Voices of Rookpot 1

water droplets in flowing water
Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Rookpot Museum is home to countless archives, stories and finds from all over Farynshire.  Since its conversion from a glassworks factory in 1762 to the magnificent building standing today, its mission has been to explore, explain and share the rich history of our county and its Peoples.  To this end, we thought we would highlight some of the splendid and fascinating exhibitions the Museum has held over the years. 

The Voices of Rookpot Archive contains personal accounts from everyday Rookpotians.  The oldest example is from the eleventh century, and the most recent are a collection of podcasts from 2020.

One of their completed projects brought together recollections from the 1903 Flood. These diaries, interviews, letters and testimonies formed an exhibition that allowed the public a rare insight into what life was like in Rookpot during this extraordinary period when the city was cut off from the rest of the county.

 

Below are extracts from some of the sources in the exhibition.

                                                                                                               Ammaceadda

 

David Ivor Crunn

Lived at 34, Apple Orchard Gardens

Age during the flood: 10

This interview appeared in The County Voice in 1923 during the paper’s coverage of the construction of the new flood defences for Lower Winding Park Estate. 

How many flood survivors have you interviewed?  Did you find any that were opposed to the defence plan?  We know it’s expensive – but if you had seen what we had you would not care about the cost.

I lived with my mum and dad and two sisters in one of the newer streets off Down Lower Winding Street, which was really on the pastures rather than the tor.

We heard the water burst out of the gorge.  It sounded like something had exploded, and we had no idea what it was at first.  There was this constant roaring sound, and we now know that it was the water.  Nobody knew what to do, and I think a lot of people stayed where they were, because although we could all tell there was something very very wrong, we didn’t know where it was coming from.  If we left our homes we might run straight toward whatever it was.

We were lucky because my Aunt Hillie lived above Dameg Square – we were always visiting her.  So mum quickly grabbed what she could, and we all carried something, and we started to walk up the tor.  As soon as we left the house the noise got even louder.  And there were people shouting all over the place, as they moved up the tor.

We had reached Mid-Upper Winding Crescent when the crowd surged forward – people were pushing us from behind.  My dad picked up my little sister, and my big sister grabbed my hand.  The mood had changed from uncertain fear into outright panic.  It was a stampede through the streets, and more and more people joined us, pushing from all sides, crushing us altogether.

My sister and I lost our parents and our little sister for a few streets – that was the most scared I ever was, because we could have been trampled.  We heard people screaming “keep running!” and “the water!”  It was terrifying to hear so many frightened adults.  We found the rest of our family on one of the Upper Lower Winding roads.  For the first time we looked back down the tor at what we were running from.  It was black – just completely black.  The slopes of the tor are usually lit up at night – warm light from lamp-posts and homes.  The slopes below us were utterly devoid of light, and it felt like they were devoid of life, except for the roaring sound.

Instinctively the crowds headed for Dameg Square, the centre of the city, the place everyone goes in times of trouble.  We carried on passed the Square and up to Aunt Hillie’s house, and cried with relief when she opened the door.

We learned about the flood the next day.  Dad took me and my older sister to Upper Lower Winding Arch Crescent, where the water had stopped.  Looking out over the pastures was a shock.  The patchwork of fields and hedges, with the Darkflint snaking its way through the landscape, was now all underwater.  We knew that our house, and everything in it, was gone.  Hundreds of houses on the lower slopes were now underwater, you could just about see rooves and the tops of lamp-posts, but even they sunk below the water further down the slopes.  I tried not to think about the people who had stayed in their homes.

We were lucky, though I don’t think we realised that for quite a while!  We all stayed with Aunt Hillie in her lovely old house, whereas most of the others – the displaced, we were called – were put into the Council Chambers and the Cathedral in Dameg Square, or sent to other halls and churches.

My dad always deals with stress by keeping busy, and he volunteered early on as a salvager, which meant he went out onto the floodwaters to retrieve anything useful.  I was really proud of him – still am – because salvaging was dangerous work, and four people lost their lives.  In the first couple of weeks salvagers rescued eighty more people from the lower slopes who had taken refuge on the rooves of their houses.  My sister and I couldn’t leave the street, especially when Mum became a watcher, so we were relieved when the schools opened in November.  Our school was in the Raven Theatre, which was just the best place – I loved going to school there.  Aunt Hillie opened up her house to be a school and care centre for the young children, which my little sister went to.

Rookpot has always been robust; robustness is in the cobbles, the chimney stacks, the bricks, the walls of the gorge.  It has really bounced back, like we all knew it would.  It helped that everyone living in Rookpot who is over eighteen years old was invited to contribute to the Clean-Up and Forward Planning committees.  The whole community got to decide how the Rookpot Flood Relief Trust should be spent.  And now it’s being used to fund new developments out on the pastures.  We think this is really wonderful, and we support the expansion.

We just think that it is prudent to include flood defences – so we never have to go through anything like 1903 again.  

 

 Will Bebb

Ninth Councillor

Age during flood: 38

This extract was taken from the transcripts of Rookpot Council’s 1903 Flood Investigative Committee.  Bebb appeared before the Committee on five separate occasions; this extract is taken from the session on managing the initial stages of the crisis.

 

[Committee Chair]: Could you please state your name for our record, please?

[Will Bebb]: You want me to introduce meself?  Sure, of course.  My name is William Samuel Bebb, and I was the Ninth Councillor of Rookpot in 1903.  I’m Sixth Councillor now.  The Ninth Councillor’s role is traditionally to support the Second Councillor; it is a training position, basically, a good way to break into local politics, get a feel for how things are done, make some contacts.

I’ll say right now that Second Councillor Cafell could not have done more.  I know it’s the First Councillor that’s always lauded for his effective leadership – and I ain’t here to dispute that, he was certainly good at the fancy speeching side of things.  But no one, certainly no one on the Council, worked harder than Second Councillor Merritt Cafell.

[Committee Chair]: I just wanted to start off by clarifying something – you were the one who opened up the Council Chambers to the displaced, were you not?

[Will Bebb]: I was.

[Committee Chair]: Why the Council Chambers?  You must have known the Council would need them.

[Will Bebb]: It was the biggest place I had a key to.  I live off William Tyndale Crescent, and I saw ‘em coming.  They needed somewhere to go, and there was nowhere else I could have taken them.

[Committee Chair]: Did you know at this point what had happened?

[Will Bebb]: The people told us, so we knew there was a flood, but we thought it was a burst water pipe that had flooded a couple of streets; we had no idea as to the true scale of the disaster.

The Second Councillor immediately organised for water pumps and sand bags to be sent to the Lower Windings, so that the floodwaters did not rise further into the city.

He also took over the Library in Dameg Square, because the Chambers was full of people.  The Library became our HQ.

[Committee Chair]: It was Second Councillor Cafell who introduced the Constraints, is that correct?

[Will Bebb]: That’s correct, yes.

[Committee Chair]: There was no Council debate, was there?  The Second Councillor introduced them on his own authority?

[Will Bebb]: There was no time for a debate.  That first day was utter chaos.  The displaced had fled in the early hours of the morning.  When the sun rose, crowds gathered in the Lower Windings – people wanted to see the floodwater, and some folk tried to get back to their flooded homes to rescue belongings, pets or family members they had lost contact with.  I think they finally said the death toll from the night the flood hit was over two hundred people.

[Committee Chair]: They recovered a hundred and twenty four bodies when the waters receded.  Seventy six people were reported missing and their bodies were never found.  So yes, close to two hundred fatalities.

[Will Bebb]: Terrible, just terrible.  We did not know that at the time, of course.  Everything was confusion and panic.  On the 7th of October people started to panic buy from the shops, and then they just started clearing the shelves, looting anything they could carry.  A few houses were broken in to.  All on the first day.

We needed to regain control and establish some order.  So the Second Councillor initiated the Constraints.  He had First Councillor Slarrock’s support.

A cordon was put in place in the Lower Windings so that civilians could not enter the floodwaters.  To stop the looting and the general confusion on the streets people were confined to their homes.  This was later relaxed to give people the freedom of their street.

[Committee Chair]: This all put enormous strain on Rookpot Constabulary.

[Will Bebb]: It did initially.  That’s why the Watchers Corps was set up.  We wanted at least three on every street to ensure people complied with the Constraints.  As it turned out, we got over a thousand volunteers, city-wide, which exceeded our expectations, and took a lot of pressure off the police.  The watchers had no police powers, you understand, but they could stop and report anyone who broke the Constraints.

[Committee Chair]: What were their responsibilities?

[Will Bebb]: They set up the checkpoints, and were the point of contact for everyone in their street.  They drew up inventories of all the food and medical supplies their street had and needed, and they reported to Library HQ.  We did not know how long Rookpot would be cut off, so we needed to do a city-wide stocktake and then ration supplies fairly.

[Committee Chair]: Did the watchers issue the passes?

[Will Bebb]: They did not issue them – Library HQ did that – but they did check everyone’s pass at the checkpoints.

[Committee Chair]: What were the different grades of passes?

[Will Bebb]: There were the free passes, which all Councillors, police officers and health workers had, and these allowed complete freedom of the city.  There were occupation passes for those who had to leave their homes to carry out an important job, like a shopkeeper, the boatmen, various other supply chain or administrative roles – these passes allowed travel between specific points in the city.

[Committee Chair]: We have the list of occupations here.

[Will Bebb]: That’s the final list.  The longer the city was cut off, the more occupations were added.  We ended up with over a hundred, I think.

[Committee Chair]: A hundred and fifty eight.

[Will Bebb]: All essential occupations, I’m sure.  The final grade of passes were called neighbourhood passes, and they were for those who looked after vulnerable people, helping with shopping, cleaning, keeping an eye on them.  Some called them caring passes.

The Constraints were designed manage the situation as best as possible.  They were gradually relaxed as we came to rely on other methods like the ration cards.

[Committee Chair]: When were the boatmen recruited?

[Will Bebb]: As soon as we realised we needed to get word out!  The telephones on the tor were not working – I think an exchange went down in the flood.

It was a bit of a challenge, because there ain’t many boats on the tor!

There were already salvagers who were trying to recover items from the floodwaters.  They had made boats, or things that floated anyway, out of all sorts of things: furniture, outbuildings, anything they could get hold of.  We commandeered the salvagers and organised them into the Rookpot Fleet.

[Committee Chair]: Isn’t “fleet” a bit of a grandiose term?

[Will Bebb]: I don’t think so.  We wouldn’t have survived without them – and I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic in saying that.

The flood waters were difficult to navigate, because there were submerged obstacles and dangers, and the waters were very choppy for the first few weeks.  Real boats would have found conditions a challenge, what we had was a flotilla of cabinets, wardrobes, doors – including the fifteenth century oak doors from the Cathedral – fence panels, beds, and three preserved boarhide coracles from the Museum vaults.  They set up a supply chain across the water, and it was dangerous work.

They were our only contact with the outside world.  The first boat to return informed us that a Rookpot Relief Station had been set up in Cwm Purne, and efforts were coordinated from there to receive donations and support from all over Farynshire.  They had warehouses full of all sorts of supplies for us.  They sent newspapers and radios so we could stay up-to-date with the news.  They were also a mail service, so we could stay in contact with people outside the city.  Small boats had been sent from Riversouth and Sylnmouth and the villages on the coast.  These were the boats we used for the exodus.

The Rookpot Fleet was crewed by a group of very brave volunteers, most of whom had no prior sailing experience.

[Committee Chair]: We know that some of them charged extra for their services.  There have been many trials.

[Will Bebb]: That was a tiny number.  I will not allow the bravery and self-sacrifice of the overwhelming majority to be subsumed by the selfish opportunism of a few individuals – all of whom were brought to justice subsequently.

The fleet kept supplies coming into Rookpot, allowing the Council to relax the Constraints, and ensured communication lines were kept open in both directions.

[Committee Chair]: Thank you, Sixth Councillor.  Your passionate recollection is fascinating, and will be preserved in our records.

[Will Bebb]: Good.  This was an extraordinary experience to live through.  And I will never forget how the city, and the entire county, came together with a real and genuine community spirit.  That’s what got us through.  

 

 Cyril Orville

A student at Rookpot University

Age during the flood: 18

A volunteer watcher in Red Brick Halls

This interview was carried out in 1968 after the Voices of Rookpot project tracked Cyril down to Auckland, New Zealand, where he emigrated after the Second World War.

 

I’ve seen some strange things in my time, believe me – but that flood – never seen anything like that!  We could not see an end to the water – it looked like the whole world had flooded, and only Rookpot was left as an island.  There were ducks and swans on submerged rooves or bobbing on top of grey waves.

I was in my first semester at Rookpot University, living in dorms on Wessentor.  It was my first time away from home, and my immediate thoughts were for my family back in Liverpool – was everywhere underwater?  That’s what caused the most anxiety, because we couldn’t find out. All the phone lines were down, and no post could get out or in.  We would not get any word from our families for another two weeks.

The university closed – all classes were cancelled.  I was in Red Brick Halls, which was where the Humanities undergraduates lived.  We all went to the water’s edge in the Lower Wildings as soon as it got light on the first morning.  It was devastating.  All the streets from the train station right to the bottom of the tor were underwater.  At the time we had no idea where it had come from –the assumption was that the Darkflint River had burst its banks, because there had been no recent rain, but nobody could see how it could have held so much water.  I remember in those first days people were worried that more water would come.  We helped build a blockade using all sorts of debris that was brought from all over the city to build a wall right down the middle of Upper Lower Winding Arch Crescent.

The Council were very on the ball, I remember.  It was the next day when someone from Library HQ came round to the dorms and talked to the House Masters.  The assumption was that Rookpot would be cut off for a while, so the priority was to ensure everyone on the tor was kept safe, and that was the point of the Constraints.

We were not allowed out on to the streets until watchers had been recruited.  I signed up immediately, one of three for our dorm.  We were given occupational passes, so we could travel through the city to Library HQ – we had a specific route that we were not allowed to deviate from.  I still remember it now: from Red Brick Crescent, up Second High Street, along Sylnmouth Avenue, through the Dark Cut and into Dameg Square.  Truth be told, I did not really like walking around Rookpot at this time – it felt like a different city.  Rookpot is usually bustling and the empty streets were really creepy.  There were barricades across some roads – barricades!

I think a lot of the incidents the police had to deal with – the fights, those fires, the vandalism – were because of boredom.  I had to stop five of our boys from embarking on a night time excursion – they just wanted to get out for a change of scene.

The call for volunteers kept most people busy.  A few of our lot joined the Fleet.  When the supplies started coming in there were roles in the redistribution offices, sorting out rations for each area of the city.

I remember when the first delivery came from Cwm Purne.  The Rookpot Fleet had been out on the waters for a couple of weeks, we could see their homemade craft in what we called Rookpot Harbour, tethered to chimney pots.  This was the first time a boat from outside came to us.

Everyone gathered at the water’s edge to watch the boat come in.  It was a dinghy from Riversouth with a small sail, and it towed another boat full of boxes that had been donated from people from all over Farynshire.  Nobody outside really knew what we needed yet, so there were medical supplies, boxes of fruit, children’s toys, blankets, a crate of green wine, and seven pallets of mushrooms from Tropsog.  Everyone was so excited.  The crowds carried the boxes up to Library HQ.  I don’t think any of it was stolen either.  Later on supplies had to be escorted up the tor by the police to ensure it all reached HQ for fair redistribution – but everything in that first delivery made it.

I took up a role in the redistribution office for Red Brick Crescent.  Every street had one, a place that would receive the rations and then allocate them to each house.  More and more boats came across the flood plains, and they carried supplies like food and blankets and medical supplies, but the most important thing were the messages and letters from family and others outside of Rookpot.  When those started coming in, the mood in the city definitely lifted.

Do you know what I find really strange?  This is the first time I’ve talked about it properly.  I stayed on to re-start my degree in September ’04, rather than go to another uni back over the mountains.  My parents wanted me to do that.  I wanted to be in Rookpot, to see the re-building and help if I could.  We didn’t really talk about the flood in those years – not like this, not talking about what we went through.  It was all about how to move forward.  How to recover, re-build and help those who had lost so much in the flood.  There was a resolute determination to make things better for everyone.  I haven’t been back to Rookpot in decades, but I hope they’ve still got that.

 

Llywd Roke

Worked as a boatman

Age during the flood: 45

These excerpts were taken from the court proceedings of The City of Rookpot v Llywd Roke case that concluded in 1905.

[L. Roke]: You should know that everyone was doing it.  I wasn’t doing anything that everyone else wasn’t doing too.  We all saw an opportunity and we took it.

It was just business, a business opportunity.

[A. Whittaker]: In this moment of crisis, you saw a business opportunity?

[L. Roke]: I saw that people were in dire need, and I provided a service – a much-needed service.  And I think I saved a lot of lives too – let me just say that.  Had I not been there, a lot of people would have died – I really believe that.

[A Whittaker]: I believe you started your venture almost immediately?

[L. Roke]: It was complete chaos in that first week.

The people from the Lower Windings, whose houses were now underwater, were completely desperate.  I saw it myself when I was on Upper Lower Winding Arch Crescent, which is where the water reached up to.

There was a young family near the edge of the water.  The woman was completely hysterical, screaming at her husband who was in the water, wading further out to try and rescue what looked like wet rat that was getting dragged further and further away by the current.  Two small children were running up and down, shrieking.  This chap was clearly about to do something stupid like dive into the water.

It was dangerous, alright – so what else could I do?  He could have drowned.

Somebody had to do something.

One of the houses nearby had water inside it, reaching halfway up the stairs, and the front door was hanging off.  So I pulled that door right off and used it as a raft, didn’t I?  Didn’t think twice – just jumped straight on and made off across the water, steering with my hands.

I grabbed the rat, which was the family dog – one of those small, fluffy ones that go all scrawny when they’re wet.

We were both soaked through when we got back to the shore.  The woman snatched the dog off me and squeezed it half to death.  The man shoved two five pound notes into my hands!

[A. Whittaker]: And you took it?

[L. Roke]: He gave me ten pounds!  Called me a hero!  Pays well, being a hero.

‘Course, that’s when the lightbulb went off.  People should pay the salvagers – we was risking our lives for their belongings!  We deserved proper recompense.

People had fled up the tor with nothing they couldn’t carry.  They were desperate to see if anything had survived in their houses, but they often did not have any money on them.  So we would take any valuables they offered.

[A. Whittaker]: You insisted on being paid?

[L. Roke]: I have people to take care of too, you know –got to put food on the table for my wife and boy.

[A. Whittaker]: But you knew it was illegal to take money for salvage?  That was the first decree the Council issued.

[L. Roke]: What were we supposed to do if folk wanted to pay us?  Most times we did not need to ask at all!  They felt we should be fairly compensated for the service we provided.

[A. Whittaker]: I see.  You made your own craft, didn’t you?

[L. Roke]: I did.  I work in construction, see.  The new ticket office in the station?  That was me.  I had the skills and tools to make something substantial – you needed something substantial to safely negotiate the waters – they was rough in those first weeks, and you never knew what was lurking just below the surface.  I adapted the door I used to save the dog.  I used it as a part of my boat – and I realised I needed a lot more material.  I broke apart my garden shed and used that.  Never been much of a sailor, but at least she floated.  Called her Green Betty.

[A. Whittaker]: And that’s what you used when you became a boatman?

[L. Roke]: That’s right.  I signed up with the rest of the salvagers – they recruited all of us.

[A. Whittaker]: Voluntarily?

[L. Roke]: Of course voluntarily.  As soon as they said they were going to take our boats and prosecute us, all the salvagers volunteered.

[A. Whittaker]: “They” being officials from the Second Councillor’s office?

[L. Roke]: That’s right.  Some small skinny guy called Shebb, I think.  They were recruiting a fleet – Rookpot Fleet, they called it, so at least they had a sense of humour!

They made up these complicated plans, but basically the fleet was split into two main groups.  The smaller vessels carried on the salvaging work – trying to recover anything from the flooded streets.  And those of us with more seaworthy craft went further afield – reconnoitring, like.  Eventually we found safe routes through to Cwm Purne.

[A. Whittaker]: You were one of the latter?

[L. Roke]: I was.  But not the farm work.  That was the boats that went to check on the farms that were on the pastures, which were all underwater, of course.  And the work was bloody – sorry, m’lud- awful – recovering loads of animal bodies, mainly.

I already had Green Betty, so I was one of the first to get to Cwm Purne.  The waters reached that far.  Strangest journey, I’ve ever made.  When I looked back I saw Rookpot Tor, which is normal, you know?  You can always see the tor from miles away.  But usually it’s surrounded by the pastures; I was looking at an island, surrounded by a grey sea.

[A. Whittaker]: What were your duties?

[L. Roke]: Green Betty was big enough to carry cargo, so we brought back supplies.  Cwm Purne train station was where all the supplies were deposited, and they had runners, trolleys and carriers to bring the supplies down to whichever makeshift jetty you were moored at and off you went.

[A. Whittaker]: How many trips did you make a day?

[L. Roke]: Once everything was up and running, on a fine day, with good weather, we could easily do ten or so round trips.  On days when it rained, maybe five or six.  There were only a couple of days when we couldn’t get out at all.

[A. Whittaker]: Even when the real boats came from the coast?

[L. Roke]: Excuse me –we had the real boats!  They offered us some of those “proper” boats, but we all stuck with the ones we had made ourselves – we knew they worked for us just fine.

[A. Whittaker]: Say you did ten trips in a day – how many of those did you charge for?

[L. Roke]: *silence*

[A. Whittaker]: Did you understand the question, Mr. Roke?  You have admitted to accepting money when you were salvaging.  But when you were recruited into the Fleet you were paid a stipend, as all the boatmen were.  Despite this regular wage, you also charged for transporting certain cargo.  Is that correct?

[L. Roke]: Look, what you have to understand is that folk wanted to pay us.  They were willing to pay extra for goods off the boats, rather than wait to buy it from the shops, when they usually had to queue for hours anyway to get to empty shelves.

[A. Whittaker]: When the police caught you, you were selling bread from out of your vessel at four times the price it would sell for in the shop.

[L .Roke]: People were willing to pay far more than that, believe me.

[A. Whittaker]: Did you ask for money before you delivered private correspondence?

[L. Roke]: Only to those that could afford it.  Only to the Peer Families – they sent their servants to collect their mail, and the servants always carried money.

[A. Whittaker]: I have a list here of people who said they had to pay you money for private correspondence before you would relinquish it to them.  There are indeed some Peer names: Ayres, Slarrocks, Witherick-Fosters. But there are also non-Peer names like Gudges, Hethersetts and Nalls.  There is even a Ruby Roke here – is she a relative of yours?  Please, don’t interrupt, Mr. Roke.  And even if they were Peers, what you did is still reprehensible, immoral, mercenary, and most pertinently, illegal.  Do you have anything to say in you defence?

[L. Roke]: I was never in it for the money!  I was one of the heroes – I was part of the Fleet!  We saved Rookpot!

[A. Whittaker]: I see.  The prosecution rests.  We are done here. 

Llywd Roke was given the standard sentence for illegal salvaging of two years, and the standard sentence for racketeering of two years, to be served consecutively.

Voices of Rookpot 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s