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Revealed: rare photographs of 1953 Flood aftermath

PUBLISHED: 06:46 25 January 2018

Filling sandbags at Sea Palling and the lines on beach caused by the activity of the bulldozers repairing the 300ft breach in the sea defences caused by the 1953 floods.

Filling sandbags at Sea Palling and the lines on beach caused by the activity of the bulldozers repairing the 300ft breach in the sea defences caused by the 1953 floods.

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A rare set of photographs – never published before – gives an insight into the aftermath of Britain’s worst peacetime disaster of the last century. Trevor Heaton reports.

The scene walking to the area at Sea Palling where sandbags were being filled in the first few days of February 1953 following the floods. The scene walking to the area at Sea Palling where sandbags were being filled in the first few days of February 1953 following the floods.

Sixty-five years ago on Wednesday, one of Britain’s worst natural calamities devastated communities along the North Sea coast – including in Norfolk and Suffolk.

The Great Flood sweep down from Scotland to create a tidal surge which was to cost 307 lives in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Thirty-two people died in Hunstanton alone. The death toll in the lower-lying Netherlands was even worse – 1800 people were to die in a few terrible hours.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1953 Floods, Tony Palmer took this photograph of the destruction at Sea Palling, as seen from the beach. In the immediate aftermath of the 1953 Floods, Tony Palmer took this photograph of the destruction at Sea Palling, as seen from the beach.

The floods, which at times produced a tidal surge 5.6 metres (18.4ft) above normal, smashed through coastal towns and villages and caused extensive flooding.

One of the many places affected was Sea Palling, where the combination of gale and waves punched a 100-yard gap in the dunes, surging into the village’s flint and brick cottages and destroying its Longshore Cafe. Seven people lost their lives in the desperate hours which followed.

Workers filling sandbags at Sea Palling, one of the pictures taken on his Kodak Brownie camera that Tony Palmer has donated to the EDP archive. Workers filling sandbags at Sea Palling, one of the pictures taken on his Kodak Brownie camera that Tony Palmer has donated to the EDP archive.

When the waters receded, the urgent task was to repair sea defences as soon as possible as more very high tides were expected in the days to follow. With infrastructure badly affected, it was – almost literally – all hands to the pumps.

Sand lay five feet thick in the streets, and in the houses.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s declaration that ‘all the resources of the state’ would be used to cope with the aftermath of the disaster was echoed at a local level. By Tuesday February 3, bulldozers were being used to push sand and shingle into the breach at Sea Palling, with gangs of workers, including 100 locally-based airmen, helping to fill and stack sandbags at the front and behind the new barrier. Small children even brought their beach buckets and spades to help with the monumental task of clearing it.

The appeal went out for more helpers. Twenty-three-year-old Tony Palmer was one of those responding to the call. He recalled: “During the flood my cousins, Peggy and Basil Williamson, visited Sea Palling to see whether we could help.”

Using his trusty Kodak Brownie, Tony took a number of photos, which showed the destruction of the village, the scene walking to the area where the sandbags were being filled, filling sandbags (and the lines on beach caused by the activity of the bulldozers) and some of the workers in action.

Tony later became a distinguished pioneer veterinary neurologist. Now 91, he wanted to share these photographs and has kindly agreed they can join our already extensive 1953 Floods archive.

The work to complete the repairs was finished by February 7. Sadly, on that day, too came the grim discovery of one of the flood’s youngest victims, six-month-old Edwin Fox. His tiny body was found 30 yards from where had been swept away from his father Albert who had tied him to his back in a pillowslip to try to reach safety.

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