Death by hypothermia

Ray Howard and Dave Blackwell interview

Part of the above interview pertaining to Canvey Island has been translated below.

‘The weather forecast was bad’, remembers Ray Howard of the evening of the 31st of January, 1953. ‘But we just went to bed. The following morning, my sister burst into our room, shouting “Come quick, there is water, on the roads and everywhere”.  I saw how the water swept through the streets. It was clearly visible, there was a full moon. People were shouting and screaming.’

Howard, now 81 years old, was a child when he experienced the Flood on Canvey Island, a reclaimed island in the Thames estuary, on the East coast of Great Britain.

His family had always believed, before the Flood, that they had survived the worst experience in their lives when a German V2 bomb exploded near their home in 1944. Two young brothers and a family member sadly lost their lives. The rest of the family were severely injured. The Howard family had lost everything. They later received the key to the first of the social rehousing accommodations on the island – made of solid brick. When the Flood came, in 1953, Howard was 11. He now says that the new house was the start of a new and better life.

‘Millions and millions of litres of water poured over the island, from all sides’, says another eye witness, leader of the Borough Council Dave Blackwell. ‘The force of the Flood was so immense that it swept away everything in its path. The old sea wall, parts of which were 300 years old and made of loam, a single policeman, and the volunteer fire brigade were all that stood between the water and the low-lying land’. Like Howard, Blackwell remembers how his family were woken up by the sound of the fire brigade’s alarm bell. ‘My father got on his bike and discovered that the water from the drains was overflowing onto the road. He turned round immediately and told me and my siblings to go and knock on my neighbours’ door, to warn them. And then he headed for the fire station as fast as he could.’

When Blackwell woke up the following morning, he thought it had snowed in the night because the daylight was so intense. This was not the case. In fact it was the bright sunlight reflected on the water. ‘There was water wherever I looked, with cabbages and empty dustbins floating around. My mother said: “Oh God, it’s flooded”. It was two days before the Blackwell family could be evacuated, when most of the water had subsided.

‘A soldier carried me on his shoulder. He put me down where it was dry, onto a lorry’, says Howard. He takes a crumpled black and white photograph out of a folder, showing a woman and two children in a boat, being evacuated. ‘This is my mother, these are my two younger brothers’, says Howard. The family is then taken to the grandparents’ house, near London.

Howard and Blackwell say that many of the 58 eight victims of the Flood had managed to get on the roofs of their simple wooden houses and bungalows , in as far as these were still intact. ‘The few clothes they were wearing were not enough to protect them from the bitter cold in the icy wind. Those poor people died of hypothermia’, says Blackwell. It took his father decades before he could bring himself to talk about the Flood.

‘The water was 1.7 metres high where we were. Had it not been for our solid house, we would have been sitting on one of the wooden houses, or we would have been carried away by the water’, says Howard. There were also moments when people laughed,  anecdotes which are now remembered and mentioned with a smile. Blackwell’s Uncle George came to the rescue in a canoe, and was more than welcome. A woman who had waited impatiently jumped out of the window, and straight into the canoe. The canoe broke, and all fell in the water….

In 1953, almost the entire length of the North Sea coast had been hit, from the south of England to the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.  Blackwell now lives less than 100 metres from the new sea wall, and feels very safe. ‘A few thousand people lived here in 1953, now there are approximately 40,000. We have the best protection against the sea in the whole of England’, he says proudly. He mentions the many flood defences and seawalls in evidence. But the danger remains, not of a flood, but because of climate change and increasingly heavy rainfall. This caused flooding here in 2012 and 2014.

Remembrance events for the 70th anniversary have been organised in many coastal places in Great Britain. The library on Canvey Island hosted a temporary exhibition and a new remembrance plaque was unveiled.

​Translation: Nellie Verton and Janet Roodbol-Birkin

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