In the early 1950s Europe was still recovering from six years of war. Rationing of certain items was still in force. Hardly anyone owned a television set and a telephone was considered a luxury that ordinary working-class people could not afford. Communication with the outside world was therefore minimal; people learned about the news via the radio set or from reading days-old newspapers. Most people were still trying to get their lives back on track; some wives were welcoming back repatriated husbands who had changed beyond recognition. Some men couldn't adjust to life back in 'Civvy Street'. Family life was a struggle as people had to cope by themselves as best they could: there were no Samaritans to call, and no such thing as counselling for bereavement1. Neighbours relied upon each other and doors were rarely locked. Significantly, there were no social plans in place in the event of severe storms at sea affecting populated coastal areas. Nor were there any emergency procedures which would alert the authorities to evacuate people at risk of flood in advance.
A storm surge happens when the wind pushes the sea towards the coast, with low air pressure2, wind direction and high tide being significant factors. Between 31 January and 1 February, 1953, a storm surge occurred over the North Sea. The sea level rose by several metres, causing severe flooding to low-lying coastal areas, particularly eastern England, Scotland, Belgium and The Netherlands. It took four days for the flood water to recede, and there was widespread sewage damage. This 'once-in-250-year event' was responsible for thousands of deaths and colossal destruction of property. It has been described as 'the worst national peacetime disaster to hit the UK'. US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists placed the 1953 gale into the top 15 of the most significant meteorological events of the 20th Century.
The Human Cost
Thousands of people lost their lives: many of them drowning in their own beds. The first to die were the crew of a working trawler, the Michael Griffiths from Fleetwood, Lancashire, which sank without trace off the Outer Hebrides; all hands were lost. The Princess Victoria ferry abandoned ship off Belfast and over 130 passengers and crew drowned in the Irish Sea. The Netherlands, with many people living in areas below sea-level, suffered the greatest human toll: 1,836 people were killed during that dreadful night. In Belgium another 22 people died. Lincolnshire was one of the most badly affected areas of the UK, with waves over six metres high battering sea defences all along the east coast. Of the 307 people who were killed in England that night, 43 of them died in Lincolnshire. Not one home in the seaside town of Cleethorpes escaped the deluge, and the railway embankment was enveloped. The length of promenade stretching from Cleethorpes Pier to Wonderland was destroyed. A miracle occurred in Lowestoft: families whose homes were flooded headed for a local church and not one person was killed nor even seriously injured.
The floodwater reached more than two miles inland in England, and hurricane force winds were registered at Felixstowe in Suffolk, where 39 deaths were recorded. Some of these were entire families, swept away after they had scrambled onto the anticipated safety of the roof of their single-storey homes. Violet Sparrow of Felixstowe saved the lives of her own three children then went to the aid of elderly neighbours, practically pushing them up into her loft to join the children. Her husband, who had been on coastguard duty, arrived home later the following day. Fearing the worst, he shouted their names. The children heard him and shouted back, and he helped rescue them all from their refuge. Another family thought they were safe sheltering in their loft. The mother took four children up into the loft, and the father managed to manipulate the pram containing baby Keith as far up as he could carry it. The pram couldn't be hoisted up onto the rafters, and as both parents had to hold two children each to prevent them from falling, the decision was made to let the pram float on top of the flood water. Hours later they realised the baby was very quiet, and when they checked him, the distraught parents found he had succumbed to the cold and he could not be revived.
The fierce winds brought down telephone lines in Norfolk and Lincolnshire so there was no way to warn those living further south of the ravaging storm headed their way. Waves breached the banks of The Wash, and the town of King's Lynn lost 15 inhabitants. Another 66 people died in Heacham, the neighbouring village. When the storm surge reached its peak the tide was 8ft (2.5m) higher than was usual. In Essex coastal regions, 95 people perished in the Clacton-on-Sea and Canvey Island areas. In East London more people drowned when over a thousand homes were deluged. The floodwater reached as far as the embankments in Victoria and Chelsea. The Thames and the River Lea burst their banks: only the fact that the storm was abating prevented the engulfment of the London Underground.
One Lincolnshire survivor, Gertrude Trevethick of Sea Lane, Saltfleet, later wrote in her diary about the 'night of horror and fear' when the sea flooded her family home. Her husband carried their children upstairs to safety while she gathered tins of food, clothes and a kettle. With the children all huddled together in one bed, Mr and Mrs Trevethick then watched helplessly from the bedroom window as the sea consumed their neighbours' bungalows. The Trevethicks lost three friends that dreadful night, Mrs Clayton, Mrs Millward and Mr Frost, who all drowned. She recorded how Saltfleet farmer Herb Horton recovered his own father's body and dispatched his mother off to hospital, then worked on all through the night, using his tractor to rescue trapped people and transporting them to safety.
No doubt there were many unsung heroes on the night of the great flood. Five people, however, were awarded the George Medal for their bravery and gallantry. Four of them were two Lincolnshire policemen, a fireman from Great Yarmouth and an American serviceman. The other was Reis Leeming, a 22-year-old stationed at the US air base at Sculthorpe, Norfolk, who battled through the night in a small rubber dingy to rescue 27 trapped people. Eventually the young airman collapsed with exhaustion and thought he was going to die himself as he was suffering from severe hypothermia. He awoke in hospital to the news that 31 people from the air base and family accommodations had died, 16 of them were American citizens. A fleet of haulage vehicles carrying 30 rowing boats was dispatched to Sutton-on-Sea but they could not reach the cut-off village, the swollen sea barred their way for a mile and a half (2.4km). Rescue attempts had to be put on hold until the Army arrived with specialist vehicles.
The Safe's Safe
Before the Army could leave after they had done all they could to assist the rescue effort, the manager of Lloyds Bank Sutton-on-Sea branch, which was completely submerged, requested their help with the removal of the bank safe, (which contained about £5,000), to their branch in Alford. This task was accomplished using a winch, a ramp, a flat-back lorry and lots of manpower.
The economic impact of the storm surge was enormous: ships, including trawlers, were sunk and livelihoods lost. Many herds of cattle drowned; huge areas of low-lying arable land flooded and became unsuitable for crop-growing for many years afterwards due to contamination. Over a hundred roads, including 11 major routes, were impassable and 200 miles of railway was cut off in England alone. Fresh water stored underground was polluted with sea water. Many thousands of homes that were flooded could not be repaired, so they had to be demolished, meaning tens of thousands of survivors of the flood were displaced.
Affected people were devastated at the unbearable loss and destruction, and some locals never recovered from crushed spirits and broken hearts. A stressed Cleethorpes grocery shop owner, having surveyed the uninsured ruined stock, never went back, and his abandoned shop was sold the following year3. The railway track, which terminated at Cleethorpes Station, was relaid. New sea defences were erected and the promenade replaced. The entire promenade received a make-over in a modernisation programme during the 1990s.
The British Conservative government, headed by Prime Minister Anthony Eden, instigated the rebuilding of sea defences where they had existed and instructed the building of new flood protection. The Met Office established the 'Storm Tide Forecasting Service' which provided details of tidal surges and forecasts of wave activity over the next 24 hour period. The Queen, who was staying at Sandringham in Norfolk at the time of the devastation, visited nearby Hunstanton. The Duchess of Gloucester, representing the Queen, met with dignitaries and local survivors at Alford in Lincolnshire.
In The Netherlands, attention was focused on the closure of the dykes which had failed to give protection to the people living in areas below sea-level. The Deltawerken (Delta Plan) was conceived with the intention of preventing such a repeat of the tragic 1953 disaster.
In London, planning for the Thames Barrier began, but was only completed in 1982, 29 years after the disaster. It protects 45 sq miles (116.5 sq km) of the capital which is vulnerable to the risk of flooding. This should last until 2070; it's hoped that a new barrier at Long Reach will be in place by then. The National Rivers Authority was created in 1989 to take charge of flood defences in England and Wales. When the Environment Agency was formed in 1996, they became responsible for flood defences and warnings over the entire UK. In 2003, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh unveiled a plaque in Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1953 great flood.
One of the last4 areas to be cleared after the flooding, Wallasea Island near Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex, has since been turned into The Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, the UK's largest man-made wetland. The UK Government had allowed the Lappel Bank cargo terminal to be developed in the 1990s, destroying the wetlands and marshes in the Medway estuary in Kent in the process, even though they were protected under the European Union's Birds' Directive. Following an upheld challenge by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), the European Court ruled that the Government had acted illegally, so the Wallasea Wetlands Creation Project was undertaken to make amends for the loss. The UK Government spent £7.5m on 'coastal engineering' to create a new habitat of 115 hectares of salt marsh, mudflats, saltwater lakes and seven created islands for many wading birds like lapwings, oystercatchers and avocets.
No-one can predict the next major meteorological event but in the 21st Century we have the benefit of instant communication and 24-hour rolling news services via television and the Internet. People living in flood-risk areas can access information for their locality and make preparations in the event of such a devastating scenario recurring. There's no doubt that storms and resulting floods will continue to affect coastal regions, but hopefully not at the cost of multiple human lives.
With climate change as an additional factor, surges will happen more often, and the risk is increasing. The return period for a 1.5m surge in the North Sea – the interval over which you'd expect it to happen again at least once – is 120 years at the moment. By the 2080s we expect a 1.5m storm surge could happen in the North Sea at least once every seven years. But our warning systems are a lot better than they were then, so loss of life on the scale of 1953 is pretty unlikely.
– Sean Clarke of the UK Met Office, speaking in 2003