The 1953 flood
January 31, 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the devastating East Coast floods.
An area of more than 1,000 miles of coastline suffered damage, Sea defences and sea walls were breached in more than 1,000 places. More than 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes. More than 300 people were killed and more than 20,000 homes flooded.
More than 150,000 acres of farmland were inundated and more than 40,000 head of livestock were lost. Power stations, gas works, sewage works and water supplies were disrupted and saltwater contaminated the water supply at Hunstanton.
About 100 miles of the road network was temporarily impassable and 200 miles of railway network was out of action. At 1953 prices, the total damage on the east coast was estimated at around £50 million.
David Temple-Cole now lives in New South Wales, Australia, where we pictured him last January when he featured in Let’s Talk. At the time of the floods he was away at school in Culford, aged 12, along with his elder brother.
But his parents lived at Newbridge House, Snettisham, near King’s Lynn. David’s parents survived the flood and sent a ‘circular’ letter describing their ordeal in the North Sea surge.
What follows are parts of the letter which give a first-hand account of the horror and panic suffered by so many. The local constabulary wanted to recommend David’s dad for a bravery award for his rescue efforts, but he declined. Now read on:
Excerpts from Mr Temple-Cole’s letter.
By the fact that you get a letter you will know that we are alive and have survived the floods. Our first knowledge of anything amiss came with a phone call from a friend at King’s Lynn to say that the sea was up in the streets of the town with high tide not due until later.
As soon as we heard, we piled into the car and dashed off down to the beach as we knew from the 1949 floods that there was bound to be serious trouble.
We got as far as the first bend and were met by water across the road and people already escaping from the tide. We realised the water must have breached the inner clay flood bank. We turned round at once and picked up about five people who were escaping, including an old man who had got out of bed having been bed-ridden for months, and dashed off with them to the Station pub where we left them.
We then turned round and dashed back again but spotted the water rushing across fields and rapidly approaching the road a mile from the beach. Realising there were families in nearby bungalows I dashed to one to warn the occupiers.
By the time I came out, the water was across the road so we picked up those already out and dashed off. One lady wouldn’t come without her fur coat – the delay cost her her life as she was swept away minutes afterwards.
The water increased so rapidly in depth that I had trouble keeping the car on the road. I went back once more and found a friend carrying an old lady. The friend had managed to pull the old lady out of a car but her husband was swept away. This poor old man’s body was not recovered for some days.
The next morning I went to see what could be done. A party team was organised by our policeman (Nobbs). The first to be rescued was a chap who had climbed a telegraph pole. A group of the team returned with another lady and although she was very cold and nearly unconscious, it gave me hope that others were still alive.
Nobbs got another lady out of a car but could not bring her back as the current was still too strong. So two of us waded in and, linking arms, helped him carry her out. The other helpers with the police and additional firemen who turned up later, stuck it out until about 3am and managed to rescue about another 20 people.
Eventually we packed our “evacuees” off to bed and followed suit ourselves but it was impossible to sleep as I kept waking, imagining that I could feel the water swirling around me and I don’t think I became warm all night, besides which, the wind was still howling like a thousand devils.
The real heroes of that night were ordinary people – the village copper, the plumber, the electrician, three or four farmers, a couple of Red Cross men (later) and one or two firemen.
When morning came and it was possible to see the extent of the damage, it was a terrifying sight and even now it is difficult to believe that it all really happened.
The front of the beach is cleared of all the timber sea wall and only about 20 bungalows are left in ruins, out of over 100. Some were moved bodily under the line of electric cables, across the big pit-holes, across the shunting works, over a high hedge and finally landed on top of the flood bank and at least 800 or 900 yards from the original site.
Others were completely smashed to firewood and not a sign of them is left.
The whole level of the beach has been lowered by five or six feet. Heacham and Hunstanton have suffered in similar fashion. There are practically no huts or bungalows left and complete huts and debris has been scattered miles inland.
A hero who saved more than 20 lives in the 1953 floods has died at his home in America, aged 81.
Reis Leming waded into the icy water towing a rubber dinghy, after the waters broke through the sea defences south of Hunstanton, smashing homes to matchwood, on the night of January 31. Before he passed out from the cold and shock, he plucked 27 people from the waters around South Beach.
Mr Leming was looking forward to returning to Hunstanton in November, for a parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the US Air Force’s 67th Air Rescue Squadron. A sign was unveiled naming the footpath through the gardens, Reis Leming Way.
But Mr Leming passed away on Monday, November 5, at his home in America, after suffering a broken hip in a fall. RAF Flight Sergeant Mark Service, who organised the parade, said: “We wanted to get Reis across so he could see the esteem he is held in. He’ll never be forgotten in the UK.”
Do you remember the 1953 floods? Or, for that matter, the 1947 deluge that mainly affected the fenland area? Write to Let’s Talk or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org