AS the skies open across West Dorset this winter, we look back at the spring of 1979, when flash floods devastated the area.

On Wednesday, May 30, 1979, two-and-a-half inches of rain fell in just five hours, causing chaotic flooding across the region. Both the River Asker and the River Simene burst their banks, and all main streets of Bridport were underwater by the afternoon.

At Charmouth, a family of six narrowly escaped death by climbing an oak tree after their caravan was swept into the swirling river Char. Mr and Mrs William Chapman and their four young children managed to get on the roof of their caravan and then into the tree, where they waited for almost two hours before being rescued.

Involved in the rescue were coastguards, police officers, firefighters, inshore lifeboat crew and fishermen, who assisted with small boats. The family were eventually brought to safety on a fibre glass dorey before being taken to Lyme Regis Hospital where they were treated for severe shock and exhaustion.

Originally from Westcot, Surrey, the Chapmans had been in Charmouth for a two-week holiday.

It was a similar situation at West Bay campsite, where many of the caravans were reported to be floating on floodwater and crashing into one another. Most holidaymakers were evacuated to Colfox School.

A woman from Bradpole endured a particularly frightening experience when she fell into the floodwater after opening her backdoor. Miss Edith Marjorie Ellis was rescued after being spotted floating down the flood-induced river in her nightgown; she was taken to Port Bredy Hospital where her condition the following day was described as "satisfactory."

Another story of personal courage involved Mrs Doris Joy, then 66, who had recently recovered from a heart attack. The Pymore resident crawled across a bridge of firemen's ladders from her attic window three storeys high to an adjacent roof, while floodwater raged below.

Mrs Joy was reported saying: "I am still dazed by it all. It is surprising what you can do when you know you have to. The firemen were ever so good."

The aftermath of the flood saw 20 RAF personnel pitch up in Bridport for five days, using hot air blowers to dry out 150 of the worst affected homes in the town. The men were housed in the Women's Institute Hall and catered for by members of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service (WRVS).

At the end of their stay, Bridport Rotary Club provided the men with two crates of beer as a token of their appreciation.

Three West Bay Sea Scouts were recommended for a gallantry award after helping victims at the campsite during the floods. Chris Legg, Rodney Davis and Martin Dunn helped holidaymakers cross the bridge at the harbour, many of whom were laden with luggage and caring for children.

Scout leader Chris Deacon commented: "Water was cascading over the bridge and the boys battered their way across. They were marvellous and I shall be putting in a request to the county commissioner for three gallantry awards."

A week after the deluge, speculation was also emerging about whether the floods could have been prevented. Dr John Forbes, a consulting civil engineer, blamed the weir 200 yards upstream from where the River Asker crosses Sea Road North for the extensive damage caused by the downpours.

Dr Forbes, whose own home was one of many destroyed by the floods, said that the weir was too large to control the flow of the river in flood conditions.

The aftermath also saw three Bridport organisations join forces to help victims in the area. The Lions' Club, the Round Table and the Rotary Club jointly opened an appeal fund, which quickly welcomed donations from local residents and individuals from as far as Battersea, London.

Newspaper coverage of the flash floods continued for many weeks after the deluge, with the clean-up operation an ongoing challenge.

If you have any information, photos or memories of the May 1979 floods that you would like to share, send them to or Bridport News, Fleet House, Hampshire Road, Weymouth, Dorset, DT4 9XD.