North Sea Floods of 1953
Thursday 31st January 2013 marks 60 long years since Canvey Island was hit by an abnormal storm causing mass flooding and damage to many many people’s property and lives. The horrific event terrorised Canvey however the whole of the Essex coast was affected as well as other places.
On the night of 31st January 1953 a tidal surge came down the north sea flooding low lying lands in its path. Canvey Island was badly hit with the Sea Wall washing away in the Tewkes Creek area. 58 people lost their lives and the Island was evacuated by the army and police. Canvey was evacuated after the flood. Only a few residence stayed on the Island. Part of the work of the police was to stop looting of the empty properties. A checkpoint was set up at the bridge and only those with legitimate reasons for going on the island were allowed to pass. Vehicles were searched leaving the island and patrols were sent out. Was this one of the patrols or just someone being helped? It looks like his bag is being searched. The news had spread fast! It was on international newspapers, on news broadcasts and even featured in a German newspaper!
German Press Coverage: Newspaper Article
This is what David Bullock wrote. ‘ The newspaper cutting (above) I received from a friend who took it from a German magazine. It features Lord D`Isle and Dudlay seeing for himself the damage that was caused. I don’t know which service these folks were as the Army was also working on flood work too and as its an aerial photograph (bottom of page) one cannot make out any uniform, not that much of a uniform would be shown as with wellingtons, leather jerkin, etc, not a lot of uniform would have been seen. Obviously one chap on the wall was in a friendly mood waving with both arms in the air. Anyway another photo to the Canvey Island archives.If memory serves me correctly I think it had to be single traffic on to the island over the bridge as top dogs did not want too much weight on it. So procedure was for the workers vehicles coming off in convoy to come off first and then the ones coming on to work, went on.
How tragic were the events?
Saturday 31st January 1953 began in Essex like any other mid-winter Saturday, however the outcome was a surprising revelation for everyone… On Canvey the new memorial hall, gaily bedecked with bunting, was publicly dedicated in the afternoon to the memory of local men who lost their lives in the Second World War. On the mainland opposite Canvey, caretakers and cleaners gave the new Benfleet secondary school in Shipwrights Drive, sometimes referred to locally as ‘The Palace’, the final polish for its official opening. At 11pm at Tewkes Creek the wind was fresh, cold and fierce. Shortly before midnight, one or two nightfarers, who was a Roman Catholic Priest who was old visiting a sick parishioner. In the bright moonlight he saw the tide lapping the top of the wall. In the Sunken Marsh a river board employee who lived nearby realised that the tide was rising rapidly. At might night, the chilling water was closing in on the whole of the Essex coast. Flooding in varying degrees had begun, and was spreading as the tide continued its inexorable rise and overwhelmed the defences on an ever-lengthening front which the weight, height and duration of its attack. At this time, just before 1am, dykes were starting to overflow and the electricity board has received a report of a fault on Canvey due to flooding. At 12:50am, the water was at the top of the wall at Smallgains, this section in fact has recently been raised and thickened and was about a foot and a half higher that the wall at Tewkes Creek. One of the river board’s men was blowing his whistle, which echoed in the howling wind. This was just gone 1am. A few minutes after this, the chairman had rung the police station to tell the sergeant that the flood boards at Canvey Bridge had been overtopped. The Police sergeant met a constable out on a bicycle patrol who was about to telephone the police station because although the tide the water was still a foot below the top of the wall, it was extremely high for the stage of the tide.
1am February 1st – Meanwhile, at the Newlands, the 2 river board men and a group of gathered dedicated citizens tried to rouse the elderly and the young. Stumbling in the moonlight across the muddy rutty unmade roads, up and down garden paths then went knocking, shouting and even one screeching at his whistle as a last attempt to save fellow Islanders. With the howling noise of the wind, corrugated roofs, wrought iron gates and loose shed doors it was a difficult task to stir residents. However many people had no warning and were awakened by the sudden roar as the wall burst, by the swish of the water as it rushed past, by the clatter and crash of the debris striking the house, by the noise of splitting timber and smashing glass. Half-awake, dazed and bewildered, as they struggled to escape from this violent, engulfing nightmare, to reach the outdoor staircases to their lofts, or to fight their way through the tumult outside, to go to the aid of elderly relatives or neighbours living nearby, successive waves charging through the walls swept them off the feet, breathless and numb from the icy impact. The margin between life and death was a matter of seconds as the water gushed through shattered windows and doors, and, impounded as it was in the Sunken Marsh by the inland counter wall, with no means of dispersal; it rose rapidly to a lethal depth.
Many who clambered on chairs, tables, cookers, mangled-tables and step-ladders, to keep their heads above the water or to make holes in the flimsy ceilings in order to escape into the roof space or out onto the roof, found their supports swept away from under their feet, leaving them fighting in the dark with floating furniture, clutching desperately at fanlights and the tops of doors and wardrobes, and trying to hold children up above the suffocating water. The Sunken Marsh was well described as a ‘basin of death’… By 1:25am the water was above windowsill level at the Newlands end of the Sunken Marsh, and, over topping the counter wall, was already pouring over it into the low ground between the counter wall and the High Street.
What lessons have been learnt?
Remembering the Floods – How It Began
1/2/1997 – Plaque to Commemorate ’53 Flood Victims is Unveiled by Vincent Heatherson
My uncle, who has both developed my interest in the Island’s history, and took a similar route to the BTP boys today, followed up to get a plaque placed in Canvey Library to commemorate the victims of the Canvey Floods of 1953 when he was 17/18. Here is a radio clip with him being interviewed about the occasion. The plaque is now in the entrance of the Bay Museum, as it was replaced by a newer one outside the library.
Remembering the Floods Today
Since Vince pushed forward the first commemorative plaque and service to remember those lost in the floods, great attention has been paid to comemorating the loss in recent years. In 2013 it was the 6oth Anniversary of the floods and hence large-scale services were hosted both in Chelmsford Cathedral with a speech from the Princess Anne, and in Canvey Island library to respect the local impact of the North Sea Floods. Survivors were in attendance as was Nellie Verton who travelled from the Netherlands’ Dutch Floods Museum, accompanied by Janet Penn; editor of the Canvey Community Archive. The plaque erected by Vince Heatherson was replaced as its gold details became worn, yet the new one was idetical except made of longer-lasting stone and with a photograph. Another 60th anniversary plaque was erected next to it. A year later in February 2014 a plaque was unveiled in Jotman’s Cemetary, Benfleet, commemorating the unmarked grave there.