Margaret Mayes who survived the 1953 Canvey Flood in which she lost her only child, her husband and her mother in law, has died aged 84. Margaret, known to her family and friends as Peggy only recently brought herself to speak to me of her terrifying ordeal.
Peggy, her husband Reg Morgan and five year old son Dennis were living in a low lying bungalow on Canvey on the night of 31st January 1953. There had been no flood warning, the evening had seemed quite normal but Peggy turned over in bed that night and found icy cold water lapping around her arm.
In darkness the couple struggled through three foot of freezing water and floating possessions to reach the sleeping child. At the door an avalanche of icy water took them completely by surprise as it surged in. They could hardly stand. Outside, in the utter darkness they were almost overwhelmed by the force of the torrent. It was waist high and rising; a dark, icy, fast flowing and turbulent river. The family managed to reach their chicken shed and Peggy and Dennis climbed onto the roof. Meanwhile Reg’s 74 year old mother could be heard screaming for help from the next door bungalow. Reg fought his way through the swirling water again to rescue her.
Grandmother made it to the shed but being unable to climb up she stood in the water holding Peggy’s hand until the cold loosened her grip and she silently slipped away. Her son, already numb with cold tried to find her but in that dark nightmare neither was seen alive again. Their bodies were recovered a week later.
Peggy and Dennis sat huddled there in the biting cold, bitter wind and darkness for four hours. They clung to the roof, half in and half out of the water, while trees, furniture, sheds, dead animals and earth toilets crashed by them, putting them in fear for their lives. Peggy never forgot the dreadful smell. During those long dark hours, Peggy had plenty of time to dwell with terror on their desperate position. She could hear other people shouting for help, but had no idea whether anything was being done to rescue them. Later hopes were raised when the lights of rescue boats appeared in the darkness. But later still the boats and their lights were no longer seen. It became eerily silent except for the howling wind and the crash, crash, crash of house doors and windows as the waves pounded them open. Peggy was sure that she and her son were alone and forgotten. As they clung together the child, in words that would haunt Peggy all her life, cried again and again ‘Mummy I’m so cold’ and her reply was always ‘I know darling, I’m trying to keep you warm’.
Peggy learned later that the rescuers had marked with a cross the houses they had checked. Peggy’s house had been checked and marked and they had not been seen on the shed roof. But rescuer Mickey Saunders decided to have one last look and his searchlight finally picked out the mother and child. By now naked, they were helped into his dingy, covered with a tarpaulin and taken in an army lorry to the Long Road School rescue centre on Canvey. There, as Hilda Grieve noted in her book The Great Tide –
There was a St John’s Nurse, in her arms a dying child, the mother having her legs dressed; the father having been drowned trying to save the grandmother.
Peggy and Dennis were taken to Southend Hospital where survivors, crowded together on mattresses on the entrance hall floor, were issued with blankets and hot water bottles. Peggy was told that her child was ‘doing well’ on the children’s ward, and it was not until she asked for him as she left a week later that she was told by a sorrowful Priest that Dennis had died. He had in fact been pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital on 1st February 1953. The cause of death was ‘shock and exposure during floods’. Peggy thought she had saved her boy, but she had lost everything.
While in hospital Peggy was visited by the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, Winston Churchill and MP Bernard Braine. She gained strength to talk to them from the belief that at least her child had survived. Reg Morgan, his Mother and five year old Dennis were among the 58 Canvey Islanders who died as a direct result of the catastrophe that night. Forty years were to pass before Peggy would agree to ‘step foot’ on Canvey again, now with her third husband Ted Hayes.
Peggy was born in Stepney where she cheated death twice. Once, thought dead, she was rushed to hospital when an electric fire fell off a wall into her bath water. Later when her parents’ house was bombed during WW2, Peggy was believed to have been killed, but had been thrown by the explosion into a bath, and was later dug out of the rubble unconscious but otherwise unhurt. After the war the family moved to Essex, where Peggy lived for the rest of her life. Peggy was a very strong and feisty woman who loved life. Peggy died on 2nd February 2009, almost 56 years to the day after the tragedy which took her whole family.
(First published as an obituary in the Guardian and in the Southend Standard.)