In the course of doing some research on the recent flooding on the Somerset levels and elsewhere, I came across some old newspaper reports and snippets in books, relating to a disturbing incident during the severe floods of 1947.
They concerned a rather out of the way area of the Medway Valley in Kent, and in particular a large isolated body of water called Monk’s Mead Lake. Monk’s Mead was an ox-bow lake – a river backwater that had become silted up and cut off from the main flow.
The lake was very old, shown on the earliest maps I could find. A 19th century book about the Medway Valley by D.S. Hewitt described the lake as:
“…a large, long-forgotten and stagnant crescent of water, deceptively deep, [which was] once a meander of the Medway itself, but has been long-since cut-off by natural sedimentation and has been that way for generations.”
He also described the difficulty in reaching it:
“… surrounded by a tract of the most treacherous mire, a wet bogland even in the keenest drought, and will remain as such since it is beyond even the skills of the most determined and experienced of Dutch poldermen.”
Despite its inaccessibility (perhaps because of it) the lake had become the subject of a number of local stories and superstitions. Hewitt, a typically pragmatic Victorian, dismissed them as old wives tales. But other, earlier writers recorded them. They revealed that local people believed something was living in the still waters of Monk’s Mead, something monstrous.
Thomas Bridgewater in his 1799 work ‘Kent Folklore and Fable’ documents how some of the older residents of Hambridge, the nearest village to the lake, were absolutely convinced that a ‘serpent’ or ‘leviathan’ was living in its waters, and that was why the wetland around it had never been reclaimed – to keep people away.
A local newspaper clipping I saw from a decade later, reports on a local boy, George Moor, who had gone fishing in Monk’s Mead Lake and come home “in a fit of hysteria”, swearing that he had seen “a dragon lookin’ right at me”. The tone of the article is one of quiet mocking – ‘look at these simple rural folk with their quaint superstitions!’ But it seems that scepticism may have been misplaced.
Whether what happened in 1947 was just a re-emergence of those old, old stories, I can’t say. Perhaps they had been passed down the generations, or resided in the darker corners of the unconscious minds of some locals. And perhaps, when the anxiety and stress of being subjected to such severe and sudden flooding was added into the equation, those old superstitions took on a new life of their own.
What we do know for certain is that in March of that year, the River Medway burst its banks, completely flooding Hambridge, the marshes surrounding Monk’s Mead Lake and, crucially, all the land in-between.
The flood waters were deep. In the lower-lying parts of the village, the entire lower storeys of many houses were under water, and people took refuge in upstairs rooms and lofts. The most vulnerable were rescued by boat. Villagers on higher ground had perhaps just a few inches of water to contend with, or escaped completely, and many of them went to assist their less fortunate neighbours; this was a close-knit community.
It’s in the words of one of these kind parishioners that we gain our clearest insight into what happened next. Jack Drayton, the village baker, spoke to a reporter from the Chatham Gazette on March 20th, 1947. The report concerned a tragic incident, where a seven-year-old boy called Keith Somerton had been swept away by floodwaters. Earlier eyewitness reports had described how a large wave had washed him off a bridge. But Jack Drayton had seen something else.
He confirmed that there had been a wave, but said that it “came out of nowhere” in floodwaters that were “like a millpond” and over a mile from the river. Jack had been closer to the bridge than any of the other witnesses at the time of the incident and thought he could explain what had caused this freak swell in the water that had overwhelmed the boy. The Gazette reporter quoted him word for word:
“As I looked across at where the boy was standing, I could see the wave rolling towards him. It was only a few feet high but it was moving fast. Then, as it got closer, I could see something large, moving in the wave – a long, dark shape, like a snake, but huge! I could see it clear as day – it was moving through the water, like a side-winder, and making the wave with its body. I shouted to the boy and he turned to look but it was too late. And as the wave hit him, that dreadful thing pulled him under in its jaws.”
The report goes on to say that all other eyewitnesses to this event insisted they saw nothing but a large wave. Could they have been saying this to prevent panic? The last thing the community needed on top of this natural disaster was an outbreak of hysteria. We will probably never know, but what is for certain is that little Keith Somerton’s body was never recovered.
Following the publication of Drayton’s account in the Gazette, a number of other local people came forward to say they thought they had also seen inexplicable things since the floodwaters had risen – shadows moving through the depths, a glimpse of a large form slithering over the distant river embankment. But the accounts were fragmentary. It was still very difficult for local reporters to get into the area, and the eyes of the national press were on the Thames Valley, where many thousands of people had been affected.
Hysteria didn’t take hold. Drayton’s account was dismissed, and it seems rumours then circulated that he was still suffering the psychological after-effects of being a POW during World War Two. Within a fortnight the floodwaters had subsided and life began to return to normal in this quiet little village.
And there the story ends. But I’m tempted to dig a bit further, go to Hambridge, try to track down some of the villagers who were there during the floods – there must be some who are still alive.
What I won’t be able to do is visit the lake. In the early 1950s, as part of the post-war drive to maximise agricultural production, the marshes around it were finally drained. The lake was used as a landfill and the area was later landscaped and turned into a riverside park. So those mysterious waters are gone forever. I’m not sure if I’m disappointed or relieved about that.