Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Portraying the Bristol Channel Floods 1607


Art can create a record of catastropic events so that long after they have been forgotten there is still a record of what it was like.

In recent days we've been reminded of the forces of natural events and how these can change the landscape.  I became interested in the extent to which art has been used in the past to
  • either record the event itself
  • or record how it has changed the landscape
  • or possibly, through memory painting, to record what was there before a catastrophic natural event
Which is how I came to discover the Bristol Floods of 1607, which many now believe may have been a tsunami.  What follows is a summary of what I've discovered.

The Deluge of 1607 - in England

Woodcut image from
"A true report of certaine wonderfull ouerflowings of Waters, now lately in Summerset-shire, Norfolke and other places of England...",
printed in London 1607

On 20 January 1606 there was extensive flooding in southwest England and South Wales.  This is now referred to as the 1607 floods because of the changes to the calendar made later in 1606 to correct problems with how days had been counted up until that point.

There are a variety of views which seek to explain what caused it - from a storm surge to a tsunami.

The wave height was some 4 metres in the outer Bristol Channel to more than 6 metres in the inner Severn Estuary.  (That's very nearly 20 feet high).  A number of churches in the area bear plaques which record how high thee water reached.  It's also estimated to have reached a speed of some 25mph.

More than an estimated 200 square miles (518 km2) of land were flooded on either side of the Bristol Channel along some 570 km of coastline and associated land in North Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset and along the South Wales coast from Monmouthshire to Carmarthenshire.  It's clear that flood defences were inadequate for holding the sea back in a number of places.  There was scope for the water to flow a considerable distance inland where the land was flat - such as on the Gwent and Somerset Levels with the water reaching as far inland as Glastonbury Tor.

It caused 2,000 deaths and considerable economic loss. 

At the time of the great flood there were no newspapers.  However it was custom and practice to poduce and print pamphlets to mak news about some great event.  In this instance it would appear from the research done that these pamplets had been tailored to each of the counties affected.
“Many there were which fled into the tops of high trees, and there were inforced to abide some three daies, some more, and some lesse, without any victuals at all, there suffring much colde besides many other calamities, and some of them in such sort, that through overmuch hunger and cold, some of them fell down againe out of the Trees, and so were like to perish for want of succour. Othersome, safe in the tops of high Trees as aforesaid, beholding their wives, children and servants, swimming (remediles of all succour) in the Waters.

Woodcut images were used to convey how much of the land was covered and what it was like for the people affected.  I've looked for indications of other forms of artwork but can find none online which survive apart from various references to the pamphlet which was printed by printers who operated in the courtyard of St Paul's Cathedral and also printed William Shakespeare's plays.

I'm somewhat surprised as I'd have expected to have found at least some paintings which attempted to recreate what happened on canvas.

The water changed the coastline in places.  For those interested in the history of the changing landscape and/or geology and/or geomorphology (like me!) can.....

1 comment:

vivien said...

There was a bbc programme on this a couple of years ago with Nneil Oliver. Sandy deposits showed where the tsunami had reached. There is apparently a fault line between us and Ireland. They showed that same news sheet.

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