So What Caused It All?
It was the night the sea came. When the storm hit in the late hours of 31 January and early hours of 1 February 1953, Whitstable was largely unprepared. It created the biggest natural disaster in Whitstable for centuries. So, what caused it and what went wrong in our attempts to control the power of the sea?
Well, many people will sum it up in two words .... 'Storm Surge'.
That's nice and simple... but, if they are talking about ALL the carnage in Whitstable during that fateful night, I am afraid it's a bit more complicated than that. Many factors played a part. So, let's take a look at the overall situation - taking each contributory factor in turn.
So.. What is a Storm Surge?
Yes... it did all start with a storm surge..... and it was one of the worst on record. So, what is a storm surge?
Storm surges are caused when an exceptionally deep depression passes over a body of water such as the North Sea. At the centre of the depression, air rises sharply creating low atmospheric pressure and generating strong winds that swirl around the eye of the storm in an anti-clockwise direction. These effects cause the sea to rise around the heart of the depression and, as the depression moves away, the wind may drive the extra water towards nearby coastlines in the form of a surge.
Of course, if there is no land in the way, a surge can peter out without too much consternation. However, the North Sea is a relatively small body of water compared to the planet's major oceans and a surge of water can collide with the coastlines of Britain and continental Europe within a relatively short space of time. It's impact can be more severe in areas like the Thames estuary which have 'shallow water' coastlines. In such cases, there is no buffer until the water hits the sea defences. The situation can also be accentuated if the surge is funneled through a narrow waterway and, as we know, the North Sea tapers towards the English Channel.
The surge hits different coastlines at different times. In the case of a depression crossing the North Sea, there comes a point when those severe anti-clockwise winds drive the surge in an anti-clockwise direction - ie down the east coast of the UK (affecting the North of England, East Anglia and Kent in turn) and up the seaboard of Holland. This happened in 1953.
How the Storm Surge Progressed
The storm developed as a somewhat unremarkable low pressure system to the south of Iceland on 29 January 1953. At that time, it was following a relatively harmless NE path but it deepened rapidly and changed direction - heading eastward above the northern tip of Scotland and entering the North Sea during the morning of 31st January. Influenced by a large area of high pressure west of Ireland, it then headed South East reaching Denmark and Northern Germany around midnight (31st January/1st of February).
Metorological Overview of the 1953 Flood
The map shows the track taken by the storm. Black arrows indicate the wind direction when the centre of the depression reached the eastern edge of the North Sea. Blue chevrons show the surge of water being driven towards the Kent coast.
By then, its anti-clockwise rotation of air was sending northerly gales down the English coast towards the North Kent waterfront and those gales were driving the surge of water.
Time, Tide and Moon...
Timing of a surge is all important. As we know, the gravitational "pull" of the moon creates two "high tides" and two "low tides"each day. If a surge hits the coast at "low tide", there is little chance of a disaster in a town like Whitstable because the sea recedes such a long way over the shallow mudflats that it keeps the water out of harm's way. In fact, a surge at low tide would simply give us a "low tide" that wasn't as a low as expected... or perhaps one that doesn't look much like a low tide at all. This is a bit of a novelty but it is unlikely to be life threatening! However, if it all occurs at high tide, the danger is vastly increased.
Matters can be made worse by the phases of the moon because these affect just how "high" a tide will be. I am sure most people know that the sea encroaches up our beaches to varying levels at different times. The highest tides (ie the so called spring tides) occur at "full moon" and "new moon". This is when the moon and sun are directly aligned with the Earth and the sea is subjected to the combined gravitational pull of both. (NB The lowest of "high tides" are called neap tides and they occur when the sun and moon are out of alignment. This results in their gravitational effects counteracting each other rather than combining).
In 1953, the storm surge hit Whitstable at almost the worst possible time - at high tide during the spring tide phase.
Wind Direction & Wave Action
Well planned and maintained sea defences should cope with the rise in sea water provided that someone has got the maths right and invested the right amount of money! However, there is also another factor to consider..... wave action. This can cause the sea to top the defences even though the height of sea walls is sufficient to cope with a simple rise in water level. It can also damage defences and open a path for more general flooding.
Wave action is generated by wind operating on the surface of the sea. By their very nature, storm surges are accompanied by high winds as air swirls around the depression. Wave action is at its worst when the wind is able to sweep unhindered across the sea for a very long distance before reaching the coastline. The most 'open' path is known as the line of maximum fetch.
The most dangerous wind directions for Whitstable are North and North East. These angles enable the wind to sweep down the entire eastern seaboard of England or across a very large section of the North Sea before hitting the North Kent coast head on.
As I have already mentioned the surge and tide was accompanied by onshore gales from the North in 1953.
Reeves Beach During the Storm
This photo was taken by local pharmacist Gordon Phillips and has been kindly made available to Simply Whitstable by Terry Phillips. It features the Reeves waterfront from the East Quay jetty. The massive rise in sea level caused by the surge is accompanied by strong wave action created by the gales. The sea defences are being pounded and spray can be seen topping the buildings of Sea Wall.
© T G Phillips
Obviously, weather forecasts can't prevent a storm surge! However, they can prompt some emergency strengthening of defences and allow time for preparations that might just minimise loss of life, injury and damage. In the early 1950s, we were less able to predict the occurrence, development, severity and progression of a storm surge.... or at least, we weren't able to predict it with any great accuracy. Thus, we were under-prepared for the events of that fateful night in 1953.
Communication & Organisation
As I mentioned earlier, storms and storm surges are likely to unfold gradually around the UK. The 1953 tragedy actually caused the loss of a ferry in the Irish Sea, sank a fishing boat off the north of Scotland and then followed a path of destruction down the East coast of England. As one of the last ports of call, one would have expected Whitstable to have been fed an increasingly accurate assessment of the situation as events progressed.... but not so!!!!
In fact, our page of anecdotes contains some remarkable stories of just how unprepared and ill-informed we were in Whitstable. For the moment, I will just quote a couple of my favourites from two very different parts of town......
I lived with my parents and brother Cyril at 26 Middle Wall - in the wooden cottages. The warmest room was the front room and, as we had just had measles, we were sleeping downstairs on that night under the watchful eye of our mother.
She suddenly heard this noise. She got out of the chair and put her feet in water. She called for dad who replied, 'You must have left the tap running'.... but he looked out the window and added, 'Get the boys up here quickly the sea is over'.
I remember my mum moaning because the milk hadn't arrived (on the morning of 1 February 1953)! In fact, this was due to Pett's Dairy being under water in Nelson Road and the only means of access was by rowing boat.
It just goes to show how long it took for information to travel in those days - with few telephones and even fewer TVs. Anyway, that was the first that many of us living in the higher part of town knew about the flood!
Jackie Evans (née Ferrell)
Also taken by Gordon Phillips, this photo shows one of the worst areas of flooding - the low lying Nelson Road area. Some of the flooding may have subsided a little by this time.
© T G Phillips
To demonstrate Jackie's point about the non-delivery of her mum's milk, consider the photo on the right. Taken by Gordon Phillips in the aftermath of the flood, it shows the northern end of Nelson Road. Petts "West End Dairy Shop" is located at the end of that terrace of houses immediately behind the rowing boat.
It seems almost inconceivable that seawater could pour into houses without warning and that, many hours later, fellow residents living just a mile away remained blissfully unaware of the massive disaster.
Communication systems were somewhat primitive compared to modern day mobile phones, broadband, satellites and TV. To add to the problem, communication systems were damaged by the storm itself as it made its way down the east coast of England. The end result was that key information was never relayed to communities further south.
Of course, communications weren't the only problem. I daresay a very long report could be prepared detailing organisational/ procedural deficiencies. I won't go into this in detail but I will mention one thing by way of example. Coastal defences were the responsibility of a number of separate river boards with little overall co-ordination.
Another factor that may have played a part is the weather in the lead up to the surge. I have a feeling that the UK had experienced heavy rainfall in the early weeks of 1953 and that rivers were running high. A storm surge of seawater can prevent rivers discharging into the North Sea when a surge hits the coast and this can cause secondary flooding of fresh water.
As we have explained on some of our other pages, there is evidence to suggest that the Gorrell Stream may have topped its banks as far back as Belmont Road - flooding roadways, fields and the nearby cricket ground.
In modern times, sea defences are based on complex assessments of likely surges and wave action. Planning usually takes place well ahead of requirements. However, back in 1953, things were a bit less sophisticated. There was also another factor in play. The UK had been involved in World War II and, during the conflict, resources had been devoted to protecting our shores from invasion rather than defending them against the forces of nature.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, money was in short supply and some sections of coastline around the UK were in desperate need of attention. In many cases, the repairs and reconstruction didn't begin until the mid-1950s. This may have played a part in Whitstable. In January 1953, work was being carried out on sea defences in the heart of the town but it had not been completed when the surge hit the coast.
Phil Page's article (Events of '53) mentions that 'seawater poured through and breached the partly completed new sea wall'.
Nature of the Coastline
It is perhaps stating the obvious but I need to mention that the nature of the coastline (in particular land height and urban development) has a big say in how much damage and human suffering is caused by a storm surge. This was clearly demonstrated in Whitstable because our coastline varies quite considerably. Let us consider 3 very different types of local shoreline.....
Type 1: The HIgh Clay Slopes
The clay slopes surrounding the town offer natural protection against the sea but they only meet the coast at Tankerton (where they form the high grass bank of Tankerton Slopes) and at Preston Parade/Admiralty Walk. The worst that can happen in such areas is some disturbance to the sea defences and clay banking. So, you get financial impact but, as the sea cannot penetrate inland, less human misery
Type 2: The Open Marshlands
The marshlands on either side of Whitstable require different consideration. These flat areas comprise Seasalter marshes (aka Seasalter Levels) to the west and the floodplain of the Swalecliffe Brook to the east. Once the sea breached the coastal defences, there was nothing to stop its progress. The more spectacular scenes were at Seasalter where the sea reached deep inland to the railway embankment of the London-Thanet line. The flooding had two major impacts. Firstly, it caused damage to farmland (particularly livestock pasture). Secondly, it severed the rail link to the outside world.
However, effects were minimised by the fact that few people lived there. Thus human misery and threats to life were limited. Workarounds were quickly found for the loss of the rail connections.... by resorting to road transport and even re-opening the Canterbury-Whitstable railway line that had closed just a few months earlier.
Type 3: Low Lying Urban Areas
This is the heart of Whitstable where there are two particularly low lying areas - the Old Salts (ie the Seasalter Golf Course/Cornwallis Circle) and the floodplain of the Gorrell Stream. Some sections are actually below sea level.
The two basins are separated by a low ridge upon which High Street and Oxford Street are built.
By 1953, all these localities had been heavily and densely developed for housing and business. Without the natural protection of land height, they relied totally on the shaky man-made sea defences for protection. Once those defences were breached, havoc ensued with large numbers of properties, families and businesses suffering immense hardship.
Ironically, when the storm abated, sea defences became something of a hindrance as they prevented water draining back to the sea. This was particularly the case in the very low lying areas to the west of the High Street. Here the walls created a "bath tub" effect... but without a bath plug!
It's interesting to reflect on how our ancient Whitstable ancestors viewed the power of the sea many centuries ago and how they paid it far greater respect. In fact, they were inclined to avoid it by building communities and their inter-linking highways on the raised ground to the south. For example, the "original Whitstable" is generally accepted as being the hamlet of Church Street (surrounding All Saints Church). This sits safely at the top of a hill - overlooking the flat marshland below.
When, for economic reasons, our ancestors ventured closer to the waterfront, they remained cautious by utilising a low ridge of ground between the Old Salts and the floodplain of the Gorrell Stream. This gave rise to a linear development called Whitstaple Street which eventiually became the town centre of modern times (ie Oxford and High Streets). The highway linking Church Street with Whitstaple Street was called Church Road and it followed quite a wide arc along the clay foothills rather than plough a direct route across the floodplain. (NB In modern times its winding path has been subdivided into 3 sections, each with its own name - Bridge Approach, Old Bridge Road and Belmont Road.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, locals decided that they could control the sea with sea walls, drain the land and utilise Whitstable's low lying areas for urban development. It was a logical move but, of course, it involved risk.... and that risk was brutally exposed in 1953. If you build in low lying areas, you need to keep your eye on the ball with regard to defences and climactic change. You also need to be able to assess not just the hazards that have gone before but also those that may crop up in the future. It's a precarious game of prediction and cost asessment.
Style of Building
Once water topped the sea defences, the town's low-lying buildings were vulnerable as few, if any, had been built to cope with a flood. This is hardly surprising because designing and constructing houses to be flood-proof or flood resistant is an expensive and complex business.... and the end result may still prove inadequate. There is also the problem that "flood resistant" houses may not be easy on they eye.
It's interesting that flood risk is now categorised using terms such as "a once in fifty years occurrence" or "a once in one hundred years occurrence". I have seen the Flood of 1953 described as "a once in 250 years occurrence". So, you can quite see finance wizards arguing that it is cheaper to clear up the mess of a massive flood every 250 years than it is to build all houses to withstand something that may never happen before the buildings fall down of their own accord!!!! Of course, if you are an unlucky finance wizard, the "once in 250 years occurrence" happens next month. It's an "iffy" business being a finance wizard... unless you are also Mystic Meg.
I suspect that such financial considerations will play an even bigger part in constructing sea walls and properties in low lying areas of the future. Increasingly, the world is becoming controlled by spreadsheets rather than drawing boards and the public purse strings seem to tighten by the year.
Time of Day
The 1953 surge occurred during the night when people slept. This again played a part in hampering evacuations and delaying activity by the emergency service.
Putting It all Together
So, on the fateful night of 31st January/1st February, the Gods contrived to produce almost the worst possible combination of atmospheric pressure, wind, wind direction, tide and astronomy. This kicked it off. After that Whitstable Natives were at the mercy of the man made failings of limited weather forecasting, poor communications, inadequate sea defences and inadequate organisation.