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1952: Flood devastates Devon village

VIDEO : Hotel owner Tom Denham: "There was a tremendous roar "

Twelve bodies have been recovered and 24 people are missing feared dead in the flood which has swept through Lynmouth in north Devon.

The normally picturesque holiday village was evacuated early today as troops and council workers were brought in to begin clearing the devastation.

Hundreds of people have been left homeless. There is no water, gas or electricity supply. All the boats in the harbour have been washed out to sea. Four main road bridges have been swept away.

The flood followed yesterday's torrential rain. In the 24 hours before, some nine inches (22.9cm) of rain had fallen on Exmoor, just four miles (6.4km) away.

"We watched a row of cottages fold up like a pack of cards"

Ken Oxenholme

The water flowed off the moors and into the rivers East and West Lyn which came together as a raging torrent in the steep, narrow valley leading into Lynmouth.

Tom Denham, owner of the Lyndale Hotel, said his cellars had flooded before so he was not too worried at first.

He said: "About half-past nine there was a tremendous roar. The West Lyn had broken its banks and pushed against the side of the hotel, bringing with it thousands of tons of rocks and debris in its course.

"It carried away the chapel opposite and a fruit shop. Three people in the fruit shop were swept against the lounge windows of the hotel. We managed to pull them through in the nick of time.

"I then ordered everyone to go to the second floor, where they huddled in the corridors for safety. In all we had 60 people in the hotel all night."

A fisherman, Ken Oxenholme, said the high street was impassable so he had to run through the woods to reach his wife and child, who were staying in a caravan at the top end of Lynmouth.

He said: "As we watched, we saw a row of cottages near the river, in the flashes of lightning because it was dark by this time, fold up like a pack of cards and swept out with the river with the agonising screams of some of the local inhabitants who I knew very well."

The Queen has sent a message of sympathy, which was read out at a meeting in the town hall this evening. A telegram of sympathy was also received from Queen Mary.

The full extent of the damage is not yet clear. Early estimates say it will cost between 3 and 5m to repair.

In Context
The eventual number of people who died came to 34.

A flood relief fund set up for the victims of the disaster had raised more than 300,000 by the end of August.

The local policeman, Derek Harper, who had only recently completed his training, was awarded the George Medal for the part he played in rescuing people from the flood. Thirteen other local people received lesser awards for bravery.

There was some speculation the flash flooding could have been caused by Ministry of Defence experiments in rain-making. By dropping dry ice into clouds, the idea was to start a heavy storm which would bog down enemy movements.

Survivors of the disaster called for - but never got - an inquiry. The MoD denied it was to blame.

On the 50th anniversary of the disaster a special memorial service was held. A wooden cross - made by one of the survivors - was erected in the town in memory of the victims.

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