Home was never the same after 1953

THE Autobiography of William Fortescue, some which I recounted here last week, includes a chapter on the 1953 East Coast floods which hit Great Yarmouth without warning.

THE Autobiography of William Fortescue, some which I recounted here last week, includes a chapter on the 1953 East Coast floods which hit Great Yarmouth without warning. In last week's column about the life of a man renowned for his work with youth, we left him in the town centre, wondering how to get home to Gordon Road in Southtown because buses could not negotiate the flood water.

Near the Town Hall and Haven Bridge, where water was coming over the quay heading, he met friends from Southtown “and we stood around in the cold wind and rain,” says his memoirs.

“Eventually I decided that as I had a key to the office (he worked for solicitors in Crown Road), I would go there and shelter for a while. Two or three others came with me and just sat around during what seemed to be a long night.

“Unable to sleep, and very concerned about the state of my parents, I anxiously went to the bridge on two or three occasions and decided about 6.30am as the day was dawning that I would make an effort to get home.

“With others, we picked our way along Southtown Road in the mud and water, trying to stay dry which I managed to do until almost at the Albany Road corner. I was making my way through a garden to avoid water on the road when my feet sank into soft mud and I was wet up to my knees.

“Now I was wet I cared little about my condition and quickly went along Gordon Road but, near the Lichfield Road corner, I could see the water was still around my house. I waded in, pushing the front door open and staggering into the hall where father was there to meet me.

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“The first thing that struck me when I saw the sitting room was that the book case was floating, with all my newly-acquired club books sodden wet and floating around. Other furniture was also floating and I realised that my parents had been unable to get things upstairs. I had hoped that they would have been warned earlier but this was not the case.

“Apparently, no sooner had they received a knock on the front door, the lights went out and they could do no more than get upstairs where they had spent a cold miserable night with nothing to drink or eat. I staggered up the stairs and collapsed on to my bed, my legs numb. I was at the lowest ebb of my life. I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up with everything back to normal.

“This was not, of course, to be and after I recovered and had spoken to my parents, who were completely confused, I went down into the water again and tried to salvage a few items. It was a hopeless task - everything wet, muddy and smelling of sewage!

“My brother-in-law John (Calthorpe), a policeman, was involved with others and brought milk along in a boat which they attempted to throw up for us to catch, but many ended up back in the water, or smashed.

“By mid-afternoon, with the sky darkening and nightfall approaching, John decided that he would get us out by a ladder against the window. Mother was in a terrible state but we eventually managed to get her and father to climb out of the window and down the ladder. I also got out, and the rowing boat took us to a drier part of the road near the laundry.

“Having reached dry ground, we were put into a car and taken to my sister May's house at University Crescent in Gorleston. As May was six months pregnant with her second child, it was a far from easy time and although she made us as welcome as possible, the house was not very large and we only had the clothes we stood up in.

“The next few days are a blur but I remember going back to Gordon Road on the Tuesday morning and getting into the house by canoe to rescue our cat, Whisky, whom I found still sitting exactly where we had left him on my bed on the Sunday.

“There was nothing we could do in the house until the following Saturday when the water eventually receded but by then everything was saturated and smelly, and no-one was in the mood to salvage anything. Furniture, mats, lino and all the valuable little things which had been accumulated over the years were piled on to the road.

“The walls showed water had been about four feet deep at the worst time. Of course, all electricity had to be restored after being checked and renewed. Coal was supplied, some of it free: it was still on ration in those days. Meanwhile, I desperately tried to pick up the threads of normal life.”

With his parents staying with a relative and Bill still at his sister's home, difficulties abounded, and “this was certainly the most difficult time of my life.”

Bill's assessment for the insurance company of the cost of what was lost, less age depreciation, did not amount to much and “looking back, I realise what a considerable disservice I did my parents by working it all out and submitting an honest claim which was far below what it should have been.

“How could you claim for the hard work of a lifetime, the items so personal to each of the family?”

Time was necessary not only to heal the traumatic experience but also to dry out the family home and buy new furniture. “The house was so damp and cold despite roaring coal fires and constant electric fires in all rooms. The walls had soaked up the salt water and the paper had to be stripped and the bare walls allowed to dry out. All walls had to be stripped and re-plastered.

“It was mid-March before we went back to live in Gordon Rod, but it was never the same.”

Bill Fortescue, a former youth mayor and youth council member, was scheduled to attend a meeting of Yarmouth Rotary Club to receive a Service to Youth award but the floods resulted in its postponement.

“Eventually I did attend the Rotary luncheon to receive my Service to Youth award - a Concise Oxford Dictionary which had been near to hand throughout my life as constant reminder of that year of office (as youth mayor) and the flood!”

His autobiography is not on sale.