A night to remember
Written by Doris Flaherty
January 31st/February 1st 1953
A night that changed the history of Canvey. For a week there was a bitter N.E. wind blowing. This, barometric pressure and a full moon brought about an abnormally high tide. The first effect was the sinking of a ferry. ~ The Princess Victoria, between Stranrah in Ireland and Larne in Scotland. This tide swept down the North Sea like a mountain of water, inundating the East Coast as it came, until it reached the south, where the coast of the continent narrowed and it over spilled everywhere. It was the night of the opening of the War Memorial Hall when the cream of the Island’s talent gave a grand concert. I was singing in the Whittier Hall Ladies Choir. As I walked home it was with great difficulty against the wind. Soon after I got indoors we heard a voice, shouting- – ‘Get out, the sea wall has collapsed’. The water was already pouring down the road. It should be noted here, that Small Gains creek ran parallel with Small Gains Avenue up to the Nearby’s roundabout and the mound of earth there is a reminder of the sea wall. It was eventually dammed off at Linroping Avenue. It was here that the flooding, damage and loss of life was at its worst.
We stood on our doorstep in Maurice Road and watched the bright full moon shining down on a fast flowing tide. We saw a mouse swimming for its life and worms came out of the ground, dead like pieces of colourless string. Then we saw a line along the gate and we knew the tide had turned. We waited for daylight.
With it came the army with loud hailers telling us that we were to pack one change of clothing and wait at our gate to be picked up. We climbed over the tailboard of the lorry and stood shoulder to shoulder like sardines. We were taken to Benfleet Station where trains were waiting. Some went to relatives and most to evacuation centres. As we went across the Island, we were shocked to see the devastation, which had been caused. Trees uprooted, bungalows overturned, household furniture floating in the water.
We later found out that the Pastor of our church ~ Rev. Hodgson (Canvey Baptist) took a boat out that night to rescue those who were stranded in the Smallgains area. We stayed away for 3 weeks until the spring tides were over and the authorities gave us the all clear.
I cannot describe the process of clearing up only the Hoover washing machines were installed in the Catholic Church for the cleaning of household furnishings. During this time, the fate of Canvey was decided. The devastation was so complete it was suggested that house owners should be paid compensation and the Island – a write off. Others saw a future in the oil refinery and industrial site. Thus it was that the Government put huge amounts of monies into the reconstruction of roads and drainage.
A sea wall defence plan was devised and 12 foot steel interlocking piles were driven 9 feet into the ground. Three huge steam hammers worked the clock around to make the Island safe before the next spring tides. During the summer we tried to bring some life back to our gardens, everything was killed by the salt – the grass, insects and trees. We used to go, with buckets, up to the bluebell woods that circled the tower at the top of Essex Way and bring back some life into our soil. The new wall lasted 25 years, when the wall we know today, was built (1978-1981). The depth of work from its very base was a great feat of engineering – because what had to be considered was the volume of water to be held back in the event of closing the Thames Barrier. Thus the high wide wave return walls.
The night of 1st February 1953 gives those of us that lived here before that date, the right to be called Islanders! Since then Canvey has grown and developed into the place we know today. Canvey has a long history and a great tradition and charm of its own. Let us be proud and treasure it. We rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
It is our past, and an Island community, that binds together in friendship and neighbourliness. As the sea wall encircles us and protects us from the sea, may the arms of our dear loving Heavenly Father surround us in his loving care.