Personal memories of The Floods of 1953
PUBLISHED: 14:26 15 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:37 20 February 2013
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the tragic east coast floods. Patricia Rennoldson Smith recounts some personal stories from our worst peacetime disaster
The storm, driven by hurricane force north-westerly winds, wreaked havoc down the coast from Harwich, the first Essex town to be flooded, all the way to Tilbury, where one elderly lady was trapped by floodwater in her toilet and drowned.
But while the impact of this terrible night on the county is well recorded,
only recently have personal stories of individuals own battles with the flood water been collated together and published. My book, The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster The Peoples Story, tells for the first time the stories of the people affected by the flood and is inspired by the experience of my own friend, Peggy Morgan. I travelled through the coastal towns and villages of Essex collecting personal accounts of the tragedy and a picture soon emerged of survivors who prevailed against unimaginable adversity with bravery and determination.
Elsie Lofts recalled being in the cellar of the Anchor Hotel in Harwich with
her husband, when a torrent of water crashed through the outer door and swept them apart. Elsie found herself at the top of the stairs, without seeing or touching a stair. The weight of water then slammed the door behind her, sealing her husband below.
In the village of Jaywick, further down the coast, the wave, or wall of death, was seen hurtling towards the town from inland, across the St Osyth marshes. Jaywick was completely cut off from the rest of Essex and 37 people lost their lives.
The courageous PC Don Harmer immediately waded into chin-high water to reach the sea wall and crawled along it for over a mile from Jaywick to Clacton and back, in the dark and with high water on both sides, to alert Clacton Police to the catastrophe in Jaywick.
Some homes were completely submerged by flood water. In Meadow Way, Esther and James had gathered with their son and daughter to celebrate Esthers 89th birthday on February 1. But in the night, the sea engulfed their home and all four were drowned. When police recovered their bodies on Tuesday, the birthday cake was untouched.
The North Sea surge continued its relentless course down the coast of Essex and up the east coast rivers, flooding villages and farms en route. The islands of the River Crouch became one vast expanse of water. When nothing was heard from the people of Foulness throughout Sunday, a light aircraft made a reconnaissance flight over the Thames estuary. The pilot reported that no signs of life were seen on Foulness.
Fortunately most islanders were cold but safe in their homes, although there were fatalities; two women and a War Department Policeman lost their lives on Foulness. Nearby, on Wallasea Island at the Creeksea Ferry Inn, the landlady, Ivy Taylor-Smith, was saved by the intrepid Colonel Carey after clinging to the top of a door for seven hours with water swirling round her shoulders.
At Great Wakering, 37 families were housed in Nissen huts on the common. That night, flood water cascaded over and through the sea walls so fast that within minutes nothing but the curved tops of the huts could be seen. Whole families climbed up onto the corrugated iron roofs and clung there desperately hoping for rescue, while the villagers rowed to and fro throughout the night in gale force winds, helping terrified people escape. Not all survived and one old couple were heard singing Abide With Me over and over again. Their bodies were later found in their homes.
Three adults and two children tragically died that night on the common.
Joy and pain
Canvey Island was completely engulfed by the surging, icy torrent when the Tewkes Creek wall collapsed and sea water rushed into the Sunken Marsh and into the homes of the sleeping population. Half awake, shocked, dazed and forced to make split-second decisions in attempts to reach their lofts they climbed onto furniture which disintegrated, forcing them to stand in the water for hours, some holding children up out of the water. Others fought their way outside, often to be swept away in the maelstrom. 58 people lost their lives on Canvey.
Throughout Essex, survivors spontaneously went to the aid of those in need. 12 hours after the onslaught on Canvey, a Dutch boatman and a Scottish welder found an eight-week-old baby, whose parents had drowned. The survival of baby Linda was a symbol of hope at a
time of tragedy.
The 1953 flood was a vital part of Essex history and it is fascinating to hear and record the recollections of survivors. These memories portray a strong community that worked together in these devastating circumstances to help one another something people in the period immediately after World War II were well accustomed to. We can only reflect on whether the reaction of our communities today would be similar if the tragedy ever happened again.
Find out more
The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster The Peoples Story by Patricia Rennoldson-
Smith is published by The History Press Ltd priced at 12.99. ISBN