Flood Warning Was Not Sent South

Disclosures at inquest on Canvey Island victims

Yorkshire Post 22nd Feb 1953

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The foreman of the jury which yesterday returned verdicts of accidental death on 68 people who died when the sea swept over Canvey Island and areas in its vicinity on the night of January 31 told the Coroner: “We feel strongly that the worst consequences of this disaster might have been avoided if warning had been sent down the East Coast.”

The jury said the death roll would have been much higher but for the courageous efforts of rescuers. They had heard Mr Walter John Bow, Clerk to Essex Rivers Board, say that although the tide was doing damage in the Wash at 6pm, his Board received no warning message from the Lincolnshire Rivers Board.

It was five hours later, according to Mr Bow’s evidence, when water reached the danger mark in Essex.

Many questions about flood warning systems were asked during the inquest, but the suddenness of the sea’s onslaught in the unprecedentedly high tide was summed up in the words of the Coroner (Mr L F Beccle), when, during evidence, he said: “The water just came over and overwhelmed the inhabitants.”

Mr Beccle, summing up, told the nine-man jury that the exact cause of the disaster would only be determined, if ever, by a prolonged investigation. It was little short of miraculous that so few lost their lives. “But for right spontaneous efforts of a great number of people who acted on their own initiative, the death roll would be much greater.”

Fifty-eight of the victims on whom the inquest was being held were from Canvey Island, six from Great Wakering, two from Foulness, one from Wallasea and one from Southend. Ten of the 68 were children aged between two and 12, nine were under the age of 60, and there were 49 people above 60 years old. There were 40 females and 28 males.

It was known that there were two dead whose bodies had not yet been recovered. The Coroner said that many died of asphyxia due to drowning and a number of exposure and shock, some being children who died very rapidly from the shock of immersion.

The first witness, Leonard Douglas Redfarn, assistant general manager of Southend Pier and Foreshore Department, said that when at 10 pm the tide had reached 15ft and was rising four feet an hour he informed the coastguards and Southend Police that flooding was inevitable, and suggested that people living in the lower part of the old town at Leigh should be told. He had no instructions to warn the Essex Rivers Board.

At 11pm he warned the LCC, Scotland Yard and the Port of London Authority and one or two private wharves which had asked to be informed. The alarm was sounded at 11.38 pm. The tide reached 24ft 7in against an expected height of 17ft 4in.

Mr Bew, who later gave evidence, said:-
“So far as Canvey is concerned, we have a permanent gang of about 12 men always working on the walls. We consider that the walls had given adequate protection against any tide or storm which had occurred previous to this, but this one was beyond anything that had been experienced or recorded.”

The Coroner: I understand you have a master plan?

Mr Brew said they had a scheme worked out for calling upon the Services in the case of damage and the Services were called in that night but could not do much practical work in stemming breaches until daylight. The Canvey walls did not break until the tide turned. The walls went sometime after one o’clock. They were major breaks and nothing could be done which would have help anybody that night.

The foreman of the jury: “I understand that this tide was in the Wash and doing damage at 6pm and yet the Lincolnshire Board did nothing to inform your board?”

Mr Brew: They did not, we received no message.

Do you agree a message would have been very helpful? – It would.

Mrs Ivy Taylor of the Creeksea Ferry Hotel, on Wallasea Island, who had returned to the hotel after trying with three men to escape by car said: “We got to the cellar door and there appeared to be a wall of water chasing us. We went into the kitchen and two men clambered on to the roof through a skylight.”

She and the other man, Mr Rolfe, climbed on to the kitchen table but were swept to the door and hung on the top of the doorway. The water rose to her neck. Mr Rolfe said that he was going to swim for it. She said: “Don’t be a fool.” but he let go and disappeared. It was not until 7.30 next morning that she was rescued.

Walter Rawlings, a 60 year old retired policeman of Foulness, said: “The water seemed to flood over the wall in one great upheaval.”

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