If you asked people what the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the 20th century was (baring disease epidemics like the 1919 flu), most people will look at you and probably have no idea. It was actually in 1953 when a Spring tide combined with low atmospheric pressure led to an incredible storm and flood, and left 30,000 people homeless, and 307 dead on land, and over 224 at sea in the UK. Where I grew up it was known as the Great East Anglian Flood; however in the Netherlands they call it the Watersnoodramp, and Wikipedia calls it the North Sea Flood of 1953. Closer, but even that does not really cover the scale of the disaster – 28 died in Scotland, and the MV Princess Victoria a ferry doing railway duty on the Stranraer to Larne crossing sank with loss of 133 lives, with just 44 saved. Across the Low Countries and UK, over 2000 people died. 13,000 cattle drowned: a thousand miles of coastline flooded, and in modern terms did £941,000,000 in damages – that is £50 million pounds in 1953 money converted by purchasing power. This was nothing compared the Netherlands – there around 1,800 people perished.
The first casualties were on the MV Princess Victoria — a “roll on roll off” ferry. It went down around 2 in the afternoon, having been battered by the storms. The navy tried to reach it with HMS Contest and the lifeboat Jeannie Spiers; a few were saved by the heroism of the lifeboat crew of the Samuel Kelly and two merchant ships in the area. It was a day of heroes, and the valour of radio operator David Broadfoot who remained at his post till the very end sending the SOS was marked by his posthumous George Cross. Notably Captain James Feguson was last seen as the ship sank standing on the bridge, saluting: he went down with his ship in line with naval tradition, and all of the other officers were lost.
Despite the potential to notify those on the coast as the storm beat round Scotland, warnings were not passed on – many port offices were unmanned on a Saturday night, and the radio did not broadcast late enough. Some telephoned warnings did save lives, but everyone reacted as if it was a local problem. At least today modern communications technology would instantly notify almost everyone as to the impending threat.
Sixty years ago tonight. If the sinking of the Titanic was a defining moment in my grandmother Alice Bentley’s childhood, the Great East Anglian Flood is a memory that my parents told me of. They married in 1952 – I was not born for another 17 years, but they were living in Bury then. The memories of ’53 have conflated with a later East Anglian flood, probably ’64, when the Lark Valley flooded deeply apparently, as did many streets in town. I can’t imagine that had much to do with tidal surge — it has to have been rain run off, and one day I am going to go and find the Bury Free Press archive and take a look at the photos. Eastgate Street was flooded – and my father was amused by stories that he had been seen rescuing people in the road in a rowboat; it is the kind of thing one can imagine him doing. Well, he is a Viking! However, back to 1953…
There were heroes, like Reis Leming, one of those “oversexed overpaid and over ‘ere” US airmen who were part of East Anglian life for so. Reis died last year; but his heroism that night lives on. It is sad that Reis, who saved so many despite not being able to swim, could not be here for the 60th anniversary. All kinds of folk stories arose about the flood – but in Bury the effects were inconvenience and amazement, but not terrible tragedy as on the East Coast, thirty miles away. One of Alice’s friend’s husbands died; I recall sitting drinking tea in St. John’s Place and her telling me how she lost her husband, Mr Laytin that night, washed away and drowned near Felixstowe if I recall correctly. He was a coastguard or port official – I’m hazy on the details some thirty years on, but it was an awful thing to hear.
For all the stories I heard growing up, my knowledge of the event is limited to several articles and a single book I read years ago, that focussed almost entirely in the East Anglian aspects of this “perfect storm”. It is to my mind a very local tragedy — and everyone regards it this way. So despite some wonderful coverage today (and a decade ago) in the press, which seems to render any commentary from me redundant – after all witnesses like my parents are still alive and able to tell what they saw that night — I thought I’d comment here. If you want to see what it looked like, Pathe News have some footage here : http://www.britishpathe.com/video/east-coast-gale-disaster
It was not “a very local” disaster at all – it was a national disaster. Yet the scale of the losses on Canvey Island down in the Thames Estuary, which was devastated by the flooding with a huge loss of homes, was just as severe as in East Anglia, and the losses in Scotland and Lincolnshire grim too. So why is it recalled as such a local matter? This is what interests me — I actually wondered if there was an intentional cover up, given the late and ineffective government response, or whether it was just the local press primarily reported the story which was therefore perceived everywhere as a local matter, and for some reason the London Press played it down? This was post-war Austerity Britain – and the Coronation and Festival of Britain demonstrated a “move on, keep cheerful” (I nearly quoted that bloody poster) attitude that natural disaster would have been at odds with.
I think that is probably the truth — people were sick of doom and gloom, and while the disaster was noted, to London it was (despite killing one person) a fairly minor thing. In Lincolnshire, the Western Isles, the Hebrides, the Orkneys, East Anglia and The Thames Estuary as well as across in the Netherlands it was very big news, the papers never reported the big picture, and so it has gone down in folk memory as a local affair. Perhaps it is for the best, for such a perfect storm should occur again, maybe not for centuries, but inevitably, and then we will see if the flood defences built in the aftermath really do work…