Floods of 1953/Gallery: Headlines reflected the tragedy, heroism and great stoicism

Archives from the great flood of 1953.

Archives from the great flood of 1953. - Credit: Archant

WITHtelevision ownership in its infancy and no local radio, regional newspapers were the main source of news about the east coast floods. Here we look back at how our reporters tackled the floods.

THE great floods of 1953 struck overnight on Saturday, January 31 and the first reports appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on Monday, February 2, under the page one headline: Britain’s gale death toll exceeds 250

The story read: “East Anglia suffers worst losses.

“With the death toll steadily mounting, over 130 people were known last night to have died in the flood-stricken areas of East and South-East England. Many more were still unaccounted for.”

The stark reality of the tragedy was brought home with these shocking facts blasted acorss the pages:

• More than 3,500 people were rendered homeless at Harwich. Two persons are dead and other casualties are feared.

• A woman was drowned at Southwold and more than four other people are missing, believed drowned.

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• At Brightlingsea many boats sank in the harbour; others were smashed to pieces in the shipyard.

• At Woodbridge, more than 8,000 gallons was pumped out of one building.

• Many Suffolk farmers lost livestock in the flood. One suffered the loss of over 200 sheep and 60 cattle.

• At Pin Mill houseboats were sunk and occupants took refuge ashore.

• At Lowestoft, boatmen rowed into a church to rescue 40 children sheltering there.

• A state of emergency was declared in many parts of south west Holland and north-east Belgium. The city of Rotterdam was partly submerged.

The leader on page 4 summed up the grim news and said: “In this mid-century Britainnia may no longer rule the waves but the tang of salt is in the blood of our nation.

“East Anglians, whose long sea-line has witnessed so much of triumph and tragedy, were kept awake by the great wind that raged through the night, most of them doubtless bearing in their thoughts those in peril on the deep.

“We in East Anglia can again record with thankfulness that those who man the lifeboats of our coast, like their brothers elsewhere, were not found wanting.”

With the stories of death came also stories of heroism as the emergency services and members of the public rallied to help those in urgent need. There were so many individual human tragedies.

“Mr Ted Bangle of Meadow Way, [Jaywick], whose wife is feared to have drowned, saved his three-year-old grandchild, Terry May, by clinging to a barbed wire fence. ‘As we pushed open the door the full force of the water hit us. I was up to my neck. My wife, who was a semi-invalid, just disappeared under the water.’”

The coastal landscape was devastated with estimates that damaged agricultural land might take years to recover.

By Wednesday, February 4, the picture was becoming clearer, though no less grim. The “death roll” reported Suffolk: Felixstowe 33, Southwold 1; Essex: Jaywick 31, Point Clear 2, Great Wakering 6, Southend 7, Canvey 40, Harwich 7, Foulness 2.

By Friday the figures were: Felixstowe 38, Southwold 3, Jaywick 34, Point Clear 2, Great Wakering 6, Southend 7, Canvey 55, Harwich 7, Foulness 2.

An emergency meeting brought together council services and councillors. A plan was drawn up to immediately tackle the breaches in sea defences, deal with sewage disposal problems, gain help from military sources including American troops based in East Anglia, and to deter sightseers who were asked to stay away and not obstruct work.

A meeting of Walberswick Parish Council deplored the “extreme negligence on the part of the Government departments concerned for not giving warnings to our towns and villages of the impending extraordinary tide through which more than 250 lives were lost and demands to know why no such action was taken.”

Industry in Ipswich “halted”, with around 2,000 electrical machines submerged at Ransomes Sims and Jefferies; a week’s production lost at R&W Paul; Eastern Counties Farmers Cooperative Association Ltd had to cease production at its mills in Commercial Road.

The Ipswich Relief Dept in Curriers Lane handed out clothing to people who lost their belongings in the floods.

Prince, the mongrel, managed to find his owners after swimming through the floods.

The stories of human endeavour and courage in the face of often insuperable odds are as overwhelming today as they would have been 60 years ago.

The following week, the floods dominated the headlines but there were also other local, national and international stories. Ipswich Town went down 4-1 at Torquay. It was reported:

“Mr Scott Duncan, Ipswich Town secretary-manager, and his team were marooned for nearly five hours at Ipswich Railway Station in the early hours of yesterday (Sunday) morning. Returning from Torquay they arrived at Ipswich at 1.10am, found the floods impassable and had to wait at the station until 5.30am before they could reach their homes.

The Portman Road pitch was three feet under water and Mr Duncan has so far been unable to reach the pavilion to estimate the damage. His car is somewhere in the ground!”

On February 3 it was reported that, in Ipswich, householders were salvaging what they could from the wreckage of their homes.

“Rolls of lino and piles of furniture were outside the houses (in Bath Street, Hawes Street and Harland Street) while, inside, the work of clearing away the mud continued. Many householders reckon it has cost them up to £200.

“Mr H Double of 96 Bath Street returned home after night duty to find the waters had broken the gas piping. His wife, trapped in an upstairs room, was unable to turn off the supply. The house was full of gas.”

Elsewhere: “Using a dinghy with an outboard engine, the Rev WH Groom, vicar of Hollesley, and butcher William Jordan of Alderton, yesterday took first meat supplies to 15 householders stranded in a vast lake of flooded marshland near Shingle Street.

Not only the butcher but the grocer, newsagent and postman have made the mile-long boat trip to keep the stranded community supplied.

The Rev Groom has been leading rescue parties bringing stranded cattle to safety... Boys from Hollesley Bay Borstal institution are making daily boat trips to feed cattle stranded on another little island at Oxley Farm.”

On Wednesday, there were more reports of WVS and Red Cross depots collecting donations of clothing, bedding, furniture and cleaning materials. The parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Food made arrangements for sweets to be available for children in rest centres.

The RSPCA reported the rescue of 10,390 animals and birds in the flood area. The total included 1,255 cattle, one bull, 1,090 sheep, 207 horses, 324 pigs, five lambs, 1,239 fowls, 372 cats, 527 dogs, 86 caged birds, four pigeons, 229 tame rabbits, one monkey, 26 ducks and turkeys, three ferrets, 5,000 tame mice, five tortoises still in their winter sleep and 12 goats.

By Thursday the death toll in Holland was 1,269.

By Friday, the Portman Road pitch was playable and Town’s third division (south) match against Watford was going ahead. During the 1-1 draw there was a collection for the Flood Disaster Fund.

On February 10 it was reported that two men were each jailed for six months for stealing a piece of piggery equipment from a flooded area.

On February 12 the main story on page one was the details of Britain’s new flood warning system, which would mean night and day hourly updates, broadcast by the BBC.