My Memories of the 1953 Floods on Canvey Island

Ian Norrington, Aged 12

Picture of 'Kaola' our Sailing Dinghy, (left) which the Soldiers had commandeered

I lived in a four bedroom timber roughcast bungalow called ‘Hindles’ in Hindles Road, Canvey Island, in an area called ‘Sunken Marsh’. I lived with my Mum, Dad, four brothers; Dudley 19 years, Colin 17 years, Vernon 10 years, Keith 6 years and sister Jennifer 8 years and myself 12 years, and the family pet dog Rex.

It was about 7 pm and Mum had just put Keith and Jenny to bed, Dudley and Colin were out with friends in Southend. Mum and Dad were settling down in front of the fire listening to their favourite radio programme with Rex at their feet. Vernon and I shared a bedroom with Keith and we followed to bed after. We could hear the wind whistling through the trees and round the corners of the bungalow. It must have been about 10 or 11 pm when I was woken by loud voices and doors banging, as I laid still for a while wondering what was happening. I heard my brothers telling my Mum and Dad that as they came onto Canvey by bus, the sea water was gushing onto the foot plate of the bus. As they ran along Smallgains Sea Wall from Mitchells Avenue to Creek Road they could see the water lapping over the sea wall into Smallgains path. By this time we were all awake and confused. Colin called out “get dressed and wait in the kitchen for us, we are going to get Dudley’s boat at the end of the garden”. Vernon asked why and Colin shouted back “look out of the window”, all four of us looked out and saw the water rushing down the side path into the back garden. We watched them drag the boat up to the back door, by this time the water was knee high. Dudley and Colin tied the rope to a drain pipe and told us to get in and wait for Mum and Dad, we are going to warn the neighbours and get help, “see you later Dad” and off they went.

This was a Sailing Dinghy about 10 foot long and it was half decked on the sides and the front, we didn’t have any paddles or provision for oars to move around. Two children sat on each side of the boat, then Dad helped Mum onto the front deck, she was seven months pregnant with my brother Donald. By this time, the water was flooding into the kitchen, Mum called out “Bob, can you put the Sunday joint in the loft before you shut the door”, my Dad replied “yes Lil”, he had trouble closing the back door because of the flood water. Then my Mum asked my Dad to check if our neighbour, Mrs Sydney, was alright. She lived in a Bungalow next door at Number 7. He disappeared into her back door, it seemed ages before he came out with Mrs Sydney in his arms. When he got back to the boat he lifted her onto the side deck of the boat, by now the water was halfway up the back door. He pulled himself up and sat on the front deck of the boat with Mum. Mrs Sydney, Jenny and Keith sat on the left side and Vernon and myself on the right side so we could take turns in holding onto the rainwater guttering of our house. At last we were settled, but to our dismay the water seeped into the boat through the drainage holes, so we all took turns bailing out the water with an old cup. Rex the pet dog was hiding under the front decking of the boat.

By this time, the water was three-quarters up the back door, the North wind and tide were forcing us around to the West side of the bungalow, there wasn’t any guttering to hold onto now but the wind kept the boat still and close to the brick wall. The raising water level was now at the top of the window, still lapping onto the deck of the boat. There were objects and things bumping into the boat and Dad assured us that they were boxes and tree trunks, and not bodies, as one us had asked.

It was not so dark now, and we could see across the glittering water and rooftops, a few houses had flickering candle lights in some upstairs rooms. Beyond the roof tops we could see the dark line of Hadleigh Downs and the Water Tower to the North.

At this point it seemed as if everything had stopped. The wind, the splashing water onto our boat, us talking to the neighbours, people crying, people calling out for help and us asking our Mum who the calling voices were. I think that was the most saddest moment of my memories of the floods, as it seemed like hours and hours before the silence broke.

On reflection, that must have been when the tide turned and started to go out. The boat swung around and we were facing into the wind, then we drifted back to where we started, hanging onto the guttering. It was still very cold and windy, and our Mum told us that it wouldn’t be long as it was getting light and the rescue teams would be looking for us. We did hear some men’s voices, but by the time we moved our boat around the corner of the bungalow, they had gone past. So we waited for the next one, then we heard a motor boat which we also missed, but Dad said not to worry and that they would come back down Stanley Road which is at the bottom of the garden. Eventually, they saw us. “We will come around for you” they said, then Dad untied the rope and we paddled round to the front of the bungalow in Hindles Road with our hands and waited for them. They towed us slowly down Dovervelt Road to Smallgains Creek Sea Wall where we climbed out. We then crawled up the seawall and some Soldiers told Dad “we are commandeering your boat Sir, thank you and carry on along the seawall to Mitchells Avenue to the pick-up point. We all climbed on an Army Lorry with other flood victims which took us to Benfleet County School (King John School). Dad registered and Mum was given dry clothes and hot drinks for all of us. We all sat at a table and waited for transport to my Grandparents home in Chiswick, London, where we stayed until the end of the School Term. Then we all returned home and were re­united with Dad and our two older brothers, Dudley and Colin, who had stayed on Canvey to help rescue and make repairs to the sea wall, and to clean up our home.

Comments about this page

  • Great memory of “that night”, showing amazing family calmness, presence of mind and stamina. Once again I could feel the trauma involved. I knew Colin, especially during the early 50’s before I left for Canada in 1953.

    By Gerald Hudson (18/03/2013)
  • Well written account of that night. I was 10 yrs. old at the time, we had about 3 feet of water in our bungalow in Labworth Rd. looking back we were a lot luckier than many. I went to school with Vernon and have sometimes wondered what happened to him and our other class mates.

    By Peter Watkins (23/03/2013)
  • Thanks Gerald, thanks peter for your comments Colin and Vernon both live Near Colchester Essex they both say hi and wish you all the best of health (Memories are great no matter how far apart we live.

    By Ian Norrington (31/03/2013)
  • I’ve just read Ian Norrington’s memories of the flood. I remember his brother Colin had just left our house in Chamberlain Avenue to go home after we had all been out for the evening. About an hour later, we heard a banging on the door and it was Colin telling us the sea wall had broken. By this time, the water was coming into the house. He managed to get my sister Jeanette up to the end of the road and then came back for us. The water was then about three feet high in the house. He pushed my mum, dad, me and my dog into the loft of our bungalow, where we all spent the night until we were rescued by boat in the morning. Colin was a hero that night. If it hadn’t been for him getting my dad – a veteran of two wars and suffering from emphesema – up into the loft, I believe we would have lost him.

    By Gilda Sickelmore (posted by Annette Hudson) (18/04/2013)
  • Loved your account of that night, Ian, especially mum asking dad to “save the joint”. That is typical British humour in case of emergency and anxiety. Glad all your family are well, remember me to Colin – I am better know as Jean. Yes, he really was a hero – I too, was transported to Benfleet School re-united with my family some time later.

    By Jeanette Barsby (nee Hudson) (19/04/2013)

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