Remembering the Thames Estuary floods of 1953

Soldiers  strengthen the river’s defences with sandbags

Soldiers strengthen the river’s defences with sandbags

First published in Bexley by

The storms of 1953 caused much more damage than the 1987 hurricane. BOB OGLEY recalls the floods.

Those who lived near the Thames Estuary, or along the banks of tributaries which flow into the river, will never forget the floods of 1953.

They will remember the height of the water, the giant waves which rolled in and out, the scenes of unbelievable chaos and the stories which followed of resourcefulness, courage and sheer luck.

Only one person in north Kent, a sluice keeper at Belvedere, died.

Elsewhere along the east coast, 307 people died, 32,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes and whole communities were isolated.

January 31 is the 60th anniversary of the floods.

It led, eventually, to the strengthening of the sea wall and the creation of the Thames Barrier.

It began with a deep depression of enormous intensity which had moved from Iceland in a south-easterly direction on January 30, 1953, forcing a tremendous volume of Atlantic water into the North Sea.

In addition, there was a full moon and a spring tide which raised the sea 10ft higher than normal.

Just after midnight on February 1, water began to pour over the top of sea walls into the giant oil refinery on the Isle of Grain.

Within minutes, the archaic defence system collapsed and huge waves swept inland, swirling up the Medway estuary.

Within hours, industries all along the banks of the two river estuaries had been thrown out of production.

Gasworks, power stations and factories suffered immense damage and the consequences to both arable and dairy farms were calamitous.

From Woolwich to North Foreland, the storm winds generated a wave action so immense whole beaches were destroyed and swept away.

The water surged around the Littlebrook power station, cutting it off from the mainland.

At North Reach, water poured into Joseph Wells fireworks factory and generated explosions so ferocious windows were blasted out in Dartford.

The people of Kent, in the darkness of their homes, had no idea of the horrors unfolding a few miles across the water at Canvey Island.

Between 12.30am and 2am the islanders were fighting for their lives and only those who had taken refuge in attic lofts and on the roofs of their houses were out of danger.

Within 15 minutes of the sea wall being breached the water was above windowsill level and gushing down streets with astonishing ferocity.

Canvey Island’s death toll that night was 58.

News Shopper: Thames floods of 1953

Above: For two days and two nights this horse stood in flood water which covered his body. He was eventually rescued from his field in north Kent

Do you remember the floods?

There may have been only one human casualty but on the morning of February 1, 1953, the carcasses of sheep, pigs, cows and chickens were found all over north Kent.

Six hundred acres of apple, pear and cherry trees were destroyed, glasshouses were wrecked and every kind of farm enterprise suffered.

Towns along the Thames estuary responded immediately to the appeal for furniture, bedding, fuel clothes and money.

Neighbours offered accommodation, the council provided sandbags and transport machinery of every description was loaned by manufacturers and tradesmen.

There is no room here to give justice to the 1953 tidal surge and the huge task of mopping up and repairing defences, except to say if there was a pecking order of disastrous storms of the 20th century, the hurricane-force winds of October 16, 1987 would take second place.

Were you living in north Kent at the time, or were you involved in the clearing up process?

Write to me at Bob Ogley, News Shopper, Mega House. Crest View Drive, Petts Wood, Kent BR5 1BT or email bobogley@globalnet.co.uk

Comments (3)

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11:53am Wed 23 Jan 13

highway warrior says...

I spoke to a gent who lived on Abbey Road, Abbeywood before Christmas, he was telling me the water was lapping up to his back door step. That's 1 1/2 miles from the banks as they stand today!

From the flood maps I've seen it would cover 99% of Thamesmead/Eastern Way/Bronze Age Way areas and everything in Slade Green behind the railway. Erith town centre is on a raised mound as is the very top of the Golf course estate in Thamesmead.
If it were to happen today the Thames Barrier would be raised creating a back up that would cause more problem for the aforementioned area. With the weather systems as unpredictable as they are these days how far away are we from another flood of this scale?
Brilliant artiocle and food for thought if you live around there!
I spoke to a gent who lived on Abbey Road, Abbeywood before Christmas, he was telling me the water was lapping up to his back door step. That's 1 1/2 miles from the banks as they stand today! From the flood maps I've seen it would cover 99% of Thamesmead/Eastern Way/Bronze Age Way areas and everything in Slade Green behind the railway. Erith town centre is on a raised mound as is the very top of the Golf course estate in Thamesmead. If it were to happen today the Thames Barrier would be raised creating a back up that would cause more problem for the aforementioned area. With the weather systems as unpredictable as they are these days how far away are we from another flood of this scale? Brilliant artiocle and food for thought if you live around there! highway warrior
  • Score: 0

12:03pm Wed 23 Jan 13

Mike Honcho says...

Great article NS, we need more stories like this about our areas history. I thought yesterdays story about the school bombing in Catford very interesting too.
Great article NS, we need more stories like this about our areas history. I thought yesterdays story about the school bombing in Catford very interesting too. Mike Honcho
  • Score: 0

9:42am Thu 24 Jan 13

Indigenous Pensioner says...

REmember it well.Thank you bob.
REmember it well.Thank you bob. Indigenous Pensioner
  • Score: 0

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