Memories of the Great Flood of Canvey Island

William (Bill) Hounsom and Dorothy Noble on their wedding day in 1940.

I was ten years old and living with my parents, William and Dorothy (Bill and Dolly) and four year old brother Terry at 70 North Avenue.

I remember being awakened in the very early hours of the morning by a loud hammering on the front door accompanied by a male voice shouting “Bill, Doll, get up – the wall has gone”. Recognising the voice of my Father’s brother Bob (Robert Hounsom) who had waded through the water to alert us, my parents rushed downstairs. On opening the door they were astonished to find water lapping over the threshold.

Weatherwise it was a cold and ghastly night. As always, putting her children first, Mother quickly sorted out our warmest clothes and wellies and made her way to the kitchen to put the kettle on and rustle up something to eat. Father meanwhile donned his wellies, found his oldest raincoat and headed out to check on neighbours and find out what had happened.

Fortunately our tortoise was safely hibernating on a shelf in the shed but the cat had been out all night.    We found the poor bedraggled thing mewing pitifully and floating on a narrow piece of wood wedged up against the fence.

World War II rationing was still ongoing, times were hard and the deprivation great but mother had bought a leg of lamb for Sunday dinner. On his return Father told my Mother “You had better put that joint in the oven. The gas might be turned off and we don’t know when our next meal will be”. So – into the oven went the leg of lamb.

Mother greatly concerned for the safety of her mother who lived at 12 Ellesmere Road decided she had to make sure she was alright. Leaving my most undomesticated father in charge of the house, the cat and the oven, together with Michael, (the youngest son from next door at no. 72), we paddled our way from North Avenue, via Little Gypps Road and the old “camp road” and up to Long Road. The reason Michael came with us was because his mother had gone into labour and been transported to Rochford Hospital. In those days dykes ran along each side of the Long Road with safety railing constructed of concrete posts with holes top and bottom and metal tubes running through. Not comprehending the seriousness of the situation we kids thought the water exciting albeit a bit scary but, we were heroes…going to rescue Grandma.

Under the watchful eye of Mother, and standing on the bottom rail and holding on to the top one, we balanced our way past the Catholic Church and all the way to Long Road Primary School then paddled down Hawkesbury Road to Ellesmere Road. On arrival at no. 12 Grandma was nowhere to be found. Where could she be? Had she drowned? Mother was frantic so we all paddled round to no. 10 next door, (home of the Greatrex family) where Mrs. Greatrex (Lil) told us Grandma had been taken to Hanslope Cottage, Hole Haven Road, the home of my Aunt and Uncle, Ada and Ted Andrews. Having found Grandma was safe, we then balanced and paddled back home to Father, the cat and to check on the leg of lamb and Michael went home to his father and brother at no. 72.

My next memory is of Father telling us (whilst trying to cram the now roasted leg of lamb into a large saucepan) that the Island was being evacuated and we had to leave. The leg of lamb was too large for the saucepan, the lid wouldn’t fit, so there stood Dad, saucepan tucked under his arm with lid askew and the boney end of the joint sticking out and him looking like a scruffy refugee in his wet and dirty old raincoat. Mother had on her oldest coat with a scarf tied around her head and we kids didn’t look any better. Whilst still clutching his precious leg of lamb, Dad “piggybacked” Terry and we once again made our way to Long Road (not far from the William Reed School) where we climbed onto the back of someone’s old lorry and slowly rattled our way to the bridge, and up Essex Way to the King John School which was crowded with Islanders. In the canteen my parents were given cups of tea and we kids ate Shredded Wheat. Father later learned a coach had been laid on to take people to London and having nowhere else to go decided we should take advantage of the offer and make our way to Poplar where his sister and brother-in-law lived in a flat. They had no idea the Island was under water or of our impending arrival. We got off the coach somewhere in East London where Father asked at a garage for directions and was told to get on a bus. To my parents’ great embarrassment other passengers, noticing the state of us and the sight of father with the knuckle end of a leg of lamb protruding from a saucepan, immediately started shuffling away. With no idea the Island was under water or of our impending arrival my Aunt was mortified to find us on her doorstep but she immediately packed bags for her and my Uncle and they moved in with Uncle’s mother so we could live in their flat. With only one double bed it was a bit of a squeeze for the four of us but we were all together and more importantly, we were safe and well.

With no time to pack all we had were the clothes we stood up in but the Salvation Army came to our rescue with a few basic items of underwear. Father found a job at a local garage and was given time off to make trips back to the Island to pack some clothes and see to the cat. Obviously we couldn’t take cat with us when we left as we didn’t know where we would end up. There was no choice but for him to be shut in the bathroom with a blanket in a box and enough food and water for a couple of days. He was not a happy cat. When Dad opened the bathroom door two days later he was frantic to escape. Like something out of a cartoon he shot out the door, raced along the landing and down the stairs, skidding to an abrupt halt as he reached the water. I’ve no idea what Dad did with him after that but, unlike so many people, wildlife and animals, Cat lived to reach a ripe old age.

We were so very fortunate and the water only reached dado level in our house. My mother had five sisters and their families all living on the Island. Aunt Lil and Uncle Joe Ridgeon lived in a bungalow at 19 New Road with my cousins Barbara and Graham. They were forced to climb into their loft where my uncle made a hole in the roof, stuck out his hand to wave for help and they all sat up there freezing cold and wet until the Army with a boat came to their rescue. They were rowed to no. 9 the home of Colin Lee. After being given a cup of tea they walked to Hanslope, a cottage at the corner of Hole Haven Road, home to my Aunt Ada and Uncle Ted Andrews. (Aunt Ada was well known by Islanders as Nurse Andrews and Uncle Ted as “The Midnight Baker”). Firemen were the rescuers of our Smith family relatives at 3 North Avenue and they also were given sanctuary at Aunt Ada’s. Along with Grandma I think Aunt Ada had her hands and her home, pretty full.

The Island, once more reclaimed from the sea, has changed greatly and is now far, far different from the sparsely populated Canvey of my childhood but I have so many memories I treasure of friends, people and places.

I have a saying: “You can take the girl out of the Island but you can’t take the Island out of the girl”. I will always be an Island girl and the Island will always be “home” to me.

Comments about this page

  • Hi Sonia,
    Remember meeting you round at Alan Clark’s house I guess we were 13/14 yrs . You were with your friend ? Foreman, the police sergeant’s daughterI guess you were pupils at King John with Clarkie. At that time did not know of your family connections to Ted,our ‘ Midnight Baker’.
    Those were the skiffle/ early rock’ n ‘roll days! Graham 😀

    By Graham Stevens (09/02/2023)

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