A Flood, Two Dollars and a Mile of Pennies
by Adrian Bean
Quite often, a tragic event prompts people to show the very best of Human Nature; I remember that after the Aberfan disaster of 1966 communities all over the country raised money for that poor Welsh mining community. The impact of the tragic deaths of two Bedford women in 1952 led to a similar demonstration of how a natural disaster can prompt kind-hearted people to show their true colours. One of those women, Jess Whitbread, has her name on a headstone close to Bedford Park; the words hint only vaguely at what happened.
She was a typist at Shire Hall, having previously worked at E P Rose and Meltis, and lived with her widowed mother in London Road. On 9th August 1952, she went for a walking holiday in Devon with her old friend and badminton partner, Stella Bates. They sent postcards to their parents, including some that arrived after the news broke that they were dead. On 15/16th August North Devon, and Lynmouth in particular, experienced massive floods, due to nine inches of rain falling in one day.
The water flowed from off the moors, breaking a crudely made dam, and sent a flood of trees, debris and boulders towards Lynmouth. The two women were staying at Bonnicott Hotel, situated in the ominously named Watersmeet Road, where two rivers met. They couldn’t have chosen a worse place to stay. That night, 100 buildings were destroyed, most of the bridges in the area were washed away, and 34 people died in the chaos. Afterwards, 38 cars were found washed up on the coast.
In Anglo-Saxon times, the name Lynmouth meant “town by the torrent.” This area of the country has often suffered from floods following rainfall of such biblical proportions, and there was a very low-pressure depression over the West Country at that time. However, conspiracy theorists maintained that the disastrous rain was man-made. Witnesses said that the clouds were purple-black or weirdly greenish. Strangely, clouds in North Devon were moving very quickly in the opposite direction to those over adjoining West Somerset. In fact, the RAF was experimenting with “cloud-seeding” (Project Cumulus) a way of disrupting possible enemy forces by using rainfall as a weapon. After the disaster, some secret documents about the project conveniently went missing. The scientists were based at Cranfield School of Aeronautics, and the theory was that spreading silver iodide could produce rain up to 300 miles away. One pilot spreading the chemicals over Bedfordshire was congratulated for bringing a massive downpour in Middlesex. In 2001, unnatural amounts of silver iodide were found in the River Lyn. A full investigation into the tragedy was never carried out.
As in many other parts of the country, Bedford’s mayor set up an appeal fund to raise money for the North Devon town, and the response was overwhelming, with his target of £1000 easily met. In Sandy, the Council agreed to deliver envelopes to every house in the town, and that the Councillors themselves must collect them. Amongst the contributions in Bedford were: “Horse and Groom” pub £2.10s, Howard Congregational Church £10.15s, Silvery Ouse Pleasure Craft £5. 5s, Cadena Café £5.0s.1d, Ancient Order of Foresters Friendly Society £5.5s, Bedford NALGO branch, £1 1, Goldington Townswomen’s Guild £2.2s and Turvey Church £11.18s.
The newspapers were especially interested in two contributions: a Mrs Ives, formerly of Kempston, sent in $2 from her new home in Ottawa, Canada and Mrs Church organised a “mile of pennies” event in Bromham (an old method of fund-raising that’s almost forgotten).
Jess Whitbread had been active in many local organisations, including Toc H, the Local Civil Defence and was a volunteer at the Deaconess Home and Orphanage in Bromham Road. It’s good to think that such a generous response by Bedfordians was partly because she must have been a well-respected person, as well as the sheer tragedy that had hit a town many miles away.
Her headstone says only that she died in the Lynmouth flood, but her story shows how good-spirited people can be, as well as highlighting the suspicion that things sometimes just get covered up by those in Authority.
Sadly, she is not actually buried in the grave that has her name; as with two other of the 34 victims, Jess Whitbread and Stella Bates were washed out to sea and their bodies were never recovered.
Grave ref: H2. 139
Bedfordshire Times (Aug/Sept 1952)
Devon Live (aug 2017)
Lyn Museum archives
May 21, 2021