A flood of memories: 60 years on, Britain recalls a deadly storm

The Jan. 1953 flood killed several hundred people, but some experts wonder if the country has learned its lesson about disaster prevention. 

Britain's Princess Royal led a remembrance service today to mark the 60th anniversary of a massive flood that killed more than 300 people in East Anglia in 1953, one of the country’s worst ever natural disasters. 

Other commemorations are due to be held across the region, which bore the brunt of severe winter storms that led to the evacuation of 30,000 residents and caused damage to 24,000 homes.

Despite the loss of life and devastation, however, the storm has faded from public consciousness in much of Britain in recent decades. 

The flooding began on the night of Jan. 31, brought on by a combination of high spring tides, deep atmospheric low pressure – which raised sea levels – and strong northerly gales that caused seawater to surge over coastal defenses.

By the next morning, 307 people were dead. Some had drowned in their beds as the flood water surged into streets and low lying land. Countless animals were also killed and large swarths of farmland were rendered infertile by saltwater.

The counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex were the worst affected, but the floods extended up to the Shetland Islands in Scotland and down to Kent in the south of England.  

Another 177 people died in fishing boats and over 130 on the Irish ferry Princess Victoria off the coast of Northern Ireland

Still, Britain was spared the brunt of the flooding, which killed more than 1,800 in the Netherlands.

Patricia Smith, who chronicled the disaster in her book, "The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster: The People’s Story," said she was compelled to write about the flood after hearing the story of a close friend who had lost her family that day.

“She was living in a bungalow in Canvey and the first she knew about it was when she turned over in bed and felt the cold water in her room. The family tried to get out and they could hear cries of help in the darkness outside but the husband drowned and her son died later in hospital from shock and exhaustion," Mrs. Smith says.

“What surprised me most from the research was the lack of a rescue plan from government. A lot of people were left to fend for themselves until eventually local councils got involved.”

In total, 58 people died in Canvey. Because the flood surges happened at night when local radio stations did not broadcast and weather stations closed there was no way of alerting residents of the impending disaster.

“It’s puzzling why the floods didn’t get much coverage afterwards and even now few people know about them outside East Anglia," Smith says. "It was still post war and the coronation was only a few months away so I suspect the authorities played it down.”

As a result of the 1953 floods, however, experts investigated the tidal threat to London and eventually built the Thames Barrier in 1982. Over the past decade a further £250 million ($450 million) has been spent on flood defenses in the four counties worst affected 60 years ago. But with heavy rainfall and ongoing floods across the United Kingdom over the past several months, 1953 should act as a warning, say landowners.

Tim Woodward at the Country Landowners Association in the East of England warned that improved flood defenses could only do so much.

“It would be foolish of us to believe nothing like the horror of six decades ago could happen again," he says.

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