Black and white photograph of a policeman standing in flood water at the edge of the River Avon Black and white photograph of a policeman standing in flood water at the edge of the River Avon Show image info

Flooding in Bath, 1937. Ref: PX/37


Written in 2019 by a member of a creative writing class, through a collaboration between Bath Record Office and the St. John’s Foundation.

The story was inspired by a photograph of a solitary policeman standing knee deep in water during the great flood in Bath in February 1937.

 Can’t believe how fast the water’s rising. There I was directing traffic this morning and suddenly I’m in it up to my perishing knees. It’s not just water that’s swirling around. A couple of dead sheep and half a tree have drifted by. I’ve seen a bicycle float past. Hey, what a laugh if it were Sergeant Bailey’s. He’s far too big to cycle. Back in the nick, we always say “one day ole copper Bailey will come a cropper!”

It’s ok for that bloke up on the wall taking photographs. Bet he’s from the Chronicle.  Blimey, me in the papers tomorrow eh? What about that, little ole PC 421 in the papers! My boy Eric will show it off at school. He’ll say, “That’s my dad, that is”. Heck, school likely to be closed tomorrow.

Thank the Lord I’m wearing boots, except they leak and it’s blooming cold. I forgot to bring my cape didn’t I? Rain is dripping down me neck and back. To think I swapped today with me mate Billy. He’ll be at home warming his toes in front of the fire with the missus and downing a snifter or two. Some blokes get all the luck. What wouldn’t I give for a hot toddy and a Woodbine. Serg Bailey says, “Look out for looters.” How could I nick anybody stuck here?  Well, best listen out just in case.

Yesterday it was all rush and bustle at this junction. Now it’s peaceful and kind of weird. All I can hear is the whisper of the water as it swirls around and laps against the wall behind me. Even the usual cawing seagulls have fallen silent. The plip, plop of rain drops make silent splashes, well not exactly silent but quietly noisy. Those trees across the river where the mist clings to the bare black branches give me the creeps. Don’t like trees without leaves. Don’t seem right.

I’ll be due off duty soon, but what if my relief don’t come before it gets really dark? Blimey, it’s raining even harder now. Serg or no Serg I ain’t sticking around here much longer. Even the photographer up there has gone off. I’m really alone now.

They’ve got to do something to stop all this again. Bet they’ll say there’s no money for flood prevention. But they’ll splash out on decorations and flags and street parades come the King and Queen’s coronation in May. Oh yeah, plenty of cash for that. And we’ll all be on special duties that day, with no extra pay, only “duty for King and country”, ta very much. Must say after Edward went off with that American Wallace woman, I think George looks a better sort of fella.

 Reckon that bloke Hitler in Germany would know what to do about preventing floods. They say he’s building everywhere and it’s not only roads and bridges.  I read in the Daily Mirror what Mr Churchill said about us disarming while Germany is building up a bloody great army and air force. If that’s true, all I can say is God help us if there’s another war. I still remember me dad coming back from France in 1917. With ‘im coughing and wheezing all night and every night til the day he died. He said it were the Hun’s gas that got him, not the bullets.  S’pose I’m lucky really. He spent most of his war fighting, eating and pissing, ankle deep in mud. He said he only slept when he could between attacks. Well at least, I’m standing in running water, not like ‘im in stagnant water and stinking mud, poor old codger. If war comes, bet I get called up, so best not think about it.

 I was going to treat the wife to the pictures on Saturday. She wants to see that new film Fire Over England cos her favourite stars are in it, Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. She says his voice is all English and proper like the toffs, and I hear she’s a bit of all right an all!  Reckon all leave will be cancelled this weekend, so that’s that, old dear.

Best concentrate and look lively. Hey up, there’s a boat coming. I can see lights flashing on the water. Guess there’ll be picking up folk from them cottages up stream. Poor blighters getting washed out, everything gone and all. Thank the Lord we live high up in Combe Down village.  Blow me there’s a cat up in the tree opposite. “You stay up there mate”.

Hey up, it’s the River bobby’s boat coming. Where’s my flaming torch?

“Oi, hey, over ‘ere mates, it’s Alf, No 421”.

Good they’ve seen me. Blimey just my blinking luck, it’s Serg Bailey and he’s bellowing something out through a megaphone.

“Anything to report constable?”

“No sir”.  What am I supposed to say, just having a quick afternoon paddle?

“Right,carry on lad. We’ll be back to relieve you in an hour or so. Remember, eyes pinned for signs of looting. We’ve just nabbed a couple back there. You’ve got your whistle I trust?”

“Yes sir”. What’s ‘e on about? Of course I’ve got my flipping tooter. It’s part of me tunic ain’t it?

Stone the ruddy crows the boat’s not going on, it’s turned back.  And I’m still here up to my thighs in this bloody river and God knows what else floating around. Just me and the moggie over there.

Fire over England? Don’t make me laugh!

Paul Maxwell-Cook, March 2019