This Extraordinary Water Phenomenon


The Spectacular Flood of 1904

by Roger Packham

The most spectacular flooding of the Bourne in the 20th century occurred in 1904 and, happily for posterity, it was not only graphically recorded in local newspapers but coincided with the advent of the picture postcard.  In March, A J Bennett of the Post Office, Purley, was offering for sale his own series of Bourne Water postcards ‘forming a most interesting souvenir: those desiring views of this natural phenomenon would do well to obtain a set.’  Mr Bennett was not alone in his enterprise: ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and one result of the rising of the Bourne, has been the enormous demand for pictorial postcards illustrative of the stream, the competition in the sale of these excellent productions being very keen amongst the local stationers. Mr Bennett, at the Post Office has some exceedingly fine views and so has Mr Pile and also Mr Morgan.’

March 1904 saw extensive flooding along Godstone Road and a local newspaper commented: ‘Fishing in the Bourne is what we are told has happened. We certainly have seen the boys floating on rafts, but never expected to hear of fishing. The next proposition, we should not be surprised, will be to hold a regatta next summer. At Kenley there is a road which no one seems to own: we refer to the thorough fare leading from the Godstone Road to Little Roke, which is becoming very defective owing to the inroads the water is making, and will form a serious detriment to traffic unless speedily repaired.’

Unfortunately the flooding claimed the life of a young schoolboy when Wells of Wyche-grove, Brighton Road, aged five, came out of school to play near the Bourne water in the gravel pit close to The Windsor Castle . It was supposed that the gravel gave way and he fell into the pit.

In late February on a Sunday afternoon, some hundreds of people, mainly cyclists and photographers, visited Purley and Kenley for the purpose of seeing the inundation caused by the Bourneflow. The local paper recorded the flooding at this time—


“At the commencement of the week the Bourne water showed decided signs of diminishing in volume. No doubt the few days of dry weather had an effect, coupled with the energy displayed by the authorities in keeping the water in a different course. But the late rains have caused the river to become again somewhat swollen and the road opposite the waterworks, which at the beginning of the week was passable to pedestrians, is again covered with water. The flood in the Coulsdon Parish Council’s yard showed signs of abating but is again rising. If a spell of dry weather should set in, no doubt the water would soon diminish. We trust that might be the case. The outlook is not so serious as it at one time appeared.

The huge dam under course of construction between Whyteleafe and the waterworks at Kenley is nearly completed. This will prevent the village of Little Roke from being flooded, the precaution having been taken in time, whilst the pipes laid by the waterworks authorities from their works to the dam are having a marked effect on the stream. At Whyteleafe, there is still a large quantity of water at the gasworks and in the gardens of the residents opposite but not so much as formerly. Even the small diminution at the commencement of the week is comforting, as showing that the phenomenon has not ‘come to stay’.”

It would be enlightening to know the exact form of the huge dam between Whyteleafe and Kenley and whether its construction had any similarities with the Thames Barrier!

The winter floods were first noted on 5 December 1903 but the report underestimated the Bourne’s capabilities: ‘It is scarcely possible to see much of this year’s flow, but it is to be seen in the neighbourhood of Purley flowing for short distances and then again disappearing into the earth.’

Early in 1904 at a Council meeting, the following reference to the Bourne by the Croydon Borough Engineer appeared in the Sanitary Committee’s report: ‘On December 29, the surface flow of the Bourne water reached the Borough boundary at Purley, and is carried by some pipes I have recently had put in by the small polytechnic building into the surface water drain in Brighton Road. The springs are still rising and a heavier flow may be expected in about two week’s time’.

On 9 January the local newspaper confirmed the accuracy of the Borough Engineer’s prediction—


“This extraordinary natural phenomenon continues to occasion some inconvenience to residents between Whyteleafe and Purley. The stream in its erratic course seems to show no favours, as both butchers, bakers and hotel proprietors have their cellars flooded – some to the extent of 2ft of water. The owner of a large field of grassland, during the recent severe frost, endeavoured to make a miniature skating area by blocking the stream so as to divert the course of the water over his land, no doubt expecting to make a rich harvest in the form of an entrance fee for skating, but his considerate neighbour, thinking perhaps of his own and other people’s basements, considerably raised the sluice during the night, thus allowing the water to resume the course provided for it.”

More heavy rain followed, and on 9 February the road between Purley crossroads and the railway station became impassable to pedestrians. In Mr Bridgeland’s yard there were 12 inches of water and the flooding would have been worse had it not been for the extended Croydon sewer. At Kenley it was necessary to reinforce embankments, and at Purley the schoolmaster’s garden was inundated. Larger pipes were installed underneath the Purley Polytechnic and at Christchurch Road the Bourne ran into the surface-water drain which emptied itself into the river Wandle; nearly all the cellars of the residents contained several inches of water, the damage done in some cases being serious.

A week later, the local paper described the extensive flooding by the Bourne—

“The Bournewater has this week caused serious damage. On Friday the water rose to an abnormal height, filling the large basin reserved for the excess water of the Surrey Water Company, and rushing across the road, flooded Mr Bridgeland’s yard, and also that of the Urban District Council, the water coming up to the axles of the wheels of the various carts standing in the yard. On Sunday quite exciting scenes were witnessed, as the water, coming across the road, flooded many gardens. Attempts were made to direct the course of the stream into a channel by boards and other means. In the grounds of the school the water is very deep and a trench has been dug, running in front of the schoolroom, to allow the water to flow into the drain. But the condition of the schoolroom and the Polytechnic is causing uneasiness to those in charge, especially in the case of the former, and there is some talk of closing the school, owing to the damp.

The Bourne has made its appearance as far along the road to Croydon as the tramway shed. It is appearing in volume on the Smitham side of the Surrey Water Company’s premises, flooding the cellars of many of the houses. We fear the development of this popular district will be temporarily retarded through these singular floods. Building operations are – or rather were – in rapid progress and we understand that all the land on both sides of the Brighton Road from Purley to Smitham Bottom has been acquired for building. Fortunately, on the right-hand side the land is high, but on the left-hand side the damage by flooding will be serious unless something can be done. In Mr Walker’s timber yard more than four feet of water has accumulated, making a veritable lake. An old resident remarked, as he gazed at the volume of water rushing across his premises: ‘Not within 25 years have I seen such floods’. At The Railway Hotel, the large cellars are flooded to such an extent that the barrels of beer have had to be hoisted out to prevent their becoming ‘watered’ and to allow the cellars to be pumped out.

Hundreds of visitors have come to Purley to witness this extraordinary watery phenomenon. To the residents, however, as may be gathered, the Bourne is becoming a really serious matter, and its disappearance into the bowels of the earth, from whence it comes, is earnestly desired. But this is not likely to take place for weeks to come.”

The floods were at their most extensive during February 1904 and at the end of the month it was reported—

“ Crowds of people continue to visit this coming fashionable suburb to witness the extraordinary phenomenon of the rising of the Bourne water, so lucidly described in our recent issues. Great anxiety is felt in the neighbourhood of Little Roke by the cottagers, who fear the banks adjoining the cricket ground may give way. On Sunday some mischievous boy sent a tub floating down the stream, which blocked the culvert by Mr Goody’s residence, causing a serious overflow of water, and flooding some of the cottages close by. The water increases rather than diminishes in volume, and the daily flow is carefully estimated to be 12 million gallons, every 24 hours. Already it has reached nearly up to The Swan & Sugar Loaf hotel.”

Great efforts were made to keep the school buildings open in Purley High Street, which were situated opposite the present Sainsbury’s, but even as late as 11 March it was found necessary to close them—

“The National Schools had to be closed after March 11 on the recommendation of H M Inspector. The managers regretted the necessity of closing, especially as the flooding was subsiding. The schoolroom has never had any water under the floor, and the infants’ school only a few inches, except for two days when it came in by the back door.  The Medical Officer of Health has approved of all the measures taken by the managers to mitigate the inconvenience of the Bourne flooding. The water has now subsided from the playgrounds which will be cleared of the mud deposit and disinfected by the sanitary authorities, and the schools will be reopened on Monday April 11.”

One of the scholars from Purley Schools was Dorothy M Driver from Little Roke. Aged 10, she became a heroine when on 1 March she had to cross two planks laid over the Bourne current at Little Roke with Hilda Ashby, aged eight. Hilda became giddy and fell into the stream sitting in it almost up to her shoulders. The fright, together with the force of the current and the coldness of the water, rendered her helpless and Dorothy commenced to run home for her mother. She quickly realised that there would not be enough time and so hurriedly returned to the plank bridge and succeeded in getting her friend out. There was no one else near the spot and as the stream was running swiftly it is more than likely that the younger girl might have been drowned but for Dorothy’s presence of mind.

Nearly five months after the flow was first reported the floods at last subsided and the following appeared in the local newspaper for 23 April 1904—


“ Our readers will be gratified to hear that the Bournewater has ceased to flow leaving the bed at the source perfectly dry. Some time must elapse before the districts affected by the floods resume their normal appearance, but no doubt the recent fine weather will have the desired effect. A little water still remains in the gardens of the cottages at Whyteleafe, but it is gradually subsiding, and at the gas works a trench has been cut to drain the water from the meadow in which the new gasometer (sic) stands.”

The watery episode was nearly at an end and shortly afterwards there was a proposal to spend £14,000 to minimise the effects of future Bourne flows.

A dispute arose concerning the liability of some property owners in Kenley and legal notices were served on householders in February. Property and landowners in the valley by Kenley cricket ground held that owners of the property under which the water flowed through culverts were liable for the water overflowing. They contended that as the culverts were not large enough to take the water, the owners of the culverts must be liable. Conversely, it was contended that the course of the water had been diverted on purpose to prevent the Bourne flowing through the cricket ground and adjoining properties. The defence of the culvert owners was that the culverts were never intended to take all the Bournewater, but were made as a precaution to prevent the water entering the houses. They maintained, therefore, that if the course of the stream had not been diverted so as to force it through the culverts, it would have flowed along its normal course through the cricket ground. An old resident was reported as saying that in years gone by the Bourne had always flowed right through the valley and the controversy continued without a recorded result.


Coulsdon & Purley Weekly Record, Dec 1903–April 1904

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