Show Hide image

The legacy of the Essex deluge

What the great flood of January 1953 that devastated the East Coast and left 300 people dead can tell us about dealing with disaster. 

On Saturday 31 January 1953, the 7.27pm train from Hunstanton to King’s Lynn was brought to a crashing halt by “a bungalow floating on the crest of a wave [which] struck the engine squarely on the smoke-box, and damaged a vacuum brake pipe, so that the engine became immovable”. The rogue flood-tide that caused this bizarre breakdown had been long anticipated and dreaded. Within hours large areas of East Anglia were under water. Foulness and Canvey islands – the latter with a population of 11,000 – disappeared underneath the waves, leaving only the roofs of the bungalows showing. By morning there were 307 dead and 32,000 homeless, from King’s Lynn in Norfolk to Canning Town, east London.

Today, 66 years later, the 1953 floods still register as Britain’s largest natural disaster for more than a century. In the Netherlands, 1,800 people died, and the catastrophe is embedded in popular memory. In Britain it has been forgotten, though it contains invaluable lessons as to how people and organisations react in the face of unexpected natural disasters, of which more are to be expected in the coming decades.

The “villain of the piece” that night was identified as Low Z, a low depression that later merged with an older depression, Low K, south of Iceland, and swept eastward across Britain followed by High A, a ridge of high pressure. The result was a tidal surge some two metres higher than usual, breaching the sea walls of East Anglia and reducing the flat, largely arable coastline to a vast flood plain. The immutable law of tidal ebb and flow was suspended: a policeman walking along the Blackwater estuary reported the ebb tide “appeared not to go back at all”. Across the channel in the city of Vlaardingen in the Netherlands, “the record of the automatic tide-gauge showed no ebb at all after high water on Saturday afternoon”.

In time the disaster produced one of the great works of 20th century English social history: Hilda Grieve’s epic narrative, The Great Tide: The Story of the 1953 Flood Disaster in Essex, published in 1959 – the 60th anniversary of which is celebrated this year. This, alas, is as forgotten as the flood itself. Grieve’s great documentary work of 900 pages combined meteorological detail, weather and topographical maps, oral history, official records, photographs, written testimony, entries from emergency service incident books, and much else. All this was woven into a minute by minute narrative of the night’s events, from the moment the waves overtopped the seawall at Sandilands in Lincolnshire at 5.25pm on Saturday evening up to when the still-supercharged high tide arrived at Canning Town and the Port of London at 1.55am on Sunday morning to complete its destruction.

The reason for this level of recorded detail was that Grieve, a trained historian, took as her primary evidence the hundreds of log books kept by the emergency services. Each itemised even the smallest incident that night and the days that followed in meticulous detail. Grieve had form, having been staff officer to the county controller for civil defence during the Second World War, where she handled emergency operations and for which she was awarded a British Empire Medal. In addition to several years of patient desk research – she had been seconded by Essex County Council to undertake this daunting commission – Grieve walked more than 900 miles, examining the flood terrain and the damage to buildings and civil infrastructure, whilst interviewing rescuers and survivors. One of her successors at the Essex Record Office – where Grieve worked for much of her life – former county archivist Vic Gray, remembered Grieve as an “incredibly determined lady”.


Emergency call: checking for survivors on Canvey Island, where 58 people died. Credit:  PA archive

In The Great Tide, the catastrophe is documented street by street, describing the chaos as it unfolded. By midnight thick clouds obscured the moon, and the sea had not only broken through the main sea defences but in many places was now approaching dozens of coastal settlements from behind, surrounding people on all sides. This happened at Jaywick, a prewar plotland development tucked behind a high seawall, where 35 people died, unable to escape in any direction. Not everybody drowned. Many died of cold, perched on the roofs of their houses waiting in the dark, lashed by wind and water, dressed only in their night-clothes. “Some,” wrote Grieve, “collapsed with the intense cold and shock and slipped down from places of safety into the water. Children died quietly of exposure in their parents’ arms as they tried to hold them, hour after hour, above the water.” One mother later recalled of her son that, “After a while he did not speak any more and appeared to go to sleep.”

On Canvey Island, once the floods had subsided, bodies were collected from hedge-rows and ditches and laid out for identification. Mickey Sanders, a fireman, remembered laying out a row of 18 corpses on a Canvey pavement: “They were all people I actually knew. You can’t imagine what it was like.” Such images were never shown in the newspapers or on television. Instead the carcasses of more than 46,000 farm animals floating in the sea came to symbolise the tragedy. My family knew people who had been made homeless or had drowned, for we lived on Canvey Island before moving off the island a year before the flood.

What Grieve could not then calculate was the degree to which the “spontaneous mobilisation” of help and relief she described – and admired so much – owed its swift effectiveness to organisational links developed during the Second World War, which had ended only eight years previously. Britain was still a society of small platoons. Civil and coastal defence bodies, army reserves, unionised railway workers and seamen, the Women’s Voluntary Service, the Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, boy scouts and girl guides, churches, parish guilds and social clubs had all been to an extent militarised during the war, and inducted into the mechanics of disaster relief.

No longer a nation in arms, Britain was still a nation in uniform. Nearly every East Anglian seemed to belong to an organisation whose loyalties and resources could be called upon in an instant without demur. Even the utilities – the national undertakings providing electricity, gas and water – were still at this time public-sector bodies, and run on a command and control basis, allowing their staff to be directly conscripted in emergencies, which this clearly was.

The Salvation Army was amongst the first to open its chapels as rest centres and feeding stations in the early hours of Sunday morning, while scout troops went from door to door alerting people and summoning them from their homes. In Harwich even scout “cubs” were recruited to act as guides to ambulance drivers who did not know the layout of the town. Ironically, lifeboats could not rescue those on Mersea, Foulness and Canvey islands, as the perimeter sea walls were hidden below water, and crews risked seriously damaging if not sinking their boats trying to find a gap in the remaining sea defences.

At Canvey and Clacton sea scouts commandeered boats to row among the rooftops picking up people. For many it was easier to wade in front of a dinghy pulling it, as the gales rendered rowing useless. One member of the 1st Canvey Island Sea Scouts alone “brought 30 people to safety with a boat and a raft secured from Oyster Creek”. In Harwich more than 1,100 people had been rescued by boat by Sunday afternoon. “Young girls and women, boys and men, worked to exhaustion – many of them wading for long periods in deep, cold water,” wrote one council clerk in the local newspaper. “All these foot-rescuers risked stumbling into the island’s deep ditches, and many of them could not swim,” recorded Grieve of the volunteers on Canvey Island.

Meanwhile the RSPCA, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals and the ODFL (Our Dumb Friends League) sent hundreds of volunteers to rescue domestic pets and other animals, whether cats, dogs and hamsters, chickens or pet goats. The corpses of more than 700 dead animals were collected in Harwich alone.

****

Apart from the sea and the dangers of exposure, the next great threat to life was the free flow of untreated sewage into the flood water. In the cold light of Sunday morning warnings were issued telling people to drink only boiled water, or bottled water collected from the authorities. All food was to be discarded. “Once the water was gone,” Grieve wrote, “all the foul stinking sludge, split timber, broken glass, floatings from the sewers, coal, coke, rotting greengrocery, disintegrating domestic chattels, sodden toys, books and papers (all too wet to burn), and the carcasses of drowned animals, had to be scavenged from dwellings and streets.”

Millions of dead worms floated in the same waters (jars of live worms were donated to Canvey by well-wishers in the months that followed). When the time came for cleaning up the thousands of homes damaged by flood water, residents and volunteers found floors, walls, ceilings and furniture coated in a toxic mixture of seawater and sewage. Some never recovered from this profound fouling of their homes and other traumas of the night.

****

The high casualty numbers were due to an immediate breakdown of communications once the sea walls were breached in Norfolk. Telephone and electricity cables were felled, street lighting failed, domestic radios silenced, roads and railway lines submerged, so that news travelled slowly where it travelled at all. Many were already dead in Norfolk and Suffolk, while further down the Essex coast and along the Thames estuary people slept soundly, unaware of what was about to hit them. The inquest jury on two men drowned on Foulness Island recorded accidental death but added: “We feel strongly that the consequences of this disaster might have been avoided if warning had been sent down the east coast.” Yet it was never clear how such warnings could have been given.

After the flood the priority was repairing the hundreds of breaches in the sea wall. In the ten days following the flood 12 million sandbags were filled by hand by an impromptu task force of 10,000 volunteers and military conscripts, and manoeuvred into place to shore up the remaining defences. A compensation fund was established by the Lord Mayor of London, and it was only with its distribution that disagreements emerged, after months of community solidarity. Those who had managed before the flood with a few odds and ends of furniture and a couple of changes of clothes – Jaywick and Canvey were notably poor communities – were only eligible, like everybody else, for like-for-like replacement. Others in better circumstances were able to claim much larger compensation for what they had lost.


Afloat: a rescuer hands a bottle to a stranded family on the Isle of Sheppey off the northern coast of Kent, on 2 February 1953. Credit: Ullstein Bild Via Getty

Differences in the size of compensation cheques were quickly noticed, and some felt aggrieved. The old economic order was re-established. The National Council of Social Service defended the management of the compensation scheme by telling the world: “It was no easy task to convince people that the floods had not come for the express purpose of evening up differences in wealth.” Though the biblical floods may have offered the opportunity for economic and social recalibration, this one didn’t.

The landscape that emerged from the catastrophe was described by Grieve as “a walled fortress”, a strategy now questioned. In East Anglia, as in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the world, rising sea levels make it impossible to contain the power of the sea on every occasion. “Coastal re-alignment” is the euphemistic name for the new policy, better known as “managed retreat”. Breaches are now being opened up in selected parts of coastal sea walls with the intention of diverting excessive flood waters into uninhabited marshland (at the same time creating new wildlife habitats). This prevents exceptionally high tides being funnelled at speed upriver and devastating London and other inland settlements.

It was a singular act of foresight on the part of Essex County Council to have commissioned Grieve to produce this authoritative record, with its implicit warnings for the future. It came at a time when the tiers of local government enjoyed greater prestige than today. “Harwich is very local government-minded,” said the town clerk later, when accounting for the success of its emergency services. County councils enjoyed a similar respect and even greater public standing. County education officers, county architects and other senior officers often acquired national, even international, professional reputations, a world that now endures only in Winifred Holtby’s 1938 novel, South Riding.

Today the counties appear on the edge of bankruptcy, struggling to fund even the most basic services, beholden at every turn to national government policy. This situation does not bode well if the waters rise again. And they will. 

Ken Worpole’s books include (with Mike Seaborne) “The Isle of Dogs: Before the Big Money” (Hoxton Mini Press)

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?