The Flood of 1953

extracts from the memoirs of the late Major Reg Stevens M.C., C.Eng., F.I.C.E.

On the Island since the end of the war a local committee had been raising funds to build a War Memorial Hall and I was asked to design a suitable building. Having got approval for my design and sought tenders, construction was started in 1952 and progressed to the stage that the opening ceremony was fixed for 31st January 1953 – a Saturday.

The day arrived bitterly cold with flakes of snow blowing in the gale force wind. During the morning I went to see the finishing touches being carried out and was pleased to find it warm and the floor – of one inch thick Rhodesian teak blocks, laid by the Acme Flooring Company (this firm had earlier laid the floor in the renovated House of Commons) – gleaming with that rich sheen that only polished wood can produce. Pegs (my wife) was invited to accompany me at the opening ceremony at 3 p.m. and so we had a baby-sitter, and to take full advantage had arranged to go with Harry Thompson (the building contractor) and his wife to Southend in the evening to see a film and have a meal after. Duly at 3 p.m. the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant of Essex cut the tape at the doorway and there were the usual speeches and congratulatory remarks made by the dignitaries, and this was followed by refreshments. As soon as possible Pegs and I with the Thompsons left the proceedings and set off for Southend. We went to the cinema – can’t recall the film – but during the evening I began to get that heavy, aching feeling that signals the advent of a bout of flu. When we left the cinema soon after 9 p.m. I was in no fit state to go to a restaurant, so we made our way home and crossed over the bridge shortly before 10 p.m. Once home I was quickly dosed with a whisky and hot lemon and immediately to bed. Shortly after midnight there was a loud knocking at the front door. I made my way downstairs, opened the door to find the local Police Sergeant who told me that he had received telephone calls from the Newlands area saying that water was lapping ‘over’ the sea wall.

I must now explain that the level of the land within the sea wall was almost six feet below the level of the sea during  the highest Spring tides, and the walls were built to a height of about five feet above the highest tide-levels, with that part of the sea wall facing the River having a stone block face and generally one foot higher to counteract the effects of the wave action over the wide expanse of water. The sections of wall facing the mainland and protecting the agricultural part of the Island – i.e. North and East – were of earthwork, and of less substantial construction. Tidal surges were caused by the direction of the wind; a deep depression moving across the North of Scotland and then South Eastwards would result in a North West gale causing a surge or a wave of water coming Southwards in the North Sea towards the restriction of the Straits of Dover, and the wave would travel up the various estuaries giving levels of seawater above the predicted levels. One day in 1949 ( can’t now remember the date ) I had gone to Thorney Bay where I had some men working and found that the tide instead of being at low water level was more than half way “in”, and as that day wore on it became clear that we were in for a surge tide, the first that I had experienced. The water level reached near the top of sections of the wall on the South side of Small GainsCreek and the outer wall on the North side of the Newlands area, and at the comer of Rainbow Road and Mornington Road, water was spouting through the wall in a number of places.

After this experience the Council – on my recommendation – made representations to the Essex River Authority – the body responsible for the Sea Wall maintenance – and a survey was carried out to determine if the walls were at the intended levels for protection. As a result of this the E.R.A. undertook work to improve and raise the level of the walls referred to above. The work on the South side of Small Gains Creek was completed, but it was found that to carry out the work on much of the wall on the North side of Newlands, it would be necessary to acquire sections of land from the gardens of a number of small dwellings or land in private ownership. By the beginning of 1953 this section of wall had not been improved.

The Council Offices

As soon as the Police Sergeant had told me of the reports he had received – I immediately realised the danger – I quickly dressed in grey slacks, sports jacket over a thick sweater, an ex-army leather jerkin and suede shoes – a quick explanation to Pegs to wake up the Deputy Clerk, who lived next door. I went to the main sea wall and in the moonlight saw the black menacing sea – calm, as the wind there although strong was off-shore – was only about 12 inches below the top of the wall – that meant to the top of the back walls. I drove to the Council Offices in Long Road, made telephone calls to call out the Fire Brigade, Ambulance, my Deputy Dick Foyster, and set off to try to find out what was happening in the Northern part of the district, particularly the Newlands area. As I turned Northwards into Futherwick Road at the Haystack Corner I met water slowly flowing Southwards; out of the car and walked through the increasing flow of water to the corner with High Street. There was a lamp post, there outside the Barclays Bank Branch Office, hanging on to the post was a policeman and I joined him – it was necessary to hang on as the water was about two feet deep and flowing strongly. In the water there was debris being carried along, vegetation, chicken houses etc. My worst fears were realised the sea wall had been breached, and I realised that the conditions in the Newlands and Sixty Acre areas would be particularly bad as the water would be deeper due to the impounding caused by the counter walls. I have to say that there was no tidal warning scheme to Local Authorities, the E.R.A. had certain internal arrangements and the London County Council an arrangement with the Southend Pier management. The E.R.A. had some contact arrangement with the Chairman of the Canvey Island Commission.

Canvey Bridge

I immediately made my way back to the Council Office, explained the situation to the volunteer Fire Brigade – the Chief was employed in my department. I ordered the Fire Brigade to sound their call-out sirens – normally only used during daytime and formerly used for air-raid warnings and to use the war-time wailing note to try to wake people up – the worst possible time to try to wake is in the early hours of a Sunday morning. I sent my Deputy to check the position at Canvey Bridge where the road cut through the sea wall and in the event of high tides, boards had to be inserted to prevent flooding. Arranged for a fireman to break into the nearly school which I knew would be needed as a rest and emergency centre. Someone went to call in the Local Doctor who lived a short distance away – at first he thought I had awakened him for a Civil Defence exercise, then realised that I would have more sense than to do that -by 1.30 a.m. the Rest Centre was in operation, hot tea available and the Doctor had dealt with the first casualty.

I, with the co-operation and sterling work of the telephone operator operating the manual exchange, tried to contact Police H.Q. at Chelmsford to make them aware of the grave situation and the need for a massive rescue operation to be put in hand as soon as possible. The whole of S.E. England had been affected by flooding and gales. Telephone lines were down, roads blocked by fallen trees and many emergency calls being made. It was difficult to make people understand that this was a life or death situation. Then the telephone line went dead, the manual operator had for the past hour or more sat at his switchboard in water to give my calls priority until the power went.

I told the Fire Brigade to fire their emergency mortar to create more noise to wake people up. The wind noise did not allow the sirens to penetrate far and I thought the mortar bombs might have a more dramatic effect. They had never previously fired them. The mortar, supported by its two legs, was set up on the forecourt and as the first bomb was dropped down the barrel onto the firing pin, the legs collapsed and the bomb just went over the roof of the policeman’s bungalow opposite. Certainly the bomb caused a major bang. I despatched the Fire Brigade to begin direct rescue operations and they initially operated in the low-lying area to the West of Knightswick Road, taking a dinghy from the garden of the flat over the Barclays Bank building and owned by the manager to assist in the operations.

Sir Bernard Braine

We had no means of communication with the mainland until I learnt that only a few days earlier the local ambulance – controlled by the County Council – had been fitted with wireless communication to ambulance H.Q. at Chelmsford. So using this I again tried to explain the need for a rescue operation. I decided the best way was to implicate our M.P. Bernard Braine who had been at the opening ceremony of the War Memorial Hall ten hours earlier. I had met him on many occasions and I knew that he would realise that my messages must be taken seriously, so via ambulance H.Q., eventually a message reached him, and some action was taken. I had been about in my car to assess the position and then in Long Road it stopped, so I had to leave it on the side of the road in some six inches of water sprayed by waves from every vehicle which passed over the next several days. I was determined to get to a position where I could see the situation in the Newlands area – the difficulty was that whilst the High Street had only about six inches of water over the surface, the road had been built on an old counter wall and was about three feet higher than the land to the North. I thought of Prouts Boatyard – they made canvas clad dinghies and canoes – the two sons Roland and ” Babe “ had represented Great Britain in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki – so at about 3.30 a.m. I went with a couple of men to the factory at Small Gains Corner and “broke in “. Paddling in the water about eighteen inches deep in the darkness I eventually found a couple of boats about six feet long and we carried them to the High Street end of Chamberlain road. Unfortunately, the one I was in, with someone I only knew as a bus conductor, didn’t have any bottom boards, however we progressed almost to the corner where a bungalow had a high privet hedge inside a wire fence – the water at this point was about five feet deep – and in some way got blown so that we became fixed on top of the hedge and only extracted ourselves with difficulty and decided another route had to be found. We saw that a number of the people in the bungalows of Rainbow Road had broken through the roof-tiles and were sitting on the ceiling rafters. Some were shouting for help but nothing effective could be done without boats. Back on the higher ground of High Street I went to the Mitchels Avenue junction and waded -up to waist deep in places – and reached the sea wall on the South side of Small Gains Creek then onto the top of the wall to a position where in the pale moonlight I. could see the Southern part of the Newlands area.

Smallgains Creek Area

By this time the sea level outside the main sea wall had receded but inside was to the top of the counter wall and the whole area was like a saucer full of water up to six feet in depth. People were shouting for help from the roofs of some bungalows, a lot of debris was floating in the water and what was clearly a body spread-eagled in a leafless tree. I knew we had a disaster situation, and felt so helpless. I hurried back to the office and then to the Police Station where I found some officers had arrived. The water level at the bridge had dropped to allow access, and by this time the water, apart from that trapped by the counter walls, had spread out leaving the main road with only a few inches of water but almost the whole island covered with water, the depth depending on the minor variations of the ground level, with perhaps a general average of two feet.

By this time I had received information from members of my staff who I had sent off to varying parts to do a “recce” and I told the Senior Police Officer, an Inspector if I remember correctly, of the actions I had taken and that subject to my findings in the next hour or so, I thought it likely that the whole Island would have to be evacuated. I arranged a further meeting for 7 a.m. and set off again. This time I managed to get to the North side of the Newlands area and trudged in the mud along the sea wall with the tide now out but the dark expanse of water on the inside, groups of people on some flat roofs and heads emerging from holes in the roof of others, and from some I knew to be to occupied, no sign of life. It was so frustrating to be unable to help those people, wet and with the temperature below freezing, and as I knew mostly old age pensioners. I saw a small rowing boat on the outside of the wall, and tried, quite in vain, to pull it up to the wall so that I could try to rescue some of these people who, although out of the water were in danger from exposure. I located the main breaches in the sea wall which had provided the entry for the sea water into the Newlands area. There were other breaches in the wall to the North of Sixty Acres and a few other minor breaches. Wearily back to the office – all this on foot in wet clothes and my soggy suede shoes – and my meeting with the Police– this time a Superintendent – and I told him it was necessary to evacuate the whole Island – some 10,000 people – and left it for him to make the arrangements. I didn’t know where they would go, but it was clear to me that normal life could not continue. Apart from the difficulties of movement, of distribution of supplies, there was the absence of electricity, the likelihood of water contamination, the whole sewerage system out of action. Gradually there was an increasing flow of people to assist in rescue operations; boats were brought in from the parks at Ilford, and later the army appeared with some assault boats. I was anxious that the main rescue effort was directed into the area North of High Street and particularly the Newlands area. I took control of a section of troops with three or four boats and on foot guided them via Larup Avenue to the South West side of the Newlands area. We had recently started construction of a housing estate at the corner of Larup Avenue and Mornington Road and trenches had been dug for the drains and sewers. With the area covered with water, they were difficult to see and I was on foot, and I am sure stepped into every open deep trench – not very funny at the time.

More repairwork

Rescue operations were in full swing, bodies of victims being collected and taken to a temporary mortuary and many people being evacuated either by buses which had been brought in from Southend or in their own transport if they were able to get through the water. Some people went to friends in the area or went by train, but many went to schools which had been opened in Benfleet etc, to serve as temporary shelters. I kept in touch with the Police and found that towards midday there was reluctance by some residents to leave their homes, thinking that they could stay put despite the conditions, but the high tide at about 1 p.m., although not of the surge level as the earlier tide, was sufficiently high to allow further water to flow through the breaches and increase the flood level, and this persuaded almost all to leave before dark. Voluntary services appeared; the W.V.S. were particularly welcome as they set up a small canteen at the Council Offices and I and those of us who had been hard at it since the early hours managed at last to get a hot drink and some food.

I was told that Pegs and the children had been evacuated – they had gone to Leigh to some friends of Mrs Lintner – the wife of Doctor Lintner, both of whom had helped them though the flood water to a point where transport was available. Pegs, after I had left soon after midnight, had with difficulty woken the Deputy Clerk then living in the bungalow next door, and given him the news only to be told “Don’t be silly, woman!” She had taken furniture and carpets upstairs in case the flood water affected the ground floor, and she had started to cook the pork joint we had brought for the weekend. This was eaten with relish when the Lintners arrived with the evacuation instructions. Active operations mostly ceased with the end of daylight and it was time to take stock and discuss responsibilities with the Police and to plan action for the next day. During the whole of this – never to be forgotten Sunday – I controlled the whole operation; the Fire Service, Ambulance, Police, and the Army Personnel all operated under my directions. I had no contact with the Essex River Authority on that Sunday, nor with any representative from the County Council or Government Department – the few Councillors with whom I had contact, were clearly quite happy for me to take full charge. I learnt that a scheme “Assistance of H.M. Forces to Civil Authorities” of which the Council had never been informed was to be brought into action on the next day, to seal the breaches in the walls.

Rescue and retrieval underway

The Police were to carry out a search of all flooded properties and the recovery of any bodies, and I decided that my small workforce would endeavour to increase the rate of evacuation of the flood water – the tidal sluices were completely inadequate and some were blocked by debris. A meal of baked beans and sausage by courtesy of the W.V.S. canteen and then I wandered off on my own to reflect on the events of the past twenty-two hectic hours. I thought of that gleaming floor in the War Memorial Hall, opened at 3 p.m. and some nine and a half hours later under three feet of flood water. The pale moonlight, the lapping sound of the water, produced an eyrie feeling as I found myself in Furtherwick Road at the junction of Lionel Road, where I met Dick Collins – a local builder who lived nearby. He had decided to stay put to look after his yard – normally always cheerful, he was very dismal and downhearted as he contemplated the future. I, although to myself somewhat doubtful, painted a more optimistic picture to cheer him up, and we parted, both of us convinced that Canvey would “rise” from the sea and become a thriving community. Back to the offices where someone had produced a mattress and a blanket and I got out of my clothes, realising that I had been in and out of water waist deep at least half a dozen times, with the clothes partly drying on me before the next wetting. I had managed to discard my suede shoes by courtesy of Rupert Ives who opened his shop in Furtherwick Road to dispense his stock, when I realised that my flu symptoms had completely disappeared and indeed I didn’t have a cold or any other ill-effects in the following months, and so to sleep.

At first light a cup of tea and something to eat – a new W.V.S. team had come overnight to man the canteen. I ordered pumps to be brought in and sited in various locations, and my chief assistant, Reg Cockle, went with a team to the Newlands breaches to form some large sluices to speed up the discharge of water – these had to be blocked off when the tide came in. I arranged for some volunteers from a neighbouring authority to check the whole length of the sea wall and locate all breaches and any apparent weak spot, and started a situation map of flood waters which was checked daily from then on so that we had a clear picture of the results of our efforts.

The Western End of Canvey and Hole Haven

I had not been able to contact the River Authority Local Engineer and was told he was on the sea wall near the Lobster Smack P.H. at the Southern end of Haven Road. I got hold of a bicycle and set off to see him. Whilst it was not too difficult to peddle through about six inches of water, in the lower parts of Haven Road the water was up to the cycles’ cross bar and one had to stand on the peddles to get any movement, but it was easier than wading. At last I reached the spot and tried to find out what the River Authority were doing, but his only concern seemed to be to locate some dry socks. I left in disgust!

On that Monday, 2nd February, a team arrived to do a geological bore at the Point. They were trying to locate the Kent Coal Seam to see the angle of the seam, in order to predict where it might be near the surface in East Anglia. The bore went to a depth of about two thousand feet and there was a rumour that the bore was to let the flood water “out “. The bore did not locate the Coal Seam.

Filling the sandbags to fill the breaches

Gradually the troops arrived and began sand-bagging, working by night by flood-light. The River Authority brought in a special team and set up headquarters at the Red Cow P.H. -later it changed its name to the “King Canute”.The Police were doing their searching, although one elderly lady was not rescued from her bungalow in the Newlands area until the Tuesday afternoon, some sixty-three hours after the initial flooding of her property where the water reached a depth of over six feet and this in near-freezing temperatures. Police were also deployed to prevent looting of the hundreds of empty dwellings.

By midday on Monday I had the use of a four-wheel-drive Land Rover and driver courtesy of Lieutenant-Colonel Horace Fielder – a Councillor and landowner, and I managed to visit 43, Leigh Road, to get a change of clothing.

On the Tuesday, I had a visit from a BBC reporter to say that on the 9.00 pm News that night he was to broadcast live from Canvey Island and wished to have as a background the noise of pumps in operation, and asked where he could go to make the broadcast. I gave him a location and off he went, only to return an hour or so later to say that the pumping noise was most ineffectual, and later I heard that when he broadcast later that evening the ‘pumping’ sound effect was provided by water splashing from a hosepipe. Up to then I had thought that the BBC was beyond reproach, but since that day I have had a different view.

Gradually the water levels were dropping, and I was able to arrange to pump out the sewage pumping stations, and to dismantle the equipment which had to be sent away for cleaning and the electric motors all rewound. My pumping station staff did excellent work and the Electricity Board arranged the work to the motors.

Queen Mother and Princess Margaret visit survivors

A large number of the evacuated people had been sent to King John’s School which had been due to be officially opened on 2nd February. On the afternoon of 3rd February Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret were to visit the school to meet the evacuees. I was told to get cleaned up and to be at the school to be presented – regretfully I was at that time just too busy to go off the Island for the couple of hours which would be necessary, so I sent a message to say that I was unavailable. It was with much regret that I did not meet this wonderful lady – I had met King George VI in Italy – and always hoped that there would be another opportunity, but sadly this has not occurred.

On Thursday evening I felt I could go off the Island to see Pegs and the children – the first time since the early hours of Sunday morning. It was good to see them again and in good health and spirit. My Dad had come from Ilfracombe to take Nicola and Paul back with him to relieve Pegs. My time passed so quickly and I had to return to the Island. Regretfully we had to cancel a visit to London on the Saturday when I had booked seats for “Porgy and Bess” at the theatre to celebrate Pegs’ birthday. There was great activity on the sea wall and my team were managing to get the water levels reduced a little each day. There was the daily influx of reporters but gradually this lessened. My car, after four days of being swamped, was recovered by one of the garages – one of the contractors had suggested that he could arrange to tip it into the adjacent dyke and make it a complete write off, but I could not agree to this. The garage got the engine going although the car was in a very sorry state.

After nine days of work – usually eighteen hours a day; sleeping and feeding at the office – about 60% of the Island was clear of flood-water, and the motors for the main sewage pumping station ready for installation, with the others following on the next two days, and we were able to pump out the sewerage system. Checks had been made on water supplies, gas supplies and electricity lines – fortunately mostly overhead – and gradually people were returning, often to a major clearing-up operation. Of the four thousand ( approximately ) residential units about a thousand had been flooded to depths of two – seven feet, a thousand between six inches and two feet above floor level, a thousand up to six inches above floor level and a thousand had no internal flooding – No.43 Leigh Road had come into the last category. This information was known as a result of my daily situation maps. Pegs came back home and Gladys and Walter Howarth – our friends since my first days in the army at Romsey – came to help with cleaning up and with the children. On the Monday I visited Long Road School which was being set up as a reception and recording centre for the returning residents and found them short of typing assistance; home for lunch and I suggested that Pegs might go to help with the Howarths very capably looking after the children. Little did we think that she would continue working for the next twenty-five years.

The Village Oude Tonge on the island Goeree-Overflakkee

 Canvey Island was not the only place affected by flooding on the night of 31st January/1st February. A number of other East coast areas had been affected although none to the extent nor with the number of fatalities we had experienced. Hollandtoo had suffered a major disaster. The Lord Mayor of London launched a disaster fund and the Government had pledged £1 for every £1 raised by the public. The generosity of the public and of firms was quite astounding. Apart from money, clothes, food, hot pies, cases of whisky, sweets for the children were delivered and distributed – I had access to a couple of cases of half bottles of white Horse Whisky and always carried a bottle, to provide sustenance to the workers. Initially the disaster fund paid a token sum of £20 per family and forms were produced for making claims for furniture etc. and Committees were set up to consider these – many of the people had no insurance cover. The Government made staff from the War Damage Commission available to assist in dealing with claims and an office was set up and Pegs was drafted to help and later was employed there full-time – we had secured the services of Florrie, who was to become a real friend of all the family.

The War Memorial Hall

By this time I was concerned with forming means of access to properties fronting unmade roads. The effect of floodwater, apart from saturating the ground, made the surface a compacted inert morass into which any weight would sink. Fortunately, at a tip in the Western part of the District which had been made for power station waste, there was an adequate supply of clinker and ash, which was spread to form footpaths and temporary roadways. As soon as the water had subsided, the new War Memorial Hall was used as the main canteen for the workers who would arrive in mud-covered rubber boots to enjoy some hot food. Daily my lovely teak floor would be swilled down with water ready for the next days influx, and to avoid slipping sand was sprinkled in the surface.

The Lord Mayor of London’s Fund had reached a total of about eight million pounds with the Government pledged to meet an equal sum. Payments had to be assessed for business losses, annual sums for dependants of those who died and a list of other matters, and then came repair of property – saltwater flooding is very difficult to deal with where brick property is affected – the salt stays after the moisture dries, but any humidity is attracted to the salt and dampness results. With brick walls the plaster had to be hacked off and an impervious membrane inserted before re-plastering. Some timber-framed dwellings suffered from rotting etc. but generally speaking the extent of damage was limited, although repairs were still being carried out two years later. So far as the War Memorial Hall was concerned, I decided to install timber cladding to the inside of the main walls to a height of about four feet and after replacing about ten square feet of the blocks and re-polishing by the Acme Company the floor was restored to its gleaming beauty.

The War Memorial Hall during the floods

A few months after the event an inquest was held and I attended at Rochford Hospital. I was aware that the flooding had resulted due to a height of water of only about six inches coming over the wall in a few locations, most particularly at the North wall of the Newlands area, with the flow of this water washing out the back of the wall leaving the remainder of the clay wall unable to withstand the weight of water and the top caved in, leaving breaches about four to five feet below the normal wall height. I knew that this section of the Newlands wall which was so breached had been due for improvement and to be raised following the 1949 tide, but due to land acquisition problems had not been carried out. I debated in my mind as to whether I should disclose this at the inquest as the majority of fatalities had occurred due to these breaches but came to the conclusion that such disclosure would not bring back those who died, and would only cause distress to friends and relations and no doubt much rancour, so rightly or wrongly I kept quiet on this subject.

Frank A. Griffiths receiving the BEM

There had been many heroic acts by unassuming folk during the night of the flooding, and many tragedies, and many volunteers had undertaken tasks which were quite beyond the call of duty, but later when certain honours were awarded there were only two awarded in respect of the efforts of Canvey residents – one to the Chief of the Fire Brigade, who had acted entirely at my direction, and presumably a token for the work of the members of the Brigade some of whom frequently had risked their lives that dreadful night. The other is the Local Police Sergeant, who after knocking me up, I never saw again that night or indeed for the rest of the day. I was saddened that some really heroic acts had gone unrewarded and that the tremendous work carried out by my Department through the whole period of this disaster was not thought worthy of some acknowledgement. Although in subsequent years efforts were made by Bernard Braine and others to rectify what was thought to be a major omission, it was too late and by the time steps were taken, the East Coast Flooding Disaster was past history. Since this time I have always looked upon the “Honours” lists with some scepticism, although very recently (in 1994) some changes have been introduced.

During the months which followed that eventful night I was of course very busy dealing with many problems. There was some talk in Government circles of the possibility of abandoning Canvey Island, but the Council united with other local bodies in an effort to restore confidence in the District. A public meeting was held at the War Memorial Hall chaired by Bernard Braine with Councillors and Senior Officers together with the Chairman and Senior Officers of the River Authority: this was for the River Authority to explain their immediate intentions regarding the repair of the sea defences. The meeting, however, degenerated into an angry verbal clash between a number of residents and the Chairman of the River Authority, with charges of neglect, etc. The Chairman seemed unable to restrain certain members of the public, and suddenly I found myself rising and there was quiet and I recall saying that nothing could be achieved by going over what had happened, and we owed it to those who had not survived that night, to join together to ensure that steps were taken so that a similar tragedy would not again occur. I think the public had some respect for me and after my “outburst” they listened to the proposals put forward and generally accepted them.

The Thames Barrier

I was invited to go on the Port of London Authority Launch to meet Lord Waverly – who had been charged with chairing a small committee to look at the whole question of sea defences – and to sail the length of the Thames from Tower Bridge to Southend. The reports duly prepared set up the Tidal Defence Warning System, the level of sea defences and several years later the Thames Barrier. There is no doubt that the extensive flooding of the lower reaches of the Thames Estuary prevented extensive flooding of parts of London and particularly the Westminster area.

In the efforts to restore confidence there were certain objectives; one was to persuade Woolworths to build a store on the Island, another to persuade Barclays to build a main  bank rather than the sub-office and also to persuade Building Societies that it was safe to lend money for property purchase. After a two-year standstill period during which time most properties were restored, and the sea walls made good and heightened by three feet and in parts strengthened and the area generally cleaned up, Canvey Island again “took off”. Woolworth’s brought in a “mobile shop”, a pantechnicon suitably fitted, to test the market on three days each week. This was a success and they built the store – the vehicle was later used at Basildon until the shopping centre there was built. Barclays bought a site for their bank and appointed an architect who arranged for site investigations. As a result of these he told Barclays that “he couldn’t build a bank on the chosen site”. The location was the prime site, and the condition of subsoil probably better than most parts of the District. The manager rang me and asked if he could bring his directors to see me, so that I could tell them how to build a bank on that site. At the meeting, I explained the reinforced concrete raft foundation principle and suggested that the strongroom area of particularly heavy loading be independent of the main raft. I recommended they engaged a good firm of consultant engineers and I would meet them and the Bank’s newly-chosen architects. As a result the Bank was built on a six inch thick raft and to the best of my knowledge has suffered no settlement since its construction although various extensions have been added. On the mortgage question, the building societies were more difficult, so the Council set up a department and lent money for the purchase of several hundred new dwellings over the next few years, and following this the Greater London Council found that many of their young residents on Council housing waiting lists wished to buy property on the Island as it was perhaps 10-20 % cheaper than the equivalent in the surrounding districts. With the acceptance by the G.L.C., the Building Societies came into line and treated Canvey in a similar manner to other places. There was a gradual increase in commercial and industrial development, and my department continued with the construction of sewers and then the construction of roads, all under the provisions of the Private Street Works Act. I had got this work off to a fine art, having persuaded the Council to make a small subsidy to enable charges to be kept to an equal sum per foot frontage, and with a fixed formula for dealing with the flank frontage of properties at the junction of two roads, we were not subject to the objections from frontages which had to be settled by reference to the Courts. The hold up and work involved in such court procedures thwarted many local authorities in their P.S.W. schemes. The Dagenham Borough Council decided to buy an area of land and developed this as an overspill development scheme, and under my control we continued with Council Housing – some of traditional construction and some later of permanent part-prefabricated types. As a result the population from early 1955 began to grow at an average rate of about a thousand per annum.

Woolworth’s Mobile Store

As the Lord Mayor’s Fund was winding down, I made a case, which was duly accepted, for the Council to have a reserve fund of (if my memory is correct) £60,000 to be available to meet claims for latent damage which I felt was likely to occur particularly with the older timber-framed bungalows. This sum was invested by the Council’s Treasurer and from time-to-time claims were agreed and met from the fund. As time went by, and with the new development – mainly in two-storey form – the value of land increased and many of the older bungalows were demolished, so the claims I had anticipated did not materialise. Some years later the Charity Commissioner wrote to the Council to ask if there was any money left in the residual fund. They were interested as due to inflation some of the annual payments agreed to be paid to dependents (particularly to young children whose parents had lost their lives) had greatly reduced in value. We and they were pleased that the Council was able to hand back a sum about equal to that provided several years earlier.


Thanks to Major Stevens’ daughter Nicola Pontius for allowing us to publish this extract.

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  • Fascinating reading – What become of Major Stevens?

    By David Bullock (01/03/2009)
  • Wasn’t this PC Pilgrim? His son was at our school, Long Road, Secondary

    By Margaret (01/10/2010)
  • In the Netherlands the storm and flood attacked in the early hours of February 1, 1953. Then Oude Tonge was the village that suffered most from the flooding. Of its 3,100 inhabitants, 305 lost their life. That is more than five times the number of people that lost their life on Canvey Island, and practically equal to the number of people (307) that lost their life along the East Coast of England.

    The caption ‘Nieuwe Tonge on the island of Beveland’ is not correct. The photograph shows the village Oude Tonge on the island Goeree-Overflakkee. This error has once been made in some website, and still lives on. Error corrected by editor – thanks

    By Jasper Goedbloed (08/12/2010)
  • I was hoping this was PC Pilgrim as he was on duty on Canvey the night of the flood, but William Pilgrim was PC 155. I have been unable to find out who PC 13(?) was. Pat

    By Pat Smith (22/09/2011)
  • That is a 5 not a 3 Pat.

    By Janet Penn (22/09/2011)
  • Thanks, Jan, You’ve made me think again. It looks like a 3 under my magnifying glass, but I hope you are right. What a lovely face he has anyway!

    By Pat Smith (22/09/2011)
  • I have a slightly clearer picture

    By Janet Penn (22/09/2011)
  • Major Stevens’ daughter lives in Cambridge. I believe her name is Wylie and she is a teacher. Nice to see the pictures of her cousin, Jenny.

    By Yvonne, nee Burgess. (06/07/2013)
  • Trying to write a sort of “Memories of my childhood” my memories of pre flood Canvey are a bit vague. Dad bought a couple of chalets in Miltson Avenue just near the junction with Zuidervelt in about 1948, when I was three. I always thought the Barclays Bank by the taxi rank in the High Street was once a school. Never realised until I read this article that it post dated the floods.
    We used to get off at a stop Dad called Lakeside but thinking back it must have been about where the bank is now. We walked down a muddy road, crossed the old Central Wall just opposite Miltson Ave. There was a stack pipe housed in a little brick built box on the eastern corner of the road. Our first visit was held up as a small herd of cows was driven along the top of the wall. Terrified by their size. Hadn’t seen a cow close up before although they were regularly grazed in Wanstead Flats, near where we lived.
    This comment might be more appropriate elsewhere but leave that up to you.

    By David Housden (06/02/2023)
  • To David Housden,
    Hi David , I might be able to help you re-orientate your childhood journey from Lakeside Corner to Miltsin Ave but it is not going to be easy without a map! First of all I am presuming you either live on Canvey now or know present day locations.
    The present taxi rank is what remains of the corner where Furtherwick Rd turned right into the High St. The land N of that ( now Barclays and Library) was rough ground between Knightswick Rd ( a rising gravel track )and Eldertree Rd ,( unmade dead end) Strangely the bus stop is in the same place as early 50s . Then I think you would have walked along to Larup Ave and turned left. As I remember Larup was metalled surface, even then! A long walk to where it met Mornington Ave , still heading north across to Laars Ave then across the lowered DOVERVELT counter wall( original Dutch wall , an extension of Wintergardens Path/ Central Wall) . Then across Dovervelt Rd to your Dad’s properties on the corner of Miltsin!!
    Might be as clear as the Canvey mud your family had to struggle through but is the shortest route I could think of !🤔😀👍. Graham.

    By Graham Stevens (07/02/2023)

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