Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Mersey Floods by Andrew Simpson

Below Chorlton local historian, Andrew Simpson writes about the history of floods in the Mersey Valley:

I can remember the very first time I walked the meadows. It was a warm summer’s evening over twenty-five years ago and during that long lost summer we followed the narrow twisting lanes explored the old water channels and pondered on how long the fenced off areas with their straight saplings would become woodland. And yet which ever route we took whether it was following the Brook or straight across the fields, the journey always ended at the foot of those towering banks of earth which so dominate the place and separate the meadows from the Mersey.

This was our first warning of the power of the river. They were built and added to over the centuries as the main defence against a powerful threat to the lives and livelihoods of all those who lived beside it. Generations of farmers have laboured to construct this natural wall to repel the flood waters of the Mersey.
The village and the isolated farms were all built beyond the flood plain. Even so this was not always sufficient protection. The Mersey has on countless occasions risen and breached these towering banks sometimes even sweeping away the defences themselves.
It was for this reason that the weir was built. Just beyond the point where the Brook joins the Mersey and at a bend in the river the weir was built to divert flood water from the Mersey down channels harmlessly out to Stretford and the Kicketty Brook (Note 1). Not that it always worked. Soon after it had been built flood water swept it away and during the nineteenth century neither the weir nor the heightened river banks prevented the Mersey bursting out across the plain (Note 2).In July 1828 the Mersey flood water transported hay ricks from the farm behind Barlow Hall down to Stretford only later to bring them back, while later floods proved to be even more destructive (Note 3). It was, wrote Thomas Ellwood the local historian:
no uncommon thing to see the great level of green fields completely covered with water presenting the appearance of a large lake, several miles in circuit.” (Note 4)

These historic floods were quite sudden. One such event left a farmer just enough time to release his horses from the cart and stampede them to higher ground, while on another occasion one man was forced to take refuge in a birch tree till the following morning (Note 5). As destructive as these floods were they did deposit silt from the river onto the land which the farmers prized. In normal times it was the practice to “open the sluices or floodgates in order to get the advantage of such sewage upon the land as the river affords, thus saving the trouble and expense of carting ‘management’ there.” (Note 6)

It would be easy to think that all this was a thing of the past, but even now the river can present a real threat. Back in 1991 on a cold wet day in February or early March walking the uppermost part of the banks I was convinced that the river threatened to overtop even this high point. And much the same happened to my friend David earlier this year when after what seemed to be weeks of rain the river rose and topped the protective banks, leaving him scrabbling for safety (this was me - Ed.).
It is perhaps these two recent awesome experiences that reminds me that despite its pleasant and comfortable appearance the meadows remain as much a part of nature as they have ever been.


1. After a heavy flood in August 1799 broke the banks where Chorlton Brook joined the Mersey, there were fears that the Bridgewater Aqueduct across the flood plain could be damaged by flooding it was decided to build an overflow channel improving the course of Kicketty Brook and build the stone weir. Lloyd, John M., ‘The Township of Chorlton cum Hardy’, Page 71.

2. This happened in 1840 and in the following year it was rebuilt by the engineer William Cubitt. After litigation the cost of repair was borne by The Bridgewater Trust £1,500, The Turnpike Commissioners £500, Thomas Jos de Trafford £1,000 and Wilbraham Egerton £1,000 and the cost of maintenance was agreed between The Bridgewater Trustees ½, Thomas Jos de Trafford ¼ and Wilbraham Egerton ¼. Lloyd, Page 71.

3. Ellwood, Thomas L., ‘History of Chorlton cum Hardy’, Chapter 1, November 7th 1885. Ellwood describes serious floods a few years later which destroyed a bridge across Chorlton Brook and six major floods between December 1880 and October 1881. The last time the weir took an overflow of flood water was 1915.

4. Ellwood, Chapter 1.

5. Lloyd, Page 71.

6. Ellwood, Chapter 1.

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