70th anniversary of 1953 floods : 'We live in constant danger'

Residents fleeing the floods on a cart.Residents fleeing the floods on a cart.
Residents fleeing the floods on a cart.
“Standing at the top of our stairs we watched the water rising up the walls hoping it would stop before it reached us.

"Our father was more concerned to get to the pantry to collect food but my sister and I wanted him to catch our new dolls prams we had been given for Christmas which were floating around.”

This week is the 70th anniversary of the worst natural disaster along the East Coast in British history – and memories of the devastation are being shared and memorials are being held to remember the 43 souls who lost their lives.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It was just after dusk on January 31, 1953, that the first waves crashed through the sea defences in Mablethorpe and Sutton on Sea.

Flooding along the foreshore in Skegness.Flooding along the foreshore in Skegness.
Flooding along the foreshore in Skegness.

Within an hour virtually the whole town, including the high street, lay underwater.

The flood was caused by a heavy storm surge that struck the Netherlands, north-west Belgium, England and Scotland.

A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused the sea to flood land up to 5.6 metres (18 ft 4 in) above mean sea level.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mablethorpe, Sutton-on-Sea and Skegness areas were the most seriously affected parts of the east coast.

Flood damage in Sutton-on-Sea.Flood damage in Sutton-on-Sea.
Flood damage in Sutton-on-Sea.

However, the effects of the surge was also felt inland and Boston which is on the River Witham which flows to the North Sea – also flooded.

Police Officers Charles Lewis and Leonard Deptford received George Medals for their part in rescue work along the coast. Lewis leapt from a police station upper window to save an elderly couple being swept away in three feet of floodwater, carrying them to a house across the road to safety, then continuing rescue work for hours until he found a working telephone to call for help.

Deptford was off-duty at his son's party when the wall of water hit. He realised the elderly were vulnerable as the Roman bank was breached and he dragged and carried many to safety. At one house he found a bedridden elderly couple with their middle-aged daughter; in the waist-high floodwater, he lashed together oil cans to make a raft, to which he tied the couple and pulled them to safety. He carried on into day, his last rescue being a dog.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The EA’s commitment to protecting the coast was evident on this occasion when troops were brought in to evacuate residents following fears a storm surge coupled with a big spring tide could breach the sea defences.

A house damaged in the storm in Boston.A house damaged in the storm in Boston.
A house damaged in the storm in Boston.

Around 100 soldiers from the Catterick Army base were deployed to the east coast, where about 3,000 residents were advised to leave their homes or move upstairs.

Our reporter joined them as they knocked on doors in Winthorpe, warning residents to be ready to take action if they were revisited during the night.

Kiosks near the RNLI station in Skegness also put up their flood boards, a £30,000 investment paid for by the Government in 2013 - the last time the sea breached
 the flood defences in the resort.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

However, on this occasion the Skegness area coast escaped with just a high tide driven up the beach.

The Skegness flood warden, Malcolm Gabbitas, had feared a repeat of the 1953 disaster because the tides were similar to that fateful day. He told our newspaper afterwards : “We live in constant danger.

“No lives were lost in Skegness in 1953 but the sea breached the defences and flooded the town past the Clock Tower and beyond the railway station.

“It isn’t a matter of if these conditions will be repeated, but when.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“In 1953 there was a full moon, 26ft big spring tide and a storm surge of three to four meters which took it 36-38 feet.

“There was also a full moon with a spring tide of 7.2 to 7.4 metes.

“All it takes is a storm surge with winds coming in from the north.”

Coun Gabbitas added: “Some said the army operation was a waste of money or a big publicity stunt for the Environment Agency, but they were completely correct to take this action.

“If the storm surge had come, we were prepared.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency a record £5.2 billion is being invested between 2021 and 2027, creating around 2,000 new flood and coastal risk management schemes across England.

" Amongst the current investment, there are several important projects in South Lincolnshire,” the spokesman said.

“Flood and Coastal defence schemes include the annual beach renourishment from Saltfleet to Gibraltar Point and the £120m Boston Tidal Barrier.”

“We are also delivering innovative schemes to embed a resilient and long-term approach to managing flooding. Projects include the Lower Witham Flood Resilience Project, the East Coast Strategy and Fens 2100+ Strategy.”


Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Patricia Ann Harker: “I remember walking up the beach in 1953 with my dad, seeing the merry-go-round horses all strewn about.”

Barrie Wilkinson: “I remember traveling up to Ingoldmells in my uncle’s car and seeing the water almost level with the road opposite Butlin’s.”

Valerie Long: “I remember it very well ... my friends, sister and I rode our bikes all along the coast to the North to view the damage.”

Jane Major: “I remember my nanny being stranded at Chapel Point in a bungalow. They had to climb into the attic and were rescued by emergency services through the roof. She said it was the most frightening thing that had ever happened to her. After that they moved to Skegness.”

Related topics: