Warnings from history: Dr John Morgan looks closely at our reactions to floods…

The armed forces descended on Norfolk last month. Around 200 troops descended on the seaside town of Great Yarmouth and began making their way to peoples’ homes. An invasion was about to take place. The people of Great Yarmouth were in imminent danger, and a hundred gunners from RAF Honington and a hundred troops from the King’s Royal Hussars set about trying to evacuate the town. Yet very few people would leave. Around seventy per cent of the inhabitants of Great Yarmouth stayed put.

There is some wisdom in the old military cliché ‘know your enemy’. The invader threatening the people of Great Yarmouth was well known to them. It was the sea. The seaside resort of Great Yarmouth was once one of the most significant ports in England. It was famed for its herring fisheries, and during the middle ages would hold a vast annual fair, lasting up to six weeks at a time, and drawing in fishermen from across Northern Europe. If Great Yarmouth knows one thing, it’s the sea.

And so it’s all the more puzzling that when told the sea was coming, people failed to move. Judging by my rather unscientific survey of the comments section of the Great Yarmouth Mercury, it appears that people didn’t ignore the warnings – they didn’t trust them, and felt they weren’t relevant to them.

As a historian of flooding in England, this kind of response fascinates me. Coastal Britain has been hit by many large and well-remembered storm surges, in the distant and recent past. Given the destruction of some of these past events, and with all the technology now available to predict storm surges, why would you dismiss a warning?

Things used to be different. Flood warning systems didn’t rely on readings of atmospheric pressure, or predictions of maximum wind speed. They relied on people. Some of the records I use to try to understand how people coped with flooding in the past show us how people anticipated floods in the pre-instrumental age. In Lincolnshire, people watched and worked when floods were expected. In November and December 1646, fathers and sons in Spalding were paid to work through the night to tend to flood defences. In nearby Cowbit in October 1679, local dikereeves paid men to keep a night watch over banks protecting them from flooding. In popular literature, recently summarised in an insightful essay on the fear of floods, we hear of valiant locals racing to the bell tower of Marshland in Norfolk in an attempt to warn their neighbours of the incoming water in January 1607. These ways of warning are testament to the deep engagement early modern people had with their flood defences and drainage systems (which I’ve written a little about in the Journal of Historical Geography, and a forthcoming issue of Environment and History). Local people were tasked with maintaining and watching over their own flood defences. They had to do the back-breaking and foot-rotting work of scouring ditches and hanging sluice gates. They had to ride along the miles of ditches in their communities surveying for faults and weaknesses in order to ensure that come rain or spring tide they would remain protected. They were their own maintenance, warning and evacuation plan all at once.

We have the Environment Agency (and occasionally the armed forces) to do this kind of work for us today. Staffed by highly-qualified engineers and environmental scientists, the Environment Agency works to keep our coasts safe through a system of defences and environmental monitoring. It was their warning that Great Yarmouth failed to heed. Perhaps we could simply chalk this up as just another example of the post-Brexit disdain for experts. But I don’t think we should.


The wonders of this windie winter. London, 1613. Image courtesy of the Folger Library:
© Folger Shakespeare Library – CC-BY-SA.

Looking back at the history of early modern flood warning systems, we can observe two things. First, flood warnings came with a much shorter lead time. The alarm would come when floods were in sight. Second, those warnings were trusted. People who worked with water every day, who made their living from the sea, and who were periodically tasked with maintaining sea walls and ditches, had a much richer connection to their waterscapes. A flood warning wasn’t a recorded telephone message from a central government agency, or live updates on social media, it was an emotive and interpersonal call from neighbour to neighbour.

If there’s a lesson to be learnt here it’s that forging more meaningful, tangible and everyday relationships with our environments can help us out in times of environmental crisis. Warnings about wind speeds and low pressure systems are incredibly useful for predicting when events might occur. They’re less useful for making meaningful connections with people who might be at risk of flooding. It’s one thing to hear that the sea might break in, it’s quite another to have felt the flood waters, worked with and against them, and to hear that the water is threatening a landscape you had a hand in shaping and maintaining.

The story of Great Yarmouth and The Warning might itself serve as a warning. The warning signs of climate change are all around us, but our collective response is one of inertia. If we can learn to live with the Earth, rather than just on it, much as our early modern flood watchers lived with water, rather than just by it, perhaps we might learn to take heed of the warnings all around us. The people of Great Yarmouth were for the most part safe – the promised flood failed to materialise. As a planet, we should be so lucky.

Dr John Morgan is Lecturer in Early Modern History.

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