On 31st January 1953 Felixstowe suffered its worst natural disaster when 41 people died, including 13 children, and many were made homeless as the East Coast experienced a freak sea surge which culminated in a total of 307 dead , 30,000-plus people evacuated, sea defences smashed, river walls breached, and 160,000 acres of farmland left under water.
On Saturday 27th Felixstowe Town Council and St John’s Church arranged a Concert of Memories and St. John’s Church are now hosting an exhibition of images and archive material from the time, coordinated by Felixstowe Society and the Felixstowe Museum, which will be open every day this week from 9am – 5pm.
A transcript of the Concert of Memories can be found here: https://suffolkvicar.wordpress.com/2018/01/27/when-you-pass-through-the-waters/
On the anniversary of the disaster, at 3pm on 31 January, a short moment of reflection will be held at the Flood Memorial, located at the far end of Langer School’s playing field near the Beach Station Road traffic lights.
The Mayor of Felixstowe, Cllr Nick Barber says “It is so important as a Town to mark this occasion. It was the biggest post -war catastrophe Felixstowe has known. Many of our residents still remember the 1953 Floods and it is vital that that we all remember those that were lost, those left behind and also those who put others before themselves.“
Lack of communications and warning systems was one of the key factors which led to so many deaths in the 1953 floods. Most who died in Felixstowe lived in prefab houses at the corner of Langer Road and Orford Road. The torrent – which burst through the banks of the River Orwell, tearing across Trimley Marshes – ripped the properties from their foundations, sweeping them down the road and leaving them 6ft 6ins deep in water.
About 800 acres – one fifth of the town – was flooded, including homes and part of the air base where the port now stands.
Modern flood warning systems did not exist and there was no way the emergency alert could be sounded. Today there would be phone calls, TV and radio warnings, phone messages, internet warnings, social networking. The Environment Agency has direct contact with thousands of people living in flood zones. But in 1953, it was in most places a policeman on a bike – cycling round communities to knock on doors or shout a warning.
Two days before the floods struck, meteorological experts had noticed signs that severe weather was on the way. They named the deep depression forming to the south-west of Iceland as Low Z and began to plot their weather maps. But as so often with the forces of nature, they could not forecast the death and destruction that lay ahead.
The depression spotted off Iceland started deepening at an alarming rate on January 30. It was still hundreds of miles north-west of the Hebrides but Scotland was already feeling its gale force winds.
As the hours wore on, the weather men watched the depression move east and then swing south into the North Sea.
With winds gusting up to 140mph, 15 billion cubic feet of water was sucked from the Atlantic into the North Sea to be driven south as a “sea surge”, a ten feet wall of water ahead of the incoming tide – and set for a head-on collision with the tide from the other direction. With nowhere else to go in the narrow funnel of the North Sea, the enormous wall of water came thundering ashore. It was unseen, unheard and unexpected – millions of gallons of water pouring inland in just a few hours.
The surge began to hit Suffolk at around 9.30pm on January 31. At Lowestoft, 400 homes were flooded and 40 children had to be rescued from a flooded church. At Southwold, five died as the water swept away a row of houses in Ferry Road.
The first signs of flooding at Felixstowe came at 11.30pm as police received calls from Felixstowe Ferry, Landguard Point and Landguard Fort. A woman was swept away at Landguard and immediately officers were sent to start evacuation procedures. But the full force of the flood came suddenly – and from behind.
The obvious route for flooding at the resort would be waves coming over the prom, but instead the sea surged into the River Orwell, smashing the river wall in seven places. An unstoppable mass of water tore across Trimley Marshes – in those days the port was little more than the original Dock Basin – to the Langer Road area.
Caravans in the holiday park in Walton Avenue were jumbled together as the water rushed across the open landscape and over the level crossing into the streets. An estate of prefabs at the junction of Langer Road and Orford Road was filled with floodwater – and such was the power of the water, that the homes were torn from their foundations and swept to the junction where the Beach Station Road-Langer Road traffic lights are today. Many died in their drifting, sea-filled homes.
Those who could clambered on to roofs or waited in bedrooms and attics, as high up as they could get, for rescuers to arrive and take them to safety.
Rowing boats were commandeered from the Butlin’s fun park in Sea Road as the rescue operation began. The Cavendish Hotel – which stood where the Sunday market site is today – was opened as an emergency reception and rest centre to help those who had lost everything.
A mile across the water in Harwich, eight people drowned, while at Jaywick 37 died and 700 were left homeless. Canvey Island saw 58 dead and the whole island had to be evacuated.
Across the North Sea in the Low Countries the havoc was even worse. Some 1,800 people died in Holland and more than 50,000 head of cattle were lost when more than 50 dykes burst simultaneously and half a million acres of polder country was swamped by raging sea.
It was four days before the floodwater receded. The greatest depth of flooding was at the sewage outfall works, where 9ft of water was recorded. In Langer Road the depth was about 6ft 6in.
During the clean-up, 57 pigs, 15 cows, one horse, 23 rabbits, 923 chickens, 27 dogs and 32 cats were also found dead.