Flooding in Oxford Exhibition
This exhibition discusses some of the issues around flooding in Oxford, past and present. Clicking on each image will allow you to view more information about that particular item. This is an evolving document so please feel free to comment on the issues raised and to submit your own items that can be included in the exhibition.
Regular major flooding in and around Oxford has long been a problem but the types of flooding are changing.
Oxford is close to the meeting (confluence) of the Thames, Cherwell, the Ray, Windrush and Bayswater Brook. As a result, heavy rainfall anywhere in a very large area can cause rising water levels downstream in Oxford. There is a large, flat area around at Port Meadow which fills in time of flood, as shown here in 2021.
Flooding in the past
Serious flooding occurred every 10-20 years throughout the 19th century, mainly affecting residential areas, including St Ebbes, Jericho, Osney, Botley Road, the railway station, Abingdon Road, Cold Harbour and Hinksey. These low lying areas were often inhabited by the poor, who frequently suffered the most from flooding.
A major flood occured in 1852. On the 20th of December of that year, the Times reported that “although the floods have considerably abated from what they were some weeks ago,.. they cover the fields around Oxford…Cases of fever are reported to have occurred from low-lying houses near the river near the water, and attention to this cannot be too earnestly given."
On the 20th of December 1852, the Times reported that “although the floods have considerably abated from what they were some weeks ago,.. they cover the fields around Oxford…Cases of fever are reported to have occurred from low-lying houses near the river near the water, and attention to this cannot be too earnestly given."
After a terrible flood in 1894, the Mayor of Oxford, Mr C. Underhill complained about the building of houses in low lying areas. He was quoted as saying “….a strong feeling of indignation was passing through his breast with those who permitted buildings and put up buildings in such a miserable situation. “
These same thoughts are often echoed today.
Types of flooding
There are three major types of flooding, all of which can potentially occur in the Oxford area:
- River or fluvial flooding is the result of heavy rainfall accumulating in rivers and causing them to overflow downstream.
- Groundwater flooding occurs when water levels in underground permeable rocks are so high that water comes up to the surface and into cellars.
- Surface flooding is caused by water that runs off the land, particularly if that land is saturated with water.
Controlling flooding today
Oxford City Council performed a Preliminary Flood Risk Assessment in 2011, concluding, among other things, that climate change will lead to more intense rains, with three times more heavy rain days in winter and storms containing 40% more water [5.7.4]. It was also noted Oxford is in the highest level of risk of groundwater flooding [5.4.3]. But little research has been done into past flooding and further assessments seem valuable.
Risk of river flooding has been lessened slightly in recent years by dredging and improvement of locks, mills and weirs, which helps river water to drain away more effectively. However, the removal of hedges, larger fields and building on fields which previously retained water have increased run off and contributed to worsened surface and groundwater flooding. Increased intensity of rainfall linked to climate change is likely to lead to more flash flooding.
So what can be done? Replanting of trees and hedges can help the ground to hold water during heavy rains so that it does not cause flooding. Projects like this are ongoing, such as the tiny forests planted at Meadow Lane and Northway. Careful choice of locations for building will be important, but as always many pressures make this a complex area. Preventing climate change will reduce the likelihood of heavy rains. Much hope lies passionate young people who are willing to stand up for change.
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Sources and further information
With thanks to Julie Ann Godson and all contributors so far.
Tina Eyre- Volunteer Digital Curator