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.



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

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