Owenna Grepe (nee Barner)
District Nurse based in St Agatha’s Hospital
Age during the flood: 23
This interview was carried out in 1953 as part of Owenna’s granddaughter, Katrin Grepe’s, postgraduate research project, long after Owenna had retired.
I’m originally from Sylnmouth, but I stayed on in Rookpot after I completed my training. I took up a position at St Agatha’s as a district nurse in 1900.
It’s likely that there were unlucky folk whose bodies we’ll never find, God rest their souls. But there were others we could save. The waters broke at about five ‘o’clock in the morning, and rose so quickly that people were caught unawares. In the streets on the lower slopes, water gushed into houses, and the first patients we saw had injuries from being swept into walls, or from objects hitting them. The wards filled up quickly, and every one of us was called in or kept on for extra shifts. I would usually not work on the wards, but it was all hands on deck at that time.
I worked half shifts in St. Agatha’s, usually in the mornings, then I’d hop on my bike to do my community rounds. Everyone who worked in the hospital was given a free pass so we could go anywhere in the city. Each of us was assigned a grid to look after, and I was given the area between Upper Lower Winding Arch Crescent and Wilberforce Crescent.
I got to know most of the watchers really well on my visits to my regulars. I had to show my pass at every checkpoint, and they always checked my basket to make sure I wasn’t taking anything but prescribed medical supplies into their street. One confiscated my lunch!
The Cathedral bells rang out every evening, just to keep everyone’s spirits up. I did go to one or two services, and the Cathedral was full of people –some of whom lived there!
The Party was the first time we were allowed to have fun and let off steam. We went to the roof of the hospital and sang and danced until we dropped. It was a much needed release. The whole tor came alive in defiant celebration. There were fireworks so everyone in Cwm Purne could see we were alright and we were not beaten. Every street made as much noise as they could during the parties – Cwm Purne could probably hear us too!
The exodus was the evacuation of those who had lost their homes, those who were vulnerable, and also some of the hospital patients. There were limited places on the boats, and the people were carefully selected. Many wanted to leave, and the police had to keep them away from the exodus boats to stop them clambering on and sinking them. These people were desperate: some did not see why they had to stay, some thought they could buy their way out, some had family they wanted to return to. I ensured our patients were settled on their boats before returning to my rounds. Quite a few people offered me money if I would let them take the patient’s place instead. There were times when I was on my rounds when occasionally someone would offer me money or jewellery to get them on a transport out, but even if I had had the authority to do that I never would have.
But that was rare. Mostly what I encountered was a stoic determination to help out their family, friends and neighbours. Most people could not move freely about the city, so they asked those of us with free passes to take messages to family or friends in other streets. I had to discourage them from giving me food parcels, as the watchers would not have let them leave the street.
I saw the waters begin to recede during November. Every time it rained, especially if it lasted for a few days, people would get nervous, fearing another surge, but gradually the waters drained away.
But even after the floodwater was gone there was the mud, and then in December there was ice and the snow, so most of us still could not leave. I finally left on February 23rd, just to go back to Sylnmouth for a few days to see my family. I came back two weeks later. There was still a lot to do in Rookpot.
Age during the flood: 71
Violet kept diaries comprised of short entries for over six decades. These extracts were taken from the 1903 volume. Violet’s diaries have been kindly donated by the Ayres family to the Voices of Rookpot
Never seen anything like this. The Darkflint has burst its banks. Rookpot is an island. Can see waters for miles around. It’s like the sea has rolled into the middle of the county. The View not affected, but lower slopes look in a bad way. Family alright. Checked with Reynolds re servants: all accounted for.
Arklay Slarrock doing the rounds, just checking all Peers are well. Said the Council has it hand – suspect this means Cafell – he seems competent. Arklay decent chap, but not very practical, never took the First Councillor role seriously. Reynolds taking inventory of the stores and kitchen – see how many days we have. Must think what we can do.
Went to Dameg Square. Council have set up HQ in the Library. Many displaced people. The lower slopes were hit hard. Loss of life. Cafell doing a good job – needs more resources. Not possible to get through waters on foot, so Cafell wants boats! In Rookpot!!
Volunteered (Teddy made a fuss) – they need everyone they can get. Received my pass! Lots of organising to do. Might be able to help in other ways too – will talk to Teddy.
Rookpot on emergency footing. No signs of the flood easing at all.
Volunteering duties include making lists of displaced – names, addresses, losses. Whole of Library ground floor taken over. Very impressive organisation, very quick off the mark. Cafell has opened the Council Chambers to the displaced long term – Arklay not pleased! Impressed with Cafell – really cares about the city. Wonder how long Rookpot can be self-sufficient for.
Rookpot Fleet launched. Sounds like it went well. Must have been a sight! Hope it doesn’t sink!
Teddy fuming – thinks Peers should be exempt from having passes and should have freedom of the city! Disagree (and told him so) – you only get a pass if you are useful. I have an occupational pass, because I have an occupation. Told Teddy that being rich is not an occupation.
Visited the Cathedral – people sleeping on the floor and on the pews. Services carrying on morning and evening.
Teddy very peeved! Exerted my authority as Grandma and eldest Ayres to open up the View to the displaced. Might as well use the sixteen spare bedrooms – each one big enough to house a family, at least temporarily – better than them staying in the cramped conditions in the Council Chambers. Big operation – rallied the whole family; Reynolds rallied the servants. Lovely to have a full household!
Took Reynolds and the children to the Cathedral service. Cathedral completely full – people on streets outside. Singing filled the streets. Love hearing the bells every evening.
A member of one of our new families, Peg Hethersett, and our footman, Hughes, have volunteered to be watchers – helping with inventory of the View.
Found Teddy in the smaller wine cellar trying to remove a few bottles – said they shouldn’t be part of the inventory because they’re not ready to drink yet! Pointed out the hospital could use them for sterilising equipment – didn’t go down well!
Boats are coming to Rookpot regularly now – who would have thought! Sent letters to Luella in Riversouth and Dinah somewhere over the mountains – heard nothing back yet – not sure if they got through. Think a party might cheer people up – will recommend to Cafell and Arklay.
Arklay utterly useless! Couldn’t make a decision if his life depended on it! Could not say whether a party would contravene the Constraints. Seems like our First Councillor is really second in command.
Asked Cafell instead, but he was too busy. It’s up to me! Recruited Hughes and Peg to help. Can’t use rations, so this will have to be about dressing up and music, I think, not food and drink.
Party! Have to give enormous credit to Peg, Reynolds and Hughes for spreading the word. Every street in Rookpot came out for a street party! Biggest party the city has ever seen – fireworks, music, dancing! Amazing scenes from the View. Must make an annual event.
Received ration cards. Teddy furious. The View is entitled to very little extra, despite the extra families. Explained that the rations are conservative until the supplies can be guaranteed. Hughes a marvel – reassured us that we have plenty in storage. Hughes has worked out our own rationing system. Only Reynolds, Hughes and Cook allowed in the stores. Meals prepared every hour for staggered sittings, as there are too many of us to eat together.
Schools opening around the city – surprised it took so long. Peg escorted the children at the View to the temporary school in Raven Theatre. Insisted that Honor and Otto go as well, as Bonheddig unreachable (and probably closed). Teddy objected, but no grandchild of mine is going miss schooling. Other Peers are sending their children to local schools as well – could be the end of Bonheddig!
Getting used to this new normal. Days consist of volunteering with whatever needs doing – usually recording rationing, but sometimes coordinating other volunteers. Boats come in a few times a day – depends on the weather. The mail is distributed by watchers throughout the week (received letters from Dinah and Luella – they are relieved we are all well). Dedicated shops receive supplies and open for one day so people can buy their rations.
Hughes and Reynolds informed me that Teddy had bought “extra rations” from unscrupulous boatmen. Should inform watchers and police – very tempted.
Anonymously left Teddy’s ill-gotten gains in Library HQ. Hope they get to the right people – Cafell will make sure.
Waters are receding!
Visited Peg’s house in the Lower Windings – there is a lot of damage. Can’t possibly live there. Thick mud covers everything. Nothing left to salvage at all. Peg devastated. Told her there and then that we will make this well and whole again. We will re-build. We must.
Met with Arklay and Cafell (Teddy suspicious; insisted on being present). Asked them to help promote the Rookpot Flood Relief Trust. Asked the Peer Families to pledge a contribution. Ayres will double the largest pledge.
Rookpot open for business again! Relief Trust booming – and in much need. Cafell organising the Clean Up, then the re-building. Opportunity for re-design. Will talk to Arklay.
22nd January 1904
Peg and Hughes (first name possibly Frank) announced their engagement! Have offered the use of the View – Teddy thrilled!
Amos Whittaker (55 at the time of the flood) and Gifford Piper (30 at the time of the flood)
These excerpts were taken from letters written between Amos Whittaker who was trapped in Rookpot by the flood and Gifford Piper who was in Cwm Purne. They were in the process of establishing the law firm, Whittaker and Piper, and we thank their descendants for making these letters public
12th October 1903
Hope this note finds you well – hope it finds you full stop!
Have entrusted it to one of the Fleet in more faith than expectation.
By the time you read these words you will know of the exceptional, biblical, events that have befallen Rookpot.
Know that I am perfectly safe and well. I remain in the office in Dedd Cut.
Will continue to write in hopes you receive these notes.
15th October 1903
My dear Whit,
So good to hear from you!
I was returning home and alas was halted at Cwm Purne, and here I shall stay for the foreseeable future. I can see Rookpot from here – a lonely island in an unnatural sea. A truly strange and unexpected sight.
The first boats arrived from Rookpot this week. I never suspected I would write such a sentence! I was amongst the crowds waiting on the water’s edge. I wish I could accurately describe the otherworldly spectacle of a fleet of boats sailing from the tor. It was like a scene from a novel.
This Rookpot Fleet will be the city’s lifeline until the waters subside. They are bringing supplies back to you – and there will be regular shipments.
They are also the only means of communication. I suspected you would write, and spoke with the boatmen until I found the one with your letter. I quickly wrote this note so he could take it with him on his return. I sincerely hope you receive it.
I eagerly await your reply.
Stay safe, my friend.
18th October 1903
I received your letter this morning, my dear chap.
Restrictions have been placed upon our everyday lives here to ensure civil compliance. We are not allowed to leave our streets unless we have been issued Council issued passes. Watchers are augmenting the police presence by manning checkpoints on every street. The watcher for Dedd Cut is a young actuary called Col Drew. He took an inventory of everything in our premises, mainly interested in food and beverages. The idea is that each street will share its resources among its residents for as long as possible. Was not able to contribute much!
The supplies the fleet bring in will help.
The watchers bring the mail for their street, and I instructed young Col to take this letter to a boat with great haste. It should reach you soon.
25th October 1903
My dear Whit,
Received your letter!
The authorities on this side organise and distribute correspondence, and the bureaucracy inevitably leads to delay.
Have taken a room near this operation. Was lucky to find space, as Cwm Purne is full to bursting with Rookpotians (like myself) trapped outside the city, those concerned for family and friends on the tor, and assorted interested and curious parties such as journalists and opportunists.
Heard the Cathedral bells over the water – the sound filled my heart.
It probably will not surprise you to learn that this extraordinary predicament has attracted attention from beyond Farynshire’s borders.
This note should be accompanied by a selection of sweetmeats and some bread rolls that I bought from a baker.
Take cafe and stay safe.
1st November 1903
Alas, your note arrived alone. I questioned young Col most sternly in this matter, but he pleaded ignorance, and I believe him innocent. I lament the loss of the bread and sweetmeats, but your words are of the greater value and sustenance to me.
This alleged theft is not an isolated occurrence. I believe our services will be much in demand post clear up, as, according to young Col, the scammers and salvagers are rife. Young Col mentioned our firm to Library HQ, and I have been receiving legal queries with regards to the petty crimes that have happened during these strange times. My advisement is to collate the misdemeanours and address them post-flood.
Meanwhile, this restricted existence has become routine very quickly. I have ample time to read over potential cases. I have requested many legal tomes from the Library that young Col is only too willing to fetch for me. I am compiling a list for the firm library when we have the opportunity to establish it.
The Cathedral bells ring out every evening. It lifts my spirits to know we can both hear them.
7th November 1903
My dear Whit,
Appalled though not shocked to hear of theft. There are constant stories of such scandalous behaviour.
I have placed this note within a sealed tin with half a nettle cake. Curious to hear if entire contents reach you.
Had similar thoughts to you re taking on future cases. There are farmers here who lost their properties in the flood and are seeking advice with regards to compensation. There will be a surfeit of legal wranglings.
Have set up room in Burke and Bartlett – under the Whittaker and Piper name. Offering legal advice; anticipate increased caseload. Good to keep working.
Hope to see you soon.
12th November 1903
Nettle cake got through! Sealed tin effective transportation method.
Intrigued to hear that we have a Cwm Purne branch! I have complementary good news: Second Councillor Merritt Cafell came calling today, requesting that our firm represents the Council in upcoming City cases. This could establish the firm as a legal force in Rookpot.
Think a boat should be on the firm crest – too adjacent?
There are rumours within the city that the waters are beginning to recede. I do not have a pass, so cannot verify. Any confirmation from your perspective?
I look forward to our reunion very much.
20th November 1903
My dear Whit,
Apologies for the delay in my response – received your note dated the twelfth only yesterday.
Suspect that this is because the boats have started ferrying people, resulting in chaos on our “docks”. There is more confusion in distribution and organisation. They call it an exodus. Soon those trapped here will be permitted to embark upon a staggered return to Rookpot.
I was tempted to volunteer, but I have work to do here! Does it sit well with you if I remain here for the foreseeable?
Re the firm crest – had not given this much thought! You wish to acknowledge the flood’s part in our ascendancy? I advise caution.
I hope this note reaches you.
Expect to see you and Rookpot soon.
Chaos here too. Many people wish to leave, and I understand that the police had to intervene in our “Harbour”. We have not yet heard that anyone will be allowed into the city – I suspect the Council will exercise caution.
Young Col tells me the waters ebb daily. Though there are now ice floes to contend with.
Caseload building. Have advised the Council and courts to batch them in a few weeks.
Embark on the first ferry you can.
My dear Whit,
Packing up here now.
Caseload building this end also. Enough for twenty plus law firms.
Fear that the water is now too low, so a few ferries leaving in a couple of days.
Paid to assure passage.
Bringing raisin muffins.
See you this week.
Will see you very soon. Prepare for hard work and no rest.
Age at the time of the flood: 49
Despite his public role, Second Councillor Merritt Cafell rarely gave interviews. There is only one profile piece on him in The County Voice, written by dogged journalist, Rhys Stone, who managed to get Cafell to talk to him at the ten year commemoration of the flood.
Stone: Thank you for your time, Mr Cafell.
Cafell: This will have to be a short interview: I’m fearfully busy.
Stone: I appreciate that. Will you be attending the 10 Year Anniversary Commemorations at the View?
Cafell: No, will you?
Stone: Definitely. The Ayres have thrown the doors open – the whole city is invited. Were you asked to give a speech? You led the city during this time.
Cafell: First Councillor Arklay Slarrock led the city. I believe he is giving a speech tonight.
Stone: Did Mrs. Violet ask you?
Cafell: She did. I think she was being polite. Mrs. Violet certainly knows how to throw a party.
Stone: She organised the street parties during the flood, didn’t she? Do you think they helped with morale?
Cafell: I suppose that they did. They also served as a useful distraction; kept everyone busy.
Stone: Mrs. Violet also set up the Rookpot Flood Relief Trust that is still going to this day. It would have been impossible to re-build the city without it, wouldn’t it?
Cafell: Probably. It would definitely have taken more time. The Trust ensured we did not have to partner with private construction firms, which would have involved long negotiations, and those firms would have wanted to reap a profit.
Stone: Didn’t First Councillor Arklay Slarrock want to do that anyway?
Cafell: Council meetings are public record
Stone: They are, sir. You vetoed the idea.
Cafell: I did. It would have meant selling the properties back to the displaced, because technically they were new properties. That was unthinkable.
Stone: It would have earned the Council much-needed money for other projects
Cafell: It would have been immoral and wrong.
Stone: Why have the Council granted planning permission for the new housing developments on the pastures? Surely in the event of another flood, all of these homes will be doomed?
Cafell: There won’t be another flood. ’03 was the result of a specific and unique set of circumstances, and cannot happen again.
Stone: With respect, sir, how can you be so sure?
Cafell: We know now that a rockfall in the gorge resulted in the river building up behind it until the pressure grew too great and the dam burst, sending thousands of gallons of water rushing out of the gorge with terrific force. You can see the ridge in the distance from vantage points on the tor – it circumvents the entire area. Rookpot tor sits in the centre of a depression, which has resulted in a bountiful farm and pasture area that feeds the city. When the makeshift dam burst the water was caught in and swirled around this depression, creating an enormous lake. If the city had been built in the depression it would have been wiped out, like the farms were. We inspect the gorge every year now, clearing any blockages to ensure that the river flows freely.
Stone: Thank you, sir.
Cafell: Have we finished?
Stone: I suppose so, sir. Thank you for your time. I look forward to seeing you at the party.
Cafell: I really must get back to work.
The full records of all the contributions featured here are accessible to the public in the Voices of Farynshire Archive in Rookpot Museum.