The night the sea swept in: looking back on the North Sea Flood

The North Sea flood of February 1953 devastated the east coast, with 307 lives lost. Now, more than 60 years on, Jules Pretty looks back at the tragedy and how it has altered the area forever

The sea wall destroyed by the floods.  (Photo by Carl Mydans//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Like many major natural disasters that remain fixed in personal and national psyches, nobody on the east coast and its settlements saw the 1953 floods coming. 

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It began when low-pressure deepened over the north of Scotland on Friday 30 January. Air pressure dropped to 968 millibars, sucking the sea level up by an extra foot. Then prolonged and violent winds forced an extra 15 billion cubic feet of water south, raising sea levels by an additional 60cm (2ft). The tide came as a giant standing wave, hundreds of miles long. This night’s tide would be higher than ever previously known.

Now, two key factors that caused the floods were in place – very low pressure and strong northwesterly winds. The third factor was the full moon. As people in coastal communities went to bed, none knew of the coincidence of these three circumstances. None had forward warning of the risk. No one would be able to do anything but try to save themselves and their families as the tide came in. 

First, no ebb occurred on the Saturday. The wind “seemed to be holding the water”, reported a policeman. Then, by 5pm, seawater crashed through dunes and sea walls in Lincolnshire, and local crises were unfolding. Every automatic tide gauge in the Wash, and eventually all to Southend, was to be destroyed by the enormous weight of water, while the evening train from Hunstanton ran headlong into a wall of water a mile inland from the Norfolk coast. It was stranded for six hours. Then the first serious disaster occurred. Forty bungalows in south Hunstanton, home mainly to American servicemen and their Norfolk wives, were flooded, and all but three were swept away; 65 people drowned. 

At Southwold, Rene and Don Horwood, one of only two families resident on the River Blyth, noticed the water coming up their garden
path and lapping at the door. They’d never
seen such a tide.

And still the wall of water poured south. At sunset in Harwich, it was difficult to stand in the wind, the heavy seas crashing deep into the harbour and the Stour and Orwell estuaries. By 10pm, the sea had completely covered all the saltings down the Essex coast, and was working away at the sea walls themselves, filling rabbit burrows and badger setts, loosening cracks in
the clay, undermining foundations. The drama was mounting, ready to play out in the bitter wind and fearsome conditions. At the time, no one knew where the sea would stop. 

Waves in the streets

In Harwich, the water topped the quay and started to spill into the streets. A police constable hurried from house to house at 11pm, knocking on doors, and then found himself pursued down the street by rushing waves. By 11.30pm, the sea was pouring into the town and a metre (3ft) high wall of water was crashing into houses and seething up roads, stealthily beneath
the roaring gale.

A fisherman, warning neighbours on his still-dry street, came home to gather up his wife and children, but then a wave crashed through their small house. He managed to carry them one by one to higher ground.

Elsewhere, families stood at the top of their stairs, shaking after explosions of water had smashed through windows and doors below. Looking out, they could see waves crashing into fences and pounding houses, and pigs being washed along by the current. They did not know what they would do if the water were to come into their upstairs bedrooms. As the night advanced, the sky cleared. People up and down the coast looked out on white landscapes, thinking at first that it was snow. They didn’t expect the waves to be crashing inland. 

Raging sea

The water had smashed in the back of Southwold too, turning the marshes into a raging sea and making the town an island for 48 hours. Rene and Don Horwood were joined at their house by fisherman Frank ‘Workie’ Upcraft, who confidently said he had never seen the water above the skirting boards. Then they had to open the back door to let the tide through, and it kept
on rising.

Two hours later, the sea wall broke with a thump, and the low marshes between harbour and town were filled with 5m (16ft) of water. They all dashed upstairs, and then realised they had to get to their neighbours’, where paralysed Mrs McCarthy slept downstairs. Don and Workie fought water and wind to rescue the terrified woman, and carried her up to wake her deaf husband. Rene then saw lights flashing across the waves from the town, but she didn’t think to signal back. Later, a cockle boat appeared, heroically rowed by Arthur Stannard, the brewery drayman, and US Air Force officer Johnny Svboda. “We were so worried about you,” they said, “we simply had to come across.” 

Both stayed the night as the wind lashed the house; tense hours not knowing what will happen next, listening to the electricity shorting into the water downstairs. By the next afternoon, members of the sailing club waded along the sea walls, inching back with water up to their waists, feeling the walls crumbling beneath their feet, carrying the two children and elderly to safety. It was more than six weeks before they could return home, just before fire brigades pumped out the marshes. Rene vividly remembered the wriggling, twisting, slithering eels; millions of them covering the marshes and clogging up the fire hoses. 

21st February 1953:  Residents trying to salvage possessions from houses surrounded by floodwater on Canvey Island. Original Publication: Picture Post - 6423 - Floods - Return To Canvey Island: One  Man's Story - pub. 1953  (Photo by Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Getty Images)
When the tidal surge swamped Canvey Island, 58 people lost their lives and the island had to be evacuated. ©GettyImages 

Water where land should be

The first person to notice a problem on Canvey Island was Derek Lynch’s father, a River Board man who went up on to the walls overlooking Tewkes Creek just before midnight. In the hard silver moonlight, he saw a fleet of water where there should be islands across to mainland Leigh, and the sea was lapping over the wall at his feet. He rushed to wake his wife and son and, with a colleague, began knocking up as many people as possible. “The tide is in,” they shouted. The walls here were 45cm (1½ft) lower than on the south side of the island, and this was soon to consign these northern neighbourhoods to 1.8-2.4m (6-8ft) of bitterly cold seawater.

Derek himself woke his grandmother next door, who only had a single-storey chalet, and they came back to the bungalow, just a few metres from the sea wall. They retreated to the loft, and, apart from the howling wind, not a lot seemed to be happening. Mother decided it was time for a cup of tea, and Derek stood by the gas hob downstairs, watching the kettle when he heard the sound of trickling water. He turned and saw water jetting through the keyhole, halfway up the back door. 

Bang. The door crashed open, and the North Sea was inside. He scrambled across the kitchen, fighting the swirling water, and just made it to the stairs before the house filled to the picture rail. They were trapped. With the wind roaring, and icy sea inside the house, life seemed to hang by a thread. Outside, Derek’s father was down the road when the waves overtook him. He lept on to an iron fence and grabbed a tall post, and there he stayed, up to his chest in winter water all the night. 

Some tragedies are almost too painful to bear. Nearby lived a family with nine children under 16 years of age. When the water burst in, father climbed on a table to break a hole in the ceiling, and lifted seven of the children, one by one, into the roof space. Then the table collapsed, and mother was left standing in the water, holding on to the two youngest boys. During the endless, bitter and dark night, both of the young boys died in her arms. There was nothing she could do.

At 8am, a third small boy fell through the ceiling, and an elder brother jumped in and stood in the 1.5m (5ft) of water, holding his younger brother up. Eventually, the elder boy’s legs went numb, and he had to let the small one go and drown. He hung on to a door until the first boat eventually arrived. No accounts do justice to the lonely despair, the shouting and urging. All survivors will remember this terrible night
for all their lives.

In all, 58 people lost their lives on Canvey. In the whole of the Second World War, 81,000 people were made homeless in Essex by enemy air attack. These floods made 21,000 homeless in one night. Many remember the millions of earthworms, drifting and swaying in the water, killed by the salt. Canvey was then closed to prevent looting. Large S’s were chalked on doors after houses and shops had been searched.

Fighting back 

Yet soon after, people were fighting back. And this is the untold part of the 1953 flood story. All 1,200 breaches along the whole coast had to be repaired before the next spring tides, two weeks hence. This was to be an extraordinary effort. Volunteers across the region went to sandpits to fill bags. The River Board asked for a million bags a day. By the next weekend, 8,000 civilians and servicemen were working on the sea walls, and over the fortnight, eight million sandbags would be laid. 

The sea was repelled this time. Yet climate change will raise sea levels again. No one who experienced the great tide or its aftermath quite believes how much has been forgotten. 

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Jules Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex.