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.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 20 October 2023: Local History Archives by Joseph Coope

At our October meeting Grays librarian Joseph Cooper gave us a comprehensive view of all the collections available in the Local Studies section of Grays library, including maps, documents, pamphlets, souvenirs and booklets etc. stored in the archive.

The first Grays library opened in the High Street in 1893 and soon proved to be too small. Funds were obtained from Andrew Carnegie to build a new library on land donated by Charles Seabrooke and Harry Astley in Orsett Road in 1903. This too became too small, so a new building, now known as Thameside, was erected and opened on the site in 1972, incorporating the library. Every library has to have a research facility. If all libraries closed the National Archives and British Library would take collections, preserving our heritage. Our old, cross-referenced card index on the first floor is still available, although not up to date.

Joseph said some of the open access documents are being re-located into closed access; this is a treasure trove. The archives show books acquired from the 1970s, together with the annual reports from the chief librarians showing how they helped to expand the collections. The Local Studies also have Yellow Pages, Palmer's School journals, Kelly's trade directories, a complete set of Essex Countryside magazines, together with in-house magazines from local employers, including the Port of London Authority and Unilever. Various old newspapers are in the archive and Joseph read out some of the funny items. There are handwritten books, including articles by the Rev. Hayes, complete with church drawings. Poetry books are also there, including some poems by Randal Bingley — one of which was read out at the meeting. The local studies library also has novels by local residents and many photographs, i ncluding those of the erection of the first Dartford Tunnel, now 60 years on. There is a large collection of maps, including Ordnance Survey, some of which are not on the National Library of Scotland website. There are also reports of Local events, and Essex ballads, some of which were hilarious, Books include those on the Peasants' Revolt and even one on Essex Privies, providing a nostalgic trip down the garden path. New acquisitions include Essex Rock, and the DP World project.

Over the years, despite the invention of television etc. reading has continued, which the library still promotes. It plays a vital role in fostering awareness and local identity., seeking to collect history as it happens, for future generations, welcoming contributions on historical research and still needing volunteers. This was a very informative talk, showing how varied the local studies archives are - well worth a visit.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 17 November 2023: Gordon Steele VC, A Life on the Thames and at Sea by Mark Rowland

At our November meeting Mark Rowland gave us a very detailed and interesting talk on the life of Gordon Steele, VC. He was born in Exeter in 1891 and followed his father Henry and brothers into the Royal Navy. His father retired in 1903 and was appointed captain of TS Cornwall at Purfleet, where 200 boys were trained. Gordon attended Palmer's School and joined the T.S. Worcester for officer training as well as seamanship and left in 1909. He was apprenticed with P & O and joined the RN reserve, serving on four ships. He was a midshipman when war broke out and became a sub-lieutenant. Gordon had further training for war service, including torpedoes. He an illustrious career, serving on HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow, engaged in the Battle of Jutland, and was given command of Q ships in late 1918.

In January 1915 he was appointed to HMS Antwerp, and later transferred to the Baralong, armed with 12-pounder guns. Disguised as a merchant ship with an American flag it cruised the Irish Sea. During this time the Lusitania had been sunk and the Baralong was on her way to find survivors of the White Star Line SS Arabic. They came across the German submarine U-27 which was firing into the British steamer Nicosian and ran up a signal flag indicating rescue. The Germans allowed the freighter's crew and passengers to board lifeboats, and prepared to sink the freighter. The Baralong's commanding officer Herbert then ordered shooting and the U-27 sank; all the crew went down except for the gun crew who were then fired at, with no Germans surviving. The Nicosian was towed to Avonmouth; the Baralong's crew were told to keep quiet, but some were appalled by what had happened, no proper enquiry taking place. Gordon was promoted to Lieutenant on the E22, responsible for torpedo firing. After the armistice was signed he came back to Portsmouth.

After WW1 he continued his service on coastal motorboats and when the British and French joined in the Russian civil war he was sent to various ports in the Baltic, second in command of the Motorboat No.88. With the aid of several maps Mark gave a detailed account of the Kronstadt Harbour battle in August 1919. The RAF squadron carried out a nearby bombing raid as a distraction. His commanding officer had been shot dead and the vessel thrown off course. Steele took the wheel and torpedoed their target, the Russian battleship Andrei Pervozanni and under difficult circumstances, obscured by smoke and under heavy fire, also manoeuvred to torpedo the Petropavlovsk. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry and coolness under fire and was one of the guards of honour at the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920.

Gordon stayed in the navy, specialising in anti-submarine work. His last appointment was to HMS Cornwall again. He was on half pay in 1929 to HMS Worcester and in 1938 the Cutty Sark was brought from Falmouth, moored alongside the Worcester. Steele was made an Honorary Captain in 1939 and in WW2 he was brought back as commander in charge of submarine defences in the Clyde. In Grays it was the end of the Worcester, in poor repair. It was replaced by the Exmouth, no longer used for training children. Gordon Steel retired at the age of 55 and died in 1981, aged 89, after a full and adventurous life.

Thurrock Local History Society Meeting: 15 December: Christmas meeting and Social

For the first time in three years, the winter weather allowed our Christmas meeting to go ahead. We enjoyed food, drink and a local history quiz based on the TV programme 'Only Connect'.