Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Great Floods of 1953

Tonight marks the 60th anniversary of the Great Floods of 1953. A combination of high Spring tides and gale force winds coming from the North Sea hit the East coast of Britain where over 300 people lost their lives in East Anglia alone. During that night the sea wall on Canvey Island collapsed and the sea came flooding in and purged the Island resulting in 58 Islanders losing their lives and the whole Island being evacuated. There has been a lot of media coverage this week and many commemoration services. I wrote this story of my own evacuation from Canvey Island for our local Community Archives which I thought I'd share with you
                                           Our bungalow "Glenroy" on the corner of Northfalls and Springfield Road

 I remember the events of that January night as though it happened yesterday. I remember most things and my late mother filled me in over the years. Living with me in our bungalow "Glenroy" were mum and dad - Stella and Sid and my sister Barbara. I was 5½ years old.

My story begins with the howling wind outside my bedroom window when getting ready for bed that night. We lived in Springfield Road at Leigh Beck, known as The Point, the most easterly point of the Island and the furthest distance from the only road off the Island at that time across the bridge some five miles away. The The River Thames and sea wall was about 500 yards from our bungalow on one side and maybe 1500 yards on the other side. It was hard to get to sleep with the wind and rain battering the windows and the trees rustling in the wind. My sister and I went to bed as usual unaware of what dangers might be looming.

I remember the sound of something or someone furiously banging on our back door and then the windows. It's was the old lady Mrs Savage dressed in her nightclothes, who lived in Rose Cottage opposite ours. She was shouting and screaming "the sea wall has broken, the sea is coming down the road, get out, the sea is coming". This was 2 o-clock in the morning and with no street lights working I don't know how she found her way to ours, especially as the road was already under water and filling up dramatically. I don't know what happened to her that night although I'm sure my parents would have helped her evacuate alongside us. She did survive and returned to Rose Cottage over the next few weeks.

                                                        The dinghy that came for us outside Glenroy

I remember mum and dad rushing around the house in a kind of mad panic and putting clothes and things in a holdall of some kind. By now my sister Barbara aged two years old was awake and crying. I can't remember the next few hours but around dawn we left through our back door and us girls were carried down the flooded garden and lifted over the fence of our neighbours' Beryl and Bert Green and over another fence to where we joined a group of other evacuees from the road behind us. From somewhere there appeared a couple of dinghies waiting for us round by our front gate. I imagine that volunteers or the army had been sent to our part of the island due to its vulnerability and that it was now our turn to be evacuated. It must have been awful for mum and dad to stay put in the bungalow knowing the water was not subsiding.

We were helped into a dinghy by some people and someone rowed us to the slightly higher ground of Park Lane. Most areas at this part of the Island had dykes alongside the roads, put in many years ago by the Dutch settlers, ironically to take away any excess water. On our dinghy journey we passed an Army truck which had obviously overshot the road and had gone head first into the dyke and almost overturned. Perhaps the reason we had such a long wait for help. From there we walked about a mile along the flooded Point Road towards Maurice Road where an Army truck was waiting for us. There I remember being literally hauled onto the back by the soldiers and sat waiting with lots of others for my mum, dad and sister to join me. It was cold and we were all very wet and scared.

      Our road looking towards the army truck
We were then taken to the Benfleet Infants School in the High Road. How the truck was able to get over the bridge to the mainland I really don't know but I guess the tide may have gone down slightly by then. On arrival at the school we were given blankets and I remember someone offering my mum a small pile of dry clothing for us to change into to and take with us - including vests and liberty bodices. I can still remember that pile of clothes and thinking at that young age, how could we wear something that has already been worn by someone else. We were given hot drinks and food. Babies were given nappies and bottles of milk. I remember sitting on the floor up against the wall alongside lots of other mothers and children. We seemed to be there for hours.

Eventually we were able to make our way to Benfleet railway station where we boarded a train to Fenchurch Street and onwards to my grandparents' flat in Middlesex. They had been worried, with no telephones in those days they were unaware of our imminent arrival. Living in such a small flat there was literally no room for us but we were put in touch with a work colleague of my Nan in Brentford who was able to put us up for six weeks. I remember there was an older boy living there too, probably about ten and I was given a pair of his striped pyjamas to wear. I hated them! They had mother of pearl buttons - I haven't been able to bear to touch those buttons since. My dad did not come with us as be needed to stay behind to feed and look after the chickens!!

Dad at the back of the bungalow when the water had started receding several weeks later
When we returned home again six weeks later it was to a very muddy and damp bungalow. I also remember someone coming into school with some "goody bags" for all the children which contained things like soap, flannels, toothbrush and toothpaste and some little toys to play with. To this day I can still remember the smell of those goody bags. Our lovely teacher at the time was Mrs Lording and I remember she made a great deal of fuss over us and welcomed us back to Leigh Beck School.

I have feared water all my life and when it is very windy outside I still remember that dreadful night. It's only now that I've written this that I realise the acts of heroism of that night; the old lady probably saved our lives; the people who rescued us with a dinghy; the Soldiers who evacuated us in their trucks; the kind people of Benfleet who took us under their wing and donated those clothes, and of course my mum and dad whose first thoughts were to make sure us girls (and the chickens) were safe.

Tomorrow morning I've been invited by Canvey Town Council to an unveiling of a plaque and short commemoration service at the local library in rememberance of those who perished, to be followed by an exhibition of people's memories of that night.


  1. What a thing to live thorough, the people of Brisbane are going thorough at the moment.

  2. What an amazing story! Great post.
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

  3. Didn't realise you were part of all that and you could remember it. Amazing how things colour our lives isn't it. Maybe that is why you have such a love of history - being caught up in history but not knowing it at the time.

  4. I heard about it this morning on BBC Radio 4, that must've been a terrible thing to go through which obviously has left its mark on you.

  5. I was living in Essex, aged 4 1/2 at the time, and was completely unaware of what was happening only a few miles away from us. In fact the first I even heard about it was when I was working in London, aged 19, and worked with a lad a bit younger than me who had been staying with his Nan in London at the time, he lost both his parents who were at home on Canvey Island. It must have been quite horrifying for you, no wonder you still fear water and high winds - and mother of pearl buttons!
    Joy xx

  6. Oh Patricia, what an amzing story! I've never known your part of England was hit too. As you probably know here in Holland we had the same on the same night.A big part of Zeeland was flooded due to breaking dykes and almost 1800 people lost their lives..After that they built even stronger dykes and barrages known as Neeltje Jans.
    What a panic you must have felt.Can imagine your fear for water and storm...
    Erna x

  7. There are many things on tv here too about the Dutch side of the flood. There are also discussion that it could happen again since the country is not prepared for mass evacuation. I am glad to hear that if you had to go through that, that you survived to share your amazing story with us today.

    Hugs from Holland ~

  8. Dear Patricia - when you have survived an ordeal with the elements if never leaves you, and you also have a profound respect for those things which are beyond our control. It must have been really awful for your parents having their bungalow ruined in that way, and I am sure that they would have been anxious whenever it was windy and wet after that experience.

  9. I've been listening all day to bbc Essex with stories from both Essex and Holland. You story is amazing and mirrors many that I have heard today, thank you so much for sharing xx

  10. This is an amazingly vivid account, given how young you were at the time, Patricia. I'm not surprised so many details of such a frightening event are indelibly engraved on your memory. I was almost 7 at the time and I vaguely remember hearing the flooding mentioned, even though we lived in Lancashire. But as I grew older it was very much part of recent English history and I've always known the main details. Now to research the Dutch side of the story.

  11. We watched a television programme last night about this disaster. Thank you for sharing memories of your family's ordeal on that terrible night and during the aftermath. I will be thinking of you tomorrow morning.

  12. I've heard about this but to hear it from someone who went through it and lived to tell the tale makes it much more real. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story of that terrible night with us, it must have been hard to write and to remember. What wonderful community spirit there was; it must have been such a fearful time for you and your family and for all the other people who were affected by the floods especially those who lost family members. Todays service will be very poignant for you all:)

  14. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It's no wonder you don't like the water! I had not heard of this flood, which I guess isn't too surprising since I live in Canada and it happened before I was born. What an incredible thing to have lived through, and you are right - there were many acts of courage.

  15. Patricia, of course it's painful memories for you! As you were a little girl you did not understand full danger of the flood.
    You're alive now thanks to many people who helped and saved you. Thank you for sharing this unknown for me story.

  16. Gosh, what a story and thank you for sharing a painful time of your life. Suzy xx

  17. What an amazing story, it must have been such a worry to your parents.

    On a lighter note, from your photo I would never have guessed you were even born in 1953!


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