February The First 1953
Photos around Munsterberg Road
This story was written by Tony Randall about his account of the 1953 flood where he rescued some of his neighbours. The type written report along with these great photos has been passed to us by his daughter Siobhan Wilkie.
I guess really I’m a very lucky chap for most of this would not have been written if I’d not had luck with me right from the start.
It was such an ordinary Saturday evening really, Rita and I had been to a Square Dance of the Circassian Circle at Benfleet. I had the motor byc and I took her home, we had a cup of cocoa and I left about 12 o’clock.
I felt happy and very much in love and I was singing to a very big full moon as I came down the road. And then I noticed it! “There must be a hell of a high tide” I said to Dad as I went into the house. “You can see my boat from the road outside”. “What already”, was his reply “The BBC has Just announced extra high tides in the Thames Estuary AT about 2 o’clock, that’s 2 hours off.”
By now we could see a thin white line along the top of the sea wall and little streaks down the inside. “We’d better start waking people up” said Dad. I countered with, “Well I’m going to get a boat over the wall, we’re going to need it before this nights out? With those few words we parted not thinking how long it was going to be before we saw each other again.
Here again I pause to repeat how lucky I must have been, for as I climbed that sea wall the rushing water carried the earth down from under my feet so that I slipped and slithered , two up and one down till I reached the top. Then it hit me, that Nor’westerly gale, so hard that it took my breath away. I crouched there holding on to the tufts of grass with my hands while I gazed appalled at what I saw and thought.
A mile and a half of wind torn water, white menacing already two inches above the top of the sea wall and an hour and a half of flood tide yet to come. This is really it” I thought as my heart pounded at my diaphragm. I was scared ,deadly scared and that fear gave wings to my thoughts. Quickly I mentally ran down a list of the local boats. Mine was jumping about like a mad thing, anchored securely about 15 yards out. Two more were also anchored securely and only their transoms were showing above the water. “Norma’s boat? No too small.” Then I saw it. That grey broken down leaky old boat of Day’s, “You know, the one that the kid painted a Swastika on. A lucky sign that Swastika for there she was a hundred yards along the wall, bumping her bilge but still in reasonable condition as far as I could see,
I knew that I’d only have time to go one way, there’d be no coming back tonight, for the rushing water over the wall was already carrying huge tufts of grass and earth down with it.
I chose the 14 foot old hulk with swastika on the side as probably the most useful and most accessible of the boats around and made for it. Leaning against the gale, half slipping half staggering helping myself along with the only oar I had time to find before I left home, I did that 100yds in record time, considering the conditions.
Throwing the oar aboard I followed it with my overcoat and then grabbing hold of the bows I heaved and found I’d forgotten my seamanship. “Steady lad” I said to myself. “Use the waves you’ve done it all before. Now here comes a big wave, wait for it, now heave. Good now another wave, Heave. And again, two six heave! One more and she’ll swing over the wall. Two six, that’s it. Now down the wall and (unreadable) as she hits the water. Made it nearly (unreadable) expected that mud to be so soft.”’
I grabbed the oar only to find no sculling notch. “Damn! I’ll have to punt her along.” There was such a roaring of wind and water all a(unreadable) that it sounded quite funny to near myself talking. “My God this waters moving some” I was out of control moving at about 5 knots up a dyke away from the wall. I didn’t know it then but that was when the wall broke.
“Where’s Dad” I thought. Ah! there’s 4 people over there by Mrs Norish’s on that high bit of ground. They were completely surrounded by water rushing by.
Helping them aboard I found a ditch and went in up to my chest in the water .If I didn’t know before that the water was cold I did now.
“Enough to freeze the ……… Yes lady I see them.” “your Husband and old Mr Whatshisname hanging onto that gateway. I’ll do my best. though I’ve only got one oar.” By now there was 3 foot of water and the boat was getting caught up in the barbed wire fences. I cursed as I tore my hand and apologised to the ladies, who told me not to worry. I swore again as we found another fence but this time we were only 5yds from the two men.
By now they were standing on the gate holding onto the rose arbour with the water up to their knees. Soon we had them aboard, 6 altogether 3 men, 3 women and not one under 60, some crew for a rough night in a boat.
There were shouts and screams for help coming from all around now and I began to wonder what had happened to dad. I couldn’t see anyone else near at hand and in any case the boat was full already. With this crew and myself with only one oar, the wind and the rushing water the boat was unmanageable, so I tossed the anchor into a passing tree and we brought up with a jerk.
The black water was swirling past us at about 4 knots now and one of the women started to moan about her handbag, her money, and her dog. Two of the men- started to move around, changing places with the women and with the alarming motion of the boat, I became aware of the large quantity of water in the bilge of the boat, “Shut up the lot of you and listen to me “I said for by now they –were all talking, “I’m in charge of this boat and all those in it, from now on you’ll take orders from me and like it, If you don’t, then I’ll tell you here and now, you can get out and walk. First of all not one of you is allowed to move without you ask me first. Second I don’t want to hear on any of you moaning about you’re discomforts, your all comparatively dry and your in a boat so you don’t have to worry how deep the water gets on the outside. What you do have to worry about though is the water IN the boat so someone down aft had better start bailing, use your shoes, I’m using mine. If you want to see day light again then bail, b esides it will keep you warm”.
These orders might seem harsh but those people had to get used to the fact that I was in charge, nearly forty years their junior, but with a knowledge of boats and much more of the changing places and we’d have capsized. The moaning about their predicament had to be stopped for they were better off than some of those people who were screaming for help and I wanted a pretty high morale for I knew we were in for a long long night.
As I bailed I started to sing “The drunken sailor” and other shanties I don’t often inflict my voice on people but I felt it would help, better listening to me than to cries for help.
Besides I wanted to forget that I didn’t know what had happened to Dad and Rita. Would she remember all I’d taught her about swimming, not to lose her nerve not to try to get her head too far out of the water. Try “Shenandoah” that’s a good one and you know the words”.
Out loud I said “God help sailors on a night like this” and do you know they all laughed .I sang all the shanties I could remember and one or two other songs and Mrs Norrish managed a few bars of “Sailing down the River, then all of a sudden I realised that the water level was going down.
The Light was still on in Mrs Norrish’s house so I decided to come alongside and see if I could see anything of her dog. I got to the back window, looked in and there was the dog laying on the bed, shivering. The bed was afloat, and the dog was alright, but the bed was on fire. It (unreadable) .floated up to the gas mantle and caught alight then it had come down with the lowering water,
Quietly I smashed the window, grabbed my shoe, with which I had been bailing and started to throw water onto the bed. The dog was terrified so I got Mrs Norrish to call it and it came gladly enough. It was a good job it was a bitch for we already had a dog in the boat and a dog fight would just about have been the last straw.
I got the fire out for there was no shortage of water now. And from then on we hung on to the back of the house out of the way of the wind.
A certain amount of conversation ensued due to the lowering of the water and the shelter that the house afforded us and apart from a few complaints about cold feet and the poor sanitary arrangements on my boat the level of morale was still fairly high.
People were still screaming for help in the houses but I was still helpless (unreadable) all the cigarettes and (unreadable) likewise a few peppermints that someone had in their pocket and in that way we spent the rest of the night, waiting for daylight.
It was the longest night I have ever spent in my life.
As it got light I discovered that one of the inner walls was still standing so I made up my mind, as it was down wind to make for this. I knew that although no rescue operations had started in our area something would be happening near the main road.
While I was thinking this, one of the men, who was taking his turn standing up and waving his arms, to get the circulation back into his body, fell overboard. I had a hard job making the other passengers trim the boat properly to stop us capsizing while we got him back on board. We managed it and when we found he was alright I made up my mind that I’d have to move, and move right away before anything else happened.
I found a long piece of wood and handed it to the most active man of my crew and with my one oar for’ard I cast off and headed for the wall. We got there just as some soldiers arrived and with their help we half carried, half walked my survivors to safety.
Once they were on their way I turned hack to find a more suitable boat for rescue work and with two policemen and the man who lived in the house next door, the owner of the boot in which we had spent the night, and who we had to rescue first, we proceeded to row our boat up and down the roads getting the people out.
By two o’clock I was very shaky and one of the policemen said to me that it was time I had something to eat and drink. As most of the houses were evacuated by that time anyway I agreed with him and with the man from next door we made our way to the main road,
A ”cup of char and a wad ” were handed to us from a police van and then I met a friend of mine with a car. So, too weak to argue I was whisked off to Benfleet where, still not knowing what had happened to my father or fiancée, I slept from sheer exhaustion.