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Published June 1, 2018

Oh, we do love to be beside the seaside – and it’s just as well. Britain is an island nation, and even in the heart of the countryside, it’s easy to hop into a car and enjoy a day at the seaside.

However, sometimes being by the sea isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Especially when Mother Nature steps in to bring the sea much closer to your home than it’s supposed to be.

Source: Unsplash

At 7:45 on the morning of Saturday, the 31st of January 1953, the MV Princess Victoria set off from Stranraer in Scotland, heading for Larne in Northern Ireland with 128 passengers, 51 crew and 44 tons of cargo aboard.It was a fairly short journey – twenty miles – and although there had been a warning of gale force winds, the captain didn’t judge it to be too dangerous to sail.

At first, he was right. They started off in the sheltered inlet of Loch Ryan, and although the winds were strong and spray was breaking over the stern doors, they didn’t face any dire issues.

Once they left the loch and turned west towards Larne, however, the situation changed. 

Jim Blair, a crewman on board, later recalled the incident.

“All of a suddenly there was a thud and she leapt in the air, the bow come right out the water and come down with a thud, and I could hear this big crash, and this was she must have took a hit to her stern right up the car deck with one swipe.”

Faced with much worse conditions than he had expected, the captain initially tried to return to the relative safety of Loch Ryan, but the heavy seas made it impossible to release the bow rudder to get into reverse. 

An SOS message was transmitted at 10:32 am, and the order to abandon ship would follow at two pm.

Although several ships responded to the Princess Victoria’s distress call, the rescue attempt was hampered by the horrible weather, and the fact that the ship was unable to give her exact position. The survivors had to survive the high seas alone until help came. Witnesses said that at least one of the lifeboats was flung violently against the side of the ferry, tipping out everyone aboard.

Petty Officer Jay Yeomans said afterwards;

“As I clung onto this raft, I was about two hours in the water and there was just myself and another person on a raft about thirty yards away. I was spotted by an aeroplane flying overhead, I waved at, and after about two hours I was picked up by the… Portpatrick lifeboat.”

Merchant ships reached the site of the wreck first, but the waves threatened throw the lifeboats against the sides of the bigger ships, so they were unable to take anyone on board. All they could do was try to provide some shelter from the full force of the wind and waves until the lifeboat from Donaghadee arrived.

The coxswain of the lifeboat, Hugh Nelson, told reporters, “When we got out there the ship was gone. And the weather was very bad, conditions were very bad, visibility was bad. Sea was heavy. And with the assistance of the steamers too, they give us all the assistance they could.”

The lifeboat was able to pick up 33 men; a few others were picked up later. In total, 133 lives were lost. There were just 44 survivors. Controversially, none of the women or children who had been on the ship were amongst that number. Many had been on the lifeboat which had been smashed against the ship. One, a missionary named Nansy Bryson, was last seen trying to get a little three-year-old child into a lifeboat. She failed, and went under herself. For her efforts, she was called the heroine of the Princess Victoria.

The Princess Victoria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whilst news reporters followed the tragedy of the Princess Victoria, a greater disaster was growing in the Atlantic.

The winds and waves which had brought down the ferry had been caused by a deep Atlantic depression. Gale force winds from the North forced the sea water south, whilst the depression itself caused sea levels to rise beneath it. All this coincided with the spring tide caused by the full moon that night, causing waves of an unprecedented height to batter the coast.

There was some localised flooding that afternoon, along the north east coast in places like Cleethorpes and Grimsby, but on the whole people were expecting, if anything, the usual kind of stormy weather that Britain gets at the end of January.

It wasn’t until the evening that anyone began to suspect that the storm was out of the ordinary.

Shortly after 5pm, the first major invasion of the sea happened in the sleepy Norfolk town of Wells-next-the-Sea. A coastguard was trapped in a beach lookout station, and the harbourmaster Frank Smith bravely took to the raging waters in a boat to rescue him. Many homes were flooded –  people were forced to retreat upstairs for their safety, while flood waters wrecked their living rooms.

The storm surge raced into The Wash – that’s the sort of rectangular bay at the top of the bump on the map which forms East Anglia – and struck the coast between King’s Lynn and Hunstanton. Here, there were many places where there simply wasn’t an upstairs to escape to – seaside bungalows and chalets in places like Snettisham Beach, which are lovely and inviting in summer, but which were no match for the wrath of the storm.

A train travelling between Kings Lynn and Hunstanton was struck by a floating bungalow, which damaged the engine so badly that it took six hours to reverse back to Hunstanton. The passengers on board had to stand on their seats to have any chance of remaining dry.

At this point there was so much water surging up The Wash that it appears to have backed up, because a number of towns and villages to the north, along the Lincolnshire coast, were inundated.

As the evening drew in, the storm made its way around the coast of northeast Norfolk. Seven people were killed in the village of Sea Palling. Great Yarmouth felt the brunt of the water’s force twice; first battered from the front by the sea, and then from the rear when the banks of Braydon Water burst.

Lowestoft was in a similar position to Great Yarmouth, sitting between the sea and Oulton Broad. Here, however, a new sea wall had recently been constructed. Those taxpayers who had complained about the cost of that project were surely forced to eat their words, because the sea wall held. The town was flooded, but not inundated to the same extent as neighbouring settlements. Colin Dixon, who was twelve at the time, related how his family in Lowestoft only heard about the disaster the next day. 

“The night really there was nothing, but the next day, it was usual for Grandma in those times (Grandfather was fisherman) and she would stay with us when he was at sea. That Saturday night she was with us up at Sparhams buildings, away from the Beach Village. Well what happened was the next morning Mum got up and went to put the kettle on – no gas. In ’53 in Sparhams Buildings we had a small coal-fired cooking range. Mum lit the fire, made the tea and that was that. Grandma had her cup of tea on the Sunday morning and off she went, home. 

A short while after she reappeared – she said I’ve just met my milkman and he says the Beach is flooded….we knew nothing of this at all. She disappeared with the next door neighbour to see and of course…found the whole place in complete devastation.”

Jane Jarvis, who was fourteen at the time, lived much closer to the coast, in a guesthouse run by her mother. 

“That evening we had a guest who came in the back way and said the waters up. We didn’t take much notice but within five minutes the back door burst open and a wave came straight up the hall. We were up to our waists within minutes, without being able to save anything. 

I can vividly remember suddenly seeing the piano going over and floating on its back. And we grabbed the dog, which was a very small dog. Apart from the dog we weren’t able to save anything.”

Although there was extensive damage, Lowestoft was one of the few places where there were no deaths caused by the flood that night. That doesn’t mean that the town was unscathed, though. A fishing trawler call ed the Guava had set out from Lowestoft with nine local men aboard.The ship, and the fishermen, were lost at sea.

The storm surge continued along the coast, now hitting the towns and villages of Suffolk and Essex. Southwold was cut off for 48 hours; the A12 was the only road, and part of it was swept away. Wilfred George, then 23, actually cycled through the flood waters that Saturday night, and only afterwards realised how lucky he had been to make it. 

“Because the road had completely gone, vanished, and we did later find a great chunk several yards across, 100 yards away, out on the marshes, with a white line in the middle of it. So this water was capable of moving a chunk of tarmac road several yards across – it wouldn’t have had much mercy on a cyclist.”

He witnessed the aftermath of the floods on Southwold’s Ferry Road:

“I think it was five people had been drowned. There was an ambulance lying on its side, which had tried to do a rescue and was a write-off. Half covered in shingle and sand, if I remember. 

There was an absolute mix of bits of house, toys, furniture. The sea had washed them out onto the marshes and then as the tide went down the westerly gale had blown them all back on the beach and instead of a row of houses you had a row of rubbish. One of the things was a dead horse.”

In Felixstowe, as in Great Yarmouth, the flood waters were able to attack from two sides. And again, many people were trapped in single storey buildings that didn’t offer any safe retreat.

Richard Lord was just seven; he lived with his family in one of the many prefabs – prefabricated buildings – which had been built after the war.

“My stepfather said the only thing we could do was climb out of the bedroom window and onto the roof. So my two parents were obviously very wet by now, up to their waists, and I was held while my stepfather opened the window. 

On opening the window and moving to the window it was very horrendous because basically the water by now was probably three or four feet deep, it was racing past the window at quite a speed. You could hear people screaming, things breaking. I do remember a cow going past the window, whether it was dead or alive I don’t know, but it went past the window.”

He lay on the roof with his parents either side of him, trying to keep him warm.

“The prefab then lifted up off its base and started to move and as it started to move we moved forward several blocks towards Langer Road.”

A typical prefab. Source: Unsplash.

Charlie Loomes, then 20, lived on Langer Road. He and his brothers were able to retreat to an upper floor, but after the floods receded he saw clearly how bad it had been for others.

“On the Monday I went down to Orford Road, the top end, it was a thing I shall never forget, because as I walked down I could see all the bodies were laid out on the pavement. There was quite a number…Seeing the bodies in Orford Road. I mean it was an horrendous sight. I always remember looking at them, not too much, but they were bright pink and believe me it was cold. You can understand it, it was tremendously cold. I mean I waded to just above my knees in that water. It took me all day to get the feeling back into my legs again. So the people that were in there must have had an horrendous situation. 

I do believe some people shouted from across the road to the prefabs…’Come in!’… and they said ‘No, we’re okay’, but of course they weren’t okay.”

Lord had been lucky; other families weren’t. Doris and William Watkins lived in another of the prefabs with their two children, Alison aged four and Christopher aged two. A policeman had cycled past and advised them to leave their home for safety, but the waters rose so quickly that by the time they had got themselves and the children dressed, the pressure outside was so great they couldn’t open the door. The only way out was through the window.

“I had to pass the children through the window to my husband and this meant putting them under the water. My little boy, who was just two years old, went through but Alison was too frightened and put up a struggle before my husband was able to grasp her hand.I couldn’t get through the window because I was eight-months pregnant so I had to smash it before I could get out and my husband hauled me up.I cannot tell you how long we sat there waiting on the roof. It was so cold – we were frozen. We were wet, too. My husband was so cold he got frostbite in one of his toes.

When they came to rescue him – which was after us because the rescue boat which came was not big enough – he was frozen stiff, literally, they couldn’t bend him, and he was unconscious when they took him to hospital.”

Little Alison did not survive. She was one of the 39 people who were killed in Felixstowe that night.

On the other side of the estuary, at Harwich, the local geography meant an attack from three sides. There had been warnings of a high tide here, and the police had made efforts to evacuate those at risk, but most residents didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation. Previous high tides had only produced a few inches of flooding. However, this tide came in eight feet higher than expected.

Eight people here lost their lives, including the landlord of the Anchor public house. He and his wife Elsie Lofts had gone down into their cellar to try and rescue some of the beer. Water burst in through three doors at once. Elsie was swept away up the stairs, without seeing or touching a single step. Her husband, however, was trapped in fifteen feet of water, and the weight of the water slammed the cellar door shut. His body was only recovered when rescuers cut through the floor above.

The warnings did allow some locals to make an escape. Naturally, many hastened to rescue that which was most important to them. One man was seen “rowing a dinghy which was loaded with cats at the stern, dogs in the middle, and a most magnificent parrot perched on the stern and shouting “Get out of here, you buggers!”

Breach at Erith, up river from Canvey Island. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Canvey Island was one of the worst areas hit; 58 people died. Again, many of these were living in houses that hadn’t been designed for winter occupation and had no upper floors. Doreen Hood, who was ten, later recalled how deep the flood was. “My dad put me on his shoulders and the water was up to his shoulder so my legs were in the water.” 

Geoff Barsby wasn’t afraid at the time – he was only seven years old – but looking back realised the scale of the tragedy.

“One memory I have is looking out of the window and imagining being able to fish off my own doorstep. The next day it became clear just how terrible it was. In those days Canvey was a small community and everybody knew somebody who died. I remember our rabbit and our chickens were killed but we were lucky as, unlike most, we lived in a house with a second floor. The real tragedy was the people who perished on rooftops. It wasn’t the water that got them, it was the terrible cold.”

After the storm, even those who had escaped were affected; the gas had to be cut off, so the entire population of around 10,000 had to be evacuated from Canvey.

View of Canvey Island during the floods from a US Army helicopter. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Amidst the tragedy, there were some very lucky survivors. One was just a baby at the time; she was washed away in her pram. Although both of her parents were killed, she was later found, still in the pram, floating safely, and returned to the arms of her grandparents.

In total, 307 people were killed in England, along the coasts of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, nineteen in Scotland. On the continent, it was even worse – 28 died in Belgium and a staggering 1,800 people died in the Netherlands, where some 20% of the land lies below sea level.

There was obviously nothing that could have been done to stop the storm, but what was it about this particular incident that made it so deadly?

Meteorologists were able to see the strength of the flood and issue warnings, but these warnings were ineffective. The problem was that they just couldn’t reach people in time.

Television was still something of a rarity, and there were only three radio stations in the UK, where news and weather bulletins were infrequent. There was, at the time, no formalised arrangement for issuing warnings of high tides. Even those who did hear about the ferry disaster wouldn’t have had any reason to think that the same weather could bring destruction to their doorsteps. In the Netherlands, where the height of the land meant the flooding was always a greater risk, the warnings couldn’t reach people because the local radio stations didn’t broadcast at night, and many weather stations only operated at night.

The timing of the flood was deadly in several ways. In 1953, the memory of the Second World War was still very fresh. Many of the areas affected by the floods had also been affected by the Blitz. As a result, there had been severe housing shortages which had been solved by the production of prefabricated buildings. They were small, one-storey buildings, which were only intended to be used in the short term. Many didn’t have strong enough foundations to resist the force of the water, and were literally washed away. 

In addition, the fact that it happened at night meant that many people had already gone to bed, unaware of the danger. A lot of the casualties were older people, who were simply unable to escape their homes.

And thirdly, the fact that it was still winter meant that those who escaped the water often also had to endure the cold. 

However, as terrible as it was, this disaster could have been worse. Had the same weather system struck a fortnight before or after, it could have coincided with even higher tides, taking the devastation even further inland. 

In the wake of the storm, there was obviously a great need to ensure that another storm could not have the same deadly effect. In both the UK and the Netherlands, major studies were carried out on their coastal defences. Huge investments were made into strengthening them. In London, the Thames Barrier programme was started to ensure that the capital would not be threatened by another storm surge coming up the estuary. The Barrier officially opened in 1984. Other defence measures were taken around the coast.

Today, we can be much better prepared for bad weather. Thanks to twenty four hour broadcasting on television, radio and the internet, warnings can be disseminated widely in a matter of moments. The Met Office now has an official service dedicated to forecasting coastal flooding, and improvements in meteorological science and technology means that forecasts can be made further ahead with greater accuracy.

Floods can – and do – still wreak havoc on coastal areas. The defences put in place after this event are now aging, and require continued investment to keep them maintained. In times of economic hardship, this isn’t always made available. So the best advice for those who live close to the sea? Keep an eye on the weather reports, and consider keeping a boat handy.

Thanks this episode go to:

I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporters Skeleheron and Mish Liddle, and to all of you for listening and reading.

Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon can give you access to exclusive content, including at least one mini-episode per month, and helps the show keep going.


Sources and Further Reading:

Eye witness accounts from Suffolk

Ipswich Star article – interview with Doris Watkins

British Pathé footage of the Princess Victoria on YouTube

British Pathé footage of the floods in the Netherlands on YouTube

Timewatch documentary on YouTube

Canvey Island footage on YouTube

Wikipedia article on the floods

1953 East Coast Flood – Met Office

The North Sea Flood of 1953 – Environment and Society Portal

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