Memories of 1953 floods

DESPITE the passage of more than half a century, the horrendous East Coast floods of January 1953 remain vivid in the memories of those who experienced them.

DESPITE the passage of more than half a century, the horrendous East Coast floods of January 1953 remain vivid in the memories of those who experienced them.

More than 300 died, ten of them hereabouts, and it has been argued that the deaths and damage would have been minimised had there been a co-ordinated early warning system, with areas hit by a surge notifying places in its path down the coast so preparations could be made.

“There had been no warning at all,” admits retired Great Yarmouth police sergeant John Calthorpe, 82, of Western Road, Gorleston, in his unpublished memoirs that formed the subject of this column recently.

Here is his account of the surge and its aftermath, seen from the perspective of a member of the emergency services.

POLICE Constable John Calthorpe was enjoying a weekend off when the flooding started during that 1953 Saturday night although many were unaware of the catastrophe. As soon as he learned of it the next morning, he went to one of the worst-hit districts, low-lying Lichfield and Cobholm.

Being well below sea level in most parts, the neighbourhood had suffered minor flooding in the past. This time much of the area was flooded to about 5ft for nearly two weeks.

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He was wearing “civvies” because when he left home, he was unaware that the scale of the problem meant he would become heavily involved. Despite not being in uniform, he commandeered boating lake rowing boats from Gorleston, and council lorries carted them to Southtown.

Most homes there were two-storey, and Mr Calthorpe called at every one to ensure all occupants were accounted for - “a long tedious business.”

A man arranging for refugees to be taken to a school reported problems because he wanted to collect 3000 blankets from a Gorleston holiday camp but the only available transport was by very dirty lorries.

“Although I was in civilian clothes, I went on the main road and stopped several private cars. When I explained the predicament, about ten drivers without question went immediately to collect blankets for the centre. They were marvellous, with a lovely co-operative spirit.”

Morale was high, most people had taken food and cooking facilities upstairs, and said they were content, except for lack of milk. So he “requisitioned” several crates from a passing milk lorry and distributed them, either tossing them underarm to grateful householders or putting them into containers lowered by rope from upper windows.

On one trip he passed an off-duty police inspector who was also unaware of the disaster. He jumped aboard and was John's crewman in the dinghy he used.

The writer continues: “In one house we saw a coffin floating around in the front room. Apparently the man of the house had died a few days previously. There was little we could do about him at that stage.”

Although many occupants were happy to remain in their homes, the two men evacuated the elderly and infirm who were rowed to shallow water and carried to “dry land” where buses waited to convey them to reception centres.

Because there was no electricity, and January meant short daylight hours, their efforts were restricted, although he persuaded a Territorial Army battery to use a searchlight it still possessed to shine a broad beam on to the low clouds, thus providing some light.

The next morning he returned - in uniform.

The relief effort was helped when the civilian owner of an ex-Army DUKW amphibian brought it to the area. “It was wonderful. We found that we could get quite close to the upstairs windows of the houses.

“Many more people were deciding to evacuate from their homes, and with the use of a small ladder between the DUKW and the house window, the occupants were able to scramble across to safety. I had to get them to restrict their personal luggage in order to get more persons on the vehicle. We evacuated many hundreds of people from their houses by this method.” Buses conveyed them to emergency reception centres, mostly schools.

But the DUKW's role was not finished: “We were informed that a farmer and a large number of animals were marooned at a farm on slightly higher ground across Cobholm marshes.

“We started to make our way there across what appeared to be a wild rough sea. There was a narrow road leading to the farm but the only way it could be detected was by the tips of reeds at its sides which were just showing above the water. There was insufficient depth of water for the DUKW to use its propeller so it had to be powered by its wheels.

“I was fully aware that there was a large dyke on one side of this road, and if the DUKW had tipped sideways, we would have capsized. There was a howling gale and bitterly cold sleet driving into us, but no cover on the vehicle.

“After a long potentially dangerous journey, we arrived at the farm in about an hour. Most of the farm was under about 2ft of water, against 5-6ft in most of the surrounding area.

“We managed to fill the boat with many dozens of smaller animals, and we roped some of the horses and cattle in a line, which we towed back to the dry part of Cobholm. I now knew what Noah felt like on the Ark!”

On his routine rowing visits to Southtown, Mr Calthorpe regularly visited an elderly couple who wanted to stay put because the husband was in bed after an illness. On one call, they mentioned that they were running short of food.

“Not far from their home there was a small grocery shop with a wooden storage outhouse. I had noticed the water had washed away part of the shed allowing several boxed tins of different foodstuffs to spew out across the footway under the water.

“I managed to reach down and grab several tins. I returned to the lady and she lowered her shopping basket down on a cord so I could fill it with the groceries. Several labels had come and no doubt she had a few surprises when they opened these tins!”

While engaged on one task, he learned that a woman was about to give birth in one of the flooded houses in Cobholm. “I was reluctant to stop what I was doing but found two soldiers in a nearby boat willing to sort the problem out and get her to hospital.”

Looking back now, he comments: “I found my work during this disaster one of the most rewarding periods of my career. The public and all the services I came into contact with were wonderfully co-operative. People only wanted organising and they would do anything to help.”

He ends: “When the water level slowly subsided, many houses were uninhabitable for months and many still show the scars to this day. One of my colleagues later received a medal for his gallantry during the floods, but I am sure there were many others who were equally heroic.”