Marking 50th anniversary of the Wray flood

Backsbottom Farm, the home of Bill and Alice Brown and son Richard, was the first dwelling in the torrents way as it flowed down the narrow valley towards Wray village. Pictured here it is nothing but a ruined house amid a wilderness of rocks, tree trunks, mud and water.
Backsbottom Farm, the home of Bill and Alice Brown and son Richard, was the first dwelling in the torrents way as it flowed down the narrow valley towards Wray village. Pictured here it is nothing but a ruined house amid a wilderness of rocks, tree trunks, mud and water.
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Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Wray flood which destroyed many homes throughout the village, historian David Kenyon looks back on those individuals who lost everything including their livestock and nearly their lives.

On August 8 1967, farmer Bill Brown was giving his ewes and lambs their annual summer dipping at Backsbottom Farm near Wray.

The following story is Bill and his wife Alice’s account of the disaster that took place 50 years ago.

Bill begins:

It had been the summer sheep-dipping day, where we bring in all the sheep, separate the lambs from their mothers and wean the lambs.

We had already finished dipping and separating the sheep. The ewes were in the top pen and the lambs in the bottom pen.

We decided that we would have a drink of tea before taking the ewes on to the fell.

It was about 4.45pm when we went in for a drink of tea.

The weather looked black but we weren’t in anyway worried about it.

Our youngest son, Richard, came home at 5pm.

We all had our tea and Richard went at about 5.20pm.

By this time it was raining very heavily but not enough to bring up the river.

Looking out of the window I saw the river just boil over the garden wall, like boiling up in a pan.

That is as near as I can describe it. It was coming up on to the garden over the flowers.

I said to my wife: “Oh Alice. Your begonias. I’m so sorry.”

Then we suddenly remembered that we hadn’t let the sheep out.

A neighbour of mine, Len Richardson, who was helping us that day, went around one way and I went the other.

Len went into the top pen. He opened the gate for the ewes and was trying to get the lambs through. But the water kept washing them back.

The water was pouring right through the sheep pen walls and it was washing the lambs back as fast as I could push them through.

All at once Len shouted to me.

He had seen a great wall of water coming.

He just said: “Bill get out”.

I couldn’t open the pen gate through the pressure of the water. I climbed over the wall.

Then, when I was about three yards around the corner of the house, the sheep pen walls collapsed, washing all the lambs out behind me.

I went into the house to see where Alice was. I shouted to her and she told me that she was upstairs.

By this time the water was following me into the house and up three or four steps before I got to Alice.

By this time we could not get out.

It would have been foolish to try.

The water was all around the house and great big trees were coming down.

The noise was terrific. The smell of the flood was heavily peaty. That’s as near as I can describe it.

Alice continues:

We were in the end bedroom together.

The water was coming down on each side of us. It was very rough and was bringing all sorts of rubbish and trees down.

We kept hearing the farm buildings going.

It was terrible when the barn went.

All we saw was a little bat that came into the bedroom and flew around.

Then we saw cats as well.

One or two were running about the roofs below us.

Suddenly they were all swept away. The lambs we saw were swept away too.

Bill picks up the story:

To give you some idea of the height of the river, the house stood 10 to 12 feet above the normal river level.

The river reached its full height just before the buildings started to collapse.

We had a dairy and implement shed opposite the house.

This was about nine feet high. The water seemed to be going over the top of them.

However, the speed and force of the water made it seem higher than it actually was.

There were great big trees going past at a terrific speed.

I think it was the trees that actually bashed the house to pieces.

It was so well built that I think it would have withstood any weight of water.

In what seemed hours, we were looking first to one side of the house and then the other.

I wouldn’t let Alice open the bedroom door to see what was going on through there.

But I did keep my eye on a machine that had been washed across the meadow, right up towards our wooden fence.

I watched it for some time and I could see just the tips of the tines peeping out of the water, it never got over the top of them. I suddenly realised that the flood had passed its peak.

Then I knew that in half an hour the river would be down and we would be able to get out.

It was some time before we saw anybody.

The first thing we saw was three young men coming up from Wray. They shouted to us that help was on the way.

Soon after the fire brigade chaps came from Bentham.

They couldn’t get up the road.

Our private road to the farm had been washed away in several places.

We had two bridges that had been completely demolished.

The fire brigade walked up from Wray with ropes only to find they couldn’t get near us.

They tried to throw ropes up to the window to us but it was too far away.

We tried knotting a lot of ties together to throw out to them so that we could get a line through.

Eventually one chap walked down the river a bit and up a great pile of rocks and into the house.

He then piled up some boxes that we threw down.

We climbed down on to these boxes. We asked the captain of the fire brigade what time it was and he told us it was 8.45pm.

We walked about half a mile up the wood to the Alcock’s Farm.

There we met my wife’s father who had been on his way home from Caton when the disaster happened.

Luckily, he couldn’t get in at the end of our lane and went up to the Alcock’s.

Had he gone any further forward he would no doubt have been washed away because the bridges were down and, as I said, the road was washed away in two or three places.

When we arrived at Alcock’s Farm, Alice’s father suggested we get in his car and go to Caton. At this point we weren’t aware that the bridges in Wray had gone and we couldn’t get through.

That night Alice’s father stayed with Mr and Mrs Wright at Alcock’s Farm.

Alice and I went up to Mr and Mrs Len Richardson’s at Stauvin Farm, Roeburndale East, and stayed the night.

Len had been helping me all day.

I did not know until then what had happened to him.

I hadn’t seen anything of Len since he shouted to me to get out of the sheep pen. I was terribly worried about him.

He’s apparently gone down to Wray to tell them of our plight and get a message through to Bentham Fire Brigade.

I understand that this was the last telephone message to go out of Wray that night.

Next morning we went back down to Backsbottom Farm to try to estimate the damage.

We had two dogs and they had both disappeared.

We learned during the course of the day that one had made its way to Outhwaite Farm, another neighbour of ours. We found out that evening that it was our old dog Gyp.

Although I was sorry to lose our younger dog, I was very pleased that Gyp had survived.

She had been one of the family for years and must have known her way about very well to have run from the flood to safety.

The furniture left in the house was salvaged and carried up the wood, a distance of more than half a mile.

It was a terrific task but the people who helped were great. Help came from near and far.

Out livestock losses included the new calved heifer that we had tied up in the shippon a few minutes before we went into the house. She was washed away with the shippon.

We also lost a little calf in a loose box, a young pig and our young dog.

It took us some time before we were sure how many lambs we had lost but when we came to make the full count we calculated that we had lost 43. Luckily all the ewes got out safely.

Many buildings were destroyed.

Backsbottom was a great big, stone-built farm.

There were three bays at one side full of hay.

There was a tractor and trailer there plus an under-house shippon with hay on top and there was now not the slightest sign that anything had been there at all.

A shippon for 10 was completely gone.

As were two loose boxes, a good stone stable, a dairy, an implement shed and more than half a house.

On Tuesday August 8 it will be 50 years since the Wray flood, when 14 homes were either destroyed or so severely damaged they had to be demolished.

On the above date the village will be holding a commemorative exhibition in Wray Institute from 10am to 8pm, with photographs, newspapers and documents including many relating to Hornby and Claughton.