Caught by the River

An Extract from The New English Landscape

Ken Worpole | 22nd October 2013

jason20 19.tifMersea Island, Essex, February 2013

The New English Landscape by photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole examines the changing geography of landscape aesthetics since the Second World War, noting the shift away from the arcadian interior to the contested eastern shoreline. It discusses how writers and artists gravitated towards East Anglia, and latterly towards Essex, regarding them as sites of significant topographical disruption, often as a result of military or industrial occupation.

In this extract from the chapter called ‘A temporary arrangement with the sea’, Ken writes about the disastrous floods of 1953, which directly affected himself and his family.

The Great Tide

There was no warning of the great tide on the night of 31 January 1953, which cost so many lives in East Anglia. The winds were stronger than usual, but off the east coast the sea seemed relatively calm and lit by a full moon. A few people later recalled something odd that day. A police constable wondered why the afternoon tide on the River Blackwater didn’t appear to ebb, noting afterwards that ‘the wind seemed to be holding the water.’ A few hours later the 7.27 evening train from Hunstanton to King’s Lynn ran into a wall of water and was hit full on by ‘a bungalow floating on the crest of the wave’, an alarming incident which prefigured the catastrophe ahead.

That night over 300 died. In the Netherlands more than 1800 lost their lives. Most, in the words of one survivor, ‘awoke to die’, trapped in bed as the waters filled their rooms, with little time or opportunity to escape. The tragedy was a reminder of how much the East Anglians and the Dutch shared in common. God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands, it was said. They made large parts of East Anglia too.

As a child I lived on Canvey Island, our family moving to the mainland a year before the flood. At carnival time islanders dressed in Dutch costume, and many street-names – Vadsoe Road, Zuyder Road, Delft Road and Kamerdyk Avenue – reinforced the connection. Our bungalow was in Grafton Road, which, like many Canvey roads, was a muddy lane, no more than 200 yards from the sea wall, and typical of the flimsy houses which sprouted up between the wars along the Essex coast, where land was cheap. Our single-storey timber bungalow rested on brick piers, with a verandah at the front reached by open wooden stairs. Years later, Dr Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson claimed these dwellings provided the authentic delta experience necessary for the Canvey Island delta blues.

The ‘villain of the piece’ that night was later identified as Low Z, a depression which later merged with an older depression, Low K, south of Iceland, and swept eastward across Britain, followed by High A, a ridge of high pressure. The resulting northerly gale ‘was such that there is no evidence in the records of the Meteorological Office of any equally severe.’ Some good did emerge from the catastrophe, however. There was widespread public appreciation of the selflessness of those who rescued others that night, often at risk to their own lives. The emergency services, voluntary organisations, churches and thousands of individuals rose to the occasion. Flood defences were improved, and, in time, the disaster produced one of the great works of 20th century English social history: Hilda Grieve’s epic narrative, The Great Tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex, published in 1959.

This vast documentary work of 900 pages combined meteorological detail, weather and topographical maps, oral history, official records, photographs, written testimony, entries from emergency service incident books, and much else. However, at its heart Grieve deployed a minute by minute narrative of the events of that night, from the moment the waves started to overtop the seawall at Sandilands in Lincolnshire at 5.25 pm until hours later when high tide arrived at Canning Town and the Port of London to complete its destruction. So vulnerable to disruption were communications at this time that many further up the coast were already dead, and their communities destroyed, whilst along the Thames, people slept soundly, unaware of what was about to hit them.

Street by street, Grieve systematically itemised the chaos of the disaster as it unfolded. By midnight, thick clouds obscured the moon and the sea had not only broken through the main sea defences but was now approaching from the swollen rivers and flooded fields behind, trapping people. This happened at Jaywick, a pre-war plotland development tucked behind a high seawall, where 35 people died, unable to escape in any direction. Not everybody drowned. Many died of the cold, perched on the roofs of their houses, waiting in the dark, lashed by wind and water, dressed only in their night-clothes. ‘Some,’ wrote Grieve, ‘collapsed with the intense cold and shock and slipped down from places of safety into the water. Children died quietly of exposure in their parents’ arms as they tried to hold them, hour after hour, above the water.’ One mother later recalled of her son that ‘after a while he did not speak any more and appeared to go to sleep.’

On Canvey Island, once the floods had subsided, bodies were collected from hedgerows and ditches and laid out on the pavement for identification. Mickey Sanders, a fireman, remembered laying out a row of 18 corpses on a Canvey pavement. ‘They were all people I actually knew. You can’t imagine what it was like.’ Such images were never shown in the newspapers or on television, though the carcasses of more than 46,000 farm animals floating in the sea became a familiar icon of the tragedy.

What Grieve could not then calculate was the degree to which the ‘spontaneous mobilisation’ of help and relief she praised owed its swift effectiveness to organisational links and affiliations developed during the war, which had ended only eight years before. Britain was still a society of small platoons: civil and coastal defence bodies, army reserves, unionised railway workers and seaman, the Women’s Voluntary Service, The Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, boy scouts and girl guides, churches, parish guilds and social clubs had all to an extent been militarised during the war, and inducted, however briefly, into the mechanics of disaster relief. From Grieve’s account, almost every East Anglian appeared to belong to an organisation whose loyalties and resources could be called upon in an instant without demur.

The new Essex which emerged from the catastrophe and subsequent years of reconstruction was described in the introduction as ‘a walled fortress.’ No longer. In East Anglia, as in the Netherlands, rising tide levels mean it is impossible to deflect the sea on every occasion. ‘Managed retreat’ is the new strategy, creating breaches in the seawalls and diverting flood waters into uninhabited marshland (at the same time, creating new wildlife habitats). Residential communities, such as those on Foulness and Canvey islands, still require traditional sea defences, but breaches along the less inhabited coastal areas prevent the creation of funnels, which cause high tides to gain speed and direction as they surge further inland.

The New English Landscape.

The New English Landscape can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.