The Great Flood of 1953

A survivor's tale

Illustration only

Everything written here is from my memory of what my father, William (Bill) Starling said. He spoke only once about that night and it was not to me, directly, for I was still a child of ten.

We lived in Whernside Avenue. I was two years old at the time. My brother Leonard was 12 and my mother, Violet, 36. In what seem the ‘quaint’ ways of the time she was my father’s ‘housekeeper’ – thus it says on my birth certificate – because he was married to someone else.

At about three or four o’clock in the morning my father was woken by the sound of dripping water. He assumed a pipe had burst in the house and stepped out of bed into freezing sea water nearly to his knees. He woke my mother and they got Leonard up and dad got us onto the roof. He then went back for the old woman who lived next door – presumably Gertrude Williams who was the other death in Whernside Avenue.

And on the roof we stayed through that freezing February night. My father was wearing an old army great coat and to keep me alive put me inside this so I could have his body warmth. That was to be the thing that saved me.

During the time on the roof Mrs Williams became delirious and began to ‘see’ her husband who had been dead for some time. My father had fought in the Great War and was no stranger to death and recognized that she was dying and there was nothing he could do.

Later a small rescue boat came by. I think that by now my mother and brother were probably unconscious or close to it. The craft had room for them but not for my father. He was so cold that he had forgotten that I was still beneath his great coat and thus did not hand me to the rescuers. I survived because he forgot me!

My mother and brother were taken by the craft to a bigger boat, whether a house boat or yacht I have never been sure. Whichever it was, in my father’s words, “tied too tight”. It went over as the water continued to rise. My mother’s neck was broken. I do not know whether Len had died by then or whether that, too, caused his death.

I remember, as a child, once being shown a newspaper which had a photo of my father in a hospital bed, taken as an example of the terrible plight of the survivors. I was told he received several letters from women around the country because of it, and the offer of marriage from a woman in Scotland!

But my father returned, with me, to the wife he had left for my mother. She had known about Len but not me. But, in her mid-fifties, took us both in and raised me as one of her own.

Comments about this page

  • Thank you Chris , for telling this very emotional tale. It must have been difficult for you to write as it must have evoked many memories of what your family suffered. It is an important part of local history though. I hope that if ever Patricia Rennoldson Smith does a sequel to her book ‘The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster – The People’s Story’, it will be included. Thank you once again. Cheri x

    By Cheri Arlenghi (was Black) (30/09/2013)
  • at 74 I am in tears here today, as I never knew what happened to our friend lenny when I and my husband went to the first unveiling of the first memorial Flood plaque, I put some flowers at the foot of the wall and looked up I fell sobbing into my husbands arms as I never knew about dear lenny, today its all coming back to me and Chris be sure I will never forget him.

    By margaret (13/10/2013)
  • hi I stumbled on this story was wondering if the starlings in this story are related to my husband alan James starling originaley from south London regards 

    By Jackie starling (22/07/2018)
  • I was a classmate of Len (for some reason he sometimes asked me to call him Michael when out of school). He was a strong lad and a good swimmer and certainly a much better swimmer than the rest of us. A real ‘gentle giant’.
    Dr Alan Whitcomb

    By Dr Alan Whitcomb (17/12/2021)
  • William starling was my grandads father and I remember him well. So Christopher would be my great uncle if still alive. I don’t know if he married/had children.

    By David starling (13/02/2022)
  • He was still alive about the start of the pandemic David. He lives in Switzerland if my memory is working.

    By Janet Penn (13/02/2022)
  • Hi Janet

    Thanks for the info I’m glad to hear that as not many of my dad’s relatives left I’m afraid.

    By David starling (13/02/2022)
  • And I still live in Switzerland. You can contact me if you wish, David. Janet knows my details.

    By Chris Starling (14/02/2022)
  • Great to hear from you Chris.

    By Janet Penn (14/02/2022)
  • Hi Janet

    Hi Chris! I would love to get in contact with you. Janet do you maybe have an email for Chris?

    Dave starling.

    By David starling (14/02/2022)
  • I was just waiting for you to ask Dave. I will email it to you.

    By Janet Penn (14/02/2022)
  • My Great Grandma, Gertrude Williams , was a piano teacher, drowned in the flood.
    My parents and grandparents survived…brought the devastating time ,to life for me.

    By Hilary Thompson (31/01/2023)
  • Hilary, Chris is here visiting Canvey. He will be at the library for the plaque unveiling tomorrow.

    By Janet Penn (31/01/2023)

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