Royal Society Publishing

The east coast Big Flood, 31 January–1 February 1953: a summary of the human disaster

Peter J Baxter


The Big Flood was the worst natural disaster to befall Britain during the twentieth century, and the scale of its human impact was due to the lack of adequate disaster preparedness. The 307 deaths on land were caused by drowning or from the effects of exposure. Two-thirds occurred in four clusters along the shoreline and mainly comprised inhabitants of post-war prefabricated buildings, bungalows and chalets, with the highest mortality among the elderly. The emergency response was spontaneous and community led, with the main search and rescue completed before central government became involved. No individuals or agencies were blamed for the neglected state of the flood defences or the absence of warnings, along with the post-war shortage of adequate housing, which were the main causes of vulnerability. The media played a limited role, and television was in its infancy. Mental health impacts were either self-limiting or failed to be articulated in a society recovering from the Second World War. The major mitigating factors included the empathetic response of people, locally and nationally, as well as the availability of armed forces personnel based in East Anglia, whose actions played a decisive part in the battle against the sea. The major legacies of the Big Flood were a coastal flood forecasting system, a more scientific approach to sea defences and the building of the Thames barrier.


1. Introduction

Throughout history, the sea has been both friend and foe of the British Isles. Storms at sea have repelled invaders, but they have also unleashed severe floods to attack the island's shores and their communities. In 1953, while still recovering from the Second World War, the country needed no reminder that the defiant sea, by blunting the enemy advance, had evened the odds when the Battle of Britain had to be fought out in the skies. However, on the afternoon of 31 January 1953, no one listening to the gale force winds could have known that a fearful surge flood was building off the east coast. The war had left a legacy the sea was about to exploit.

On the evening of 31 January 1953, a great storm surge swept down the east coast of England and overcame the fragile sea defences, leaving 307 people drowned or dead from the effects of exposure, before crossing the English Channel into Holland, where 1795 people perished. This was the worst natural disaster to befall the British Isles during the twentieth century yet, surprisingly, the story of the Big Flood, with its tales of human courage and the heroic response to sudden catastrophe, was rapidly relegated to a footnote in the history of post-war Britain. The rationale for writing this paper was to develop a modern appreciation of the acute human impacts of this extraordinary event, and to reflect on the lessons learned at the time for mitigating future North Sea flood risk.

The need for a reappraisal of the disaster arose during a project undertaken for the Department of Health (England and Wales) on the Health Effects of Climate Change in the United Kingdom (Department of Health 2002). The chosen climate scenario for 2050, based on a future 1% per annual increase of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, forecast a mean sea-level rise of 41 cm for East Anglia which, together with a probable increase in the frequency of severe winter gales, could result in a substantially higher risk of major flooding events along the east coast, in terms of both their frequency and magnitude. The specific remit of the project's working group was to explore the implications of climate change for the National Health Service, and the increased hazard to life from windstorms (Baxter et al. 2002a) and coastal floods (Baxter et al. 2002b) clearly needed to be included. The Big Flood of 1953 was the obvious reference case for study.

Details of the disaster have been well recorded in four principal texts, now out of print, which should be consulted by the interested reader (Grieve 1959; Pollard 1978; Summers 1978; Harland & Harland 1980). I have drawn predominantly on these seminal texts, as well as recent television and radio programmes on the Big Flood that have included interviews with survivors (e.g. McLeoad 2000). Although at the time of the flood, it was too early for the epidemiological studies of human impacts that we would attempt to undertake today (e.g. Noji 1997; Ohl & Tapsell 2000), I have employed the existing accounts to draw inferences about hazard and human vulnerability to disaster (Wisner et al. 2004). A potent motivation for writing this paper was to rediscover the significance of the Big Flood as a human disaster, both at the time and for the future, and the lessons it provides for disaster mitigation and human health. Heavy damage was also inflicted on agriculture, including animal life and industry, as described in the aforementioned texts and elsewhere (Steers 1953).

2. Meteorological aspects

Storm surges present a very specific type of flood hazard to the east coast of England, a hazard that can be more severe than coastal floods seen elsewhere around the British Isles, mainly because of the semi-enclosed funnel shape, and the shallowness of the North Sea. For flooding to occur on open coastlines, an extra factor is needed to add to the height of the sea surface in addition to normal waves and tides, and severe meteorological conditions can provide this in the form of a sea surge. Flooding can be most severe when a storm surge coincides with high spring tides and flooded rivers (Steers 1953). Since the seventeenth century, at least seven floods have been classifiable as a disaster (Smith & Ward 1998). On 31 January 1953, a temperate cyclone in the North Atlantic passed the north of Scotland and turned down into the North Sea on a strongly southward track. The cyclone had an exceptionally intense pressure gradient, which made it more dangerous than cyclones associated with North Sea surges in recent history. The gale- and storm-force northerly winds (wind force 10, with gusts greater than 50 m s−1) were of record-breaking strength. The wind blew across the broad fetch of the North Sea, piling up the water ahead of high tide, which was assisted by the localized reduction in atmospheric pressure of the cyclone lifting the sea. The level of the North Sea rose more than 2 m south of the Humber estuary, and was topped by waves over 4.9 m high. It diminished by the time it reached London, and became more than 3 m off the Dutch coast, as the cyclone veered towards the Netherlands in the early hours of 1 February. There, the surge coincided with high tide and struck with its greatest impact at 03.00, with even greater consequences than for England.

The disaster area stretched from Spurn Head in the north to the coast of Kent in the south (figure 1). The elevated water level moved along the coast with its crest starting at Spurn Head around 16.00 as it was getting dark, and reached a maximum height at King's Lynn at 19.20, about three-quarters of an hour ahead of high tide, before going down the East Anglia coast to reach Canvey Island at 01.10. No warning was issued, and on Canvey Island, homes were struck after the occupants had gone to bed. The weather was distinctly inclement in the strong gale, with scattered snow or sleet showers in places. Many people were staying in their homes on what seemed to be an otherwise unremarkable Saturday night.

Figure 1

Map of the east coast disaster area. More than two-thirds of the deaths clustered in five main areas along the shoreline (Steers 1953; Summers 1978).

3. The impact phase

What happened that night in the darkness was observed by hardly anyone, as sea defences and river banks were breached in places by the direct wave action, or overtopped and eroded by the surge (figure 2). Sea walls were smashed by the wave action (figure 3). Some people said they saw a wave similar to the bore of a river. At Wells on the north Norfolk coast, a motor torpedo boat was lifted out of the water on to the quay, providing dramatic evidence of the action of the crest of the surge (figure 4). In Suffolk and Essex, the sea surged up the estuaries overtopping and breaching river banks, inundating some coastal towns and villages from behind (Summers 1978). Along the thousand miles of coastline, there were 1200 breaches of defences or flood penetration; in some places, no defences had been re-established since the war.

Figure 2

Breech in bank at Overy Staithe (Gilbert White, Pollard 1978).

Figure 3

Collapse of the sea-wall at Mablethorpe (Press Association, Pollard 1978).

Figure 4

Wells-Next-The-Sea: a motor torpedo boat lifted out of the water by the surge (Walmsey & Webb, Pollard 1978).

The flood struck the coastline with a sudden onset and without warning. Of the 307 deaths, at least 216 (70%) occurred in five main clusters: Mablethorpe and Sutton-on-Sea (16 dead), Hunstanton and Snettisham on the Wash (65 dead), Felixstowe and Harwich (over 40 dead), Jaywick (37 dead) and Canvey Island (58 dead). Most of the houses in these clusters were in makeshift communities along the shoreline and were made from flimsy wooden or prefabricated bungalow construction (figure 5). At the time, prefabricated buildings were commonplace in East Anglia and other parts of the country due to the housing shortages following the Second World War, while on Canvey Island, the most vulnerable dwellings were flimsy, single-storey structures that had been built as cheap retirement homes for East End workers, for whom the island had become a retirement paradise.

Figure 5

A typical timbered beach bungalow. This example at Heacham had been carried by the surge for over 300 m with its occupants still inside (Pollard 1978).

The sea forced its way into the beach bungalows and chalets whose flimsy walls provided no defence. Some bungalows by the shore simply fell apart as the water struck, immediately drowning the occupants. Others floated intact, one with its occupants inside for hundreds of metres (figure 5). As the water rose, people grabbed ladders or climbed into lofts or onto roofs, where they held on in the freezing wind, grasping chimney pots or rooftops. Some were reported to have slipped back into the water as they became too cold to hang on. The fast-flowing water contained a vast array of debris, including trees, which were capable of battering gaping holes in the brick walls of some houses. The lives of those waiting for rescue in the cold darkness upstairs or in their lofts also depended upon the structure holding up against the undermining action of the water. People who found themselves in the water, or who tried to rescue others, were buffeted, knocked down or injured by the floating debris.

Along the Wash, between Hunstanton and King's Lynn, 65 people died, including several entire American families. Most were living along the beach at lower Hunstanton, Snettisham and Heacham. The luckier ones were those in robust, double-floor, brick-built housing, as long as they were physically healthy enough to flee upstairs from the rising water. The flood that entered Albert Street, Harwich, was described as a 2-m high, rolling wall of water (figure 6). In Main Street, Harwich, eight flood victims drowned while trapped in their house basements (figure 7). In nearby Jaywick Sands, the chalets, caravans and bungalows were overturned or they floated away, with the entire population, numb with cold, spending the night crouching in lofts or on the top of wardrobes or clinging to their roofs. Exhausted people fell ‘with horrible cries’ from their roofs into the water. Thirty-seven drowned or died from exposure (Harland & Harland 1980). In Felixstowe, most of the 40 deaths, including entire families, occurred on an estate of single-storey prefabricated buildings, constructed after the war, and were mostly occupied by retired folk (Pollard 1978).

Figure 6

A rolling wall of water 2 m high left this debris in Albert Street, Harwich (A. M. Vincent, Pollard 1978).

Figure 7

Eight flood victims died trapped by flood-water in their basements in Main Road, Harwich (Marjorie Cocks, Pollard 1978).

I was able to recreate what happened to one of the 15 flood victims in King's Lynn, as I had been taken as a child to the house to see where my grandmother had recently drowned. The River Ouse overtopped its bank at South Lynn, and the water flowed across a field towards a row of terraced, brick houses on Holkham Street in which five of the elderly victims lived and who were on the ground floor at the time. The houses were not severely damaged, but the water had nowhere else to go but to pile up against the external walls and then force its way in. She was in her sitting room and, in order to escape, would have needed to move quickly and open the inside door that led to the stairway and the rest of the house against the weight of the incoming water. Being elderly and frail, the task was obviously too great as the water filled the room, leaving a watermark just below the ceiling. One-fifth of King's Lynn was flooded and 1800 people were evacuated from their homes (Pollard 1978).

Of the most severely affected communities on that fateful night, Canvey Island stands out. The population at the time was around 12 000 people. Many properties intended for summer occupation had been rented or bought for permanent use as a result of the post-war housing shortage. All the dwellings were below sea level and inadequately protected by a bank for a sea-wall. The sea first broke in through the South Benfleet Creek in the Sunken Marsh area on the northeast of the island where 53 of the 58 flood victims died (figure 8). This area contained a high proportion of the vulnerable houses; the water would have rushed into the single-storey homes and surprised people in their beds. Some drowned immediately and others escaped to the rooftops or inside roof spaces. The five deaths outside this locality were attributed to exposure. Only a small fraction of the total population at risk died, despite the island's sea-walls being breached in 40 places, and the whole island becoming underwater to a maximum depth of 2–3 m.

Figure 8

Sunken Marsh bore the brunt of the surge on Canvey Island, where 53 of the 58 flood victims died (Fox Photos, Grieve 1959).

4. Emergency response, including search and rescue

Many heroic rescues and rescue attempts were undertaken spontaneously by individuals trying to protect their families or their neighbours. Some perished in their attempts, or were unable to drag people to safety in the numbingly cold water. Among the first to mobilize in the chaos and extreme weather conditions were US Air Force servicemen from their base at Scunthorpe, who rushed to the lower Hunstanton area to rescue American and British families, and were on the scene in under an hour (Pollard 1978). Corporal Leming, a non-swimmer, rescued 27 people before collapsing from exposure; he became the first non-British recipient of the George Medal. During the night, other groups led by police, council workers and volunteers took over, with some individuals walking in waist- or even shoulder-high water to bring people out (Pollard 1978). There were no rescue plans and no rescue teams, other than what could be formed on the spur of the moment.

At daybreak, search and rescue began in earnest, and every house had to be approached to determine if anyone was inside, whether dead or alive (figure 9). Much of the work had to be done in rowing boats, which were superior to power boats as they could be manoeuvred around fences and hedges, and through the floating debris in the shallow waters (figures 7 and 10). When later the water went down with the tide, people taking refuge in the upper floor of their houses were rescued by the military personnel and their trucks. Caravans were beginning to become popular in the post-war era, and at the Seawick Sands caravan site, near Jaywick, a group of people were rescued from the top of a double-decker bus; most of the caravans had been swept away (figure 11). The most isolated, flooded community was on the island of Fowlness, off the Essex coast, and a flotilla of little boats, in Dunkirk style, set off on the Sunday to rescue the people.

Figure 9

Canvey Island on Sunday morning. Houses had to be visited by rescuers to determine whether occupants were dead or alive (Press Association, Pollard 1978).

Figure 10

Rescue workers in Langer Road, Felixstowe, where most of the town's 30 victims died (East Anglian Daily Times, Grieve 1959).

Figure 11

The caravan site at Seawick Sands, near Jaywick (Kemsley Press, Grieve 1959).

Following the war, thousands of servicemen were still based in East Anglia along with their equipment, and they formed the nucleus of search and rescue teams as well as playing a major role in emergency repairs of the defences, which had to commence immediately against the incoming tides. Their deployment had begun on the night of the flood and before central government had even become aware that there had been a disaster. Almost miraculously, all the survivors of the flood, including those from the remotest parts, were in care within 48 h of the flood onset. By the time central government in London had become fully alerted (it was closed for the weekend), it was Monday morning and the main rescue phase was over. The news on Sunday had been full of information about the loss of 132 lives on Saturday when the British Railways car ferry, Princess Victoria of Scotland, had keeled over and sank in the storm in the Irish Sea, rather than information about the flooding.

Work began almost immediately on repairing breaches in the sea defences and the banks of rivers to pre-empt a much-feared recurrence of flooding, which was possible with high spring tides predicted for mid-February. The flow and ebb of the tide every 6 h meant that a massive campaign was needed. Over 30 000 workers were brought in from all over the country to undertake the task, with half of these coming from the British and American service personnel who, with their logistical equipment, provided indispensable help (Summers 1978). At Magdalen in the Fens, a severe breach had formed in the bank of the Great Ouse River, which was filled with sandbags by a workforce that included University of Cambridge students (figure 12). Overall, 15 million sandbags, and vast amounts of trucked materials, were used along the coast. The actual task of closing the breaches was a major organizational feat (Summers 1978), and in its scope reflected most the scale of the disaster and the dependence of the local communities on outside help to restore normal living.

Figure 12

An army of workers repairing the breach of the bank of the Great Ouse at Magdalen (Walmsey & Webb, Pollard 1978).

In Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, telephone lines had been destroyed and over 47 500 homes had lost electricity, though within 48 h, supplies had been restored to two-thirds of these. Gas, electricity, water, sewage and normal drainage were all interrupted. The tasks ahead also included restoring the damaged property and there was hardly any aspect of life that was not affected for months (and in some cases, years) along the parts of the east coast that had been flooded.

5. Flood mortality

Grieve (1959) provided detailed information on morbidity and mortality for Essex, and this part of the coast, including Canvey Island, appears to have been the main area for study of the impact. The highest proportional death rate along the whole flooded coast was at Jaywick where 36 (5%) out of 700 residents died, with all deaths being attributed to drowning. Of these, 82% of victims were aged 60 years and over, and in the youngest age groups, under 44, the dead comprised two people who were described as disabled, one woman in advanced pregnancy, two adults who died trying to save others and one child aged 11 (table 1).

View this table:
Table 1

Flood mortality in Jaywick (Of approximately 700 residents, there were 35–37 deaths reported (5%), which were all attributed to drowning. Grieve provides an age-specific breakdown for 34 people only. In the 35–44 age group, two were disabled; one woman was in advanced pregnancy; and two died trying to save others. One child, a boy, died aged 11; Grieve 1959.)

On Canvey Island, where 58 of the 12 000 residential population died, 74% were aged 60 years and over. All six children who died under 6 years of age were victims of exposure. Post-mortem examinations were undertaken on 41 of the victims, showing that 14 (34%) died from the effects of the cold and other exposure-related stressors, including exposure, strokes, heart failure and accidents (table 2).

View this table:
Table 2

Flood mortality in Canvey Island (Of approximately 12 000 residents, there were 58 deaths and 41 underwent autopsy. Autopsies showed that 34% died from non-drowning causes (exposure, strokes, heart failure, accidents). All six children below age 6 died from exposure; Grieve 1959.)

Survival of those unfortunate people immersed in cold sea-water would have been limited by its near freezing temperature. In January and February, the typical temperature of the North Sea is 4–5 °C. Even allowing for the sparse data available for constructing human survival curves, death from prolonged immersion in such cold water could begin in individuals exposed for over half an hour, and hardly anyone would survive beyond 2 h (see Parsons 2003). Accounts of flood survivors being immersed up to their necks in water for many hours seem apocryphal, but no systematic study of survivors or the risk factors for deaths in the flood was undertaken. There are few data on the hypothermic effects of strong winds on the wet-clothed body and the expected survival times of individuals, especially children and the aged, but accounts suggest that many survivors held on to the roofs of bungalows in the wet and cold for hours before rescue came (a 5.5-h wait at Sea Palling, where seven people drowned; Pollard 1978). Wounds and bruises to the body and legs were caused by being buffeted by the floating debris; marked abrasion or ulceration of the skin would presumably have been caused by the immense amount of sand that was transported in the moving water (figure 13).

Figure 13

Superficial injuries received after immersion in the water (see text; East Midland Allied Press, Pollard 1978).

The limited data show how death in those surviving the initial impact could occur from secondary drowning (e.g. being unable to hold on to the roof any longer and falling back into the water), or from the other consequences of cold exposure, such as strokes, heart attacks and accidents. All of these secondary causes of death could have made a substantial contribution to the overall mortality along the coast (see table 2), and highlight the importance of early rescue or obtaining rapid access to shelter from the wind and rain or snow, such as in the dry attic or upper storey of a robust house.

6. Post-flood morbidity and mortality

A few deaths which occurred in the elderly in homes in the days after the flood were not recorded in the flood figures, even though they were thought to be related (e.g. of pneumonia). In Essex, 889 flood casualties were admitted or treated at the local hospitals. In Colchester and southeast Essex, there were 175 and 500 people who received hospital treatment, respectively, while at Southend, there were 219, and only 129 of these were admitted. Although it was stated that the hospitals were fairly full at the time dealing with winter epidemics, these numbers were absorbed. Southend would have been the main hospital for casualties from Canvey Island. Thus, in summary, on Canvey Island, 58 out of 12 000 inhabitants drowned or died from the effects of hypothermia, and 129 people were admitted to hospital.

Lorraine (1954) and Grieve (1959) referred to an increased post-flood incidence of respiratory illnesses (bronchitis and pneumonia) in the flooded area, particularly among the elderly. On Canvey Island, 52 deaths occurred between February and March 1953, compared with 35 for the same 2 months in the previous year, an increase of approximately 50%. Lorraine (1954) commented that, ‘It would seem evident that the hardship endured on that tragic night…reacted badly on the aged and those prone to respiratory conditions.’ However, mortality data for London and 160 great towns excluding Greater London were compiled to study the impact on health of the notorious London smog of 1952 (also known as the ‘Big Smoke’) in which more than 4000 excess deaths occurred over the space of 4 days (Ross Anderson 1999). There has been considerable controversy over why the deaths continued to rise in the Greater London area in the months following this event, but the pattern was also reflected in other parts of the country as well. One obvious explanation is that the 50% increase in mortality in the Greater London area during January and February was due to the influenza epidemic that occurred during this period. The Big Flood occurred in the middle of this epidemic, which could not have been at a worse time for the elderly survivors who had been already weakened by exposure to the cold and other elements before being rescued.

Further morbidity and mortality among the flood victims were limited by the enormous response of local people and the nation as a whole in providing shelter, warmth and food for the survivors and the over 32 000 people who had been evacuated along the coast that night and early next morning. Many people were already in care as dawn broke, and most by Sunday night; within 48 h, everyone affected by the floods was safe.

7. The public health response on Canvey Island

The special needs of Canvey Island illustrate well the post-flood hazards to health and the measures taken to counter these (Lorraine 1954). The decision was made early on Sunday to evacuate the island, given that its entire infrastructure had ceased working and, in particular, given that the water supply was at high risk of contamination from the flood-water and sewage. The water supply was from underground wells and there was no power to pump it. In addition, many houses still depended on the collection of rain-water from roofs and the containers would have been contaminated by flood-water. By Sunday evening, 10 000 of the 12 000 population had been evacuated to the mainland, but possibly as many as 2000 people remained. The water supply was switched to come from the mainland and, in addition, chlorination was increased and a ‘boil water’ advisory was issued. The sanitary network also failed due to the flooding of the pumping stations and loss of power, so that normal sewage processing ceased for 17 days. A programme of inspection and flushing through of the drains was begun when the flood-water subsided. Household food had been contaminated by the flood-water as well, and sanitary workers began an urgent inspection and disposal programme, together with advice being issued to householders on food hygiene. In the rest centres, emergency feeding arrangements were carefully monitored to ensure good hygiene and the prevention of the risk of food poisoning. The outcome of these public health measures was that there was not a single case of dangerous infectious disease reported. When the damaged and mud-filled houses were being cleaned out and resettled in the weeks after the flood, sanitary workers regularly inspected the affected properties and provided advice.

All along the east coast, the evacuees were managed in rest centres and private homes in the immediate aftermath of the flood. Initially, 10 schools were immediately converted to rest centres for the Canvey Island population. However, most of these closed after a few days as most of the evacuees had become re-billeted in private homes or with relatives living in nearby towns or in London.

8. Public response

There was an enormous nationwide public response, with offers of accommodation and sending of gifts from all over the country, including clothing, comforts such as sweets, transport and all manner of voluntary help. There was a large involvement of voluntary agencies from the outset. In particular, the high morale, courage and steadfastness of the evacuees was frequently mentioned, many of whom had been made destitute by the washing away of their properties and possessions; few could afford insurance. A public fund calling for voluntary contributions from all over the country was soon established. It was highly successful, and the money was used to compensate the victims who were without insurance cover. This had not been the first experience for some Canvey Islanders of being evacuated from their homes, having already survived the bombing of their London homes in the Blitz. Indeed, the remarkable and spontaneous response of the civilian population and voluntary services had been greatly influenced by their experiences in the Second World War, including the evacuation planning of towns that had followed the bombing of Coventry. Indeed, the famous Blitz spirit had been rekindled by the disaster.

9. The aftermath

The government established a Departmental Committee on Coastal Flooding, which became known as the Viscount Waverley Committee after its chairman. Its terms of reference included examining ‘the causes of the recent floods and the possibilities of a recurrence in Great Britain; to consider what margin of safety for the sea defence would be reasonable and practicable having regard, on the one hand, to the estimated risks involved and on the other to the cost of protective measures’ and to consider a warning system and to review the lessons to be learned from the disaster. The report of less than 50 pages contained many recommendations, including scientific research, which today look as if they formed the foundations of government policy on coastal flooding for the remainder of the twentieth century (Home Office 1954).

According to the Committee, the floods of January 1953 had been caused by a combination of a fairly high tide with a very high surge and their effect was increased by severe wave action. The frequency of the water level of January 1953 was then not greater than 1 in 200 years, but in 100 years into the future, given the rise in sea level (due to the subsidence of southeast England), it will have increased to 1 in 100 years. ‘These are purely statistical estimates’, states the report, ‘…and constitute no guarantee that such levels will not be reached in the near future’ (Home Office 1954). Sea-level rise due to global warming was only a wild speculation at that time (Weart 2003).

In the committee's view, had a flood-warning system been in place, the loss of life could have been reduced, if not averted altogether. Much of the flood damage was the result of sporadic and ill-considered development near the coast. In the future, human life should be protected by providing adequate warning and removing people at risk before the flood takes place. Flood defences should be strengthened to mainly protect property or valuable agricultural land. A key question was what standard of defence should be adopted when the 1953 flood was not the worst flooding scenario and even protecting the whole coast against its recurrence would have been prohibitively costly. The committee ruled out any idea of securing complete protection against every conceivable combination of tide and surge, and recommended that valuable property or agricultural land should in general be protected to withstand a surge the size of January 1953.

London had narrowly averted being flooded, a fact which was not lost on the committee. Water had lapped the top of the parapet along the Victoria and Chelsea Embankments and Millbank, raising the spectre of a future flood in central London. The report introduced the idea of a protective structure or barrier being built, but the technicalities and cost of this they left to others to investigate. A final decision on a London flood barrier took another 15 years until 1972, after much technological work and a scientific justification embodied in a report by Sir Hermann Bondi in 1967 (unpublished work), when the decision was made to proceed with the construction of the Thames barrier, which did not became operational until 1982 (Gilbert & Horner 1984).

Sir Hermann Bondi's deliberations were not issued in the form of a published government report, but, like the Waverley Report, offered insight into the policy making of the time (Bondi 1967, unpublished work). The greatest risk of flooding was at the Embankment between Westminster and the London Bridge, but about 60 square miles could be affected. Bondi believed that with the flood-warning system in place the only major loss of life could occur on the underground, but he said, ‘The stakes are very high indeed and loss of life could be considerable even if only a small part of the operation failed to function as intended.’ As well as the risk of drowning, ‘[a] really large disaster has effects that can go on for decades, that can give such a jolt to the whole economy that the loss in national income is quite strangling and can, through the death of a sufficiently large number of highly qualified people, immeasurably impoverish the life of everyone in the country. Such a disaster could well be considered unbearable in the sense that we would be foolish to contemplate letting it come to pass without taking every reasonable avoiding action. In the nature of things disasters of this kind are unique. I think it is just as incumbent on the government to prevent such a disaster as it is, for example, to prevent an enormous outbreak of smallpox. The precise probability of the disaster occurring then becomes a relatively unimportant matter.’ Bondi foresaw in 1968 a knock-out blow to the nerve centre of the country, which might achieve what the Blitz failed to do—put central London out of action, possibly for months. His remarks have a new, disturbing resonance following the disaster at the World Trade Centre, New York, on 11 September 2001, and the possible re-emergence of smallpox (declared eradicated from the globe in 1978) as a terrorist threat.

The Waverley Committee and Sir Herman Bondi took into account the economic cost of preventive measures, and, in so doing, were anticipating the concept of risk assessment (down to the words ‘reasonable’ and ‘practicable’, or ‘reasonably practicable’ in the words of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974), which was to underpin the health and safety legislation that emerged in the UK and elsewhere in the 1970s. Bondi did not rule out quantifying the cost of a human life and the use of probability calculations in relatively minor disasters, but he also saw that the size of the disaster that faced London could not be appropriately submitted to risk analysis, or that it was irrelevant, when considering the possibility of such an event over a 100-year period: ‘…I feel it is almost irrelevant whether the probability of such an event striking in the next 100 years is 10 or 1 or 1/10%. This is the kind of thing that a community must not allow to happen if there are reasonable preventive measures and if the disaster is indeed of this enormous kind.’ In accepting the conclusions of his report, the British Government was, in effect, accepting the precautionary principle, which did not become an official policy of government departments until the 1990s.

Following the Waverley report, critical defences along the coast and rivers were strengthened. A graphic illustration is at King's Lynn, which is located along the shore of the Wash. The bank of the Great Ouse at King's Lynn, where it had been overtopped, was raised to the height of the surge plus one metre. The next main test came on 11 January 1978 when the water came even higher than in 1953 (Steers et al. 1979). This is shown by the markings on the wall near the main entrance of St Margaret's Church in the centre of the historic town of King's Lynn (figure 14). About 500 houses were flooded in the town, and water went as far as inside the General Hospital. At Heacham, not far away, hundreds of caravans and holiday homes were swept away (Harland & Harland 1980). However, the impact was nothing like that of the 1953 flood; there were no fatalities at Heacham with very few along the rest of the coast. The cyclone was of much lower intensity, it was slower moving and the winds were less strong and gusting. Noteworthy in figure 14, is the high water-level mark for 1 March 1949, which had been the worst flood for 65 years. This should have been a ‘wake-up call’ and should have initiated measures that might have reduced the impact in 1953, but the implications were ignored at the time.

Figure 14

The main entrance to St Margaret's Church, King's Lynn. The church is a dominant feature in the centre of the old part of town, which has been an important port for centuries, and is located at the mouth of the Great Ouse where the river enters the Wash. The heights of past major floods have been recorded on the stone masonry.

At Canvey Island, the encircling defence wall was raised to 4.66 m to protect against a repeat of the 1953 surge. Despite these measures, or perhaps because of them, mobile homes, caravan sites and even large building estates have since moved in behind (figure 15), and the Canvey population has grown to 25 000. All along the coast this story has been repeated: these are not the marginal dwellers of yesteryear, but people who have chosen to live all year round by the sea out of modest affluence. Paradoxically, the strengthened defences may have provided, in consequence, the potential for further human disaster rather than eliminated it, despite the confidence placed by the Waverley Committee in a flood-warning system. In the most populous places, the coastal population has risen by 30–90% since 1953 (Baxter et al. 2002b).

Figure 15

The sea-wall that encircles Canvey Island, which was built following the Big Flood. The height of the wall is 4.88 m, which is high enough to protect against a repeat of the 1953 surge. A future height of 6 m is planned for the rise in sea level. Permanently occupied mobile homes can be seen behind the wall.

10. Postscript

According to the Waverley Report, the Big Flood had inundated more than 160 000 acres of land, flooded and damaged 24 000 houses and about 200 important industrial premises, as well as causing 307 deaths in the immediate flooding phase. Over 46 000 head of livestock had been lost. In the sudden, large loss of life, the scale of destruction of the sea defences and the misery the flooding had caused, this event was a disaster. However, its impact on the life of the nation was limited and of short duration. In retrospect, we can perhaps see why. The official verdict on the devastation was that there had been an absence of any control of developments along the beaches, with the houses themselves being of substandard quality given the need for prefabricated homes in the shortages that ensued after the war. The artificial sea defences, woefully inadequate in places and in a state of neglect after the war (Summers 1978), would be strengthened to new standards. Many earthen or shingle embankments and walls dated back centuries, with the responsibilities for their upkeep shared by different authorities (Summers 1978). Summers cites the lack of any continuous research on prevailing winds, depths of water, wave heights and lengths, tidal current velocities and so on, which would have been essential in the design of adequate defence and flood preparedness. This was not for lack of precedents, as frequent inundation has been part of the historic record of the east coast of England, from the Humber to the Thames, over the last 1000 years. In fact, the inadequacies of the sea defences seen in the 1949 surge, which had inundated the Wash and north Norfolk coast and been the worst flood for 65 years, had been recognized but little action had been taken between then and 1953 (Summers 1978). An immediate assessment of a sample of the defences damaged in the 1953 flood was made by Peter Wolf, then at Imperial College, London, and his photographic record showed how even hard engineered walls and concrete defences were severely damaged by wave action. Despite the absence of warnings and the deficiencies of the defences, there was seemingly no apportioning of blame on any human agency or individuals.

It is easy to understand how the recent memory of the war, and the need to look ahead to a future of economic and social recovery were the dominant thoughts of people at the time, when the flood disaster would have seemed like a post-war aberration that would not recur in the better world that lay ahead. It was coronation year for the new queen and news, such as the climbing of Mount Everest by a British-led team, also helped to foster a spirit of national optimism. However, there were other features of the Big Flood that helped the nation come to terms with the catastrophe. Those affected by the flooding were mostly the poorer section of society who lived in post-war prefabricated houses, and the elderly, who were too frail to escape the water or tolerate the cold exposure and, although tragic, the human loss was capable of being rationalized. Apart from in Jaywick, only a very small proportion of those who had been flooded had died. With a few exceptions, the shorelines had been mostly affected, with the flotsam that had passed for dwellings being swept away, and London had luckily escaped unscathed. The daily life of the nation had had no cause to falter, especially as the war had left another legacy—thousands of troops still billeted in eastern England whose presence had enabled the sea and river defences to be repaired fast enough to keep out the sea. This was in contrast to the experience in the Netherlands where flood-water lingered in some areas for months. Both countries faced years before the recovery of the agricultural land that had been sodden with salt water. The loss of utility of a place (my phrase), which was perceived by Bondi as being a crucial consideration in the defences of London, is not just an economic loss, but an unquantifiable one for the whole way of life for the communities and the individuals involved, which should be considered in any disaster assessment. The harrowing memories of what befell in the dark and the cold on that January night, and at what human cost, are as fresh today for some survivors as 50 years ago, but there was then little articulation of the mental or psychological impact, which may have been considerable.

Writing this paper 50 years on, the most astonishing feature of the Big Flood was the way in which the local communities spontaneously responded in the first 48 h to the catastrophe in their midst, from the rescue to the medical treatment and care of the flood victims, with little help from outside, apart from the American and British servicemen. As in the war, our closest ally played its part. This early phase was followed by a national outpouring of help from all walks of life. This was a Britain markedly different from the one 50 years later. One in three homes had no bath, and one in 20 did not have piped water. Few families could boast a fridge, car or washing machine, and only 4% had a television. Food was rationed and bomb craters still scarred industrial towns, including London. However, it would be wrong to assume that the society was accustomed to risk or had become fatalistic in its response to natural hazard. Between the First and Second World Wars, Britain had been a divided society, but it was true that by 1941, there was a newfound cohesiveness and mutual loyalty, and the country had pulled together when it had mattered most (Schama 2002). Perhaps it was this same spirit, still strong in 1953, which enabled the flood victims and the island nation to feel that they had triumphed again over adversity—this time, in a great battle against the sea.


I thank Tom Spencer, Robin Spence and Ilan Kelman for their advice and for suggesting I write this paper, during the course of which I was able to draw upon the impact of the Big Flood on my own roots by the sea. I am grateful to Ilan Kelman and Ursula Myers for providing additional mortality data, and to Ken Parsons and Howard Oakley for information on deaths from exposure and immersion in sea-water.


  • One contribution of 14 to a Theme ‘The Big Flood: North Sea storm surge’.


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