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You are in: London > Weather > Weather History > Canvery Island - floods of '53

Canvey Island flooding 1953

59 people died in the floods

Canvey Island - floods of '53

More than 50 years ago Britain suffered one of its worst peacetime disasters....

By Peter Cockroft
BBC London's Meteorologist

Winds and waves conspired to flood around 150,000 acres of Eastern England and over 300 lives where lost. One of the worst affected areas was Canvey Island where 59 people died.

Canvey Island floods of 1953

January 31, 1953 was a Saturday and it had been a windy start to the weekend. A winter storm had whipped up the waters around the island. Northerly gales had been driving more and more water down the North Sea all day.

Then just after midnight the defences around Canvey gave way to the icy, winter water and the storm surge raced across the island.

'a bomb'

There was no warning . . . no time to escape.  The storm that caused the disaster was amongst the fiercest of the 20th century.

It started life close to the Azores, heading north towards Iceland it looked like any other winter Atlantic low.

Then on Friday January 30 it turned south.

Deepening explosively its central pressure dropped by 30 millibars as it raced down the North Sea. It's what we call "a bomb" in the weather business.

Each millibar drop in pressure would have allowed the sea level to rise by a centimetre. . . that's 30 centimetres in all.

The winds around it were blowing at 60 to 80mph with gusts hitting 100mph and 8 metre high waves were rearing out of the sea.

An enormous dome of extra water, somewhere around 90 billion gallons or 150 million Olympic size swimming pools, was being driven down the North Sea.

'many drowned'

Its arrival on the 31st coincided with the high tide. That Saturday, as the winter twilight faded, Lincolnshire was taking the brunt of the storm.

In the evening darkness, Norfolk was inundated with 80 lives lost. By midnight many had drowned in Suffolk. The winds had felled telephone and telegraph poles.

There was no way of warning the people of Essex.

Canvey Island floods of 1953

In the early hours of Sunday the water broke through Canvey's sea defences and surged across the island.

Many of those who died will have drowned in their beds, been swept away by the raging torrent or succumbed to the cold as they clung to their rooftops waiting to be rescued.

There are many stories of bravery.

Neighbour rescuing neighbour by using the loft water-tank as a makeshift raft. How the rescue services worked hour after hour in the numbing cold to search for survivors.

The amazing story of the baby whose parents bundled her into a carry-cot just before they were swept away, she survived after bobbing around for 12 hours in damp clothes.

Fortunately there were still a lot of service personnel and equipment in the area after the war.

They were able to react quickly using amphibious craft to rescue people and provide the manpower to repair the breached sea walls.

'sharp lesson'

In the aftermath of the disaster a Government inquiry recommended the setting up of a warning service.

Canvey Island floods of 1953

Today that responsibility lies with the "Storm Tides Warning Service" of the Met Office in conjunction with the Environment Agency.

Canvey looks like a fortress from the sea and as you walk around the town you notice the towering defences at the end of every street.

There's a local evacuation plan and each year residents get reminders of what to do when the sirens sound.

In a parliamentary debate back in 1953 the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, said: "We have had a sharp lesson and we shall have only ourselves to blame if we fail to profit from it."

last updated: 04/09/2008 at 12:00
created: 04/09/2008

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