Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Linda Sexton, the Suffolk East Federation of Women’s Institutes archivist, to the Parish Room to tell us of the role the Women’s Institute played after the devastating coastal floods of late January 1953. 

We were told that the storm surge, which struck the east coast of England during the night of Saturday 31st January 1953, caused the worst natural disaster in northern Europe for 200 years, and from the figures, there is no doubt that it was. The flood was generated by an intense, rapidly moving low-pressure weather system, which travelled southeast across the North Sea and produced very high winds (a gust of 126 mph was observed at Costa Hill in Orkney) over an offshore region from northeast Scotland to the Netherlands. In combination with a high tide, the surge, which locally exceeded 18 ft. above mean sea levels, swept southwards, overwhelming flood defences in both countries.

The scale of this flooding was unprecedented. In England alone there were 1,200 breaches of sea defenses with 150,000 acres (234 square miles) of land flooded, 40,000 people left homeless, 46,000 livestock killed and 307 deaths. In the Netherlands, 100,000 people were evacuated, 340,000 acres flooded, 47,300 buildings damaged, 30,000 livestock killed and 1,836 lives lost. In addition, there were 17 deaths in Scotland, 22 in Belgium, and 230 deaths in vessels out at sea (including 133 lost on the MV Princess Victoria).

Three events combined to cause the overwhelming tidal surge: a full moon, a deep trough of low-pressure that sucked up the sea by an extra foot, and strong gales which lasted for many hours. Linda told us that the tide earlier that day had not receded as it should, so that when the second high tide came down the North Sea, as a giant standing wave, it came on top of this additional water to devastate the low-lying housing of England’s East coast.

A complete lack of emergency preparedness was responsible for the tremendous scale of the disaster in human terms; as Linda noted, there were very few telephone lines in place, virtually no TV’s and an almost total reliance upon radio and newspapers for information. The latter were clearly of no use before the flood, whilst the timing of the tidal surge, in the cold dark evening and night, was when most affected people were in bed. The exceptional weather conditions, coupled with an inability to warn people, meant that communities were unaware of the imminent threat, which saw many low lying areas of East Anglia and the Thames Estuary suffer extreme flooding.

Linda then told us of the storm’s progress down the country. By 5 p.m. seawater crashed through the dunes in Lincolnshire, crushing every automatic tide gauge in the Wash. The evening train from Hunstanton ran headlong into a wall of water a mile inland, and was then stranded for six hours. Forty bungalows, home mainly to American servicemen and their Norfolk wives, were swept away and 65 people died.

Sea defences were brushed aside by the wall of water which swept into King’s Lynn at 6.30pm, had reached Hunstanton by 7pm and was powering towards Great Yarmouth by 9pm. Exactly 100 people were drowned in Norfolk alone that night. Thousands more spent a terrifying winter night cowering on roofs, in trees and on improvised rafts, soaked to the skin and lashed by salt-spray and hurricane-force winds. Tens of thousands more lost almost everything they owned and became homeless overnight. We were also told that many people died slowly by subsequent exposure to the harsh elements, when clinging onto the roofs of houses, rather than by drowning.

In King’s Lynn, the river was at the top of its banks long before high tide, the effect of the non receding previous tide, so when the tidal wave of sea water hit, it overwhelmed one fifth of the town. Roads turned to rivers, nine people drowned and more than 3,000 homes were swamped.

In Salthouse, 30 houses were destroyed in 30 minutes. In one house, water burst through the front door with such force it broke a woman’s leg; her husband carried her to the kitchen table, but when the next wave smashed through, it swept her away to her death.

In Sheringham the storm pushed sea water right over seafront hotels to flood down chimneys into people’s homes; almost 100ft of promenade was swept away. A local policeman had to put a rescued baby into a suitcase to shield it from the pebbles flying from the beach, and from tiles crashing down from house roofs.

18 foot waves burst through Sea Palling, twenty miles SE from Cromer, and rushed inland; Yarmouth was engulfed and Southwold cut off. By late evening, all down the Essex coast the sea had covered the saltings and undermined sea walls, loosened cracks in the clay and destroyed their foundations. People were sleeping behind these 1,000 year-old sea walls trusting to history, but the walled fortress of Essex was under siege and would soon surrender.

Lowestoft was cut in two by the surging floodwater, though there were no deaths that terrible night. At first it was dubbed the luckiest town on the coast; however, Lowestoft fishing trawler Guava had left Lowestoft on January 30 with a crew of 11 to fish for herring. It was never seen again – one of eight ships which disappeared without trace in the hurricane.

The greatest loss of life was on Canvey Island, which was once grazing marshland reclaimed from the sea. Most residents lived in bungalows and chalets, enclosed by miles of feeble earthen sea walls. At midnight, a river board man went up for his last check, and in the hard silver moonlight saw a fleet of water where there should be islands across to mainland Leigh, with the sea lapping at his feet. Along with a colleague, all they could do was to bang on doors shouting "The tide is coming”. Sea walls crumpled with shocking speed and, with the wind roaring and icy North Sea inside, the electricity shorted out; the river board man was overtaken, so he grabbed a post and stayed up to his chest in winter water all night - how did he survive? Across the road, an elderly couple he had warned climbed up on to a wardrobe in their tiny bedroom, but it later gave way in the pitch dark, the woman tumbling down to drown. Like so many others, the husband was quite helpless, even though so very close.

Canvey Island - After the flood

Canvey Island - Rescue by boat

Canvey Island - Another rescue by boat

Canvey Island - The search for survivors

6b Canvey Island - Debris left behind by the flood

In another bungalow, a family with nine children under 16 year tried to climb into the roof space when the water burst in. The table collapsed and the mother was left standing in the water, holding on to the two youngest boys; during the endless night both died in her arms - there was simply nothing she could do. All clocks stopped between 1.42 and 1.47 a.m. as the rising water engulfed mantelpieces. Reports differ, but some 58 or 59 people died on Canvey Island that night. Many remember the millions of earthworms drifting and swaying in the water, killed by the salt. Canvey was closed to prevent looting, and large S's chalked onto door fronts after houses and shops had been searched. "The sea's triumph," wrote county archivist Hilda Grieve, had been stunning.

Desperate cows seeking very limited shelter by an abandoned building near Foulness

Sheerness docks after the flood - see the overturned vessel

Because many were worried about a repeat surge over the next night, which thankfully didn’t happen, the services were called upon to fill sandbags and repair breaches in many sea walls. They supplied 1,500 vehicles, 50 amphibious vehicles and 65 heavy earth-moving machines; they additionally issued large stocks of blankets, sandbags and other stores to the civilian authorities. The Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force made aircraft available for photographic survey and air supply work, and provided men and vehicles, while the Royal Air Force Transport Command arranged a special airlift to bring in sandbags from other countries.

Troops sand bagging at Canvey island

Being soon after the war (NB: food rationing didn’t finally end until 1954), thousands of homes were substandard, resulting in many people living in temporary shacks or converted sheds / various types of boat. In consequence, these homes were less able to resist the surge, with many simply falling to pieces or floating away in the flood. In addition, many people either had no house insurance, or if they did, they were usually woefully underinsured, which had dire financial consequences in the long aftermath to the flood.

The Lord Mayor of London set up his National Flood and Tempest Distress Fund, which was very well supported, but couldn’t reach everyone in need; Linda advised that insured residents generally didn’t qualify, even when most received only small insurance payments because they were underinsured. In addition, it seems that many insurance claims were made too soon, and therefore settled before the full extent of longer term water damage had shown itself - affected people therefore continued to suffer a long time after the flood, with possessions lost and often a reduced ability to support themselves.

It was into this breach that the women of the W.I. stepped in, on a massive scale. Many Federations (of Women’s Institutes) started collections of produce and other foodstuffs, along with clothes and furniture; as Linda said, some 80 parcels weighing a ton were collected for W.I. members on the coast who had lost everything. With fellow members they organised storage, collection and distribution points around East Anglia, and were a lifeline to many, whilst in May 1953, more food parcels arrived by ship from New South Wales that also required distribution.

The W.I. was also involved in distributing money from their own cash collections to those still short after payments had been made from the Lord Mayor’s fund; this was also something that became even more welcome as the year progressed, because people nut directly affected by the flood gradually forgot all about it.

In June 1953, local W.I. Federations received a letter from the London W.I., who had received a shipment of honey from Queensland, some 50 drums each containing 55 gallons, and were looking for assistance in distributing it. The records don’t show quite how this was achieved, but in August another 50 drums turned up - the Australian bees had certainly been busy.

Money from many countries around the world was also coming in, including from Russia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada; this all took time to coordinate and distribute - something else the various W.I. local Federations were heavily involved with. From the W.I. papers in the South East Federation, Linda recalled the following payments being made:

  • Replacement of rabbits (an on-going food source - remember rationing);
  • Replacement of furniture;
  • Motorcycle repairs (almost certainly a means of getting to work);
  • Cash to replace that lost in the flood (money was often kept in tins, jars or under mattresses;
  • Replacement of specialist shoes, already replaced by the L.M. Fund, but subsequently completely destroyed by the muck and debris lying everywhere around;
  • Contributions to the RSPCA (many pets and farm animals were killed or injured);
  • Replacement carpets - it seems that lugworms were nesting in people’s homes under their carpets - yuck).
  • The W.I.’s own flood relief fund unbelievably continued until 1967, when it was finally closed by sending the remaining money to the Lynton and Lynmouth flood relief fund - what goes around comes around!

The catastrophe led to in-depth government reviews in both the Netherlands and the UK, which resulted in significant improvements in coastal defenses, in warning systems and in flood management policy. In the UK, the Storm Tide Warning Service was developed (now part of the National Severe Weather Warning System), and eventually the Thames Barrier was completed in 1984 to protect London from future surges. In the Netherlands, the Delta Commission’s study into the cause and effect of the floods led to the Delta Works, a series of dams, locks, sluices, levees and storm surge barriers that now protect the country from coastal flooding.

The Thames very nearly overspills at The Embankment - see how high the water level is.

The final tally of UK deaths was 307, with the following areas most affected:

  • Canvey Island, Essex     58 or 59 (records differ)
  • Felixstowe, Suffolk         40 or 41 (records differ)
  • Jaywick, Essex                  37
  • Hunstanton, Norfolk      31
  • Snettisham, Norfolk       25
  • Skegness area, Lincs      20
  • Mablethorpe, Lincs        16
  • King’s Lynn, Norfolk      15
  • Yarmouth, Norfolk         10
  • Heacham, Norfolk           9
  • Harwich, Suffolk              8
  • Sea Palling, Norfolk        7
  • Southwold, Suffolk         5

To conclude, attendees were shocked by the scale of the impacts arising from the great flood, but were much heartened by the human interest stories and by the great role of the women of the Women’s Institute, as unearthed and told to us by Linda.


Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

16th May: A Picture History of Margaret Catchpole

Pip Wright, our favourite speaker, will tell us the tale of a Suffolk adventuress and chronicler transported for stealing a horse, accompanied by paintings by Reverend Cobbold. Margaret Catchpole is described in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as one of the few convicts with an excellent memory and a gift for recording events, so this event will be a rare treat - a fascinating tale from a gifted source presented by a brilliant speaker.

13th June: The Battle of Waterloo

Allan Manning, who is a also member of the society, will re-create the stages of the battle on a large map for all to see and really appreciate the many events that happened on the day - the interaction between forward and reserve units, between British and Prussian armies, and of course between Napoleon and his generals, along with commentaries on why the parties took the actions they did.

Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.

Andy Sheppard