On the evening of January 31st 1953 the three eldest Manser brothers went to the pictures. Ian 14, Christopher 12 and myself, Andrew aged 10 went to the cinema on Canvey Island to watch “Beau Geste”, an adventure film about the French Foreign legion and their actions against the Tuaregs in the north African desert. Gary Cooper, Robert Preston and Ray Milland starred as the three Geste brothers. They showed the close attachment to each other that I felt for my brothers, and although two out of the three of them died by the end of the film, I can remember the emotion of being in the same lucky position as them, of having brothers who were close to me and I close to them.
The walk home to Winter Gardens from the town was along a sea wall, the inner one of two. Unlike the outer wall, which was just earth, grassed over, the inner wall was capped by a concrete path perhaps two foot wide that ran all the way along the wall until it finally met the only road off the island, perhaps half a mile to the west of Winter Gardens. The concrete path was a makeshift one, a few inches of concrete without any foundations, cracked and uneven in places. My friend Derek Hall used to ride all the way from his home near me into town with his BSA bike, with me sitting on his cross bar. Even now I remember admiring his skill – there was a forty five degree drop on either side of the sea wall, which was probably eight feet high.
As we walked along the wall from the cinema, the wind was blowing strongly, causing the gas street lights which were planted alongside the path every hundred yards or so, to flicker. It seemed to be a warm wind, I cannot remember being cold in it and it was mid-winter, so we should have been freezing. Many times that winter I had walked to school with my younger brothers, Malcolm 8, Graham 6, and Keith 5 along New Road, from Winter Gardens, south, to the main island road where the junior school was situated. The wind would be cutting across the salt fields – so icy that my two younger brothers would cry with the cold and the only way I would get them to move was for me to get them to put both their hands into each of my trouser pockets for warmth and to then pull them along. We must have made a strange group as we trudged down that cold, concrete road – a tight cluster of three children, mews of misery from the cold at every step, each tarred joint in the road counted to make the journey seem less than endless.
Ian, Chris and I walked carefully, but quickly along the wall until we arrived at the point where we would leave the sea wall to reach our home. It was called “Dorothy” and had originally been a holiday chalet. Crucially, it was built between the two seawalls, which meant that our security depended on just one of the two sea walls. It was a single storied structure of asbestos boards in a metal frame, resting on brick pillars with a corrugated iron roof. In the summer time when the ground dried out, it was possible for me to crawl under the house, although it was a bit mucky. Behind the house was an outside loo – a small wooden hut enclosing a hole in the ground covered by a toilet seat. It was treated with creosote every now and again, until it became necessary to fill in the hole and dig another one.
“Dorothy” had no running water – we took our water from rain butts and when that ran out someone arranged for a man to come and install a stand-pipe by the inner sea wall. We did however have gas for our cooking and lighting. The cooking stove was on the veranda, a half-glassed outer section that ran along the southern edge of the building. Entrance from outside onto the veranda was via two steps, and then a double sliding doorway built on cast iron runners screwed to the wooden floor. A door opened from the veranda into the main room. This room had an iron solid fuel stove and also sported a window next to the door onto the veranda which could be opened and pegged back in hot weather. Two small bedrooms lead off this room. One was occupied by my parents and three of the children, Margaret 4, Gordon 2 and Alan 1. Margaret slept with Mum and Dad, the two babies in the old double pram. The other bedroom was for Ian and Keith. The back of the chalet had an extra room tacked on – a concrete base had been laid on the ground behind the original chalet, and this, doorless, room had been stitched on to the back wall. It seemed that you went out through the back door and then turned right, stepping down once onto the concrete floor. Chris, myself, Malcolm and Graham slept here. There was no heating other than the stove in the main room, so winter mornings were very cold and we got dressed under the bedclothes.
When we arrived home from the cinema, at about ten-thirty, all the other children were in bed and asleep. We told our parents about the film, which had been a very rare treat for us; in fact I cannot remember having been to the pictures in the evening before, so it may well have been a first. It had been exciting, and I’m sure that I must have been tired, because I was packed off to bed quite quickly and must have fallen asleep immediately.
I awoke to hear the shouting of Ian from the entrance to our room. I looked at him. It was dark and he was holding a candle which only showed his face. He was shouting – “Wake up – Get up – Quickly!”. I was sleepy, I was warm, I was snug in the bed I shared with Brother Malcolm, who slept nearest to the wall. I realized however that whatever was the matter was urgent, so I swung my legs over the edge of my bed and felt for the floor. All I felt – long before my feet touched the floor was icy cold water. Our mattress was half submerged in water, yet it had not actually reached our reclining bodies. Later I would realize what that meant in terms of the rate at which the room was flooding. The coldness of the water shocked me so much that I was wide awake in an instant. Ian continued shouting that there was water coming in and that we were being flooded. As was normal, I had gone to bed in my vest only. We didn’t wear pyjamas in bed or for that matter, pants under our trousers. I realized that the trousers I’d dropped on the floor when I undressed were floating around somewhere in the room, but I knew I’d be unable to find them. I remember feeling sad, because my Christmas present that year had been a proper snake belt, and I somehow knew that I’d not be seeing it again.
I shook Malcolm awake, and heard Chris doing the same to Graham a few feet away – not that I could see them – Ian had already taken the candle back into the other room. We all stumbled through the water and up the step, before turning into the main room. Dad had lit the gas mantle, which meant that for the first time we could actually see what was going on. The room was full of water to my waist. As we all crowded into the room, Mum and Dad were discussing out loud what to do We obviously could not leave the house – it was built on brick pillars, so the water was going to be deeper outside than it was inside the house. Despite this my parents, and Ian agreed that the other people living near us should be warned, so it was decided that Ian should get out and raise the alarm, and also take our dog Rufus who was already having to swim around the room.
Dad slid the outer doors open, Ian climbed down the two steps and told Dad that he was Ok and could move about. He did rouse the neighbours and raise the alarm, and was physically restrained when he tried to get back to us.
Our wonderful dog Rufus was never seen again.
Dad slid the doors closed to stop the water swirling into the house. I remember this so distinctly, the door sliding closed and the swirl of water in the gaslight stopping. There must have been another minute or two of nothing, while my parents looked at the water steadily climbing up the walls – wondering what to do. The ceilings were quite low, and who could say when the water would stop rising.
Finally, my Dad told Mum that the only thing we could do was to smash in the ceiling and try to get us all onto the rafters. He got hold of the broom and smashed a small hole in the ceiling, which he was attempting to enlarge when he brushed against the gas mantle. Instantly it disintegrated and we were in a faint blue light. There was enough light for Dad to be able to open up the hole, but when it came to us climbing up onto the rafters, we were too close to the flame to be able to get up without burning ourselves, so Dad reached up and turned the little flat key on the side of the lamp and we were in total darkness. From now on it was all down to sound. Each one of us was called – Chris first – he was helped up onto the rafters and Keith was handed up, then each of the boys Graham, Malcolm and myself gingerly clambered up onto the rafters, shoved from underneath pulled from up above – Dad shouting that whatever we did we had to stay on the rafters – don’t go onto the boards between the rafters. Margaret – Mum and Dad’s most precious gift – the only daughter amongst nine children was finally passed up to Chris. Then it was Mum’s turn. She called to Dad that there was no way she could get up onto the rafters, that the two babies were in the pram which was floating and that if she opened the window, she would be able to sit astride the sill and hold onto the pram.
With that Dad climbed up and took Margaret off Chris, and we all sat facing the hole, Dad, Margaret and Graham on one rafter, Malcolm, Chris, Keith and I on the other, our legs dangling down towards the rising water.
Suddenly, after all the activity, it was quiet – pitch black and quiet. We were not aware of it but there was a moon that night – however we had no light from it. The water level reached the eaves, so that the edge of the corrugated iron roofing sheets were actually dipping into the water and any outside light was shut out. We sat, cold, wet and stunned at what had happened in that roof space. I can’t remember being scared. I just remember the feel of the rough cut timber rafters against my legs and later I remember a sickly sweet smell developing. Where it came from I do not know, but it was not pleasant.
Mum realized that something had to be done to keep us alert and to raise our spirits. We had been going to a little chapel on the other side of the inner sea wall, to Sunday school. It was run by Mrs Nolah and a couple of other elderly ladies. They had taught us to sing children’s hymns and we probably knew six or seven of them. Mum led us to begin with and then both Chris and I caught on to the need to keep us all going, and so we also began starting up a hymn and getting the others to join in. We sang quietly at first and then, as we caught the need to lift all our spirits, we sang more loudly. We sang these hymns over and over again for probably three hours, and years later I heard that other families trapped in their homes – there were two houses with double storeys quite close to us – had heard our singing. One of those people told my Mother that she thought it was angels singing – which was nice.
Finally we had sung ourselves out – no matter how hard my Mum tried to stir us into another song, we did not respond. We subsided into a cold, wet exhaustion and it was as if all of us were turned in on ourselves. We weren’t talking to each other or trying to keep our spirits up – I think that we were all sinking to a low and there was a total silence, except that now we could hear the gentle lapping of the sea water.
It was this almost total silence that made what came next so shocking. There was a sharp, loud crack, a dull thud and then it seemed seconds later the most tremendous whoosh of water. Imagine a sack of sand dropped from four feet into a swimming pool, and you get an idea of the sound of that whoosh. My father called out sharply –“what was that – is everyone alright”. There was silence, none of us knew what that noise meant, but suddenly from down in the water came a gurgle and then a scream, and then horrible sounds as my dearest brother Keith, the one whom I’d been given to look after so many times in the past – to take to school – to look after during our move from Eastwood in the back of the lorry, to dress, to take to the toilet – I listened as my dearest brother drowned. Keith – with his big brown mole on the back of his left leg just above his ankle had fallen asleep onto the boards between the rafters. The boards had given way and he had fallen through. He was just above the cast iron stove, which sat just below the water, so he probably struck that as he fell.
Dad, a non-swimmer and holding Margaret called to Chris to get down and try to hold onto Keith. Chris – the hero of the night let himself down into the water, unsure of the depth, he located Keith who was still making noises, and hauled him across to the table. It was floating, but I think must have settled onto the floor once Chris climbed onto it clutching Keith. Chris stood there for the rest of the night, holding his now silent brother and up to his waist in icy water. As the water subsided, and the first faint light of dawn came under the eaves I saw Chris standing there in the water with Keith stretching away from him out into the water, face-down.
As the light grew stronger, Mum called to Dad – “I think the little ones are gone as well”. She had been sitting astride the window sill all night, holding on to the handle of the pram, but had sensed that the children in the pram were just too quiet to be sleeping. In fact the water had seeped into the pram, insidiously filling it up, soaking the children’s clothing and drowning them silently. Dad tried to reassure her – “No Anne, they are just sleeping, don’t worry”, but I think my mum knew they’d gone long before she was told by the people who rescued us.
As the light strengthened, the water had retreated a little and we began to wonder if there was any help coming. It was a couple more hours before we heard any noise from outside, but when we did hear it, we all shouted to whoever it was to let them know that there were people inside.
The water was about four foot down from the eaves when, looking down from the rafters, we saw the sharp, long prow of a boat – it turned out to be a double- seater canoe – prodding at the glass doors of the veranda. They were trying to open the doors, but the doors were stuck – the water had caused the floor panel to swell and it had jammed the doors in their runner. They could not open the doors to reach us and we saw the boat disappearing. I felt that we were faced with another long wait while they found another way to get to us, but suddenly the canoe came charging back, smashing through the glass panels. They pulled the rest of the glass out of the doors and then they were inside, taking Mum and the babies first, then returning to take Chris and Keith, the next time it was Malcolm, Graham and Margaret. That left just my Dad and me. We came out from the inside of the house to a view of water stretching as far as we could see to the east, along Stromness Road. It was a miserable sight with the dirty water and overcast sky. Ahead of us was the sea wall that we had run down so happily that previous night – twelve hours before. It was crowded with people. I was now approaching it – naked except for the vest I’d worn to bed, and suddenly I was deeply embarrassed that they would all see my willy.
We were hauled onto the seawall and from somewhere I was wrapped first in a blanket, which began to warm my body but only served to make me aware of how cold my feet were on the bare concrete of the sea wall, and then later on I was given some clothing. To this day I can’t remember whether someone dressed me or whether I dressed myself.
Taking stock of our surroundings was dreamlike. A shutter came down in my mind over what had just happened as we began to hear other people talking of old people who were refusing to leave their homes, but who would almost certainly not last the next high water if they didn’t. It was all about what needed to happen then and there. There was a huge crocodile of people lining the seawall, and gradually the need for them to start moving; to get off the island became apparent. A long snake of people began to shuffle along the wall, muddy brown water lapping on either side, with vicious little white horses slapping against the wall. As we moved forward in this slow shuffle, gusts of wind would strike us from the water on our left, and as they did, there would be moans all along the line, high pitched children’s moans, middle pitched ladies moans and short, sharp “Look-out there” or “Steady there” from the men.
We finally made it to the road and could walk abreast instead of in single file. We joined other refugees already on the road, now clustered together in their family groups. As we crossed the bridge onto the mainland and curved round toward the station, people began to pass along the line the legend that the Queen Mother was there somewhere ahead, waiting to give whatever comfort she could. I didn’t see her, and never knew if it was true or not.
We arrived at Benfleet junior school, where the hall had been covered in mattresses. We were allocated a mattress, which became our home for the next few – days? Weeks? I do not know – but those mattresses became each family’s home, and woes betide you if you trespassed!
From a mattress to a Guest house in Valkyrie Road – smelling of Brussels’ Sprouts, and with a thin-nosed and vaguely disapproving land-lady. Sundays with the Rotary or Lions. Hamlet Court Road Junior School for my eleven-plus exam., and to meet the girl who is now my wife – but that wonderful story is something else entirely.
In retrospect, I have managed to understand the “How’s” of what happened that night – I can understand, after a fashion how the authorities managed to be so slow in realizing the scale of the disaster, despite the fourteen hours notice from Hunstanton. However there are so very many “whys” which continue to bother me after all these years.
Why was there so little support for the victims in the weeks and months after the Floods? We had lost everything that night – and that was after having been bombed out twice during the war. We had literally nothing left, but we were a well-behaved, hard-working family. Charity was remarkably missing. When the Coronation street parties were being arranged, my mother was asked to make a contribution. Having explained that she was unable to do so, she was contacted on the day of the street party and asked to keep her children indoors while the festivities took place.
Why were my three brothers buried in an unmarked grave? The word “pauper” springs to mind.
We’d lost all our personal possessions for the third time, but this time, my parents had lost three children. They never told us where our brothers were buried, and when we finally seemed to have traced their grave, after Mum and Dad died, we were told that a little girl, who died twelve years or so later, had been buried on top of them. Were the powers that be so desperately short of burial sites that they had to cover three little children, who seem to have all been put into the same tiny grave? Most of the surviving Mansers were still living in the Southend area at that time and were on the phone. A simple telephone call from the powers that be could have saved so much heart-ache.
When I visit my brothers’ grave, and I try to visit every three months or so, I always feel restless and ill at ease, because we had to ask permission of the relatives of the little girl to place a memorial tablet to our brothers at the foot of her gravestone. Any flowers I leave for my brothers are placed on “her” grave.
Why should it have been so difficult to trace the grave? Surely an accurate record of all the burial sites of victims should have been kept and recorded at the time.
As a seventy-year old I can remember how hard the times were in the years just after the war, but what seems to me to have been sadly lacking is the common humanity of those in authority after the event. I sincerely believe that we were badly let down with regard to long-term follow up – pastoral care. Apart from wonderful old Mrs Nolah, who came to visit once, the only “Flood” people I have had contact with since it happened are some Canvey Island Junior School chums who made contact with me as a result of a letter I wrote to the Grays and Thurrock newspaper in 1993.