This is a reproduction of my article that people were denied access to on the internet by the web hosting company:
The Somerset levels have always been prone to severe flooding, ever since they were created in their modern form over 200 years ago by displacing poor people from the Somerset moorland, and draining it. I reproduce, in part, the analysis given by Mr. Phelps in 1836 of the reasons for this region being prone to flooding, and his ideas as to the long-term solution to this problem. It is obvious that dredging will only have a limited effect, and that much more costly, large scale engineering projects would be necessary to bring about lasting relief. It is debatable whether such projects would receive the financial backing of any UK government, for, unlike the Thames Barrier, which protects London, the Somerset Levels are sparsely populated, and would not be deemed a priority. The current zeal by the government to promote dredging as a result of the devasting floods of 2014 is understandable in terms of it being a relatively cheap option. Dredging, though better than nothing, is short-terminism, and it always was.
Observations on the Great Marshes and Turbaries of the County of Somerset …
By William Phelps (F.S.A.)
I shall now proceed to an examination of the river Parret, and its numerous branches. This is the great outlet, or grand artery, of the waters of a large portion of the county of Somerset … This important river discharges its waters into Bridgwater Bay, on the Bristol Channel, by a bed of considerable width and depth, forming a stream capable of bearing vessels of large burden to the secure roadstead of Combwich …
The vast quantity of rain which falls in the winter season on this extensive basin may be easily imagined; and the effect of such an immense body of water rushing to a single outlet at Borough-bridge, must, when met by a spring tide, necessarily overflow its banks; and, falling into a level lower than the surface of the water in the river, it remains for weeks, nay even for months in some seasons, overspreading the lands, to the great injury of the occupiers of the soil, as experience has too fully confirmed. The tide flows up the Parret, through Borough-bridge, to near Langport bridge, and its influence is felt up the Tone as far as Creech St. Michael, a short distance east of Taunton. Hence the flood waters are interrupted, in their progress to the sea, for a period of ten hours out of twenty-four …
The depth of the river Parret, at ordinary spring tides, has been found, by measurement, at high water at its mouth, in Bridgwater bay, to be from thirty to thirty-five feet; at Combwich twenty-four feet; at Bridgwater bridge seventeen feet; and at Boroughbridge fifteen feet. The result of these admeasurements is, that there is a fall of two feet only from Boroughbridge to Bridgwater, a distance of six miles ;— from Bridgwater to Combwich, a fall of seven feet in about eight miles;— and from thence to the mouth of the river, about ten feet in a distance of ten miles.
After passing Bridgwater the river pursues a tolerably straight course through the alluvial soil to Borough-bridge, which forms the southern boundary of what I shall call THE LOWER LEVEL OF THE PARRET. This extensive tract of land is situated east of Bridgwater, and is bounded on the north by Polden hill; on the east by the high lands above Compton Dundon; on the south by the elevated land of High Ham hill, and a flood bank, in some parts ten feet high, itself extending from this elevated ridge to Borough hill; and on the opposite side of the river Parret, by the ridge of land (on which once stood the celebratcd monastery of Athelney), extending through the parishes of Ling and Durston; and on the west by the rising grounds of North Petherton; comprising a tract of land ten miles in length, and of the medium breadth of three miles. King’s Sedgemoor extends over the greater portion of the whole, on the east of the Parret. The history of this heretofore barren tract of morass is somewhat interesting …
In the reign of King William III. an Act was obtained for draining this moor, but failed in its operation. Nearly a century elapsed before any thing further was done. In 1775 Mr. Allen, then Member of Parliament for Bridgwater, revived the subject, and afterwards obtained the consent of many of the persons interested in the business; and, impressed with the importance of the subject, he went to Parliament; but such was the opposition to the bill, and clamour raised against it, that he failed in obtaining an Act for his purpose. After a lapse of thirteen years, the public attention was again directed to the same subject; the public feeling of hostility to the measure having apparently subsided. A meeting was held at Wells in the year 1788, to take the matter again into consideration. A strong feeling was manifested against the measure by the lower class of the people living in the vicinity of the moor; and the meeting broke up without coming to any conclusion on the business. Sir Philip Hales, Bart, who had presided at the meeting at Wells, and many other influential persons, followed up the attempt; and at length, by persevering industry and good management, a bill was obtained for “Draining and Dividing the said Moor” into parochial allotments, among thirty parishes and hamlets, who claimed a right of depasturing cattle thereon. In the spring of 1791 the bill was passed into a law, and Commissioners were chosen to carry into effect the provisions of the act, who held their first meeting at Bridgwater in thesame year.
This large tract of land was for many weeks, and even months, covered with water in the winter, and in the summer presented an extensive swamp. The river Cary entered the moor from the east, and skirted round the high land at Ham-hill, emptying itself into the Parret, near Borough—bridge. On any sudden flood this river poured its waters into the moor, where it remained a long time. It was found upon an accurate survey taken by an experienced engineer, and proper levels made of the district, that nothing could effectually be done by widening and deepening the then existing outlets; and that some point lower down the river Parret should be found to which a new channel might be dug, to carry off, in a more expeditious manner, the flood waters. Upon inspecting the course of the river, an old sluice, called Dunbald’s sluice, from its situation seemed the most convenient spot; but, upon examination of the land adjoining, it was found that a deep cut must be made through a distance of two miles and half of elevated land, to communicate with the moor: it was however found that, by this new work, a fall of ten feet from the lower side of the moor, and nineteen feet from the upper part, (a distance of about twelve miles) could by these means be obtained. No alternative presented itself to effect the desired object; and a channel, fifty-five feet wide at the top, ten feet wide at the bottom, and fifteen feet deep, was commenced, and carried through the high land, and up the middle of the moor, to connect itself with the river Cary, having an inclination of rather more than a foot in a mile. Some obstacles presented themselves in the execution of the work, by the slipping down of the alluvial soil on the sides, and the rising up of the bottom from the pressure of the sides, owing to the morassy state of the lower stratum of the soil. These difliculties were overcome, and the effect of the drain upon the moor lands soon became apparent, in the luxuriant growth of good grass, in the place of an inferior and almost useless herbage. By this drainage the large tract of 13,000 acres became improved in value from twenty to thirty shillings per acre. The expense of this great work, according to the Commissioners’ accounts, was £3l,624 4s. 8d.; and for subdividing the whole into parochial allotments, £28,000. This hitherto almost impassable district soon became intersected by roads and droveways at the first; and is now traversed by several turnpike roads, giving a facility of communication with every part of the moor.
There are a few places in the neighbourhood of Chedzoy and Weston Zoyland which are still liable to inundation, from their low situation; yet these lands are capable of much improvement, under the judicious management of proper persons, such as we trust will be selected and appointed under the authority of the new act for the improvement of the law and practice of the Court of Sewers.
The effect of this great work, after the lapse of forty years, has been fully experienced, and the advantages which have resulted from it, ought to stimulate those who are still suffering from “the plague of waters” higher up the Parret, not only to devise some plan for the accomplishment of so desirable an improvement, but also to carry it into effect forthwith. Steam engines have been erected between Boroughbridge and Weston Zoyland, to pump out the water from the lowest lands into the river Parret, and have proved, in a certain degree, beneficial, yet their operation is limited. Nothing but a proper drain, uninfluenced by the ingress of the tide, and with a proper fall, can produce that permanent advantage and benefit so devotedly to be wished for by the landowners of this district.
In my former letter I took a view of the Lower level of the river Parret; I shall now proceed to the examination of the “Central level” of that stream. Upon referring to the map of the county, we find this tract of land comprises the eastern extremity of the far-famed Vale of Taunton Dean; and is bounded on the east by the bold eminence of High Ham hill; on the south by the ridge of Curry Rive], and the high land on which stands the column erected by that great statesman the Earl of Chatham, to the memory of the patriotic Sir William Pynsent, Bart., who had devised this estate to his lordship; on the west it is open to the Vale of Taunton; and on the north it is bounded by the tongue of land running through the parishes of Creech St. Michael, Durston, and Ling, to within a short distance of Borough hill. … On the opposite side of the river Parret is Borough hill, connected by a high flood bank with the rising land south of Othery, and extending across the flat to High Ham hill, as we noticed in our former letter. The river Parret enters this level at Langport bridge, through a narrow pass between the rising ground on which Langport stands, and the opposite height on the road to Curry Rivel; and is confined within its channel by high banks on each side, to prevent the overflow of the tide, which here rises many feet above the level of the adjacent lands, and flows Over an alluvial soil of many feet in depth.
Borough-bridge heretofore consisted of three narrow arches, and an inconvenient roadway over it. … The river Tone unites with the Parret a short distance above this bridge, and increases the volume of water in the latter river considerably. The Tone flows along the northern side of this level, near the villages of North Curry, Ling, and Stoke St. Gregory: and on the south of these parishes is West Sedgemeor, a large tract of moor lands now inclosed. These low lands are the reservoir of the flood waters of the Parret and Tone, which necessarily remain for many weeks, covering a great extent of land; as it is quite impossible for them to flow off till the waters of the upper district have passed through the channel of the river, and its surface level reduced below the adjacent lands.
Under the present circumstances of the drainage, there is no method except that of pumping by steam engines these waters out of the low lands; a scheme impracticable on a large scale, from the expense of a sufficient number of engines which would be required to effect any beneficial purpose.
We ascend now to Langport bridge, and, after passing it, enter the UPPER LEVEL OF THE PARRET. Here we find several considerable streams uniting their waters. The Ievel from the east, the level from the south-west, with numerous small rivulets, all adding to the volume of water in the Parret. The lands bordering on these rivers are constantly liable to inundation at all seasons of the year, after heavy and long continued rains, to the great injury of the occupiers ofthe soil.
It will be sufficiently evident, from the foregoing observations, that no partial attempt to effect any improvement in the draining the great levels of the Parret can be attended with much success. It must be by works on a large and comprehensive scale, judiciously planned and skilfully executed, that any beneficial effects can be expected. Not the relieving of one district to the injury of another. In short, it must be by a union of the present conflicting interests, where compatible with public justice and general advantage, that any plan can be executed which will relieve this large tract of flooded lands from “the plague of waters” to which it is so frequently exposed.
The experience which the Commissioners have obtained from observing the effect of proper drains and outlets in other tracts of land within their jurisdiction, will, no doubt, suggest some plan for the better draining these extensive levels; and as, according to the common adage, “in the midst of councillors there is safety,” so by each Commissioner, who resides in the districts now under consideration, turning his attention to the subject, and examining the different bearings of the question, a conclusion may be arrived at, whereon the whole body of Commissioners may found their recommendations and orders for the improvement of the drainage.
The annual injury done to the occupiers of the lands, and less frequently sustained by summer floods, loudly call for public notice from the Commissioners of Sewers acting for the county. It is their duty, an imperious duty, to examine well into these matters, and, by such means as are within their power and jurisdiction, to investigate the real causes of the mischief, to obtain plans for the general improvement of the Sewers, and to suggest such new works, as, under the direction of experienced and skilful surveyors, may effectually relieve the country.
The depression of the agricultural interest loudly calls upon every landholder, upon every friend to the first and principal cause of National prosperity, to lend ahelping hand, and, by increasing the natural productions of the soil, to promote the comfort and happiness of the general mass of society.
Having thus detailed, at some length, the causes and effects of the floods which pour down their waters into the different levels of the river Parret, I shall new venture to offer some observations and suggestions for the relief of these districts from the casualties of floods, when they happen during the spring and summer season.
I am fully aware of the beneficial effects these low lands derive from winter floods, when the waters highly charged with alluvial matter, washed down from the high lands, deposit their contents on these levels, annually enriching the lands, if they are not retained so long as to decompose the vegetable matter. It is the perfect command of these waters, in summer and in winter, that is so much to be desired, and yet so difficult to be obtained.
The trifling descent in the bottom of the river Parret, from Langport bridge to Bridgwater, offers little facility to make any alteration in its channel, which can much improve the fall, or render the drainage more effectual. The bottom of the river could be deepened by means of some of those floating machines used on the Thames; and an additional fall of three feet may be practicable, under the bridge at Borough and Bridgwater, which would produce some effect. Thus an experiment could be made at a moderate expense; and if the result should not prove so satisfactory as may be expected, it would be preparing the way for other plans on a larger scale.
It is necessary to premise, that any plan for the effectual drainage of the country under consideration, must commence with the exclusion of the tide from the channel of the river Parret, by a strong dam across the channel, at (A), immediately above Bridgwater. Without this preliminary step, all attempts to drain the country would be ineffectual. It then may, perhaps. becomea question how far the port of Bridgwater would be affected by that alteration, and what method can be adopted, mutually beneficial to the interests of the landowner and merchant. The following suggestions are respectfully submitted to the consideration of all parties, in the hope that they may call their attention to a subject of great importance, both to the agricultural and commercial interests.
I now proceed to the statement of my plans to improve the drainage of the several levels of the rivers Parret, Tone, Ivel, and Ile, and request my readers to turn their eyes to the annexed sketch of the district round Bridgwater, that they may more fully comprehend the scope of my suggestions, and follow me in the details I am about to enter into on this most important subject.
Two plans will be suggested: one which may produce a considerable effect, in improving the drainage of the country, and may be executed without very heavy expense; the other would be complete, but would necessarily involve must larger expense: yet the gain of land by the latter plan would be a considerable compensation for the outlay, independent of the advantages of the drainage of the country.
We proceed to the first plan, which is as follows: a substantial dam is to be thrown across the river Parret, a short distance above the town of Bridgwater, and south-east of the entrance into the Taunton canal: see (A) on the map ; from this point a new channel for the passage of the water of the river Parret is to be made at (A), and to pass eastward of the town about half a mile, taking a northerly direction, and to fall again into the present river, about three quarters of a mile above the Sedgemoor sluice, at (B), a distance of about two miles and a quarter. At the lower end of this new channel a large tide sluice, with three pair of gates, similar to those at Highbridge, is to be built, of a suflicient size to convey the flood waters into the river Parret.
This new channel is to be dug as deep as the bed of the river at its outlet, or somewhat lower, as there will be a probability of the water rushing out from the sluice washing a deeper channel. The point of exit of the new course ofthe river I should calculate to be four feet deeper than the bed of the river Parret under the bridge at Bridgwater, and consequently, six feet under that at Borough-bridge. This cut would require to be somewhat larger than the opening of the arch at Borough-bridge, but not much, as there is no stream of magnitude which falls into the river between the two extreme points alluded to, which is a distance of less than eight miles along the course of the river.
The fall obtained between these points, in comparson with the present bed of the river must necessarily be of the utmost importance to the more rapid flow of the flood waters downwards. At the southern entrance of the new channel for the river must be made a lock to permit the barges which navigate the river Parret to pass into and out of the old river, so as to approach the quay of Bridgwater.
Here I can anticipate an objection to any impediment made in the free navigation of the river, and the probable inconvenience, the intercourse between Bridgewater and Langport would experience, by losing the advantage of the rising tide to carry the barges up the river. This is, indeed, unavoidable, but will not prove such an impediment as to be insurmountable. I am rather inclined to think the navigation of the river would be much improved, as I shall endeavour to show … — suppose we take the difference (as before stated) between the bed of the new river and Borough-bridge, (which I would also deepen two feet) to be six feet, and the ingress of the tide prevented by the sluice gates at one point, and by the dam above Bridgwater at the other, there will he a channel, nearly eight miles in length, to receive the flood waters pouring down through Borough-bridge; which will raise the level of the water suflicient for the purposes of the navigation of barges, for as long a period in the twelve hours as at present, during the winter. In the summer, the inner gates being closed for keeping of a head of water, (which could be raised to any height required,) for the supply of the cattle in these marsh lands, would form a canal accessible at all times from the floating harbour of Bridgwater.
We will now revert to the sluice gates at the outlet, and compare the effect produced by the tide being prevented from entering the river. The tide will not affect the current of the river, or close the sluice gates, till half flood; that is, till the sea water has flowed three hours into the mouth of the Parret. If the flood waters are high, say six feet in depth, at the outlet, the tide must flow one hour more before the difference in the level of the waters inside and outside the gate will be equalized, when the more rapid rise of the‘tide will close the gates against the fresh water. When this takes place, the water will continue to flow through Borough-bridge till it has filled the river below; and it is probable. in most cases, that the current would not be impeded at the former point, during the time the sluices are closed; as. in proportion to the rise of the fresh water inside the gates, so will ‘there be a head ‘to force open the gates much sooner when the ebbing tide had sunk beneath the inner level. This will diminish the actual interruption of the current to a short period, perhaps not more ‘than three hours, during the neap tides, and four during the spring tides; affording a free passage for the flood waters to pass off, eight or even nine hours in every ‘twelve.
We then arrive at this important conclusion — if the flood waters require, under the present circumstances of the river Parret, six weeks or six days to flow off the adjacent lands, it will consequently follow, that, under the improved state of the drainage, the waters will pass off in less than half the usual time – a matter of incalculable benefit to the occupiers of these low lands.
We now turn our attention to the improvement of the port of Bridgwater, as connected with the works for the drainage of the country. By referring to the map, there appears a considerable curve in the river, below the town. It is proposed to cut a canal across the neck of land, from (C) to (D); at the latter point a tide lock is to be built, of a suflicient size to admit vessels of considerable tonnage into the port. A strong dam must also be thrown across the channel of the present river at E which will keep up the water in the bed of the river and the canal, forming a floating harbour, supplied with water from the streams which flow from Durleigh and Goat This would form an excellent dry deck for repairing vessels. … By these means all the quays, shipbuilding and timber yards, and warehouses, along the riverwill remain as at present, and an improvement of incalculable benefit to the best interests of the port effected. The canal navigation to Taunton would be connected with this floating harbour, and the trade much facilitated; the vessels would be always afloat, a matter of great importance to ship owners; and could then enter or leave the port with ease and expedition, by the gain of much time, and little hazard.
The port will also have a communication by a lock, at (A), with the river Parret upwards, and the navigation much improved. It may be objected, that the bed of the harbour will become choked up with deposits of mud and other extraneous matter. Experience shows the futility of this objection by referring to the floating harbours of Bristol and Cardiff: besides, the fresh water hatches being closed the whole current of the river would then pass through the upper lock gates at (A), which open into the harbour, and by its velocity remove and carry away any accumulations of mud or filth lodged in the bed of the river. Another important advantage will be, that the sides of the river above the town, now constantly covered with mud at the recess of every tide, will become luxuriant pasturage. …
During the last twenty years several plans have been proposed for improving the port of this town. The projected ship canal would have afforded easy approach to her quays; but that scheme had been long given up. Another, on a more limited scale, was proposed, and received the sanction of the merechants, traders, and others interested in the welfare of the port. The plan now offered to the consideration not only of the commercial but also of the landed interest, is somewhat similar to the one already before the public, but varying in its details, and, moreover, coupled with a grand plan for completely effecting the drainage of the country above, and improving the port of Bridgwater at the same time. I have before stated that a new channel for the river Parret should be made, for the purpose of the drainage of the moors round Borough-bridge and Langport. I now proceed to show how even that plan may be further improved to the advantage of both interests.
I propose that a canal, capable of receiving vessels drawing fifteen, or even a greater depth of water if necessary, be made from a point at the south end of Combwich Beach, to the nearest point of the river where the lock (D) is situated, and to communicate with the canal and town of Bridgwater, making a floating harbour three miles in length, from the lock at (F) to the entrance of the Taunton canal at (A), affording accommodation for vessels similar to the harbours at Cardifi’, Bristol, or Gloucester. The drainage of the country may then be rendered effectual, by making a cut across the neck oF land called Pawlet Hams, from Gaunt’s Farm (H) to (G) near Stretcholt, into the river Parret; at the latter point a substantial tide sluice is proposed to be built, with three pair of gates, for the exit of the flood waters, and exclusion of the tide. A dam is then to be thrown across the river at (H), and the present channel, from (H) to (F), would in the course of twenty or thirty years be filled up with the alluvial deposit of the tide, as was the case at Highbridge under similar circumstances, a few years since; and a tract of land, equal to that destroyed by making the new channel for the river, regained. In addition to this, the drainage of King’s Sedgemoor would be much improved, in consequence of the impediment from the tide to the exit of its waters at ‘Dunhald’s clyce being removed, and the waters would flow in much less time. To these advantages may be added, a large tract of land on each side of the river now covered with mud after every tide, would become luxuriant pasturage to the water‘s edge, comprising a tract of fifty acres in extent.
These are not theoretical views, but practical, derived from the inspection and examination of similar works … Thus have I endeavoured to lay before you, my Brother Commissioners and the public at large, my views on this extensive subject, in the hope that they may excite all who are interested in these improvements, to a serious consideration of their importance.
These are the outlines of my plans, leaving them to be filled up by accurate calculations, upon which to found estimates for carrying these works into full effect ; and if I have so far succeeded as to call the attention of those who are interested in the subject to a clearer view of its different bearings, and the advantages to be derived from my suggestions, I am fully recompensed for my labour, and have thus endeavoured to discharge, to the best of my ability, my duty to the public.
lenin nightingale 2015