The Floods of 1953: The build-up to the worst peacetime disaster

Cobholm pictured during the floods

Cobholm pictured during the floods - Credit: Archant

The afternoon of Saturday, January 31, 1953 was bleak. Strong gusts of wind dropped the temperature and a dull pallor hung across the eastern skies. The North Sea – cold, icy and treacherous – lashed the shorelines of the Norfolk coast but, apart from the grey and menacing tides, gave little clue as to what it had in store for that fateful evening.

It has been suggested there was no warning, no clues, to alert people living in King's Lynn, Hunstanton, Salthouse, Sea Palling, Yarmouth, Lowestoft or Southwold, as to what fate lay ahead.

There was also no warning for the whole of eastern England, from Yorkshire, through Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex to Kent, or across the North Sea to the lowlands of Holland.

For the casual observer, this was true. Nothing in the lemon yellow of the afternoon or the strange twilight bode of things to come, though sea-wise men may have felt something within that all was not well.

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Yet elsewhere, the warning signs were there… and had been picked up. The difficulty lay in predicting how the approaching abnormal weather phenomena would develop.

It was around noon on Thursday, January 29 that a routine weather report from a merchant ship steaming to the south-west of Iceland gave the first indication that a disturbance was developing in the North Atlantic.

Forecasters at the Meteorological Office plotted it as an ordinary secondary depression that had broken away from the major low pressure system to the north of the Azores. While the weather was changing for the worse, there was still nothing in the conditions to suggest that it would develop into the most disastrous storm since 1703 and the greatest northerly gale in British meteorological history.

There was no hint that it would become Norfolk's worst peacetime tragedy, leaving exactly 100 dead across the county's northern coast among a national death toll of 307 from the floods.

Twenty-four hours after the routine message from the merchantman, the depression was deepening at an alarming rate, accelerating to 50mph.

It was still 250 miles north-west of the Hebrides, but Scotland was already bearing the brunt as gale-force winds lashed the country and then extended over the rest of Britain.

The weather then took a turn that was to lead hours later to tragedy along the east coast.

After passing between Shetland and Orkney, the depression tracked to the right and then began a south-eastward plunge down the central North Sea. It was this development that produced the conditions responsible for the floods.

As this was unfolding, people went about their daily business on the east coast. Families were thinking about the evening, young people had their thoughts on a Saturday night out.

American servicemen based around Hunstanton perhaps had their eye on a local girl, while the older generation stoked fires and wrapped up warm against the howling winds, ironically feeling snug and safe in the comfort of their own homes.

Many were mindful of the ferocity of the sea and their thoughts were with the families of those who had lost their lives in the sinking of the Princess Victoria in the Irish Sea a few days earlier. At the time it was the country's worst ferry disaster and of the 176 on board only 44 had survived, among them Trooper Dennis Peck, of Council Houses, Brewers Yard, Saxmundham.

Out on the waves of the North Sea, trawlers struggled against the wind and mountainous seas. Among them, the Lowestoft-based Guava, at 100 tons and 127ft long, a solid vessel capable of riding most conditions.

A few hundred miles to the north, and in the midst of the seas, storm-force north-westerly winds on the western flank of the depression swept the whole of the northern approaches to the North Sea, dragging vast quantities of surface water.

The rise in sea level then rushed down the east coast of Britain in the form of a coastal surge – in more dramatic terms, a tidal wave.

This coincided with the natural rotation of the earth, deflecting the surge to the right of the airflow, resulting in an even greater increase in sea level.

Unbeknown to those living in the shoreline towns and villages of the east coast, they were already at the mercy of the mightiest storm for hundreds of years, oblivious to the fact that they lay directly in the path of the coastal onslaught.

Every second, vast quantities of water were being forced into the narrowing funnel of the southern North Sea. Tides along the coast were heading towards shore more than 7ft above predicted levels. Across the North Sea, it would be even worse. By the time the water hit Holland, the sea level had risen by 14 feet.

Around 15 billion cubic feet of water from the Atlantic had been deposited in the North Sea by winds that were raging at between 140mph and 175mph.

As the clock ticked towards 5pm on the Saturday afternoon of January 31, the weather was foul. Norwich City had just earned a 1-1 draw with Coventry City at Carrow Road in conditions where the wind was the victor.

On the coast, the colossal wall of water was crashing ashore, smashing the coastal defences of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and racing inland in scorn of sea walls and defensive banks.