The Flood, My Car and Nola

From the memoirs of the late John Manly

An excerpt from John Manly’s memoirs where he is describing the night of the floods and problems with his car and boat. Sent in by his daughter Jane Parkin:

John’s car a 1936 Austin 12-4

On this cold night it decided to surprise us by starting first time, and we drove across the old Canvey bridge it was a full moon and I could see that the tide was very high. We arrived at the farm about 23.00 hours. I switched off the engine not thinking that to expect it to start twice in a row was wishing for something not far short of a miracle.

We started doing some of the things that young lovers do but the central heating system had gone out, so passions were severely hampered by the weather. I kissed June goodnight and went through the starting procedure but the old Austin engine had decided that it was not going anywhere and refused to start. I was just as determined that it would take me the half mile to my home, that meant another half an hour of curing and swinging of the starting handle eventually I won, and with a pop and a bang the engine roared into life and I triumphantly drove it home to the parking place at the bottom of my road.

The reason that I had to park at the bottom of my road was the fact that the concrete stopped there, in winter time Canvey’s unmade roads were impassable, if you did drive off of the concrete you would be up to the axles in mud.

I got to bed at about 24.00 hours, at 01.00 hours mother shook me and told me that our next door neighbour Ben Taylor, had called round to warn us that the sea wall had been breached and the sea was coming in. I found this hard to believe as it was only an hour ago that I had been driving around Canvey and there was no sign of flooding then, in fact, owing to this icy gale everywhere seemed exceptionally dry!

Flooded Streets

Reluctantly I got up and put my coat on and went out to the front gate and looked up the road in the direction of the sea wall. I could see it clearly in the moonlight and it looked okay to me, so I went back to bed. Mother came in again, “go and have another look” she said. I could tell that she was very worried, as Bert was not the son of chap to spread alarm without some justification. This time I looked up to the sea wall one way, north, then down to the bottom of the road South, where my car was parked, I then got the shock of my life. Where I had left the old Austin just over an hour ago, high and dry, there was four feet of water. I could just see the bonnet and the windscreen above this glistening silver mass covering where the road once was, for a width of about 150 yards.

The bungalows at the bottom of the road were flooded but they were only used for summer holidays, so were empty. I had never realised until now that there was a difference in ground level of about six feet, between the bottom of the road and the land that our house stood on. Whether that was luck or judgement on my father’s part I do not know but the rapidly rising water stopped at our fence line and we were all truly thankful.

Newlands area

I ran up to the top of the road to see if I could find out where the wall had been breached. The sight that met my eyes when looking out over the creek was devastating, the area across the creek known as Newlands was now under about twelve feet of water, the sea wall was breached in several places, it looked as if a large animal had bitten sections out of the wall fifty yards wide in places.

The tide was on its way out and the water was now running out of the holes in the sea wall. There was little I could do until daylight so I checked to see if the water had come any further up the road. It had not, Ben Taylor’s garden was awash but it had not come into his house, most of the other bungalows were empty, so I reported all this to Dad and Mum by this time it was well passed 02.00 so I then went back to bed, but not to sleep as all this was quite a shock. I did get up and check the water levels sometime later but they had stayed the same.

I knew that Dad was not very well but did not realise how bad he was. I did notice how very quiet and subdued he had become and also the fact that he left the decisions of what we were going to do, to Mother and myself. Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of the end for him.

Morning still did not bring the full magnitude of the disaster, as the area that was worst hit by the flood was impossible to get to except by boat I was worried about June so I walked round the wall to the farm and could see that it was high and dry and that if I had left my car the night before, it too would be high and dry!

June was okay, everyone was listening to the radio broadcast talking about the floods. The Army was being drafted in to sandbag the breaches in the wall and everyone was being advised to take full advantage of the evacuation programme that was hurriedly being arranged, as another high tide was forecast at 11.00 that day.

Sandbagging the breaches

The Leigh fishing boats would evacuate all those people who could get to the Yacht Club Jetty at mid-day, they would be taken to Leigh where accommodation would be found for them.

I went back home and told Mum and Dad, we decided that it would be silly to take a chance and stay as the next tide could completely swamp the Island if the army could not repair the wall in time. A small crowd of people gathered at the jetty with what belongings they could carry and waited for the fishing boats to take them to Leigh. There was of course one or two that refused to be evacuated, I have little time for people of this type myself, they are either stupid or want to be thought of as martyrs, either way they cause unnecessary strain on the organisations trying to help those in need in a situation like this.

I got Mum and Dad onto one of the boats June and I followed. The people of Leigh and the surrounding areas were very kind, we were all allocated various addresses where to go, these were people who had volunteered to give shelter to the flood victims. Mum and Dad were placed with a very nice couple about their own age, their house was beautiful and full of pretty things, this pleased Mother, as she always loved anything of quality. I cannot remember where June and I stayed, everything was in such turmoil.

The Refinery was also flooded so there was no work to go to. I know they were in trouble over there as the big new storage tanks, with a diameter of 100 feet plus, had floated in a few feet of water, and the gale force winds had blown them all over the place. They had to be towed back into their original position and sunk, there was, plenty of water over there to sink them with!

Costain John Brown Ltd were very helpful and sent round a paymaster to give all their employees £5.00, that was a lot of money in those days. Nobody was allowed back on to the island until the wall had been repaired; stories started to emerge in the newspapers as to the scale of the disaster. The Newlands main sea wall had been breached in several places as I had seen that night. But the water had been held back by an old divisional wall, however the area on the other side of this wall was surrounded by another divisional wall, so when the main wall at the bock of this area was breached, the sudden rush of water that hit these little wooden bungalows, quickly built up to a height of thirteen feet in a matter of minutes.

The torrent of water was so violent that a man standing by his gate saw it coming down the road and by the time he had got his ladder up to a trap door in the ceiling to get his family into the loft, the water was up to his chest. One old chap that I knew very well was found with his wife in a tree, they had tried to reach the outside stairs to their loft and been swept away by the force of water. The temperature that night was well below freezing and the wind was gale force, so many people died of hypothermia. I saw one small bungalow that had taken the full force of the water as it broke through the wall, it had been lifted up and turned over on its side.

I was very surprised at the number of visitors who were on holiday, remembering that it was February 10th and very cold. One young girl that I knew, was down for the weekend with her mother and father, when the water flooded their bungalow, they had to spend the rest of the night on the roof she was wearing just a nightdress and a fur coat.

A man was walking along the sea wall some time after most of the people had been rescued and spotted a pram floating along with a load of other debris, on taking a closer examination found a baby asleep inside. The parents had both drowned but the little one survived.

John’s boat ‘Nola’ taken about 1950 in Benfleet Creek

After I had got Dad and Mother settled at Leigh, and residents were allowed to return to the Island I decided to do something about rescuing my car as transport would be useful, so at the first opportunity went back to see what could be done. Also my boat was missing from our garden so that was another thing to worry about. “Nola” was useless for rescue work as she was not fitted with rowing facilities, and in the wrong hands could be very unstable, also hobnailed boots could do a lot or damage, so the first thing was to find her. That was at first thoughts, quite a formidable task as the search area was about 15 square miles of mostly flooded roads, houses and bungalows. My only help was the sea wall and my own intuition. After many hours of walking along the wall, looking down each turning as I came level with it, then suddenly I spotted ‘Nola’ in the distance, moored to a street light pole on the main sea front road not far past the Casino, and about two miles from home. How the devil she came to be there I have no idea, who ever had tied her to the lamppost must have swum ashore, on second thought it could have been looters as there was quite a lot of that sought of thing going on. The army patrols might have caught them and taken them aboard their boat.

The water where she was moored was about three foot deep and I knew that there was a deep ditch between the road and the wall. I had no intention of swimming in that icy water so I looked for the hand rail of a bridge then waded across with the water up to my bum until I could feel the road under my feet. By the time I reached “Nola“ everything below bum level felt frozen but that was compensated by the discovery that this dear boat of mine had not been damaged too much, her lovely varnish had been scratched and two ribs were cracked but other than that she was OK.

I am one of the few people who can boost that they have paddled a boat along the main sea front road at Canvey Island, then down Sea View Road to the Admiral Jellico pub, which was high and dry, but there went plenty of soldiers there to help me lift her over to the next stretch of water and while we were doing that I noticed a very strange vehicle standing in the pub yard.

I paddled past my poor old car, the water was halfway up the dashboard and the clock was still keeping the right time, good old wind up clocks. I got to the back garden of Westman Lodge, pulled the boat in the gate then decided to go and get a fire going to dry my clothes, the first thing that I discovered was that the looters had paid us a visit and stolen a few little bits of jewellery that mother had forgotten to take with her.

One of the Ducks (DUKW) stationed at the Jellicoe

The strange vehicle in the pub yard was still on my mind, so after drying off I decided to go back and find out if it was what I thought it was. After questioning the driver I was very excited to find out that it was a DUCK, one of those vehicles that can travel in or on the water, so to cut a long story short. I offered him ten shillings to tow my car out of the deep water, he was delighted and said he would give it a go. This is where I would have to swim. To tow her out, a rope would have to be tied around the rear bumper which was at least two feet six inches under the water; the only way of telling where we were as far as the road was concerned, was to keep in between the telegraph poles. We would have to tow the car backward for 70 yards. I would have to steer with my feet through the sunshine roof. Then there was a 90 degree turn to go up to the main road. If the DUCK driver turned to sharp he would take me into the ditch that run alongside the road and which must have been around ten feet deep at that time.

I briefed the driver on all these points as he drove into the water, when we got to the car I jumped onto the top and slid back the sunshine roof, the DUCK was floating in this depth of water, so the driver turned it round and then flooded his ballast tanks to let the vehicle wheels settle onto the road. With the tow rope in place and me steering the car with my feet through the roof, he slowly towed me out backwards by using the poles to guide him. He negotiated the 90 degree bend perfectly, the next minute we were high and dry. The old car looked a sorry state with the salt water pouring out onto the road.

The next thing to do was to dry the car out and get it going again, the longer it was left the more damage the salt water would do. June came over to help me take off different parts, which we washed in fresh water then dried by the fire, a garage friend changed all the oils and supplied me with new batteries. In one flood picture I am sure that the photographer has caught June and I paddling Nola across the flooded area near where the car can be seen.

Eventually we had our own transport again but later the car had to be rewired as the salt water corroded all the electrics. The water by this time was receding fast and people were coming back to their homes. The year 1953 had started badly and Canvey Island was to change dramatically, never to be the same again.

Things soon got back to normal, the refinery opened up for work again and by the end of the summer there was little to show that the Island had ever been flooded, a few trees died but most survived.

The clearing up operation was vast, nobody can imagine the terrible state of people’s homes after they had been flooded, the salt water ruined everything it touched, for years after, and regardless of how many coats of paint, the salt water tide mark would show through. With the came a film of mud, so all furniture, carpets, mattresses were covered, this was mid winter and as you can imagine to dry anything was impossible, most had to be thrown away.

Canada Corner

A worldwide appeal for help was made and hundreds of thousands of pounds were contributed to the flood fund, mostly from Canada, they were very generous and sent money but also goods of all descriptions, such as thousands of carpets and bed linen. The Canvey Council built a beautiful garden on the sunken marsh to commemorate this generosity and erected a plague with all the pomp and ceremony that only councillors can muster, they called it Canada Corner. However after a few years had passed the novelty wore off and the weeds took over again, Canada Corner is now under 40 feet of household rubbish!

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