An enormous surge of water over the coastal lands of south-east England sixty years ago took hundreds of lives and marked survivors for a lifetime. A meticulous account of the tragedy written a few years later is still the best source to understand what happened, says Ken Worpole, a native of one of the places most affected, Canvey Island.
There was no warning of the great tide on the night of 31 January 1953, sixty years ago this week, which cost so many lives. The winds were stronger than usual, but off the East Anglian coast the sea seemed relatively calm and lit by a full moon. A few people later recalled something odd that day. A police constable wondered why the afternoon tide on the River Blackwater in Essex didn’t appear to ebb, noting afterwards that "the wind seemed to be holding the water." A few hours later the 7.27 pm train from Hunstanton to King’s Lynn ran into a wall of water and was hit full on by "a bungalow floating on the crest of the wave", an alarming incident which prefigured the catastrophe ahead.
That night over 300 died in East Anglia, and more than 1,800 in the Netherlands. Most, in the words of one survivor, "awoke to die": trapped in bed as the waters filled their rooms, with little time or opportunity to escape. On the west coast - where over a quarter of the Scottish fishing fleet was destroyed at anchor - it was the wind alone which did the damage. Casualties there included 132 crew members and passengers of the British Rail ferry, Princess Victoria, sailing from Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland, which upended and sank after being overwhelmed by the waves. In the North Sea a surge of water brought a tide higher than ever recorded before or since, breaking through the sea defences and wreaking havoc.
The tragedy was a reminder of how much the East Anglians and the Dutch shared in common. "God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands," though they made large parts of East Anglia too. As a child I lived on Canvey Island, though we moved on to the mainland a year before the flood. At carnival time islanders dressed in Dutch costume, and many street-names – Vadsoe Road, Zuyder Road, Delft Road and Kamerdyk Avenue – reinforced the connection. Even today, Canvey’s senior school and arts college is named after Cornelius Vermuyden. On Foulness Island, further east along the Thames estuary, women islanders wore Dutch costume as normal attire until the great war of 1914-18.
Woodcut of the 1607 flood in East Anglia
We lived in Grafton Road - which, like many Canvey roads, was a muddy lane - no more than two hundred yards from the sea wall. It was typical of the flimsy houses which sprouted up between the wars along the Essex coast where land was cheap. Ours was a single-storey timber and composite-board bungalow resting on brick piers, with a verandah at the front reached by open wooden stairs. Years later Dr Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson claimed these dwellings provided the authentic delta experience necessary for the Canvey Island delta blues.
A single night
The "villain of the piece" that night was later identified as Low Z, a low depression which 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 resulting northerly gale of Saturday, 31st January 1953, "was such that there is no evidence in the records of the Meteorological Office of any equally severe." Some good emerged from the catastrophe. There was widespread public appreciation of the selflessness of those who rescued others that night, often at risk to their own lives. The emergency services, voluntary organisations, churches and thousands of individuals rose to the occasion. Flood defences were improved, and 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 work opens with an admonitory plea by the then historian of the nation, G.M.Trevelyan: "Truth is the criterion of historical study; but its impelling motive is poetic. Its poetry consists in its being true."
This vast 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. However, at its heart Grieve deployed a minute-by-minute narrative of the events of that night from the moment the waves started to overtop the seawall at Sandilands in Lincolnshire at 5.25 pm until hours later high tide arrived at Canning Town and the Port of London to complete its destruction. So vulnerable to disruption were communications at this time that many were already dead and their communities destroyed further up the coast, whilst along the Thames people slept soundly unaware of what was about to hit them.
"The Great Tide", Hilda Grieve's epic study
on the 1953 flood
Street by street, town by town, Grieve systematically itemised the chaos of the disaster as it unfolded, evoking comparison with the descriptions of the battle of Borodino in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In that novel it is the confusion of war which created a nightmare world in which people wandered around not knowing which side they were supposed to be on, what territory was safe and what deadly, and whether they ought to advance or flee. There was one big difference between the two situations, however. According to Grieve, as soon as people woke and realised the danger, they were galvanised into helping others.
By midnight thick clouds obscured the moon and the sea had not only broken through the main sea defences but was now approaching from the swollen rivers and flooded fields beyond, trapping people. This happened at Jaywick, a pre-war plotland development tucked behind a high seawall, where 35 people died, unable to escape in any direction. Not everybody drowned. Many died of the cold, perched on the roofs of their houses waiting in the dark, lashed by wind and water, and 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 hedgerows and ditches and laid out on the pavement for identification. Mickey Sanders, a fireman, remembered laying out a row of eighteen 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, though the carcasses of more than 46,000 farm animals floating in the sea became a familiar icon of the tragedy.
An enduring reality
What Grieve could not then calculate was the degree to which the "spontaneous mobilisation" of help and relief she praised owed its swift effectiveness to organisational links and affiliations developed during the war, which had ended only eight years before. 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 to an extent been militarised during the war, and inducted, however briefly, in the mechanics of disaster relief. From Grieve’s account almost every East Anglian appeared to belong to an organisation whose loyalties and resources could be called upon in an instant without demur.
The new Essex which emerged from the catastrophe and subsequent years of reconstruction was described in Grieve's introduction as "a walled fortress." This is no longer the case, deliberately so. In East Anglia, as in the Netherlands, rising sea levels mean it is impossible to keep out the sea on every occasion. "Managed retreat" is the new strategy, creating breaches in the sea walls and diverting flood waters into uninhabited marshland (at the same time creating new wildlife habitats). Residential communities such as those on Foulness and Canvey islands still require traditional sea defences, but breaches along the less inhabited coastal areas avoid creating the funnels which cause high tides to gain speed and direction as they surge further inland.
The cost of flooding in Britain, like the sea level around the coast, is rising every year. On 9 November 2007 the Thames Barrier was closed twice in a day in anticipation of a tidal surge in the North Sea, thought to compare with that of 1953. Yet the current government has overseen a reduction in the flood-defence budget. To read The Great Tide, let alone to have been there that night, is to realise just how traumatic and ruinous of lives the unmitigated power of the sea can be, particularly for an island nation. The likelihood of another epochal flood is not a matter of if, but when.