Memory of 1953's great flood lives long
PUBLISHED: 15:42 28 January 2013 | UPDATED: 15:42 28 January 2013
FRIDAYS in Peggotty's Hut are always a pleasure. For me, it is to read the latest Great Yarmouth Mercury. Mrs Peggotty is happy to await her turn, for she enjoys browsing through the property pages in the Advertiser and Eastern Daily Press.
Occasionally, when something strikes her for a possible relocation of Peggotty’s Hut, she inspects its rooms on her iPad while I stubbornly devise reasons why a move would be wrong.
If we do agree on a property that might suit our needs and budget, a stumbling block is usually location. While we both want sea or harbour views, inevitably I veto possibilities by pointing out “the aggro factor”: if there is ever a recurrence of floods on the scale of 1953, we would be not only endangered but also distressed, our lovely new home despoiled by filthy water and could never seem the same again.
The enormity of the 1953 surge caught East Coast communities unawares, I point out to Mrs Peggotty, who was living in her home city of Sheffield then. How foolish and angry we would be if we moved to a low-lying area in Yarmouth or Gorleston although well aware of its vulnerability to flooding despite improved defences. We would never forgive ourselves.
Seeing recent television coverage of flooding in various parts of the UK - sometimes with the same properties hit and hit again and householders resigned to months or years of toil and upset ahead - underlined my point that if we ever moved, it must be to part of the borough never at risk.
So we stay where we are, with the vague memory that when we moved to our present home in 1988 and I phoned our insurance company to amend our details, the call-centre operative immediately declared we were in a flood area when I told her our new postcode!
I assured her we were a mile from river and sea and on higher ground on the Gorleston-Bradwell boundary, but it was one of those David Walliams “computer say no” intransigent moments. We did manage to insure Peggotty’s Hut although 25 years later, I cannot remember if I had to shop around after that initial rebuff.
Friends in North Shields whose apartment was close to the River Tyne suffered similar problems despite pointing out to insurers that they were on one high bank – so high that when huge container ships or new-car exporter vessels passed within their view, they could see only the top of the superstructure, not the hull and river.
Those of us in the Yarmouth area on Saturday, January 31, 1953 still have clear recall of it, their memories rekindled by the Mercury and other media coverage of this 60th anniversary next week. It was not the borough’s first flood but its worst, and not its last. In urban Yarmouth and Gorleston nine citizens perished. The nightmare went on interminably for those trying to dry out, redecorate and anxious to resume pre-flood living.
I was 18, home for my first weekend pass from National Service square-bashing and in the cosy warmth of the Regal Cinema watching Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in The Road to Bali, emerging into howling wind to catch one of the last Gorleston-bound Corporation buses to negotiate Southtown Road although the water was already over the rear boarding platform...but never realising that widespread devastation was imminent.
The following morning I tried vainly to walk from southern Gorleston to Yarmouth to catch my midday train from Beach Station back to my unit but was thwarted by the waters coming not from seaward but from inland as it gushed through burst Breydon banks and made Southtown Road impassable. Presumably even if I had reached the station, there were probably no trains.
Mention of the 1953 floods always reminds us of the wedding that very Saturday of the late Ivor and Iris Warner who became our close friends two decades later. Ivor, then a Lacons Brewery employee but later a local policeman, and his bride left for a London honeymoon when there was no inkling of the impending disaster hours ahead.
On learning of it from the wireless and concerned about their first home - an upstairs flat in Gordon Road, the heart of the floods area - they managed to contact Yarmouth and were advised to “stay put”. According to family legend, recalled at their funerals many years later, they were told: “Your flat looked OK when someone rowed past!”
Mrs Peggotty’s aunt and uncle, Sam and Lily Sykes, were running the King William IV public house on Gorleston riverside when the waters gushed in as customers opened the door to leave. “In next to no time it was up to our waists,” he recalled in the Mercury. A family story says before he evacuated the place, he dived into the dirty icy water filling the cellar to retrieve money he kept there to be safe from thieves.
At the nearby Belle Vue Tavern landlord Mr W Burgess had some unexpected overnight guests – dancers from the Floral Hall ballroom who had gone in for a drink but were trapped for eight hours until rescued by boat. From an upstairs window he had a clear view out of the harbour’s mouth - “a terrible spectacle, and there seemed a real danger that the houses would collapse against the rush of water.”
Mr Burgess was old enough to recall the previous great flood of 1905 but he reckoned the 1953 one was much worse. It is a reminder that we have always been vulnerable to flooding, and can only hope that higher river walls, other protective measures and early-warning systems will cope with any future recurrence.
The Mercury reported that luck helped to save precision electric motors from serious damage at the premises of engineers Guylew. When the motors were stripped down after two days under water, staff found that “a curious mischance was a happy turn of fortune.
“The onrush of water overturned a 40-gallon oil drum, releasing gallons of paraffin. As the waters subsided, machinery and engineering parts made by the firm were coated with a film of paraffin which protected them from rust and required only removal with a rag.”