An Island Against the Sea
Written by Shirley Thomas
Living on an island had always made us both feel special. My sister and I knew that our island wasn’t especially beautiful; it certainly didn’t have palm trees and golden sands like the islands in our geography books. None of this made any difference to us – we just loved living on Canvey Island.
Our little Island was only seven miles long and just three miles wide and lay in the river Thames in Essex. Life on Canvey in the 1950’s was idyllic for any child lucky enough to live there – very little traffic and the freedom to go just where you wished. Days always seemed endlessly sunny and we spent many happy hours on the beach searching for crabs in rock pools and collecting pink and white shells.
However, there was never anything especially exciting to report about our days but that was about to change. It was January 31st 1953 and we were off to a Christmas Party given every year to children by the company our Mum worked for [Echo Ltd of Southend – They had a factory called Egans at Charfleets which produced television parts]. As far as we were concerned our Christmas had been extended by nearly a month.
We boarded a coach along with many other excited children and we all sang Christmas carols as we made our way off the island to Southend, where they party was to be held.
Plenty of jelly and custard, piles of cakes and sandwiches and even a funny hat for every child; this all helped the party go well. Sandra and I joined in all the games and at the end of the evening every child received a present; we were both well pleased with the paints and Plastacine we had been given.
The journey home was exhilarating because by now there was a terrible storm raging. Snow and sleet were beating against the coach windows driven on by a gale force wind. Excitedly we craned our necks to peer out of the windows. Mum and Dad had always told us that there was nothing to fear in storms and as a family we loved to watch lightning flash across the sky- as long as Dad was around.
Each child aboard the coach looked out eagerly to see which parent would be waiting for them at the drop off point and we waved when Mum’s face came into view. She looked so bedraggled and cold standing in the furious wind and icy sleet that I immediately felt guilty that we were home so late; I just hoped that she hadn’t been waiting there too long.
After giving each of us a welcome home hug Mum pulled out two hand knitted scarves from her bag and twined them round our necks. It was just like her to remember that we were wearing party dresses and these were hardly suitable for this extremely cold weather.
Joining hands, the three of us struggled against the wind running and laughing all the way home [2 Goirle Avenue]. Dad was on a late shift and we begged to be allowed to stay up until he came home. Mum decided that as it was already late another half an hour or so wouldn’t matter.
At long last we stumbled indoors out of the freezing cold and were immensely grateful to note that Mum had our pyjamas warming around the fire. It was wonderful to snuggle into them and sit in front of the roaring fire sipping a cup of steaming hot cocoa.
Sandra and I really did intend to wait up for Dad but once we were warm and comfortable the sand-man had difference ideas. In no time we were tucked up in bed and fast asleep. The two of us didn’t dream for one moment that the biggest adventure of our young lives was just about to begin and that it was the fact that we lived on an island that caused it.
One minute we were fast asleep and the next Mum was begging us to quickly get up and to put on our outdoor coats. This didn’t make any sense at all and Sandra, at just 8 years old was far too sleepy to do as she was told. Mum managed to get her standing on the bed and then she would inevitably try to snuggle down again. At the old age of twelve I could hear the urgency in my Mum’s voice and did my best to do as she asked. Something was very, very wrong because our beds were soaking wet. Mum tried to hide her tears from us but she had to get through to us both that this was an emergency and we had to get up as quickly as possible.
Mum and Dad had woken in the early hours to an unusual sound of running water. Dad thought that a water pipe had broken but when he stepped out of bed he soon realised that something much more serious had happened. The water was already almost up to his knees and it was freezing cold. He looked towards the window and was shocked to see that water level outside the bungalow was way up high, almost to the top of the window. It was clear that this was no burst pipe. Dad tasted the water and it was salty – it was sea water. This literally scared my parents to death as they didn’t know why the sea was washing around their home or how high it would rise.
Mum had done her best by putting a warm coat on to each of us girls but as the water was already lapping around our legs we were both shivering with the cold and shaking with fear. Thinking quickly, my Dad placed a chair under the loft opening and called for Mum to hand Sandra to him so that he could place her in the loft where for the time being at least she would be dry and safe. Although she was terrified up in the dark on her own Sandra did as she was told and sat quietly waiting for me to join her. Because I was bigger it was much harder for Dad to get me up above his head but after a struggle he managed to do it and then somehow we were able to lean down to help Mum who was next to be pushed up out of the water.
Suddenly, from our place of safety we realised that Dad was having trouble clambering up himself. The chair that he was trying to stand on was being swept away from under him by the fast running sea water. Never before had we girls been so glad that our Dad was strong for he had to use every ounce of this strength to pull himself into the roof space. We couldn’t imagine what we would have done without him to look after us that night.
Our whole family sat for a while numb with cold and trying to understand what was happening around us. Mum and Dad tried hard to calm us girls but I could tell that they, too, were really frightened. We were all shivering and soaking wet but at least we were safe – for now. I heard Dad whispering his worries to Mum – he had no idea if our place of safety would last and was concerned what our next move should be. If we had to climb out onto the roof itself we would be out in the snow and wind with no protection from the freezing temperature and Dad knew that it wouldn’t be long before the cold overcame us all.
What a dramatic difference from the happy party we had been enjoying only a few hours ago. I put my arms around Sandra’s little shoulders and held her close; looking over at my anxious parents I saw a haunted look in their eyes that I had never seen before. It was frightening to recognise that there were situations that even your Mum and Dad were scared of.
It was pitch dark up in the loft so it was impossible to look around for anything that might be of some use to us. My father said it would be too dangerous to move about in case we fell through into the water below. He decided to make a hole in the roof so that he could look outside and perhaps then he could see for himself what was going on around our little bungalow. He announced what he was about to do but we were unprepared for the loud cracking sound and Dad’s sharp cry of pain. Punching a hole in the slate roof had torn a hole in his arm and it was bleeding badly. Mum, thinking quickly, tore at her night-gown and made a bandage which she tied as tightly as she could around Dad’s cut. When Dad did manage to look outside it was a dreadful sight; the sea must have broken the sea wall and the whole island was flooded. We weren’t the only family in trouble and he began to call at the top of his voice to our neighbours to see if they were safe.
It was a long, bitterly cold night and slowly we began to realise that it could be many hours before we would be rescued. Sandra and I needed to be constantly reassured that help would eventually come but we couldn’t help fearing that we would be marooned in our loft forever. Mum passed some of the time rubbing our hands in hers trying hard to make them warmer – she told us some of our favourite stories and then we sang songs to take our minds off the dreadful situation we were in.
Dad was seriously worried that the sea would rise even higher and eventually force us outside. He knew that there was a possibility that it could eventually cover the whole bungalow and he would somehow have to try and save his entire family. Now that his arm was injured this would be so much harder and what concerned him most was how could he choose which of his family needed his help the most.
Distant, desperate cries of elderly neighbours carried to us on the wind and my Dad tried to help them by calling out what to do for the best. Suddenly I remembered Whisky our cat. Where could he be? Was he safe? I pleaded with my Dad to try and find him but I knew in my heart that this wasn’t possible. Dad, trying to make light of my concern said that all cats had nine lives and our Whisky was clever enough to use one of them now.
Despite the fact that she didn’t have her beloved Teddy bear, tiredness eventually overcame Sandra and for a short time she fell asleep on Mum’s lap but the look of fear on the faces of my parents meant that I couldn’t sleep. Dad and I cuddled together listening to the sound of wind and sea outside. We whispered prayers for everyone, like us, trapped and far from safe but in my heart I firmly believed that my father could solve all problems – he had in the past so he would now.
I remember clearly the moment when he realised that the water was going down; it was down just a little but it was something to celebrate. However, as islanders, we all knew that in eight hours it would rise again when the tide came in. As night gave way to day, light through the hole that Dad had made, shone in and we were allowed to look around us. It was like being on another planet; everything familiar was disappeared hidden beneath the invading sea. Not long after dawn Dad said he could detect a voice calling so, in order to hear more clearly, he pulled himself up out of the gap in the roof. He hadn’t been imagining it – a small boat was being rowed up a nearby road and its owner it was calling out for any children who needed to be taken to safety. Immediately Dad shouted, as loudly as he could, that he had two little girls with him in the loft.
The man made his way between the houses and then he rowed straight into through a bedroom window which had been broken by the force of the water outside. He called for Sandra and me to be passed down to him but then Mum seemed to have a change of heart; she was finding it too hard to let us girls go and my Dad had to assure her many times that it would be for the best. It was heartbreaking to see her distraught face, with tears coursing down her cheeks as she finally released us from her grasp.
My sister too began to cry when she had to leave her Mum and Dad and I was finding it unbelievably hard to stop myself from begging to stay. Mum explained that she and Dad would be fine and asked me to promise faithfully to look after my little sister until we could all be together again.
Neither my sister nor I will ever forget the look on the faces of our parents as they lowered us out of the loft to the man waiting below. Time after time they called through their tears to say how much they loved us and we sisters called back that we would stay together and look after each other. This was the hardest thing any of us had ever had to do.
It was frightening to be handed into the arms of a stranger and especially when the stranger stood us both straight into the freezing cold water. We had dried off a little in the hours that we had spent in the roof space and now we were colder than ever. With a reassuring smile the man lifted us gently into his boat and began to row us away from our home and the people we loved most in the world. We tried really hard to be brave but it was impossible when we heard Mum and Dad calling goodbye to us from the hole in the roof.
We had never ever felt so cold; the icy wind was still strong and the temperature was near zero. We clung together for warmth and comfort and cried bitterly. Our rescuer said very little as he rowed us further and further from our parents; it took all his energy just to keep the boat moving against the swirling water. During the journey we saw some dreadful sights – pigs from a local farmstead were floating dead in the water. They had drowned, having gashed their little throats with their hooves. These were pigs that we had both helped to raise and our sobs grew even louder.
At one point the small craft seemed to get caught in a whirlpool caused by a burst gas main. It was essential that our rescuer pull us clear of this danger so, thinking quickly, he grabbed a length of fence that was floating past and this helped to drag us out.
Everything looked so completely different with muddy water flowing where roads should be. Except for the sound of wind and water everything was strangely quiet; nobody was calling out now and we suddenly felt even more lonely and scared. Eventually the three of us began to leave the deep water behind us and then amazingly we were safe. The main road running the length of Canvey was built on higher ground and rescue vehicles were using it to get survivors to safety.
My sister and I could see dozens of soaking wet soldiers in army trucks that were taking sandbags along the road. They were going to use them to plug the damaged sea wall. Every of them looked exhausted and were covered with mud but they simply carried on doing what they had to do; it was vital that they work quickly before the tide came back in. One of these soldiers lifted us out of the boat and with a wide grin carried us to a waiting bus. We were enormously pleased to be out of the boat but how we wished Mum and Dad were with us.
For the moment Sandra cheered up slightly, happy in the knowledge that we were safe but I knew that Mum and Dad hadn’t been as lucky – they were still sitting freezing in our loft waiting to be rescued. Feeling sick with cold and worried about what was going to happen to us we started upon a journey completely on our own with no adult to turn to for help. All around us on the bus were other people plucked out of their flooded homes. One old man in particular looked desperately ill and shocked; he lay on a seat with his eyes open and staring into space. He reminded me of my own Granddad and I wanted to go and comfort him but my duty was to stay with Sandra – she was my responsibility. Long before we reached the bridge to the mainland the bus suddenly stopped and someone quickly lifted me off. They began to carry me up the driveway of a local school but there was no way I would be separated from my sister; I had made a promise and I wasn’t going to break it.
The Rescue Centre
Loudly I shouted urgently to anyone who would listen to please take me back to the bus and when they eventually did I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Sandra and been shouting just as loudly for me to return. No-one was going to separate us two and re-united we stayed on the bus until it drove off the island and into Benfleet. We were deposited at a school in Love Lane and there we were treated to a good hot drink. I immediately looked around for a familiar face – I just needed to know that someone I knew was nearby. Sure enough one of Mum’s friends was making her way towards us; she asked where our parents were then told us that it was important to go and get out of our wet clothes pointing out that fresh clothes were in the next room.
Doing as we were told we went into the next room and were delighted to find a huge pile of clothes and we could choose anything we wanted. For two sisters who loved nothing more than dressing up this was great. For the first time since we went to bed the night before a big smile crossed our faces and in no time at all I was dressing Sandra in the most colourful clothes we could find. Maybe the clothes we chose weren’t the most suitable but at least we were feeling warmer.
For simply ages we sat in a classroom surrounded by other flood victims just longing for our Mum and Dad to come through the doors to collect us. Hours passed and gradually the other people began to leave but we just sat and waited and waited. We tried really hard to keep our spirits up and laughed together about the time Dad had brought home two ostrich eggs for us to hatch. We had kept the “eggs” warm by wrapping them in cotton wool and each day we turned the eggs over just as a mother Ostrich would do. Days passed then a week and then after two whole weeks of gentle care Dad confessed that these were not in fact ostrich eggs but two white snooker balls. That was our Dad’s sense of humour.
We knew in our hearts that our parents would do everything in their power to come and find us. Life without being part of our happy little family was something we couldn’t imagine; it just couldn’t happen – Dad wouldn’t let it.
Sandra began to feel hungry and the two of us were feeling shaky and tired. Then we were approached by a young man. He offered to take us home where we could be looked after until our parents came for us. I knew that Mum and Dad wouldn’t approve because they had told me often enough not to go with strangers. But surely today was different – after all earlier they had handed us both over to a stranger themselves.
Suddenly I had an idea – I went to ask Mum’s friend; if she said “Yes” then it would be OK. The woman I was looking for was nowhere to be found and it was left up to me to make a judgment. For a twelve year old this was by far the most important decision I had ever been called upon to make and countless thoughts to leave or to remain flashed through my mind.
Eventually, as there seemed nothing else to do and nowhere else to go I agreed and soon the three of us were walking out of the school and up the Benfleet High Street. Sandra and I began to giggle because we must have made a very funny spectacle indeed dressed in such ridiculous clothes. The man didn’t seem to mind at all and soon he was opening his front door and letting us into his home. I was more than relieved to find that he had a lovely wife and a cute baby daughter. Mum and Dad would approve I thought. After a tasty meal the lady of the house put us into a warm bed for we were tired out after our big adventure. Sandra and I said our prayers, as normal, and prayed earnestly that Mum and Dad would soon be rescued
Waking up next morning we both felt utterly miserable. The people looking after us were kind but they were just not our Mum and Dad. It was fun playing with the baby and helping to look after her but inside we desperately needed to know that our parents had got off our flooded island safely. Every hour that we worried about ever seeing them again felt like a day. The next two or three days slowly dragged by as we waited for Mum and Dad to come and find us. Every ring of the phone and every knock at the door we imagined would be them. Neither of us knew for sure that Mum and Dad had survived but we knew for sure that if he could Dad would be looking for us.
What we didn’t know was that Mum was in hospital because being so cold and wet for such a long time had made her very ill – in fact she had a collapsed lung. As she lay in bed all she kept asking for was her two girls. Dad promised her faithfully that he would search for us day and night until he could bring us to her. He kept his word and went time and time again to all the places that survivors had been taken but there was no record of his two daughters. He couldn’t possibly go back to Mum without us so back he would go again asking anyone he could find if they had seen an eight year old red headed girl with a skinny dark haired twelve year old. The reason he found it so difficult to locate us was that our names had not been written on any list of survivors; at the school I hadn’t noticed the blackboards covered in names and failed to register us.
Dad could not and would not accept that his little girls had drowned because he felt deep in his heart that we were safe and waiting for him. It was three long days before he was told that someone had seen two girls resembling his daughters leaving the school with a local man. He found out the man’s address and ran as quickly as he could to see if it was us.
When I heard the knock at the door I crossed my fingers – seeing this Sandra did the same; surely this time it would be Mum or Dad. I ran up the hall, flung open the door and standing there was Dad looking tired and ill. He fell to his knees and pulled us both into his arms gripping us so tightly that we could hardly breathe. We had never seen Dad cry before but this was a very special day. These were tears of happiness and relief – they meant that we were a family again.
Our adventure was over and now it was time to go and see Mum in hospital and then we would have to slowly rebuild our lives. Dad had made everything right just as we girls had always known he would. My family lost absolutely everything in the 1953 floods but we still had each other and that what was important.
Thanks to Shirley Thomas for sending in this wonderful story, you can read more about Shirley’s family Here
If you have memories of Canvey’s flood of 1953 please send in details or leave a comment below.
Comments about this page
Thank you Shirley for telling us your moving story. For some of us who lived elsewhere and/or too young to remember the floods your story felt very real. I do remember the floods. I was a five year old living safely in London but I do remember some of the films on the news reports. Although I was probably too young to realise exactly what was happening the atmosphere must have been such that the memory of a doll floating in the flood water has never left me.
What a beautiful moving story Shirley as although I too survived the floods I was too small too know anything of what happened on that night. Funny enough it wasn’t something we talked about in the family and now it’s too late as Mum and Dad have both passed away. Your story just highlights yet again what a strong community we were and hopefully still are.
While looking for some pictures of the Canvey flood for school I thought I recognised my Auntie Shirley’s face. Intrigued I opened the whole image to find it was an article written by Shirley Thomas/Hollingbury. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing at times. I couldn’t stop reading!
Lovely story, hearing this reminds me of stories my father in law Warner Wallace who was also 8 years old at the time on the island, very harrowing time for them all.
Beautiful touching story that brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.
So happy to read that you were all reunited safely.
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