The Great Flood, 1880

For hundreds of years Tonbridge has been susceptible to flooding. The two hundred yard gap between the castle and the station had to contain not only all the water from the Medway basin back to Turners Hill but, just as importantly, the Eden Valley which drained the Surrey Hills.

‘The Great Flood’ – as it was called – started on Saturday 16 October 1880 when more than two inches of rain fell in 24 hours. (Thirty two inches was the average annual figure). Even though all the locks downstream were quickly opened, by Sunday morning the whole of the fields about Tonbridge were covered in water and the High Street was beginning to flood. Sheep in a field at Ramshurst Farm – which had never been flooded before – had to be evacuated. By 6pm Sunday houses all over central Tonbridge, which had not been flooded for 50 years, found the water was forcing open their doors. As many chapels found themselves under water, it was agreed to hold a joint service. The Tonbridge Free Press reported that the chosen subject for the discourse was “The Deluge”.

The biggest worry was a barge containing 20 tons of gunpowder, which was moored just above the bridge – apparently inaccessible, seemingly unmanned and thought to be insecurely moored. A party set out to row to it but could not make it. At this point a local worthy, Mr Pawley, dived from the boat and swam to the barge. He found it totally safe: but it was clearly an heroic effort in a potentially worthy cause.

The height of the flood was at 2pm on Sunday. By daylight Monday the flood was receding rapidly and the first evaluation of the ‘very deplorable’ damage could be assessed. Most of the High Street had been flooded by four feet of water.

The local paper reported: “A relief committee was soon formed . . . the vicar of Tonbridge being Chairman . . .”. It provided coals to about 70 of the cottages that had been flooded to help start the drying process and started assessing the damage to shops and their stocks, as well as considering help “to replace furniture and utensils . . . which in many cases had been broken up, washed away or rendered useless”. The Committee appealed to the public for £1,000 saying, “the appeal will, we hope, be liberally responded to by all who have themselves escaped loss”. [The £1,000 is probably the equivalent of over £50,000 today]. Samuel Morley, MP visited from Hall Place and gave a cheque for £100 and mentioned that tradesmen in particular would need help.

Parish Magazine Article: Oct 2011: by Chris Rowley