The Storm Builds
January the 31st 1953 is a date that many Whitstable Natives will not need to be reminded of. I was 6 years old at the time and lived at 137 Island Wall I had just learned to ride a two-wheeled bike. The day, I seem to remember it was a Saturday, was extremely windy and I can recall riding my little bike from my house round onto Wave Crest only to be blown off as I rounded the corner at the seaward side of the tennis courts.
That evening my mother and sister Pat, who would have been 16 at the time, went to the cinema. Not that we called it the cinema, it was merely the pictures in those days. I was tucked up in bed but can vaguely remember them returning home at what I suppose must have been about 10.30 pm on the night of the 31st.
My next memory is of my mother waking me. I don’t know what time it was but it seemed to be the middle of the night. Why she had woken me she did not say but, as I stood in a dazed and reluctant mood on the cold lino, she seemed to be frantically pulling the warmest of my clothing out of a chest of drawers.
Whilst mum’s back was turned I got back into my warm bed. I learnt later that Mr. Wood, a boat builder who lived three doors away, had come to our house to warn my dad that the sea was coming over. Dad, going to have a look for himself, found that the waves were breaking over the top of the sea wall and it was still 2 hours to high water.
My father decided to evacuate us and as a family we went up the front steps onto Island Wall. First being led by dad, we turned right and walked to the corner where there used to be a little shop known as the Coffee Pot. However, we found that this point was already a gushing torrent of water that was coming from between the tennis courts and flowing down the hill into Nelson Road.
Nelson Road, Whitstable in the Flood of 1953
Don was witness to the initial surge of water in the early hours. Not surprisingly, the family decided against an escape route along Nelson Road as it was subject to some of the earliest flooding. In the hours that followed, it also suffered some of the town's deepest flooding. By morning, it gave rise to the scene above. This photo was taken from Island Wall by Gordon Phillips and supplied to Simply Whitstable by his son, Terry. The Coffee Pot shop is just out of view on the immediate right.
© T Phillips
We then went back, past our house to the small rough road that ran by the side of the garden belonging to Star House towards the golf course.
Here, we met Mr Pullen who had come in a failed attempt to rescue his mother who lived in one of the houses on the sea front. He kindly agreed to take us across the golf course to his house on West Cliff and as my mother, sister and I started out, dad decided to return home to take some of our more valued possessions upstairs in an attempt to save them from what was obviously becoming a serious flood.
The route described by Don Laing - shown by the black/red broken line
The golf course, as I remember, was quite dry, although the wind must have been very close to gale force and twice the old airman’s helmet that I had not fastened blew off. I was not scared.... only somewhat confused about what exactly was happening and, although I had seen the first of the impending waters, I did not realize the enormity of what was taking place.
To emphasise the danger described by Don, this map shows the extent of flooding after the sea wall was fully breached. The floodwater rose to something in excess of 6ft on the golf course.
Perhaps, as most of my teachers seemed to think, I was a particularly stupid child. However, I do now understand quite clearly that, had the sea wall broken during our walk over the golf course, none of our party would have survived. We were all wearing heavy clothing and I could not swim and I am convinced that, if we had not been drowned in the initial torrent, we would have died of exposure before morning as so many less fortunate souls did.
On arriving at the Pullen’s house, I was promptly tucked up in their front bedroom, (who’s bed it was I really do not know) where I resumed my disturbed sleep until morning. What time it was when I got out of bed I do not know, but it was light and I went to look out of the bedroom window. To my young eyes, it seemed as if the whole world was now under water with only the rooftops of the bungalows visible.
The Morning After
On the golf course only the chimney pot of the clubhouse could be seen and, looking across to my house, it appeared that the sea was almost up to first floor level.
Then, no doubt after a breakfast which I can’t remember, my mother, sister and I went to the town end of Nelson Road which was now the high water mark and mum sought for news of my father.
Junction of Flooded Neslon Road and 'Dry' Oxford Street
The temporary high water mark during the flood of 1953. This was just a short distance form Don's temporary refuge in West Cliff.
The photo was taken by Derek Fallon and kindly made available to us by his daughter, Barbara Wardle
I think it was the Civil Defence and the Fire Brigade that were using small pontoons to rescue people from their houses and bring them to the shore and I can remember a myriad of other small boats ferrying others to safety. Mum’s anxiety must have been considerably increased when, on several occasions, we saw the boat that had been stored in our garden come to the road delivering refugees but no sign or news of dad.
My sister and mother must have done a good job of not transmitting their anxiety to me because I was not worried but only somewhat confused. However, it must have been a great relief to them when my father appeared from the High Street. He had given the boat to a neighbour to evacuate his family some of whom were unwell. Dad had been rescued in another boat and had come ashore at another place.
Life as an Evacuee
For the rest of my time as an evacuee, I stayed with Alf and Daisy Victor who lived in Douglas Avenue and with whom my parents struck up a long time friendship. It was fun for me too as they had a son Kenneth who was the same age as me.
I can’t remember where the rest of my family stayed but it seemed that for quite a long time the Victors cared for me. It is also a little vague now exactly how long it was before we were able to move back into our house but I am sure that my kind host family laid on a celebration for my 7th birthday which was on the 15th of February.
I attended St Alphege Infant School at the time of the flood and, at going home time, we used to form two lines - one to be escorted across the High Street and the other to be sent on its way under the railway bridge. It was probably the first day we were back at school, when things had settled down a bit, that I caused some small confusion for when it came to going home time I attached myself to the "under the bridge" line. Now, Mrs Skinner knew that I was normally part of the "over the road" line and it took quite a bit of persuading on my part, plus the testimony of Kenneth Victor, to convince that dutiful lady that I was not absconding or up to some other form of mischief.
Although the flood was the cause of very great hardship and, in other parts of the country, tragic loss of life, there was one bright aspect for us children. More or less opposite Oxford Street boy’s school, there was a Women’s Royal Voluntary Service depot, (I don’t know whether it had Royal in its title then). Anyway, one only had to go into this noble establishment and give your address and, as long as you were within the flooded area, you were allowed to choose a toy from a selection that had been donated by kind people - both in this country and in many other parts of the world. I seem to remember doing it several times.
The first time I went back to my house after the flood, I remember walking along Nelson Road. The gutters were full of mud and the fire service were pumping out the cellars of the houses. This process seemed to take a very long time. For a long time after I actually moved back home, I used to notice their progress along the road as I walked to and from school.
My first visit to my house after the sea had receded was not a happy occasion. The Civil Defence people had done their best to hose the silt out of the houses but my house still stank of dyke mud from the marshes, the whole of the ground floor was saturated and the first floor was damp. Mum and dad with the help of a grandfather had thrown everything that could not be salvaged into the garden and had been busy scrubbing the bare floorboards. I went straight to my toy cupboard, upon opening it, it spewed several cubic feet of the foulest smelling mud over both me and one of the floors that had just been scrubbed. In modern day parlance, my Mum lost her cool.
Longer Term Effects
We lived in our house in Whitstable until 1961 (or perhaps 1962) and, every autumn when we had the first fire of the winter, salt would exude from the grouting around the fireplace tiles. I have not visited Whitstable for over 20 years but, at the end of June, I intend to renew the acquaintance on a two-week holiday and I am convinced that I will still find evidence of the great flood of 1953.