In the Suffolk flood of 1939, David Allum and Prince, his shire horse, braved the torrent of flood water as heavy rain and rapidly melting deep snow combined to flood the Gipping Valley. In Ipswich hundreds of homes were under water in the low areas around the river. Black stinking cold flood water trapped many in their home for days. Leslie Beckett of Felixstowe, remembered the day well. Leslie said;
“As I cycled to work on that dull, wet and fateful afternoon, the road bridge, which also carried the gas and water services, collapsed into the flood water. The scene that morning of the meadows being under water alongside the River Gipping was not unusual for the time of year.”
“Runcton, where I lived with my parents, brothers and sister, was on the west bank of the river. The Fison, Packard and Prentice, Fertilizer Works, where I was employed, was on the east side. I used the river road crossing near Church Green, Bramford, four times daily. In the afternoon when I returned to work, after my midday dinner break, the water at the river bridge was still rising and flowing fast down stream. A flood seemed imminent”
“The flood water had reached an unusually high level and showed signs of submerging the road, which was several feet above the hidden pastures. Close by the water under the railway bridge was rising rapidly and already too deep to cycle through. In order not to get my feet and legs wet I cycled along the raised boarded platform to pass under the bridge. Throughout the afternoon the flood water continued to rise, swell and spread in the direction of Gables Corner and the gardens of houses in Works Lane.”
“The staff at the junior school was worried and concerned as to the safety of the children, particularly those whose homes were on the east side of the river. An urgent telephone call immediately highlighted an emergency. A cyclist hurried to Gables farm to alert and call for David Allum’s help. He hastily placed harnesses over the back of his Shire horse and backed him into the shafts of a high-wheeled farm wagon. He then climbed onto the wheel hub and quickly pulled himself into the wagon, at the same time nudging the horse to move off quickly”
“The bridge over the swollen river was no more than 200 yards away, but by the time the wagon passed under the railway bridge flood water was swirling above the horse’s knees. The pressure of flood water, and debris rushing across the hidden road, made David’s job very difficult in guiding his horse and wagon safely across the river bridge.”
“Scores of children and teachers were waiting for help at Church Green, many boys and girls had smiles on their faces as the horse’s head came up over the brow of the bridge. Other faces were looking worried.” The smaller ones were half-lifted and half-bundled onto the wagon floor. Ena Hunt and Miss Salter, the school head, were among the staff who eventually found room on board.
“Others too, seeking a safe passage to the east side of the river, wedged in the wagon where they could. Prince, with shoulders embedded deeply in his padded collar strained every muscle in his huge body as he hauled the heavy human load on its return over the bridge through ever deepening flood water. There were sighs of relief from waiting parents as children and teachers reached relative safety at Gables corner. Small children excitedly explained the wonderful unexpected adventure they had just experienced. Little did they realise the great danger they and others had encountered that afternoon.”
“As soon as the wagon was empty, David tugged on the rein to turn Prince for another pick-up and at the same time offer transport to those hovering around, wondering whether they dare risk crossing the flood waters to Shop Lane on the village side of the river. Men and women, some with pushchairs and bicycles, climbed aboard. Prince strained and jerked in the wagon shafts to move his high-wheeled vehicle. Splashing again under the railway bridge the flood surged even greater than before, water was now slopping under the horse’s body as he moved along. The hump of the bridge over the small stream could no longer be seen.”
“Nearing the main bridge, Prince was wary of going another step forward; he was unsure of his footing and sensed danger. Mr Allum, standing on the wagon shafts, gave a kind bidding and a flick of the rein to urge Prince forward, but there was no response. “Go on boy” coaxed David, but again, there was no forward movement, the horse stood his ground, he had no intention of crossing the bridge a third time.
Evidently troubled, Prince stood firm, he twitched with fear and would not budge, while further urging had no affect. The gathering crowd awaiting rescue on the other side of the river was becoming uneasy, wondering how they would reach home if rescue was abandoned. Those people in the rescue wagon also realised the danger of being swept away if they did not seek safety. It could have been a matter of life or death had David not made the crucial decision to turn back.”
“The continuous build up of flood water coming down stream and bearing against the road and bridge had, over the past 48 hours, been very extensive and had already weakened the bridge foundations. Brickwork was moving out of position and in so doing was no longer able to safely support the weight of the bridge road and steelwork. Within minutes the foundations crumbled and the whole road and bridge structure collapsed and disappeared under the muddy flood water onto the river bed, taking with it the village water and gas supplies. There is no doubt, but we shall never know, that on that cold and rain sodden February afternoon Prince and David may well have saved many lives and averted an even greater village disaster. Prince, the wonderfully intelligent horse, has become loved and part of Bramford folklore.”
“Within two days the village services had been reconnected and a small wooden bridge slung across the river for foot use and cycles. Another six months passed by before the Army was able to erect a vehicle carrying, Bailey bridge, which remained in situ for many years.”