Flood, Pollution and Drought on the Mel

Flooding was quite an issue in the 1930s through to at least the 1950s, and it may have been an unrecorded problem earlier. This was partially due to the fact that river-taming measures had fallen into disuse. When the mills stopped operating in the early twentieth century, the mill owners were no longer interested in maintaining the watercourse. The river became clogged up and the banks decayed. This resulted in flooding, particularly around Sheene Mill, with 30 local residents signing a letter in 1952 complaining about the lack of action related to flooding. 

Flooding at Station Road, probably in the 1950’s. Photo from Melbourn Village History Group archives
Flooding at Station Road, probably in the 1950’s
Melbourn Village History Group archives

As well as general flooding problems and blockage of the road the letter refers to ‘objectionable smells’ from backed up soil drains. We can only guess at what that meant! The persistent flooding would have had a large personal impact, as these old cottages could have been seriously damaged by water, and by the general dampness affecting the building materials. Often, cottagers did not have insurance. Even if they had, the insurance company was not likely to pay out for repeated occurrences.

A Melbourn resident remembered quite clearly the flooding in Station Road when she was a child: “the floodwaters came across the road up to our gate (very exciting for us as children). Our neighbours Joan and Sid Pepper had a little canoe type boat which was rowed up Station Road towards the ‘Meads’ corner” (near where the footpath now goes to the station). The Peppers were the residents who are mentioned in the documents about flooding described below.

From 1930 to 1951 there were over 120 correspondence and reports about the problem stored at the County Council. Cyril Hagger, the chairman of Melbourn Parish Council, was obviously very concerned about the personal cost to his residents and to the farming community and tried to get some action taken. From the correspondence we have available, the fact that he was unsuccessful seems thanks to buck-passing between the authorities who could potentially have funded a scheme but who felt that it was the riparian owners who should pay. They too were not enthusiastic!

Changing land uses

The flooding was also considered to be caused by a lack of maintenance of two other operations that had previously helped to tame the river: the water meadows and the osier beds. With the move to more arable farming, farmers no longer maintained the water meadows, contributing to the flooding of agricultural land. On one occasion, about 20 acres around the Mel was affected. 

The river may not always have been so attractive as it is today. Before sewage systems, a lot of waste would have been deposited or washed into the river. The flow and larger size would have helped to distribute it but during drought periods it may have been a rather smelly, disgusting trickle.

The base of the river Mel at Dolphin Lane during the 2012 drought. Photo by Bruce Huett
The base of the river at Dolphin Lane during the 2012 drought
Credit: Bruce Huett

Drought would have been a worry for all those dependant on the river for water. We know that it dried up in 1976, and in 2012 one could walk along the river base at Dolphin Lane without getting one’s shoes wet. The situation has got worse with increased extraction. Generally, the region’s aquifer is effective as a reservoir but, with the right combination of weather conditions, the river may occasionally have become very low. This would have had major consequences for all the activities dependant on a good flow: the mills, the diaries, the brewmasters and all the inhabitants and animals. Prayers were probably said for a fast return to normality. 

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