Written by Joe Sorrell. Edited by Eleanor Winn.
On the night of 31 January 1953, a powerful storm combined with high tides, causing severe flooding to huge areas of the coastal regions surrounding the North Sea. The worst damage in terms of both human and material losses occurred in the southern regions of the Netherlands, with the province of Zeeland experiencing most of this destruction. The total number of fatalities across the whole of the affected area was recorded at 2,551, with over two thirds of these deaths occurring in the Netherlands. Of the remainder, 307 deaths were recorded in the coastal regions of England, where the flood remains the cause of the single greatest loss of life in Britain since the end of World War Two. In the whole of England, no town or village suffered a greater loss of life than Canvey Island in Essex, where 59 people lost their lives.
Canvey Island is located just off the South Essex coast in the Thames Estuary, around thirty miles to the east of London. As much of the island lies below sea level, Canvey has always been at high risk from the encroachment of high tides in the River Thames. The efforts taken to solve the problem of flooding have contributed greatly to the island’s development. In 1621, a group of local landowners led by Sir Henry Appleton sought to make Canvey more suitable for permanent settlement and convinced Dutch haberdasher Joas Croppenburg to finance a drainage and coastal defence project in exchange for one third of the land that was reclaimed. A group of Dutch workmen involved in this project, arrived on Canvey Island with their families, establishing a new community amongst the island’s original inhabitants. While many Dutch workers would eventually return to the Netherlands, their influence on Canvey can be seen in the octagonal cottages they constructed as homes. Two of these cottages still exist on the island, and it was in one of them that my grandmother was born in 1923. The promotion of Canvey as an escape from the choking smog of London in the twentieth century led to rapid population growth, and the resulting urbanisation to support this human tide has changed the island beyond recognition since my grandmother’s birth. However, like the Dutch cottage she was born in, the memories of those residents who can recall the events of what has become known as the Great Flood of 1953 serve both as a reminder of the events of sixty years ago, and of a vastly different Canvey Island all together.
Damage to telephone lines prevented a co-ordinated large scale evacuation of the island and many residents were sleeping when floods hit the island in the early hours of the morning of 1 February 1953. Many of the 59 people who died on Canvey would have drowned in their sleep, as the flood waters reached the roofs of the bungalows and cottages which housed much of the population, while others perished from exposure to the cold. The vast majority of deaths occurred in the Newlands area, to the north-east of the island, where the flood defences were first breached. In addition to those 59 deaths, around 13,000 residents had to be evacuated from the island as the water made their homes uninhabitable. As dawn revealed the full extent of the devastation, newspaper reporters flocked to Canvey Island, as an often overlooked region quickly became a centre of media attention. Stories initially focused on the experiences of survivors, and a succession of similar tales began to emerge of heroic rescuers in boats saving people from the roofs of their houses. Others looked for oddities, such as a Daily Mirror article about two islanders who were unaware of the extent of the flooding, titled ‘The two old ladies of Canvey who just didn’t know about it all.’
Perhaps inevitably, however, the focus soon switched to those in power, and to the question of whether the loss of life on Canvey and along the east coast of Britain could have been prevented. In response to the floods, 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.’ The scale of the destruction led to the swift establishment of the Waverley Committee, which implemented a national flood warning system. On Canvey, the waters had overwhelmed the existing sea defences, which at the time consisted of little more than a large bank of earth that had barely changed since its construction by the Dutch over three hundred years previously. It was immediately acknowledged that changes were necessary and just as the Dutch were embarking on a gigantic flood defence project known as the Delta Works, much needed improvements were made to the sea defences on Canvey Island in the wake of 1953. Completed in 1983, the fifteen miles of concrete sea wall currently surrounding Canvey serves as a reminder of the islanders’ determination to prevent the scenes of 1953 from ever happening again. Sixty years on, Canvey remains fond of its relationship to the water, though it treats the potential intrusion of the tides with understandable caution. It is perhaps a reflection of this attitude that the pub just across the street from the Dutch cottage where my grandmother was born is called the King Canute.