Lily's memories of the 1953 flood
Lily Scutchings was the daughter of Gertrude Williams of Whernside Avenue who died in the floods.
On Saturday January 31st, it was terribly windy all day. Harry and I, Jack and Audrey all went to bed at our usual time. About lam I woke up to cries of ‘help, help’.
My first thought was that the, rather delinquent, family who lived opposite had perhaps set fire to their bungalow. I got out of bed to look but saw what I thought was snow, which surprised me as it had not seemed cold enough for that.
The next thing I heard was water coming under the front door. I told Harry, who was not such a light sleeper as I am. He immediately said, “Get the children up – the wall must have broken”. We woke them and they managed to get a few clothes on, although not enough, and I managed a shirt and jumper over my nightdress. Harry pulled shirt and trousers over pyjamas.
By then there was probably 2ft water in the bungalow. Harry decided to get the long ladders which were lying on the veranda outside Jack’s bedroom window. So he tried to open the front door which just would not open, so he quickly went into the bedroom, re-opened the window, reached out and pulled the ladders in, with me at the other end pulling. The minute the window was opened the water rushed in and we were up to our waists in it and all our furniture was floating. At the same time the front door burst open, if Harry had managed to open it he would surely have lost his life and possibly us too. We pulled the ladder into the living room and pushed it up into the ‘polite’ ceiling. Good job it was ‘polite’ not plaster!
I had managed to get from the kitchen, before the doors jammed, some bread and our cat Timmy and one at a time we climbed into the loft. By then we were above our waists in water and Audrey has since told me, only recently, that she got swirled along and her thought was “Is this it then”? She must have regained her balance and soaking wet, we all sat in the loft until 9.30 the next morning. Harry reached down and rescued a tablecloth which, somehow, was still dry, to put round Jack’s shoulders, as he did not seem to have much on. We could only sit on the ladders which Harry had laid across the beams of the loft, uncomfortable, but we were so stunned we didn’t seem to notice. The water gradually rose to about 4ft in the house and 7ft outside and we wondered what the next tide would bring.
While we were in the loft we heard voices calling out to each other, but there was nothing we could do to help others and I prayed for Mum and Edna. I didn’t know that Edna was on her own. I thought Jack was with her. She must have had a terrible time. I somehow thought that it was isolated to our corner, because Harry said we were in a kind of basin and I was hopeful that it had missed Les and Alice.
Throughout the night we put ourselves on a ration of a bit of sugar and milk (which I’d also managed to reach from the table) and bread, because I thought we should have something to counteract shock and we had no idea how long we were going to be there.
Harry and the man next door managed to squeeze a cigarette through the front of the loft between the houses. We could shout to each other and it appeared they had someone who woke them, but missed us.
Harry took some tiles out of the roof so we could look out and see what was happening. Nothing was, of course, and it was just like being in the middle of the ocean. We remained, stunned, unable to do anything about it, but wait. As it got a bit light one or two rowing boats went down the road and called out to see if there was anyone on the roof. If people were in their lofts they said they would be back as there were some on the roof who were being rescued first. At about 9.30 (don’t ask me why, but I’d taken the bedroom clock up with me!) a rowing boat came along to take us “women and children first”, so we went and Harry came after.
They had to push out the front of the loft to get the ladder through, stand it on the verandah and we climbed down (me, who hates heights!) They rowed us to the nearest sea wall and it was terribly slippery. We walked to Mitchells Avenue, helped by fireman or soldiers, not sure which. We got into a lorry there and were taken to Benfleet school, where we were given sandwiches and soup. When Harry arrived there he had seen Les, so told me about Mum. I temporarily collapsed and someone gave me sal volatile and a cigarette. We were taken to a classroom where loads of clothes had been collected. It was wonderful that so much had been so organised once it was realised what had happened. We all had some odd peculiar clothes to put on and I lost my own skirt and jumper, they were wet anyway. I forgot to take them away with me. Later we were asked if we would like to go on any coach that might help us. A list of districts was put up on a blackboard and as they were going to North London, we chose to go to Emmy. I was about to board the coach wearing quite a nice coat, when a woman (a helper) came rushing up and said it was her coat and gave me another one.
We all arrived on Emmy’s doorstep, dirty and shocked, we must have looked like scarecrows, she hadn’t heard anything about it. However, she was wonderful and gave us some dinner, put us to bed and while we slept she went out and when we came downstairs there were piles of clothes and even money. She had been to Sid’s Station, where he was on duty, and been to her mother, sister Ann and friends, and they had sent all these clothes.
The next morning it was on the radio that any flood victims, if they went to the local Town Hall, would get vouchers for shoes. As we only had junk things from the stall, Jack and Harry had Wellingtons and I just had beach sandals, we went and got the vouchers and the footwear. Jack and I were invited into the Mayor’s parlour and met the mayor and they filled Jack’s pockets with sweets. As we came down the wide staircase of the council office we felt as if we were taking part in a ‘Larry the Lamb’ Show.
We stayed at Emmy’s for about 10 days.
Audrey was very worried as we had lost track of Graham and didn’t know where he had gone. So on the following Thursday she and I set off to look for him. He had three aunts who lived somewhere between Stoke Newington and a London market. I think it was Leather Lane. Each place we went to didn’t know where they were, so we pressed on until we got to the London one and she said she thought they were in Rayleigh. The next day we found them in a bungalow there, so they were reunited, happily, as they had planned to get engaged that week. Audrey’s firm, Lloyds Bank (Welfare Dept) called on us at Emmy’s and gave Audrey a sum of £50 to be spent on clothes and had to produce the receipts. We went to Hamlet Court Rd and in those days it was quite difficult to spend £50 straight away on clothes, but we did.
I remember I had no voice as a result of shock. By then we had moved into the 12ft x 6ft caravan at Eastwood, loaned to us by the Water Co. It was a job to manage in such a small space but we did for 10 weeks. We went to Canvey every weekend and washed our furniture, what was left of it. We never saw our bedroom suite again as it fell to pieces and was stacked against the wall. All clothes were cleaned free by Danes the cleaners and carpets, but were not much good after and the clothes were spoilt because, as they laid in so much water so long, the colours ran into each other.
We went weekly to Canvey for months to keep washing the furniture repeatedly to get the salt out. About a month after the flood night we went and sorted out Mum’s home. I remember throwing all the music out of the window as it was just a mass of wet pulp and we had to keep all we threw out until the assessors had been to see it. By then it was smelling badly too.
After 10 weeks in the caravan Edna moved out of the ‘Jollyboys’ flat and we moved in. Much more room and nearer for us to go to work. About 5 months later we could see our way clear to buying this house in Benfleet and we moved in on October 3rd.
We had only been here for 6 months when Harry had the accident with the car and was unable to work for 2 years. We had 2 mortgages going for about a year as we couldn’t sell the Canvey bungalow until it dried out.
However, we eventually overcame it all. The loss of our home was nothing compared to the fact that we lost our Mum.
Grateful thanks to Val Toop for passing this story to us.