On This Day: Worst floods in British history as hundreds die in North Sea storms

Julian Gavaghan

FEBRUARY 1, 1953: Devastating North Sea floods killed hundreds of Britons and left 30,000 homeless in the nation’s worst peacetime disaster on this day in 1953.

Winds of up to 125mph and a high spring tide that led the sea level to rise 18ft above normal combined to cause a storm surge that overwhelmed flood defences.

Enormous waves breached sea walls along 1,000 miles of the east coast, killing 307 Britons on land, 224 on sea and damaging 24,000 homes.

Flooding stretched two miles in land across Lincolnshire’s low-lying plains and in Scotland, where 19 died, the fishing village of Crovie was washed away.

And high water at the Royal Docks in east London caused sewage to fill the streets of Canning Town and back into the River Thames.

Silent British Pathé footage shows the incredible scale of the floods in Canvey Island, Essex, which was the single worst hit part of the country after 58 people were killed.

Among its dead were the parents of eight-week-old Linda Foster, who miraculously survived after being washed out to sea in her pram while the family went for a walk.

In the aftermath, all 13,000 people living on the island were evacuated by the army and unable to return there for six weeks. 

Geoff Barsby, who was then seven, told BBC Essex: “In those days Canvey was a small community and everybody knew somebody who died.

“I remember our rabbit and our chickens were killed but we were lucky as, unlike most, we lived in a house with a second floor.

[On This Day: Great Ouse burst its banks in the 1947 floods]

“The real tragedy was the people who perished on rooftops. It wasn't the water that got them, it was the terrible cold.”

But the disaster in Britain was dwarfed by the death toll of 1,836 in the Netherlands, where 20% of the country is below sea level and 50% is only three feet above.

Around 9% of its farmland was flooded after its comprehensive system of dykes was overwhelmed by the tidal surge, which was said to be a one-in-250-year event.

The storm began on the west coast of Ireland on January 31 – a Saturday – before heading east to Orkney and then south into the North Sea.

The Princess Victoria ferry, travelling from Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland, sank with the loss of 133 lives.

A further 91 Britons – mostly fishermen – were killed on the mountainous seas.

Crashing waves then began to rip though coastal defences overnight.

[On This Day: Lynmouth floods kill 34]

In the aftermath of the floods, Britain was forced to race to repair its sea walls in time for spring tides that were forecast two weeks later.

Millions of pounds were spent on flood defences all along the east coast and the Government took steps to beef them up.

In London, the decision was made to build the Thames Barrier, which was eventually completed in 1984.

It successfully defended the capital against a similarly dangerous tidal surge in late 2013, which killed seven people along Britain’s east coast and flooded 1,800 homes.

In the Netherlands, the floods prompted the country to spend £20billion building the world’s toughest levee system.

[On This Day: Devastating Florence floods kill 101 and ruin millions of works of art]

It was designed to protect the low-lying country from a one-in-a-thousand-year flood.

Although scientists believe climate change will make floods like the one that struck in 1953 more frequent.

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