Flood memories never fade for those caught up in tragic night of 1953
It is 65 years ago today, January 31, that Richard Lord sat shivering and sleepy, sandwiched between his parents, on the roof of his home as floodwaters swept it from its foundations.
The memories are as clear as if it had taken place yesterday – and he is one of the few who survived Britain’s biggest peacetime disaster and lived to tell the tale.
A total of 41 people – 13 of them children – died as the low-lying West End of Felixstowe was engulfed when a tidal surge swept through its streets, causing devastation, on the night of January 31, 1953.
Tomorrow at 3pm residents will gather and flowers will be placed with a short moment of reflection at the Flood Memorial, Langer Road, where the water stood more than six feet deep at the height of the flood.
Mayor Nick Barber said: “It is so important as a town to mark this occasion. It was the biggest post-war catastrophe Felixstowe has known.
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“Many of our residents still remember the 1953 floods and it is vital that we all remember those that were lost, those left behind and also those who put others before themselves.”
Mr Lord, of St Andrews Road, was just seven years old at the time and recalls having been to the Playhouse cinema in Felixstowe with his parents John and Doris that night before a fish and chip supper and then bed at their home, a prefab in Orford Road, where a factory now stands.
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A while later his parents came to wake him – and the water in his bedroom was up to their waists and his bed was floating,
He said: “My mum could swim well, dad could not and neither could I. Dad decided that the best thing was to get us all onto the roof of the prefab. He opened the window and we were confronted with howling winds, people screaming, cracking and swirling noises.
“Dad looked out and asked mum to climb onto the window sill, which she did, he then pushed her up onto the roof, then handed her a blanket, which was swiftly blown away in the strong winds.
“Next it was my turn, I can remember, standing on the window ledge, hoping I would not fall, by now it was freezing cold and I was very frightened, Dad lifted me up, Mum grabbed hold of me and I was safely on the roof. dad followed and I was placed between the two of them to keep me warm.”
“By now mum and dad were obviously very cold and the wind was relentless. Our next door neighbours had got onto the roof and their children a lot older than myself, decided to swim to safety, which of course was so hazardous due to the amount of floating debris and under water obstacles – of course, they were lucky and made it.
“Not the same for my best friend Robin (Salmon) and his parents (Jack and Stella), who were trapped in their prefab and died.
“I learnt later on that if it had not been for Robin’s mum screaming for help, this would not have woken my parents and we would probably have died.”
The family sat on the roof for hours, Mr Lord between his soaked parents trying to keep him warm.
He said: “We could hear screams, cattle mooing – occasionally cattle would float past. Eventually the water tore the prefab from its foundations and we moved off, floating around until we hit and obstacle and stuck, facing the houses in Langer Road.
“I can remember, laying on the roof, the moon was out and from across the road of Orford Road, people were shouting at us and trying to keep our spirits up. All the time all I could hear was the horrible noises, until eventually it all went silent.”
The family was rescued at first light by a rowing boat from Butlins’ Tunnel of Love (where Charles Manning’s Amusement Park stands today) and taken to the Cavendish Hotel, being used as a rescue centre.
Ironically, dry land had been just a coupel of hundred yards away.
Mr Lord said: “Mum was the first to be removed from the roof, but she had frozen from the waist down and could not feel her legs; it was a difficult process to get her off the roof. I was next and we were rowed up to the water’s edge in the top end of Orford Road, where we were taken to the Cavendish Hotel, to be joined by my father shortly afterwards.
“From there, we were transferred to the Felixstowe Cottage Hospital, where we, that is my mum and I, spent a week to recover. Poor old Dad though got some clean clothes and was off to help with recovery operations and clearing up. Today we would have all been in therapy with counselling for weeks.
While in hospital, Central Junior School (now Fairfield Infants), where Mr Lord attended, collected clothes, toys and other items for the family.
He said: “We were then transferred to the old Melrose Hotel and spent several weeks there, whilst a new home was found for us.
“Of course, we had lost everything and of course many friends, who had died during the night.
“Dad in the meantime had been back into our prefab to try and retrieve some personal items and maybe any cash that was left.
“He was so surprised to see that my goldfish in their bowl which was still floating, of course they had risen and fallen with the waters, as they were in the centre of a dining table. Most surprising was the find of my cat Sandy, who was still alive and had climbed in the pantry and was on the top shelf – for 10 days.
“Looking back, we were very lucky and if you have not experienced the horrors of flooding, the noises, destruction etc, you just cannot imagine.”
Today Felixstowe has modern sea defences but those of 1953 could not cope. Lack of communications and warning systems was also one of the key factors which led to so many deaths.
Along the east coast 307 died as the surge funnelled down the North Sea, with 30,000-plus people evacuated, sea defences smashed, river walls breached, and 160,000 acres of farmland left under water.
Most who died in Felixstowe lived in prefab houses at the corner of Langer Road and Orford Road.
The torrent – a sea surge which burst through the banks of the River Orwell, tearing across Trimley Marshes – ripped the properties from their foundations, sweeping them down the road and leaving them 6ft 6ins deep in water.
At Felixstowe, about 800 acres – one fifth of the town – was flooded, including homes and part of the air base where the port now stands.
Roll of honour . . . those who died at Felixstowe
? Aircraftsman David Sibbett, 18; ? Sgt Cyril Tidswell; ? Vera Broom; ? Norman Bushnall, 30, and his wife Jean, 26, their son Keith, two, and daughter Brenda, six months; ? Jack Salmon, 37, and his wife Stella, 37, and their son Robin, eight; ? Frederick Flather, 33, his wife Annie, 34, and their daughters Janet, seven, and Suzanne, four; ? Warrant Officer Raymond Pettitt, 28, wife Sheila, 25, and their son Brian, six, and daughter Gillian, two; ? Iris Sadd, 32, and her daughter Patricia, four; ? Lucy Bridge, 85; ? Julia Burkitt, 76; ? Muriel Allery, 29, and her daughter Sally, four; ? Arthur Cobb, 58; ? Thomas Collins, 79; ? William Damant, 45, his wife Stella, 43 and their son Keith, eight; ? Annie Haselden, 84; ? Alfred Howell, 77; ? Margaret Johnson, five; ? Ronald Studd, 38; ? George Taylor, 84, and his wife Mary, 72; ? Reginald Terry, 42, and his wife Gladys, 40; ? Joan Tong, 34, and her daughter Angela, six; ? Alison Watkins, four; ? Staff Sgt Jack Short