in safe hands: PC Bill Pilgrim carries a child to safety from her flooded home on Canvey Island. Photo: canveyisland.org. Picture from The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster: The People's Story published by The History Press

Floods of 1953: Video and gallery showing devastation along the Essex coastline

Monday, January 28, 2013
3.47 PM

ON that fateful day in 1953, when the weather and the North Sea turned on the east coast, it left 120 dead in Essex.

They included a 16-month-old girl from Harwich and a woman of 89 from Jaywick, along with a victim whose identity was never known. Steven Russell hears the stories of bravery and despair behind that awful night

Young Patricia Cleary was at secondary school in London’s Portobello Road when news of the devastating 1953 east coast flood was announced in assembly and a collection made for the children of Canvey Island. Sixty years on, she’s produced a heart-rending account of the effect on Essex, where 120 people lost their lives and numerous homes were wrecked.

It’s a project especially poignant because Patricia came to be friends with Peggy Morgan, who survived that dreadful night but for almost three decades did not speak of its horrors.

Peggy’s story is perhaps the most pitiful in a series of desperately sad episodes that remind us of the fragility of life.

It was at about 1am on February 1, 1953, that the mum turned over in bed and plunged her arm into icy cold water that had pushed into her Canvey bungalow.

She shook awake husband Reg and the couple struggled past floating furniture, in the dark, to reach son Dennis.

Clinging together as the waters rose, the three fought their way to their chicken shed, where Reg pushed his wife and son onto the roof.

His 74-year-old mother’s screams cut through the air from the bungalow next door. “Her son struggled through the swirling water again to bring the terrified old lady to the shed, but, unable to climb up, she stood in the water, holding Peggy’s hand, until the cold loosened her grip and she silently slipped away,” writes Patricia.

“Reg, already so numb with cold he could not speak, dropped under the water to try to find her. Neither was seen alive again.

“Peggy and Dennis sat huddled together in the bitter cold for hours while dead animals, earth toilets and sheds crashed by them. Peggy never forgot the smell.”

She could hear other people shouting for help in the darkness, and after a long time saw the lights of rescue boats. But then no more boats came and it became eerily quiet apart from the howling wind and the noise of doors and windows crashing open as the sea pushed against them.

The desperate woman thought she and her son had been forgotten.

“As they clung together, Dennis, in words that would haunt Peggy all her life, cried again and again, ‘Mummy I’m so cold,’ and her reply was always, ‘I know darling; I’m trying to keep you warm.’”

Eventually a man with a dinghy found and rescued the pair, now naked as their nightclothes had been ripped from their bodies by the waves and debris rushing by.

“Five-year-old Dennis lived through that dreadful ordeal and showed signs of life on arrival at Southend General Hospital. He was given artificial respiration, oxygen, heat and stimulants, but all too late. He died of shock and exposure . . .

“In the hospital Peggy was told that her child was ‘doing well’ on the children’s ward. When she was discharged a week later a priest was asked to break the news of her son’s death.”

The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster: The People’s Story contains many heartrending accounts given by survivors to Patricia Rennoldson-Smith (as she is now) – folk young at the time and now elderly, but their memories “fresh, vivid and searing”.

The retired headteacher and Ofsted inspector, who lives in the Maldon area, explains how large-scale residential development on the low-lying coastal marshland of Essex had put thousands of people at risk, “especially since many dwellings were of a type and construction least likely to withstand the surge”.

On that windy final afternoon of January, a Saturday, factors were coming together that would carve a trail of destruction. The tide failed to go out as much as expected – “a sure sign of trouble” – and the spring tide that night would be high.

There was also, explains Patricia, a deep, atmospheric, low pressure system above Scotland that raised water levels. “When the water entered the North Sea, a gale-force northerly wind whipped up and increased the height of the swell, resulting in a wall of water being driven south.

“As it funnelled into the bottleneck between England and Holland, this North Sea tsunami reached a height of at least 10 feet above the expected height of the spring tide.”

Little wonder the North Sea surged over and through sea walls and wreaked chaos. It’s hard for us in the 21st Century to realise how isolated life could be 60 years ago. Police cars were only just getting radio communication. There was no central flood warning system, no mobile phones or world wide web, and the early knocking-out of phone lines made it hard to transmit messages.

On the other hand, it emphasises how selfless, stoic and resourceful people could be in the face of disaster, during the height of the terror and the later rescue operation and clean-up – including fishermen, members of the 4th Dovercourt Sea Scouts, young sailors from the HMS Ganges training centre at Shotley, and members of the Women’s Voluntary Service.

In Harwich three cubs of the First Dovercourt Troop (boys under 11) presented themselves at the police station on the morning of Monday, February 2, asking if they could help. “They were beautifully turned out in their uniforms and did a good job of work.”

The Bathside area had borne the brunt at Harwich, explains Patricia. By 11pm on the Saturday waves were pounding the sea wall and breaking over it, and half an hour later most of the town was under water.

The spring high tide had been due at 12.52am, with a height of 5.6 feet. But when the harbourmaster checked the level at 9.20pm he was worried enough to go to the police station and report that the tide would be exceptionally high.

“When he returned to the quay at 10pm the water was up to the top of the wall; 4 feet above the expected level, with more than two hours to go until high tide.” Many clocks in Bathside stopped at 12.20am, after a second great wave had burst over the sea wall, which gave way and saw water storming across Stour Road. “The shock to the residents was incalculable, and not all would survive.”

Mr Pearl Lofts, who with wife Elsie managed the Anchor Hotel on the corner of Stour Road and Albemarle Street, drowned when water gushed into the cellar at about midnight.

Not far away, 23-year-old Gladys Bruce and her husband grabbed their children as water surged through their ground-floor council flat in Albert Street. Mr Bruce and daughter Janet were swept away towards the railway embankment. “He lost sight of his wife and baby daughter – and never saw them again.”

Luckily, the child he was holding survived. But the bodies of 16-month-old Pauline Bruce and her mother were found on the Monday, in their flat, where water had come to within about six inches of the ceiling.

Ill and elderly residents often stood little chance. Retired Trinity House lighthouse master Stanley Vincent, for instance, was bedridden and suffering from inoperable cancer. He was sedated and sleeping downstairs in Grafton Road. Water reached the top of his stairs by about 1.45am and he must have died immediately. At Dovercourt, the Empire Cinema became a temporary mortuary.

Jaywick suffered badly, with nearly three-dozen losing their lives.

Three-year-old Terry May was living there with his maternal grandparents while his mother stayed and worked in London.

When water flooded into their bungalow, his grandfather, Ted Bangle, “took the fateful decision to go into the water and try to escape from it, rather than going up into the attic”, Terry recalled much later.

“My grandmother lifted me up onto my grandfather’s back . . . We opened the door, went into the water and that is the last I ever saw of my grandmother.”

Helena, 62, was swept off her feet in the strong current and carried away.

Amazingly, Ted managed to save himself and the lad.

Meanwhile, soon after midnight, Frank Allum – the owner of Dot’s Newsagents in Beach Road – and sub-postmaster Denis Allum joined forces with a police sergeant, local boatman Jim Shepherd and Pc Harry Mitchell. “This small group were the key to the successful early rescue arrangements in Jaywick.”

A lady called Mrs Allard opened up her flat to displaced locals who arrived wet, cold and clad in soaked nightclothes. When that makeshift rest centre was full – and, by the way, its lights failed at 1am and the phones were no use, so they pressed on by candlelight – the Morocco Café was commandeered.

Just when it was thought the worst was over, Jaywick was hit by water from behind.

“The sudden surge had been caused by floodwater pouring through twenty-two breaches in the sea wall to the west, between Beacon Hill and Colne Point. This produced a vast mass of water, which then headed east across three and a half miles of St Osyth marshes to strike Jaywick at the back,” writes Patricia.

Water was still coming over some of the sea walls late the following morning and was 10 feet deep in places.

“Rescuers found people near collapse with shock and exposure, standing on windowsills and clinging to house eaves with their fingertips. Some, numbed by the cold, dropped into the water and drowned.”

One man was horrified to see a whole Jaywick family slip, one by one, into the water and disappear.

“Those sheltering in roof spaces were almost as vulnerable; the lofts were cold and often no more than 18 inches in height. Victims lying flat on the rafters were rescued when hands were seen waving through holes knocked through roofs.” The last person to be rescued from Jaywick was 65-year-old Louise Kemp – alerted to the danger when tabby cat Tiger pawed her as she slept.

With water swirling round her bed, she’d clambered on a wardrobe. Then, using a clothes hanger, she’d smashed through the ceiling and climbed into the roof space, along with Tiger.

It would be 31 hours before she was noticed and taken to safety.

At St Osyth, Reg Arthur and his mother were rescued, huddled on ceiling joists a food above water. Reg told the St Osyth News how he’d managed to batter a hole through one of the lath-and-plaster gable ends as an escape route – watching a haystack floating by and then a complete bungalow that had been lifted off its foundations.

William and Lilian Crosswell, both aged 58 and running Crosswell’s Stores at Point Clear Bay, died as the storm-tide swept in.

Son Ronald explained to police how he had phoned them as the water forced itself into their home. “I told her I had tried to get to them. She sobbed, ‘Save yourself, I’m drowning’. Then the phone went dead.”

Ronald later went to their home, where he broke their sitting room window with an oar “and saw by the light of the torch my mother’s face as she was floating in the water”.

Further down the coast, Canvey Island – where homes were built on reclaimed saltmarsh – was devastated.

“The whole island is lower than the level of spring tides,” points out Patricia.

“On the afternoon of Saturday, 31 January, Canvey’s new War Memorial Hall was opened with a dance and social gathering. MP Mr Bernard Braine spoke briefly of the war years and said of the new hall, ‘It will remind us that we are never so great as in adversity’.

“As he was speaking, the North Sea surge, a wall of water nearly 10 feet above the predicted height of the spring tide, was roaring down the east coast and into the Thames estuary.”

Fifty-eight people would lose their lives on the island.

Patricia says: “London was saved from serious flooding when sea walls were breached on Canvey and floodwater released into Essex.”

She asks if such a disaster could ever happen again.

“The east coast will never be free of the threat of flood, and man will continue the battle to keep the sea in its place. Since 1953, greatly improved flood warning systems and sea defences, plus the vigilance of the Anglian (Regional) Flood Defence Committee, allow us, at present, to sleep easy in our beds.”

Video provided by East Anglian Film Archive (University of East Anglia)