for the immediate neighbours. The main village was basically unaffected, the water having come not just from the sky, but came in torrents from the A325 Farnham/Farnborough road, down the steep Upper and Lower Weybourne Lanes and into St Georges Road where it came to form a new lake as the road flattened by the outer edge of the village.

Tices' Farm had until recently been hop-fields, these had been turned into cereal crops and in the doing drainage ditches had been blocked. These would normally carry water away from the roads and no problem. I investigated and suddenly found myself standing in two or three feet of water at the start of the ditch.

We were visited at some time by local dignitaries, who, from the comfort of their vehicle started to commiserate with the residents on the lines of "Oh, you poor things". I suggested that it would be a good idea if they moved their motor, returned to Farnham and organised some form of space heaters to help dry out the properties, this was done, don't know if it was what I said or simply, "Just the way I tell them".

We were bailing out houses with buckets and vehicles were still coming through the water, one such worthy had a sun roof, open, and a foolish yob stood up like a tank commander, laughing at our efforts, he returned soon after and went on his way rather like a fish in an aquarium, oh happy days. I was unidentifiable as a policeman at the time, so he didn't realise why that car had a few random pulls and stop checks later in the year.

As a result of the floods, I was quickly accepted by the villagers even though I wasn't a village bobby as such. It was however a grand introduction to my new abode.

Colin Skilton: The floods at Salfords started about 11 am on a Sunday Morning. I was 6-2 pm out with a sergeant as it had been raining all morning, he drove up to the river bridge which by this time was impassable. Water was also across the road adjacent to the police houses on the Horley side of the river, and waist high.

I was dropped off, no radios, and told to help drivers through the floods, which I did until 10 pm. Fortunately Frank Ryder lived in the police house nearby and kept me fed and watered as well as giving me a dry pair of socks, which as soon as I got outside were wet again.

Ray Harlow: I was the section sergeant at Byfleet at this time with eight constables; a goodly number then. The Sunday the floods started I was in fact working from Woking Police Station.

I attended with an inspector an area around Sutton Bends near Send where the waters were rising fast during the afternoon and the A3 had to be closed. Also roads from Send towards the A3 with assistance from Traffic Dept and Ripley section. I remember standing on the A3/Sutton Bends and one could see the water rising over ones boots.

With agreement I returned to Byfleet as I knew that this village is virtually on an island surrounded as it is by the River Wey, The Wey Navigation Canal and Basingstoke Canal. It transpired that waters were rising fast, particularly at the end of the village which adjoined the Weybridge Division.

The river soon broke its banks and the A245 was closed. It was obvious that serious flooding would ensue and I turned out some other members of the section who were off duty to assist with the public concern and logistical problems. At one point I left a Mini police panda car on the A245 on the village by-pass and two hours later when I returned it had floated away. It was found forty eight hours later near Vickers Armstrong works. A write off!

Many houses were evacuated. One I recall was the Mill House owned and lived in by Robert Boult and Sarah Miles. They evacuated their home by leaving through upstairs windows. Another memory was of a local business man Noel Roscoe who refused to leave his home next to the River Wey, sitting upstairs playing a piano by candlelight!

I think it was the next day that Army amphibious vehicles arrived. I was on board these getting around the area and heard much noise coming from the hull. It then occurred to us from our location that we were above some bungalows and systematically knocking the chimneys off them. One of the bungalows belonged to PC Jack Hodge. He was not best pleased. We also went to the aid of the Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton.

Things returned to normal after a few days and the water just got to the top step of the police office in Byfleet. I later learned that a decision had been made by the authorities so as to protect London; waters were restricted from entering the Thames thus causing the flooding back along the tributaries.

Many of us worked forty eight hours non-stop and received a commendation from the superintendent. I cannot recall whether it was Irving or Tunn-Clarke at this time. Byfleet section was left to our own devices due the pressures all around in Surrey but, of course, situation reports were phoned in to Woking on a regular basis.

Don Sapsford: Very serious flooding from the River Mole at Hersham where police officers were using their own vehicles to rescue victims. PC Gouffini became well known for fixing his helmet to the top of his car.

Ted Austin: Eddie Armstrong. PC 817, won a small dingy in a Cornflakes completion and his boat was very handy. People had been rescued from flood water in Brockham and upon reaching the road Eddie stepped backwards, forgetting that a deep ditch run in front of these bungalows. All that was visible was a police helmet bobbing on the water.

Bob Bartlett: The following are taken from quotes in the Surrey Advertiser and from the Flood report submitted by the Chief Constable Peter Mathews to the Police Committee when it was all over.

The story is that Eddie Armstrong won a small boat in a competition held by Kellogg's Cornflakes and with lightweight craft, he, Vince McFadden and I spent a long wet day getting people out of houses and rescuing animals from fields. We all lived in Spital Heath where my wife filled the bath with water and disinfectant and I would go home, change and drop everything in the bath.

At one point we were going to rescue an old lady from an upstairs window and as we entered the flood water Sergeant Kennefick was heard to cry out "Don't do that – you will get your uniform wet!" One rescue in deep rural Ockley area we were watched by the soon to die pop star Billy Fury a local resident.

Extract from a Report on the Floods from Superintendent John Irvin of the Dorking Division:

All police personnel worked hard in difficult conditions and many had to be ordered to go home to rest. Three men deserve special mention. Detective Sergeant McFadden, PC 817 Armstrong, and PC 938 Bartlett: They formed a "boat team", and recovered two people at Ockley at considerable risk to themselves. Their way to the house was blocked by a flooded road. This was normally a stream flowing under a small bridge over which the road passes. On this occasion the stream was a torrent and, after wading partly across the men found that the bridge had partially collapsed. By keeping to the rail side of the bridge they managed to push the boat across. They were up to their waists in water (fast flowing) and there was also the danger that the rest of the bridge would give way. After carrying out the rescue, they had to return by the same route and conditions were just as hazardous.

Surrey Advertiser of the 15 September 1968 adds that:

Three Dorking police officers risked their lives during the floods to rescue people stranded in their homes. ...

At 1045 on Sunday morning Mr and Mrs W. J. Garman of Black and White Cottage, Leith Vale, Ockley, telephoned friends to say they were marooned on the top floor of their house. The three police officers eventually called to the scene. Reaching the scene the three found their route completely cut off by rushing water, which had demolished the road bridge.

Undeterred they began the difficult and dangerous crossing to the cottage which was completely surrounded by floods, with water lapping against the upstairs bedroom windows. Pushing the boat, which PC Armstrong had won in a competition, the officers gained the far side of the bridge.

The current was too strong to be able to row the boat, so the officers waded and swam, pushing the craft before them. Using this method the trio covered almost a mile from when they left dry land. Attempts had already been made to rescue the Garmans, both with a light canoe and with a heavy boat but both had been unsuccessful.

The police got through, carried out the rescue, and reached dry land. They were then called to Archway Place in Dorking. Once more, chest high in water they waded into homes and rescued three people. At 5.40 p.m. the officers were called out yet again with their boat. This time to Pixham Lane where they rescued Mrs Claire from her flooded home; she was taken to hospital.

Another memorable event was the rescue of horses from a field at Mickleham. It was not so much the rescue but the fact that in the half hour that it took, our return route via the A24 was covered in floodwater. The River Mole had burst its banks at the Burford Bridge and the hotel was flooded to the first floor. The only way back into Dorking was over Ranmore Common.

By this time the communications systems were suffering from water damage and the radios were working via a scooter in the front office.

Kevin Steer: Flooding Horley/Smallfield: I joined Surrey Police Cadets at the beginning of September 1968 and within days found myself working for the local authority (Reigate & Banstead) in and around Horley helping to mop up after the floods.

Over the weekend of the 14th/15th September the south east of England was deluged by rain. This resulted in widespread flooding when many rivers burst their banks. In Horley the River Mole and its many tributaries flooded and hundreds of homes and places of work were left under water.

The situation was so bad that seventy members of the Welsh Guards stationed at Pirbright were drafted in to assist with sandbagging. For my part I spent several days in Haroldslea Drive and Smallfield Road mopping up people's houses and trying to dry them out with portable driers which resembled jet engines on wheels.

Mick Wayland: I was stationed at Walton on Thames. The Mole burst its banks in Hersham and flooded from the bottom of Lammas Lane Esher through Hersham and Field Common and to Terrace Road in Walton. With another officer 'borrowing' a punt and doing a Humphrey Bogarde towing this African Queen style around the estate by Garden Road off Terrace Road carrying, loading and evacuating elderly folk (and their dogs) who were transferred to Walton Town Hall.

We even rescued a hedgehog found clinging to a chain link fence just above the water mark. We then punted down Cottimore Lane and Ambleside Avenue all the way to Field Common - was this a first? The flood going under the very narrow railway bridge, by Hersham Station in Molesey Road Hersham, in the direction of Molesey, was a minor vortex and quite spectacular. This attracted local canoeists, who shot the rapids until one got caught side on and was smashed in half - happily no one was hurt.

After three days of evacuation duties with no more clean uniform and smelling like polecats we had all had enough. Some of us took in a family from the Field Common flooded areas, where it was four feet deep, sleeping on our front room carpet - we remain friends to this day.

Phil Waters: I was just turned sixteen years of age and in my first week as a Surrey Constabulary cadet, Cadet 59 stationed at Leatherhead. My first Monday duty was to go to the Technical College at Redhill. My Mum and Dad lived at Fetcham, so I got my bike out and set off for the train station at Leatherhead.

I got as far as the bus garage to be confronted by the beginnings of the flood. The River Mole had well and truly burst its banks. I thought I might be able to cycle through this puddle but it quickly became apparent that was not an option so I turned round and went back to join the crowd that had gathered to watch.

I noticed a group of people had got over the fence to the railway line and were climbing the embankment in their quest to get to town for work. I decided this was a very silly option and so set off back to Fetcham village.

The main road to Cobham was being closed off in Fetcham village by a uniformed constable and so I went to him introduced myself to him and asked if the was anything I could do to help. 'Stay here and stop any cars going up the road. It is underwater and not passable.' I was told. So there I stayed stopping the traffic all day. Did I ever see that constable again, of course not!

Looking back the railway embankment option was not as silly as I first thought. Having said that, I was enjoying myself, and I felt doing some proper police work, so soon into my fledgling career too. As the day progressed the number of vehicles that can along the Cobham Road to where I was got less and less, until I was thinking maybe it is time to get on home, when along the road came a police patrol car.

The driver was a Sergeant, my memory is not clear on this but it was either Dennis Burfoot or Trevor Foxall I think. He was going down River Lane to rescue a family trapped in a house close to the old golf driving range, by the floodwater. I went off down River Lane with the Sergeant and we waded through the water, being careful to try to keep to the road for fear of tripping or falling until we got the house.

Both very wet, we called up to the occupants who were upstairs. They very politely declined to be rescued, they were upstairs with provisions and were safe and warm and so we turned round and trudged back to the village. At that point very wet and cold I decided it was time to get on home for a bath and some dry clothes.

When I finally made it into Leatherhead police station later on in the week the only communications with rest of the world was a Police Lambretta motor scooter parked in the parade room so we could use its radio, and a hastily connected party line so we could make telephone calls. The down side to that was the other party was a local grocers shop and from time to time the phone would ring and it would be someone wanting to place an order for delivery.

Bob Bartlett: I can vouch that the only communications in Dorking and Leatherhead were from motorcycle or scooter radios in the station office. I cannot remember how long the batteries lasted or how they ran the engines to recharge them without poisoning the staff!

Colin White: The flood in Godalming: What was so shocking was that the floods were totally unexpected. I remember it was a Sunday and we had had a good amount of rain but absolutely no warning. I was on 10-6 night duty at Godalming and two significant incidents were shattering at the time.

Part of the railway embankment between Godalming and Farncombe collapsed and PS 99 Newman climbed on to the track and was able to stop the trains. The bridge carrying the A281 over the disused railway line just south of Shalford was swept away. It was a dreadful bottleneck, a wretched junction actually on the bridge!

It only took the Army a few days, if memory serves, to build a bailey bridge and the county council replaced the old structure with today's modern bridge within a year. On the night it seemed that everyone was too busy to appreciate how widespread the flooding was.

Jeff Bloomfield: Most of the rain fell on the Sunday, but it was the Monday when the waters rose. In the afternoon I had been out to the Woking Road to arrest a young woman for infanticide, and getting there was tricky but although we entered the property at the front door we had to leave by the back because the River Wey was lapping at the doorstep.

After dealing with this case I managed to get home to HQ Munstead View for tea and returned with my dinghy on the roof rack. Later that evening, in the dinghy Les Haynes and I rescued some people from an upstairs window near the bus station. At one time we rowed over the top of the bus station, and the lights in the bus shelters were on although under water.

Maurice Jackman then Superintendant, was riding around like Rommel in an army amphibious vehicle. We rescued some people from houses along the road going from the Station to the Wooden Bridge. Also damage was done to walls and gateposts that could not be seen under water. Both the basement and ground floor of Debenhams was flooded. The next day, the waters receded.

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