Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 15 September 2023: 1953 The Perfect Storm - The East Coast Floods of 1953 by Michelle Savage

On the night of Saturday 31 January/1 February a 1000 mile stretch of the British coastline was flooded. 32,000 people were evacuated; 307 drowned and many livestock were killed. 40,000 acres in Essex flooded.The deep depression started 29 January in the Atlantic, with hurricane winds, striking north-west Scotland first, when 136 people drowned in HM Princess Victoria. The storm turned south-east with water being funnelled down the north sea, eventually to the Thames, coinciding with a spring tide. We were shown several maps to illustrate the path of the storm. The coast was inundated; road, rail and telephones were cut off.

Michelle focused on how the floods affected Thurrock and the aftermath. At 11.20pm a lookout at Tilbury Fort spotted water coming over the sea wall. Police and PLA were alerted at 11.40. At midnight Grays police saw that the river was only a foot below the sea wall, when Scotland Yard was sent a message about the exceptionally high tide. By 12.15 water engulfed Shell Refinery. Fobbing farm was under water.

Next area to be hit was Tilbury which was wholly flooded. Tilbury Fort staff were evacuated to the World 's End pub and ship moorings were loosened to help them survive. At 1am the tide continued to Tilbury town, including the sewage works, with raw sewage contaminating the water. Residents were awakened by banging on their doors, alerting them to the floods. Furniture was taken upstairs. The whole of the town and docks were flooded, including 2500 houses and the fire station.

Purfleet was also badly affected and were warned at 1am. Van den Berghs & Jurgens, Thames Board Mills, Esso and the railway were all under water. Reels of paper from the board mills were swept away and employees scrabbled to higher ground.

Aftermath: The spreading water caused chaos, but only one death was reported in Thurrock, an old lady trapped in her downstairs toilet. Thurrock was therefore let off lightly, although various industries suffered, also animals. Shell Haven, Tilbury town and Purfleet were affected, but Canvey Island was worst hit. Public services were out of action, including gas and telephone lines. Many people volunteered to help - too many in some cases. The gap where the sea walls were breached at Purfleet needed to be closed. Van den Berghs closed the breach with sandbags and rubble. Their sports club was used to set up an emergency food unit by the Ministry of Food. They gave out 2000 meals a day, which was pretty amazing.

They awaited the next high tide on 12 February. Meanwhile water was pumped out of the area. The problem at Tilbury was 6000 people who were homeless, so relief centres were set up. On 3 February The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret visited Tilbury and on 13 February Queen Elizabeth II also visited Tilbury. Relief centres were set up. Military lorries helped and they also used boats from the boating pool in Grays. The Red Cross and St John Ambulance staff helped; it was a huge effort and local businesses helped too, offering special discounts to flood victims for new floor covering etc. Most people helped. It was a huge operation to clean up. The RAF were drafted in and provided heaters to dry out houses, known as Windy Willies. All houses had to be checked by gas and electric companies also water boards before being occupied again.

Several bulletins were issued re food and where help was available. 6oz of sweets were given to children at the rest centres, at a time when they were still on ration. The RSPCA collected stray animals for collection later. Records were kept of rest centre numbers and two weeks later some had left, with all families back home by 21 February. On 7 March the last rest centre closed.

There are tapes of people 's recollections in the museum. Michelle played a recording of a woman who travelled to Tilbury, offering to take in flood victims and housed a family for some time.

Why was there no warning? There had been neglect of coastal defences over the years, with only the minimum of work done. It was not until after midnight when the disaster became apparent. People were in their beds, with all communications cut off. Roads and railways were flooded. The Coroner 's report stated that was no adequate working system for coastal defences. In the 1960s satellite imaging helped with forecasts and in 1982 the Thames Barrier was built, opened by the late Queen in 1984.

The future? Rising sea levels due to climate change and challenging storms. Even King Canute could not control the waves - the power of the sea cannot be controlled by man.