ID: PH01_FLD / Elaine Barker

TitlePeldon - the 1953 Flood

For hundreds of years there has been an ongoing battle trying to defend the Essex coastal marshlands against inundation by high tides. Although we focus on the 1953 floods, being within living memory, they were preceded by previous inundations notably, in the last hundred years or so, in November 1897, November 1901 then January 1928.

In 1953 the tide hit the coast of Essex overnight on 31st January/1st February. Canvey Island and Jaywick were very badly hit.

Overall in Essex the sea broke into 12,356 homes, 119 lost their lives, 21,000 were made homeless and over 31,000 were to qualify as 'flood victims' for relief from the Lord Mayor's National Flood and Tempest Distress Fund. The Great Tide by Hilda Grieve

How the tide affected us here in Peldon is related in The Great Tide by Hilda Grieve where she gives an hour by hour, and area by area, account of the effect of the 1953 floods on the 300 mile front of the Essex Coast.

Saturday 31st January 10 - 11pm

At the mouths of the Blackwater and Colne estuaries and in the creeks separating Mersea Island from the mainland the waters resembled heavy seas. By 10.30pm part of The Strood, the coast road which links the island with the mainland, was under water. The island was isolated nothing could get on and nothing could get off' said one fisherman. The water continued rising until it covered the Strood to a depth of some 6 - 7 feet.

Sunday 1st February midnight to 1a.m

At Mersea By 12.30 the tide was into the yards; the blocks and shores that held the yachts upright on the slipways were starting to move, and the waves were throwing the boats on their sides, battering them together. Houseboats were lifted up out of their mud berths onto the saltings, their moorings snapping like pistol shots. One yacht, The Ruddy Sheldrake, broke from her mooring and ran, like a loose horse, a hundred miles across the North Sea to Holland.

A housewife aboard a yacht in Tollesbury Fleet saw 'brilliant green electrical flashes as the houseboats in Mersea broke adrift and the power cables parted.

At the height of the tide, when Mersea Strood was under six to seven feet of water, the Colchester-Mersea Road, B1025, had been under water for half a mile inland as far as the Peldon Rose. At 1am the police called the fire brigade from Colchester to rescue people from a bungalow near The Rose, but by the time the Colchester water-tender and crew had travelled the seven miles from Colchester the occupants had already made their escape..... The water covering the Strood did not lower enough to allow cars to drive on or off Mersea Island until about 3.30a.m.

The next day the Mersea Strood was covered again for four hours from noon to 4pm. And the tide reached some of the houses on the South West corner of the island although not enough to flood them again.

A local eye-witness account from Tales Of Peter Potter as told to High Frostick tells us that at East Mersea livestock was lost from the marshes. Peter's father lost all his chickens shut in their coop and several pigs in their sties overnight. Ducks and geese disappeared from the farm pond but returned later. Their trout all died as the pond was totally swamped with sea water. Farmers had to go to open stock gates to let the cattle out and stop them from drowning.

Another eye-witness account is given by Caradoc King in his auto-biography .

Living at the eighteenth century Strood House by the causeway leading onto Mersea Island he relates
There had been warnings on the wireless that night as we drank cocoa in our dressing gowns and Da went out with his torch to lock up the chickens and ducks, a tragic error as it turned out because if he had left them loose the ducks might have survived, instead of being washed up, drowned and locked in the duck house several miles down the coast the following morning.

I fell asleep, snug against the sound of gales rattling the windows and battering the trees in the garden. Then in the middle of the night I woke and knew at once that something was different. The wind had dropped; there was eerie silence. I got out of bed and opened the curtain. In front of the house, in the moonlight, I could see water everywhere, flooding the road, lapping over the garden wall, puddling on the lawn and sidling towards the house. It was all very calm and beautiful.... Water was already seeping under the front door at the bottom of the stairs and I watched Da prising up the floorboards hoping he could stop the flood by letting it fill the cellar. But the water just kept on coming until it was knee-deep on the ground floor.

Then in the moonlight we saw something terrible and wonderful. Cracks began to open in the sea wall; the water was breaking through. Another crack and then another, and the seawall gave way in a vast section of grass and mud, shunted forward by an overwhelming torrent of water. Fifty yards further along it broke through again and a second tidal wave swept across the field towards the house.....

... in daylight we came downstairs to see the devastated house and upstairs, from our bedroom window the grey chaos of mud and jumble left in the garden and the fields beyond by the tide which drained back through the gaps in the sea wall before rising again a few hours later. The coastland of East Anglia was devastated and until repairs could be made, the sea flooded and drained the countryside twice daily, covering it with mud.

Apart from the dogs and cats sheltering with us in the attic, all our livestock was drowned.

Ann Lee née Wooldridge, living in her family home at Kemps Farm recalls

I remember the floods in 1953. I woke up in the morning and looked out of the window. At first I thought it had been snowing, as everything looked white. In fact it was the water which came right up to the road. Whether it actually covered the road or not, I can't remember, but yes, Knight's Farm [Home Farm] was flooded.

At Shell Bungalow in Peldon, which nestles by the sea wall and is built on 'stilts', John Milgate, the owner, tells that the water came up to a level about 6 inches above the skirting board in the 1953 flood. There was a large table that the then owner had made from timbers salvaged from the FOUDROYANT and the flood water left a mark several inches up the legs of this table. John inherited the table with the house, but later someone that used to holiday in the house persuaded John to part with it.

According to Penny Burr who lived at the Peldon Rose, an eccentric resident, Ernie Richardson, who went round the villages on his bicycle selling cockles and shrimps lived in a home-made hut on a boat. This boat was close to Strood House and was accessed via the track that runs opposite Bonners Barn. Ernie knew the tide was coming and did try to secure the boat but failed. Farmer Russell Martin says it was thought the mooring ropes were rotten and 'Ernie woke up to find himself floating up Pyefleet Channel'. The boat floated away but Ernie had a rowing boat attached to the boat and was able to row ashore turning up at the Peldon Rose soaking wet. Penny Burr recalls they found him a set of dry clothes.

Russell Martin's family lived in a bungalow at Moor Farm on the main Mersea to Colchester Road set back about 100 yards from the road and by the sea wall. Russell who was eight and a half in 1953 was woken by hearing his parents' exclamations that there was a flood. The water came up to about 75 - 100 foot away. The low-lying land near Pete Bridge (where there is a brick culvert under the main Mersea Road) was flooded and Mersea cut off. When the water subsided the water that had topped the sea wall was trapped and couldn't drain away and the action of the water damaged the sea wall to the extent it needed to have major repairs. Russell has nothing but praise for the work done by the team who so effectively did the repairs afterwards. Electricity personnel turned up at Moor Farm asking if the family had a boat they could use to get to the electricity poles by the bridge. Much later Russell recalls them using gypsum on the land to reclaim it.

In Little Wigborough, at New Hall Farm, Bernie Ratcliffe relates the water came right up to Copt Wood and some of the sheep drowned although most made it to high ground.

In Essex, there were more than 800 separate breaches in the sea walls, totalling 67 miles of failure. In some cases the tide had gone over the top of the wall removing a few feet in height as it did so. Some parts of the walls, although not breached had been weakened. As each successive tide flowed through the breaches what became an urgent necessity was to mend the breaches and pump out the water lying on farmland within the walls. Of particular concern was that it might happen all over again in two weeks' time when the spring tides were due ... the maximum height predicted for these spring tides ... was up to nearly two feet higher than that predicted for the tide that had been the agent of disaster. If the breaches were not sealed in a fortnight's time, high enough and strong enough to hold these spring tides, even under normal conditions the county could be flooded all over again.

Men were deployed to walk the walls assessing damage.

Here in Peldon

Sampson's Farm had more wall down than standing (the wall walker had got caught by the incoming tide on one section of wall standing; flooded all round he was rescued by boat)

There were twenty one breaches in Sampson's Farm wall, the largest being 42 yards.

The Essex River Board mobilised gangs of men to mend the breaches, offers of help and machinery came from all over the country; soldiers, RAF airmen, council workers, farm labourers, volunteers even boy scouts all came to help. Some farmers undertook to tackle the breaches on their own land. Temporary kitchens and canteens were set up for all the men working on the walls. At its peak there were over 10,000 men working on the sea walls. By 15th February in the Essex River Board's area 7,488,900 sandbags had been filled and laid in a fortnight.

Peter Potter's account continues US personnel immediately got together and volunteered their services to help, the priority being to try to fix the breaches in the sea wall. The army came down from Colchester garrison to give a hand with putting sandbags in the breaks. A lot of the locals were helping too.

Peter was involved with fixing holes in the seawall after the floods in the Pyefleet channel which had let vast amounts of water into fields. He reports the water was over the Strood for two days. His first task was to walk all around the creeks at Peldon with two other men, his cousin John Mortlock and Nobby Garn. Using a digger they had to dig out material from the marsh to build up the banks, then place concrete blocks along in places where necessary to keep the sea defences secure. The Essex Rivers Board also employed gangs of men on piecework to work on our local defences. The hard work paid off.

At nine o'clock on 16th February the BBC broadcast a flood feature

The danger period during which the tides are higher than usual will last for about another 24 hours, but so far, thanks to calmer weather at sea and the hard work of thousands of people along the coasts - the defences have held... An immense amount of hard work has still to be done, both in consolidating the defences and making them permanent, and in clearing up and draining the areas that were flooded.

The critical period over, by 19th February the servicemen started moving out and by the next day all the temporary canteens were closed.

But before people's lives and businesses could return to normal and saturated farmland recovered, months of work lay ahead.

Peter Potter was offered a job on a digger by a government official and got a year's work as a private contractor out of it, his Dad too got extra work helping repair work on Mersea Island.

Once the seawalls had been repaired, water was pumped out and then thousands of tons of gypsum were delivered to be spread on the ground in the marshland pastures to neutralise the sea salt.

Here in Peldon much of the flooding was into the coastal marshland near Sampsons Farm where so many breaches had been made in the sea wall. The floods came across into the Knight family's cowsheds at Home Farm on Mersea Road, Peldon, and over the road at Kemps Farm almost up to the bungalow, Brunoy. Inundating Langenhoe Marshes the floods came close to Pete Hall on the B1025 Mersea to Colchester road.

1953 flood at New Hall Farm

Floods at New Hall Farm in Little Wigborough

1953 flood at Pete Tye bridge

Essex County Standard 6 February 1953

Nowadays, John Milgate from Shell Bungalow tells me, the walls are regularly checked and where, up until recent times, a gang of half a dozen men would come to do repair work now a machine makes light work of it. The clay used is no longer taken from the base of the sea wall but is brought in. He tells me in the thirty eight years he has lived by the sea wall it has held and only on one occasion has the water level been close to the top.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

With thanks to
Essex Record Office The Great Tide by Hilda Grieve (ISBN 978-0900360329)
Problem Child by Caradoc King
Tales of Peter Potter as Told to Hugh Frostick
Anne Lee
Mersea Museum
John and Pat Milgate
Russell Martin
Penny Burr
Bernie Ratcliffe
Essex County Standard

10 October 2018 updated with additional material.

AuthorElaine Barker
Published5 March 2018
SourceMersea Museum / Peldon History Project
Related Images:
 1953 Floods at New Hall, Little Wigborough. Photograph taken from sea wall looking inland - Copt Hall Grove is just visible upper left.
 Photograph by Bernie Ratcliffe, who worked at New Hall Farm. He says The water came right up to Copt Hall Grove following the path of the brook which meanders along the field margins to Sampson's Creek. Some of the sheep drowned although most made it to high ground..  RTC_001
ImageID:   RTC_001
Title: 1953 Floods at New Hall, Little Wigborough. Photograph taken from sea wall looking inland - Copt Hall Grove is just visible upper left.
Photograph by Bernie Ratcliffe, who worked at New Hall Farm. He says "The water came right up to Copt Hall Grove following the path of the brook which meanders along the field margins to Sampson's Creek. Some of the sheep drowned although most made it to high ground.".
Date:c1 February 1953
Source:Mersea Museum / Bernard Ratcliffe