"A Night to Remember " by the late John Harman

First Warning

At the time of the flood in 1953, I was 20 and still living at home with my parents on Island Wall. That particular night, I was late going to bed and had just settled down when I was awakened by a neighbour shouting up to my window. The message and warning was..."Get your Dad up, the tide is already at the high water mark and there is another 2 hours to go".

Securing the Boats

My elder brother George's first fishing boat Welcome Messenger 2nd was up on the Vigilant Beach as he had bought a larger one, the Mon Rêve. Dad and I hurriedly dressed and rushed out to the beach with coils of rope to secure the vessel. The waves were already crashing around her.

Dad climbed up on to the Vigilant and attached some lines to her and another to a telegraph pole at the top of the beach. Then we ran home. As we did so, the water was rushing past us down the hill at Marine Terrace.

he TSS Vigilant (Whitstable) in 1963

The TSS Vigilant in 1963

Used as the headquarters of the Whitstable Sea Cadets, the Vigilant barge survived the Flood of 1953. This photo shows Anne Harman with The Vigilant in the background ten years later.

I quickly asked Dad, "How much water do you think we will get in the house?". "About a couple of feet" was his reply.

Whitstable's Island Wall in the Flood of 1953

Right: Whitstable's Island Wall in the Flood of 1953

Tom Harman's estimate of 2ft was a little out! The photo  above shows the level of flooding in Island Wall.

The scene was captured a litle further east by Gordon Phillips and made available to us byTerry Phillips.

T G Phillips

Preparing at Home

The Neptune Pub (Whitstable) in Modern Times

The Neptune Pub in Modern Times

At the height of the 1953 storm surge, spray reached twice the height of the builidng. Water tore away the back wall and rushed through the bar.

Whilst Mum took the cat, the oil stove, kettle and tea pot upstairs, Dad and I lifted the sofa up on to kitchen chairs and stacked all we could on top. In no time, the linoleum was lifting off the floor and the water was almost to the top of our deep boots.

Before retreating upstairs, I wanted to save Mom's treadle sewing machine. On top of it always stood an aspidistra plant which I now had in my hands. I blurted out to Dad "What shall I do with this?". The reply came quickly. "Give me that, I'll water that bloody thing"... and he promptly threw it out the back door.

With the rush of water that flooded in, we hastened upstairs, dragging the Singer sewing machine behind us.

Although it was dark, we could see from the front window that the Neptune was getting a pounding, and the spray was reaching twice it's height in the air.

This went on for some time until we decided to settle down for a while and wait for dawn, knowing that the water was just below the upper floor.

George's Night Aboard

Unbeknown to us, George was aboard the Mon Reve all that night. He had moved her away from the quay to the middle of the harbour, where he rode it out...... with the sea level at the top of the quay and the waves crashing over it.

George Harman's fishing boat 'Mon Rêve'

George Harman's fishing boat 'Mon Rêve' at the harbour in quieter times

In the early hours of 1 February 1953, George 'Mon Rêve' to the centre of the harbour basin to prevent her being lifted onto the quayside by tide and waves. He then rode out the storm for several hours - an act of seamanshipy that went unnoticed amidst the wider events of 1 February 1953.

George, Ray and Island Wall Rescues

In the early morning, George had come ashore and was along Island Wall..... with long breakwater planks from the beach. These were normally used for breakwater repairs but he placed them between the roadway and the top of the ground floor bay windows. In this way, they provided residents with a bridge to dry land from the bedrooms of the properties that lie below the bank on the south side of the road - see the diagram below

Diagram of Island Wall (Whitstable) rescues in the Flood of 1953

One of the properties belonged to my brother Ray and family. A well known photograph of their rescue appeared in the Daily Mirror. Balancing on the makeshift "bridge" were George and Ray's daughter, Judy. Meanwhile, Ray was standing on the roof of the bay and assisting his wife (Olive) and son (Geoffrey) to escape from the bedroom window. The use of a plank wasn't lost on the editor of The Mirror and the caption commented..... "They walk the plank at Whitstable taking what they can with them and leaving their home to the floods" .

It was well into the afternoon when George came in a row boat for us further east along Island Wall. First I had to tie the cat up in a shirt before I could hand it over to him. This was no easy task, as, on seeing water, it went berserk.

Evacuation

After leaving the house, Mom and Dad went to stay with George at the Council Estate and I stayed with friends at the top of Tankerton Hill (a safe place). Ray and family moved in with my sister Jacqueline and Jim at Manor Rd.

It was to be several weeks before we could return home to live as the amount of silt and mud in the home was enormous. Things that one would normally use to clean up with, were filthy themselves.... or had floated away.

Returning Home

After moving back home, there was an abundance of mice looking for a drier abode. My bike ran beautifully for a week or so.... and then seized up solid!

At the time, I was working at Eric Brown's cabinet shop in Hillview Road. He also had a furniture store in the High St. near D Wests. After the Flood, much of the furniture needed to be restored. One of the problems was that drawers could not be opened as the wood had swollen. The smell was awful.

John Harman


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