Flood Memories of Whitstable special Constable Bert Ruck (1909-1995)

Editor's Note: The story you are about to read is unique in that it contains the flood memories of Whitstable special constable, Bert Ruck, and it is the only account we have of a local official carrying out his duties during the tragedy of 1953. It is also unusual in that it was written for his son, Graham, and family. Bert was prompted to put pen to paper after flood articles had appeared in the Whitstable Times on  9th and 16th May 1991. Thus, it is not just a fascinating account of the time but also a touching piece of family history.

From his home in Canaan (Connecticut, USA), Graham has very kindly made the document available to Simply Whitstable and added some details of Bert's life. The latter appear below the article. We would like to thank Graham, Claudia & Thomas Ruck and family for allowing us to share this lovely item with our readers.

Memories of '53

As was my custom at the time, I had been down the Marine on the Saturday evening for a few jugs and arrived home about 10.30 - walking up Fitzroy Road with friends and remarking that the wind seemed very strong.

It did not seem I had been in bed very long before there was a thumping on the front door. It was our Special Inspector (Mr. Cadle) calling me out. He said that help was urgently required as quite a large area of the town was flooded. It was apparently caused by a high tidal wave sweeping down the coast whipped up by a gale force wind.

Hurriedly getting into my uniform and putting on my wellies, I got my bike out and proceeded to pedal off down Northwood Road only to be met by flood water at the junction where the sea had rushed through Beach Walk bringing a boat with it.

Flooding at the Junction of Tower Parade and Beach Walk - Whitstable 1953

Flooding at the Junction of Tower Parade and Beach Walk

This photo was taken by Gordon Phillips and kindly made available to Simply Whitstable by Terry Phillips. It shows the scene a little later and in daytime. Floodwater was still in evidence and the boat was still partly blocking the road. We believe the vessel was one of the pleasure boats operated form the nearby beach summer by the Waters Brothers.  It may have been the Monarch or the larger Moss Rose 2.

The water was quite deep and the boat was at that time flooded to its gunwales. To get past, it was necessary for me to ride along the high pavement at Tower Parade...

Raised Path at Tower Parade (Whitstable) in modern times

Raised Path at Tower Parade in modern times

We have superimposed the floodwater of '53 (in blue) on a modern shot of the Tower Parade/Beach Walk junction. Bert was forced to cycle along the raised pathway to the left as shown by the yellow arrow.

 

.... and so to Bexley Street and the Police Station with the water at this point almost covering the front wheel of my bike.

The old Police Station building in Bexley Street (Whitstable)

The Police Station in Bexley Street

The police station was itself at the heart of the flooding. Again, we have superimposed the floodwater (in blue) onto a modern day photo. In the early hours, the sea had poured down the steep slope from the elevated roadway of Harbour Street - see the blue arrow in the background.

On reporting to the Police Inspector in charge (Mr. Coe), I was sent to the top of Nelson Road to assist in the evacuation of people from Nelson Road and Cornwallis Circle. This operation could not be fully implemented until rowing boats had been gathered from wherever possible.

Some residents did not wish to leave their houses but preferred to stop in top floor rooms. The people that we did ferry out were taken to The Boys School in Oxford Street which had been turned into a rest centre and reception area and was manned by the St. John Ambulance, Red Cross and Ladies Volunteer Groups who provided comfort, warmth, hot drinks and hurriedly prepared sandwiches.

One particular incident I was involved in at this period was the removal of a young woman from a house in Nelson Road. She was pregnant and had started labour pains. We managed to slide her out through a window, down a ladder and into the boat and then hurriedly rowed to the top of Nelson Road where she was transferred to a Land Rover and taken to St. Heliers Nursing Home to the great relief of all concerned and no doubt her own!

At this point, I took a breather and had a sandwich and cup of tea. After this, I was instructed by Chief Inspector Tebay (who had arrived from Canterbury to assume overall control) to take several trainee policemen (sent from police training school) down to Island Wall.

The only way to reach Island Wall was to walk along West Cliff and across the golf links via the causeway path.

Map of the causeway across Seasalter GC in the Flood of 1953

Route across the causeway path

The map shows Bert Ruck's tortuous route across the floodwater to Island Wall - see the black/red dotted line. Some of the evacuees could be ferried along Nelson Road by boat.

The wind was still at gale force and the water on the golf course quite deep so it was quite a struggle to cross without being blown off the path into the water. However, this was accomplished and my small band of very young men deployed to various points to help those who wished to evacuate to the end of Nelson Road to be ferried up to the Rest Centre.

The Raised Causeway Path (Whitstable) in the aftermath of the Flood of 1953

The Raised Causeway Path in the aftermath

The photo shows a section of the elevated causeway path during daytime on 1st February 1953. Note the level of floodwater either side and the fact that the banking is looking somewhat unstable in parts. Bert's journey in poor light would have been a precarious duty.

The area to the left is the old boating lake. It contains beach huts carried some 70 yards from the beach by the surge of water and high winds.

Photo provided by Jacky Evans

The Raised Causeway Path (Whitstable) in modern times

The Causeway Path in quieter times - April 2004

At about 1.00 p.m., I was relieved to have a meal and managed to dash home to give mother the news and have a good Sunday lunch. It was then back to help where required - eventually going home at about 10.00 p.m.

During the day, various groups arrived from all over the county to help. First to arrive was the good old Salvation Army with a mobile canteen which they were able to set up in Island Wall near the junction with Waterloo Road and, from there, dispense hot soup and sandwiches to stranded people and helpers alike.

The Fire Brigade also arrived with a good many pumps and men to start pumping out water from people's houses and wherever required. They also brought their own mobile canteen which they set up at the Horsebridge to feed their own men and anybody else who wanted it.

The work of course went on for some days and, then, men from the RAF were brought in with mobile blow-drying machines to help dry out the houses.

For myself and other specials, we were required to perform anti-looting patrols each evening for about three weeks. A great many beach huts, particularly along Island Wall and Faversham Road had been torn from their foundations, carried inland and, of course, smashed up in the process and so, were easy prey. It was a case of doing your own days work, going home to tea and then patrolling in pairs until about 10.00 p.m.

I remember walking in company with Charlie Cambell on two nights along Island Wall and Preston Parade to the Old Coastguard House in Faversham Road almost to the Sportsman Pub. However, the period passed and things gradually returned to "near normal" although some properties still show marks where the water reached.

These are some of my own personal memories of that traumatic time and I hope you will find them interesting reading.

Bert Ruck (1909-1995)

Bert Ruck as born in Bermondsey but was resident in Whitstable from 1924 until his death in 1995. He and his family initially lived in Cromwell Road.

Bert was married to Ivy Corbett in 1937 and made his home in Fitzroy Road. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II, seeing service on the Russian Convoys aboard HMS Sheffield and in the Mediterranean. After the war, he was active for many years in the Special Constabulary and the local RNA branch, and was a big supporter of the Whitstable Sea Cadets. He was 43 years old at the time of the flood.

Bert, was father to Graham and grandfather to Thomas Ruck who now, of course, live in Canaan, Connecticut, USA.


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