A seven feet high wall of water smashes across open marshland towards single storey prefabricated houses where unsuspecting families are sleeping. The roar of approaching death is drowned by the chilling howl of a January storm.
The water crashes into the fragile buildings, ripping some from their foundations and toying with them as a cat plays with prey before hurling them together, dispassionately watching them break apart. Others, inundated, filled with freezing sea, giving the slumbering souls inside no chance to escape.
A horror movie, shot in moody, melodramatic monochrome?
No, this was Felixstowe, Suffolk in January 1953. Real life. Real people.
How The 1953 Flood Happened
Meteorologists had initially noted a deep depression forming off Iceland. Of course, back then, communication was slow.
Slower than the weather.
The depression traced its way down the east coast of Britain and into the North Sea, gale force winds forcing a wall of water down towards the English Channel. Upon reaching this bottleneck, moreover followed by a high tide, the storm surge grew to ten feet high.
Coastal regions were inundated on both sides of the channel. In all, there were 307 deaths in Britain and 1800 in the continental low countries where dykes burst their banks.
Homes were damaged beyond repair. Farmland and wells subsequently contaminated for decades.
In Felixstowe, the sea defences held much of the deluge out. But unexpectedly, water pushed its way up the River Orwell which, at 11:30pm on the 31st January, burst the sea wall in seven places. The surge smashed its way across the Trimley Marshes; a 7 feet high wave of destructive force which swallowed the land and drowned the little pre-fabs and caravans.
Some died in their beds. Others climbed onto roofs but died of hypothermia in the freezing gale. Some were too weak to escape the ground floor and drowned in their night clothes. Rescuers were swept off their feet. Even those in boats finally found the swirling currents too powerful. One heroic man took people to safety whilst not realising that his own family were drowning in their flat.
So many more stories; each a personal tragedy, each a chilling reminder of our powerlessness against the forces of nature.
This is the Felixstowe Flood Memorial Garden. The blue line shows the depth that the water reached at its peak in the Langer Road area. Naturally it cannot portray the force of the current nor the numbing cold.
Seventy Years On
On January 31st 2023, I attended a 70th anniversary memorial service and, later, a torchlit procession around the places where 41 Felixstowe people lost their lives in the 1953 flood. Listening to the names of the deceased being called out close to where they died stirred my soul. The poignancy was haunting and has stayed with me.
The poetry of death has a chilling knell. The mournful tone grips and squeezes the heart. It reminds us of our fragility, our own mortality.
Hear the bell tolling now:
” This too shall pass…you too shall pass.”
A DEPRESSION HEADING SOUTH
It began as a low moan in a foreign land to the north, The soul-deep cry of a sinking depression Sucking desperation into a tight ball of angst. A swirling storm, Confusion creating a maelstrom of anger Feeding upon its own depths. Without release, it grew – bigger, deeper, darker, angrier, Swinging off in a rampage of distress and destruction, The gale forcing the water into a frenzied dance before it. The more it forced, the more it forced. The sea, now angered too, ran southwards Silently swelling - intent on swallowing the land stolen from it, Vengeance held strongly in every wave. It met that land without greeting, With a roar that matched the howl of the bitter winds, Proclaiming its power over those who had sought to tame it. As an army from hell, it took no prisoners, Leaving no stone unturned in its wake, The water rose once more above the fragile lives of the walking ones. And bit into them, taking all it could. Like tigers at play, the screaming wind and the drowning water Toyed with the pieces of human life. With no thought of mercy, they watched those trying to save themselves- Then touched them with a dispassionate, deathly cold claw before moving on- Victims were aplenty this night. Then the sun rose. Sated, the anger fell away with a sigh, The depression lifted and wandered off without care. As the winds settled and the water drained away The devastation, the death and destruction were revealed In hues of mud, filth, contamination, Broken bodies and broken hearts Mother Nature cried in anguish – “My children! My children! What have I done?!”
HUSH LITTLE BABY, DON’T YOU CRY!
Hush little baby, don’t you cry The evening’s here, the day’s gone by. Rest awhile, may angels keep A watchful eye as you sleep. Hush little baby don’t you cry, The weather screams at a starless sky. We’re safe inside, out of the storm, And mummy’s here to keep you warm. Hush little baby don’t you cry- I’m frightened now, I can’t deny! The water’s smashing at the door Up the walls, through the floor. Hush little baby don’t you cry, I’ll wrap you up to keep you dry. The flood is deep so hold on tight As we venture out into the night. Hush little baby, don’t you cry, The wind it howls, the waves are high There’s water crashing all around- I pray this night we won’t be drowned. Hush little baby don’t you cry, I gave you life, tonight I’ll try To cling to you, that life to save And keep you from a watery grave. Hush little baby don’t you cry, My darling you were too young to die! Farewell my love! Whilst we’re apart I’ll hold you tightly in my heart. Hush little baby don’t you cry, Unfold your wings and start to fly. Rest in peace, may angels keep You safe with them whilst you sleep. Hey little baby I missed your cry, It hurt so much to say goodbye, You’ve held my hand through all the years, Soothed my pain and wiped my tears. You’ve watched me age from the heavens above, I’ll be with you soon – just wait my love. ‘Til then I’ll hear you, like a sigh… “Hush now mumma, don’t you cry!”
I visit Felixstowe often – read the Motorhome Hobos tour guide!