Canvey Island, Sunday.
Stark terror struck at Canvey Islanders early this Sunday morning. An exceptionally high tide, aided by a near-gale force north-west wind, drove the waters over the sea wall and they over-ran over many parts of the Island.
My mind is full of a jumble of pictures of heroism, fear and tragedy. At 1.15 I had slipped down to see the bridge dividing the Island from the mainland, but was not aware then of the great tragedy that was unfurling on the Island. At 4.30 a.m. I cycled over that same bridge, which I little knew then would soon be packed with vehicles of every size carrying fleeing Islanders from their destroyed or threatened homes. With a biting wind whistling in my ears, I saw fields on either side flooded. Bridge-keeper Mr. W. Hesketh, of 15, Thameside Crescent, Canvey, told me that when he came on duty at 10.47 p.m. the tide, which should normally have only just started running, was already nine feet deep. When the tide reaches 12 feet Mr. Hesketh said he has to go along the road and tell Coun. F. J. Leach, J.P., at Waterside Farm. At 11ft. 6in., Mr. Hesketh said he ran along and. together with Mr. Leach, tried to put in place the boards across the road which divides the sea wall. “But they were of little use,” said Mr. Hesketh, and before long the farm was flooded.
As I departed, Mr. Hesketh said he had never known such an experience in his life.
Cycling on through flooded roads I met a group of men waiting and watching at the Dutch Village. Their main attention was on a stake they had erected, which – regularly showed the water was still rising. They told me they had heard something very bad had happened at the other end of the Island, and asked me to inform officials there that they were ready to go if needed.
As I went, occasionally an ambulance passed me, and I noticed each was packed. Sometimes I was able to catch a glimpse of faces—mostly children’s faces—and there was a numbness about them. Arriving at the Council Offices I received more news. A fireman hurrying to get his wagon loaded with essential equipment briefly told me: “People are trapped” and “Some dead.”
The road seemed deserted, apart from an occasional fireman or policeman, though I was able to help here by pushing a boatload of women and children to safety and helping to clear some abandoned cars. Occasionally I stumbled in the water knee-deep, and found great lumps of pathway had cracked, broken and drifted away.
Northern side hit
It soon became obvious that people on the northern side of the High Street had been badly hit. I caught remarks from people who had hurriedly vacated the area or had dashed in to save someone. Shivering with cold, one woman was lifted from a boat half-naked. ” I haven’t got a thing on,” she somehow modestly managed to say. “That’s okay, lady. Don’t worry about that,” one of her rescuers joked back.
With the arrival of more boats I attempted assistance. Not having gone far along one completely submerged street, I was hailed from an attic window by a man and his wife. He told me his mother was drowned in the room below. After several fruitless attempts to get him away, I finally had to give up, though I promised I would tell other rescuers with better equipment where he was.
Further up the street I saw two women and a man, each clutching a child and clinging on to a fence. Manoeuvring my boat, I was able to reach them, and quickly the parents placed the children aboard. Slowly but surely we all made our way back to high and safe ground. But mine was a solitary act, and moving on I saw it repeated over and over again.
Words could not praise enough the efforts made by those rescue workers. Probing and searching through the seemingly never-ending night, they miraculously filled lorry after lorry with numb, shivering Islanders. “When would the dawn come,” they silently asked.
The grey dawn
Finally, the grey dawn did arrive—to illuminate a tragic sight. Tirelessly, people worked on to answer cries for help. Boatload after boatload arrived at the High Street estuaries of the flooded side streets. By now more and more lorries, cars and vans were arriving and quickly whisked the people away. I noticed many Benfleet faces among the drivers who had hurriedly answered the call for help.
At 9 a.m. Mr. R. H. Stevens, the Island’s Surveyor and Engineer, told me that as there would be no services operating on the Island they would attempt to evacuate the people. Rest centres were being established in the surrounding mainland districts.
Returning to the main scene of rescue work, I heard Police cars advising people through loudspeakers to leave the Island. The tide was expected to rise again at 2 p.m. Buses were swiftly organised and brought out from mainland garages from as far away as Southend. I watched these pitiable folk carrying a few belongings they had snatched up. The young helped the old as they made then way to the buses. I gave a “piggy-back” ride to one old man, who, finding his feet once more on solid earth, turned to me and cheerily said: “Thanks I did so want to keep my feet dry.”
Finally I managed to walk out on the sea wall which surrounded the Newlands and sunken marsh area. I looked down on a scene which I know will never leave my mind. Houseboats and even caravans had been tossed into crazy positions at the side of the wall.
Bungalows, some still containing people, reared strangely from a choppy sea. Dangling from the top of one bungalow I noticed a pair of bared legs, while on the other side of this strangely silent building was the body of a woman caught up in a leafless tree, twisted and still.