Calamitous night which lives on in memories

THERE is a fast diminishing number of those of us hereabouts with first-hand experience of two of the most shattering events of the 20th century: the 1939-45 war, and the great East Coast floods of 1953.

The war was something I could hardly comprehend as a child, although air-raid sirens wailing and bombs exploding in Great Yarmouth caused fear. But those floods were different: for coastal inhabitants from Scotland to Kent, they were on our doorsteps – in fact, gushing over them and rendering thousands homeless, killing 300 souls and an incalculable number of livestock and pets.

Whereas I was a child throughout the war, I was 18 and home on my first weekend pass from National Service square-bashing when the surging North Sea caused devastation here during the night of January 31, 1953.

Sixty years on, in an era of unimaginable advances in communication technology, it seems almost unbelievable that threatened communities and emergency services were not alerted to the impending danger, thus preventing them from making even rudimentary preparations to protect people, homes and properties.

Water flooding over the quay headings was the first many here knew of the dire situation. There was no national early-warning system, simply messages being conveyed by telephone from one police force to the next down the stricken coast.

Next month marks the 60th anniversary of that calamitous night, and no doubt there will be reminiscences in the Mercury and elsewhere recalling floods experiences. First to mark the occasion by publishing what he describes as “a retrospective” of the disaster is local historian Colin Tooke, of Caister, whose numerous books on aspects of our borough’s past have become a pre-Christmas pleasure.

He takes the basic journalistic approach that “a good story tells itself” without requiring hyperbole, allowing simplicity and accuracy to convey the facts. In his Great Yarmouth and Gorleston: The Floods 1953 he explains: “This book is not about memories: it is an illustrated factual account of that night and the following days.

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“Taken from official records and contemporary news reports, it records the events leading up to the disaster – a night when nine people in the town lost their lives” (six from drowning, three from shock).

After reminding us of other notable incursions by the North Sea in previous centuries, he relates the 1953 flood in chronological order, setting the scene with locals enjoying a breezy but routine Saturday night in cinemas and dance halls and by firesides, blissfully unaware of the approaching crisis caused by a lethal cocktail of full moon, spring tide, severe gale and abnormally low pressure.

A solitary Yarmouth police car with a loudspeaker did tour low-lying riversides alerting folk to an extra-high tide expected in 90 minutes. On the Haven Bridge a crowd watching the fast-rising water included a Mercury reporter who described “a tremendous wave, like the bow-wave of a fast ship, curving away on either side of the granite bridge supports.”

The book records the subsequent events in sequence, a blow-by-blow account as swathes of the borough were engulfed on the Saturday night, and the aftermath on Sunday and beyond as the filthy water slowly receded, leaving homes soaked and muddied and often without power or heat. Many were trapped in upper rooms.

Amid the descriptive are mentions of the heroism of Leading Fireman Fred Sadd, who alone rescued no fewer than 27 residents from their prefab homes in Gorleston – for which he was awarded the George Medal – and stock-men trying to save their animals from Cobholm’s flooded marshes.

Anything capable of use in the submerged streets was commandeered to help with rescue and relief, especially rowing boats from pleasure boating lakes on the sea-front, an ex-military amphibious DUKW, Jewson’s timber-conveying “straddle carriers” whose drivers rode high above the flood...

Included among the wealth of information are numerous little gems: the South Town Station signalman stuck in his box for 21 hours; the Cross Sand lightship moored on Bollard Quay providing some illumination by switching on its powerful lamp; some dancers forced to leave the beach-side Floral Hall (Ocean Room today) early but instead of hurrying home, climbing the steps to the Cliff Hotel to continue their ballroom delights while those who stayed put were marooned until coaches reached them via The Ravine and Lower Promenade; Yarmouth outdoor swimming pool being flooded; 40 passengers on a train that arrived at the peak of the storm having to join drinkers in a Runham Vauxhall pub that stayed open all night...

Although the great flood caught our borough unawares, the book reveals how swiftly and commendably the authorities reacted in seeking to alleviate the hardships of distressed townsfolk. Early the next morning a flood relief committee was established and wasted no time in organising emergency accommodation, meals and hot refreshments in schools, church buildings, halls, holiday camps, Scout huts and other places. Blankets and free coal (still rationed) were distributed, and vouchers for replacing household necessities. Disaster relief funds were set up.

Servicemen arrived from other parts of the country to help, and fire appliances from elsewhere came to assist with pumping-out. High on the list of essential jobs was restoring power to homes and businesses, and reopening road and rail links.

As with other Tooke books, the photographs are of especial interest. Naively perhaps, I thought the pictures taken for the Mercury and its sister papers by the late Les Gould, our staff cameraman postwar, were probably the only record of this natural disaster, but of the 50 or so shots in this book, I recognised very few. Well, Les could not be everywhere round the clock in inaccessible parts of the borough.

The author acknowledges images from collections and individuals (“some taken during an extremely emotional and difficult time”), including the late Donald Nobbs, a local professional photographer.

The book costs �4.99 and is available from: W H Smith in King Street, Cobholm Miniatures in Broad Row, and Veritas Books, Gorleston.