On the night of Jan. 31, 1953, a high tide was expected, but what came with it was something no one had predicted. A storm was gathering over the North Sea, with low atmospheric pressure sucking up the waves, raising the sea level dramatically, and high winds whipping the waves to fury. When it hit the UK’s east coast, the waters broke high over seawalls and surged as far as 16km inland. There was no warning and, with primitive communications, little ability to tell people of the danger when it became apparent.
Sixty years on, survivors of that night remember the events vividly. Jenifer Baker was at her ninth birthday party when the mother of one of the guests came running in.
“She said: ‘The water’s knee deep at Chapel Corner.’ We didn’t know what was going on. Then someone said: ‘There’s water coming through the letterbox,’” Baker says.
The children were packed up the stairs, watching the flood advance step by step until it nearly reached the top, while the adults gathered the remains of the party food.
“We were allowed only one spoonful of blancmange each because they didn’t know how long it would have to last,” she says.
Pamela Burton was 15, an usherette at the Savoy cinema near the seafront at Sutton-on-Sea in Lincolnshire. It was a Saturday and the Savoy was crammed with excited children eager for the afternoon show. At about 5pm, she remembers, water started pouring in. She and the other older children started moving the younger ones from the stalls.
“We got the little ones and gave them piggybacks. We took them all up to the balcony and watched the water coming in below,” she says.
There they had to stay until 3:30am the next morning, when boats, lorries and amphibious vehicles came to rescue them. Outside the cinema was a scene of devastation. One house had been split in half.
“I watched a chalet floating past. I’ll never forget it,” Burton says.
For the children of Sutton, it felt like an adventure, but the adults were desperately trying to save their neighbors. Opposite Gordon Brooks’s house, in the village of Mablethorpe, an elderly couple died, trapped in their home. Others were crushed by debris or swept away and drowned.
A family of seven, including an infant, all perished in one house, John Monk says. A woman carrying her newborn opened the door of her house to be rescued, only to have the baby snatched from her arms by the rising waters.
When rescuers came — police, the army and US airmen from a nearby base — they could tell where the roads were only by the tops of the telegraph poles. They commandeered what boats and lorries they could, and took children to safety first. Monk, then aged five, was taken away clutching his teddy bear.
“I remember the sound of the wind and the waves,” he says. “It was so loud, howling. You’ve never heard anything like it.”
Across the UK, 307 people were killed that night. It was one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters. Holland suffered far worse, with more than 1,800 dead. Thousands of people were displaced for many months — Baker remembers having Christmas dinner upstairs that year because the ground floor was still uninhabitable. The loss of life and destruction, which in today’s terms cost billions of pounds to repair, were a lesson the government of the day vowed to learn.
Could it happen again? It very nearly did, just five years ago. In November 2007, low pressure over the North Sea and high winds coincided with peak high tides. Thousands of people were evacuated and the seawalls were breached in dozens of places along the East Anglian coast.