Whitstable and the Flood of 1953: Mapping the Floodwater

Introduction

In putting together the Simply Whitstable flood section, we hit a slight snag.... we could find no map of the flooding! The production of such a document quickly became an obsession with us.... but there were problems!

I was only 3 years old at the time and not allowed out until some of the deluge had subsided. Thus, I had no personal knowledge of those early hours of the disaster. Furthermore, I quickly discovered that people had been so busy coping with problems in their own locality that they had no time to note the overall picture. When you think about it.... it's hardly surprising!

Thus, the "cartography bit" was a case of piecing together information from the wide range of stories and anecdotes contained in our Visitors Book. After some months, we managed to produce a rough plan... but, even now, there are details that remain uncertain (particularly in the area of Station and Cromwell Roads) and our maps should be regarded as an approximation only.

My explanations of the flood draw very heavily on the history articles of Brian Smith - in particular Brian's feature items The History of Whitstable Shoreline since 1287 and Whitstable Name & Place. I would urge readers to click the links and study the fascinating explanations of the the orgins of Whitstable, the development of its coastline and its early sea walls.

Whitstable Before the Flood

To understand the flood, you need to understand the town before the deluge. The rough map below provides a starting point.....

Map of Whitstable prior to the flood of 1953

Map of Whitstable prior to the flood of 1953

As you can see, it divides central Whitstable into four coloured zones. The BROWN areas show the higher ground of Tankerton to the east and the clay foothills to the south. The CREAM areas comprise slightly elevated land - including the banks/walls of the sea defences and a curious "raised section" upon which the town centre (High St and Oxford Street) was originally built.

Two shades of GREEN have been used for the "low lying" land - with the DARK GREEN  representing the lowest and most vulnerable sections. Some of these green areas are below sea level.

Notice that the green areas (light and dark) form two basins either side of the town centre. The westerly basin is THE SALTS - comprising the Seasalter Golf Course and residential areas such as Nelson Road and Cornwallis Circle. The easterly basin is the FLOODPLAIN OF THE GORRELL STREAM and includes such roads as Cromwell Rd, Westmeads Rd and Station Road.

Of course, the green areas were subjected to the worst flooding but, before looking at a flood map, we need to study these districts a little more closely because both geography and human history contributed to the outcome of '53.

The Salts

In 1953, The Salts was a large bath tub just waiting to be filled!!!! Take a look at the map below.....

Map of Whitstable 'Salts' prior to the flood of 1953

Map of Whitstable 'Salts' prior to the flood of 1953

The dark gey swathe shows the front line sea defence of the day (comprising beach, breakwaters, wall etc). Behind this, is a ring of assorted banking. I have highlighted this in purple and used black arrows to show the direction of the slope. It is a curious arrangement that owes its origins as much to town history as it does to physical geography. The main elements are as follows....

1. The Southern Rim

This comprises natural high ground of clay. To the west, this elevated land is trimmed and enhanced by the embankment of the London-Thanet Railway Line. To the east, it forms the steep grass slope bordering West Cliff roadway.

2. MIddle Wall Embankment

On the eastern flank of The Salts, there is the slightly raised roadway of Middle Wall. As Brian Smith has told us (see The History of Whitstable Shoreline since 1287), this was actually part of an old sea wall that was built back in  the 16th century and originally known as Valley Wall.

To modern visitors, it might seem a bit strange to have a sea wall so far from the modern day coastline and so "perpendicular" to it. However, 400 years ago, the Salts was an unpopulated, floodable area and the town centre needed to be protected from its waters. In fact, Whitstable had a vested interest in keeping The Salts floodable because it gave the town a major source of income by way of salt production. Together, with the natural clay bank at West Cliff, Valley Wall gave the town a reasonably secure shoreline all those centuries ago.

In 1953, MIddle Wall (aka Valley Wall) was the shallowest piece of banking around the Salts but it still played a part in some key aspects of the flood.

3. The Island Wall Embankment

To the north is the more substantial bank supporting modern day Island Wall. Again, as Brian Smith has described, this is an old sea wall built at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the 19th century.

In the distant past, it is thought that the Island Wall area comprised two "islands" that were separated from West Cliff by the floodable SALTS. The wall helped to protect the islands and their maritime activites from water in the SALTS. When the wall was constructed, its creators could have sealed off the Salts altogether by extending the structure as far as the railway line at Sherrin's Aley. However, this would have hampered the salt industry and so a section of coast was left open until much later. (NB Salt production eventually ceased circa 1830).

At its easten end, the ancient banking of Island Wall unites with modern sea defences to form a single broad barrier. However, further west, it dips inland and is a separate entity from the modern sea wall. In this western stretch (known as "Lower Island" or "Lower Island Wall", there is a shallow basin between the two. This is shown on our cross section below.

4. The Causeway

I would imagine that the raised causeway path was a much later addition. It effectively carved the low lying basin into two - providing a convenient path across the Salts and protecting the heart of the town from any flooding from the west.

By 1953, some of the ancient sea defences were serving a slightly different function from those originally intended. We had a more  "modern" sea defence (dark grey on the map) extending fully along the waterfront. Together with the causeway, the old Island Wall banking merely provided a second line of defence for the low lying Nelson Road and Cornwallis Circle. Meanwhile, the natural grass bank of West Cliff and the raised Middle Wall roadway gave the rest of the town a third line of defence.

It all sounded plausible - BUT the resulting bath tub of The Salts was a disaster waiting to happen. The cross section below gives a rough guide of the basin from the high grass bank of West Cliff to the beach.

Cross Section of Whitstable Salt sprior to the Flood of 1953

The Gorrell Stream Flood Plain

Originally, the Gorrell Stream was an open waterway that flowed into the sea at Long Beach. By 1953, it had become an almost forgotten geographical feature as it had been truncated and redirected into an open reservoir known locally as "the backwater".  The reservoir was linked to the harbour by a sluice gate beneath Harbour Street and its waters were used to flush silt from the harbour basin. The lower course of the Gorrell Stream (from Belmont Road) had been covered by the concrete of the Stream Walk pathway - hence the "broken" blue line on our map. (Note: Post-1953, the unsightly "backwater" was also covered by a concrete " roof" and is now known as the Gorrell Tank. It's surface is currently the Gorrell Tank car park).

Whilst the Gorrell Stream seemed both insignificant and innocuous, its broad floodplain was not. In fact, if you study Brian Smith's Whitstable Name & Place feature, you will see that our ancient ancestors had always avoided it when it came to urban development and highways. As Brian observed, the "original Whitstable" was built on the high ground of Church Street - overlooking the floodplain below. When, for economic reasons, our forefathers ventured closer to the sea, they established a community called Whitstaple Street on the ridge between the Gorrell and The Salts. The highway linking the old and new communites was called Church Road and it hugged the southern foothills rather than cut a direct path across the marsh surrounding the stream. The somewhat tortuous route of Church Road later became three linked roads - Bridge Approach, Old Bridge Road and Belmont Road.

Of course, Whitstaple Street became the town centre of today and, during the late 19th century, it expanded a little towards the Gorrell Stream. However, it wasn't until the 1920s that urban sprawl spread east of Cromwell Road to occupy the entire floodplain and unite Whitstable with Tankerton. That sudden spread meant that an adequate sea defence system had become even more crucial.

That's the history out of the way. Now let's look at the geography by considering the map of the flood plain below......

Map of the Gorrell Stream Flood Plain (Whitstable) prior to the flood of 1953

Map of the Gorrell Stream Flood Plain (Whitstable) prior to the flood of 1953

I have marked it in a similar way to The Salts map and, once again, the dark grey swathe shows the easily identified first line sea defence (ie beach, main sea wall and harbour walls). The purple shading highlights other, perhaps less obvious barriers. These are described below....

1 Harbour Street & Tower Parade

The raised stretch of Harbour Street is thought to be the legacy of an old sea wall (Jurden's Inset Wall) constructed in 1779. It slopes sharply down to the Gorrell floodplain and that sharp slope can still be seen today.

2 The Foothills of Tankerton

To the east, the floodplain is bordered by the steeply rising clay hills of Tankerton

3. The Southern Foothills

The foothills of the Whitstable's southern slopes run along the line of Old Bridge Road.

4. The Railway Embankments

We perhaps never think of these as being a flood defence but they would help to hold back water in the event of extensive flooding. Both the current London-Thanet line and the old Canterbury-Whitstable line were built on raised embankments across the lowland of the Gorrell flood plain and therefore afforded some extra protection on the southern and eastern rims.

5 The Town Centre Ridge

The western rim of the floodplain is relatively open apart from that slightly elevated ridge upon which the town centre was built (shown in cream on the map).

Like The Salts, the Gorrell floodplain was a vulnerable area in the event a sea flood. However, it was a broader, more open and somewhat shallower piece of lowland. It was therefore much less of a "bath tub" and the effects of flooding would be a little different.

The Overall Flood Map

The sea broke through the defences late on 31 January 1953 and during the early hours of 1 February. The flood map below has been constructed from comments drawn from our Visitors Book. It should not be taken as accurate in every detail as we have had to fill in many gaps with estimates. However,  as a "broad brush" view, it is useful for the purpose of discussing how and why certain things developed.

The blue sections show just how extensive the disaster became. The deepest water is shown in the darker shade of blue.

General map of floodwater in Whitstable during the storm of 1953

General map of floodwater in Whitstable during the storm of 1953

As you can see, the worst hit area was that western basin - The Salts. The eastern basin (ie the Gorrell Flood Plain) suffered a shallower inundation but it was both widespread and serious. There was less threat to life than over on The Salts but it was devastating in terms of human misery, damage to property/services and disruption.

The ridge between the two basins (ie the town shopping centre) suffered flooding across its northern section (ie northern High Street) but its southern section (ie Oxford Street) escaped the catastrophe. After the initial surge of water, the banked roadways (eg MIddle Wall and Island Wall) drained fairly quickly and, along with Oxford Street, could be used for some of the rescue and clean up operations

We now take a more detailed look at the two basins.

Flooding of the Salts

As we have already initimated, The Salts simply filled like a bath tub - see the enlarged map below.

Map of the floodwater on Whitsable Salts during the Flood of 1953

Map of the floodwater on Whitsable Salts during the Flood of 1953

The flow of water quickly extended across the flat lowland to the banking on all sides of the basin. This is shown on the cross section below......

Cross Section of Whitstable Salts during the Flood of 1953

Cross Section of Whitstable Salts during the Flood of 1953

Then, with no immediate escape route, it could only go one way. That was UP..... in the form of a fast rising lake.

That upward trend would have continued until the floodwater could breach one of banks..... and the shallowest bank was that of Middle Wall. As far as I can make out, water did eventually top the Middle Wall bank causing a shallower flood across the natural ridge upon which the High Street was built. Thiscan be seen in the photo below. It is one of a sequence of photos  taken by well known local pharmacist Gordon Phillips and kindly made availabe to us by Terry Phillips.

Flooding of Whitstable High Street during the Flood of 1953

Flooding of Whitstable High Street during the Flood of 1953

The photo shows the scene from a position close to Davey's Shop (now Whites of Kent) and shows flodwater extending southward beyond the junction with Gladstone Road. It was taken by Gordon Phillips and made available to us by his son, Terry. © T G Phillips

It is only my personal thought but I wonder if Middle Wall played a significant part in determining the depth of flooding on The Salts. Initially, its banking contained and contributed to the build up of water. Then, when it was finally breached, it gave the water an escape route into the High Street - a bit like a safety valve.

The precise depth of water on the Salts is difficult to assess and I have yet to see any official figures. From my own recollection and from various photographs, I would estimate the general level to be around 4-6 ft. (Interestingly, this is the approximate height of Middle Wall). However, these sightings of the flood are derived from daytime observation.....  after the tide had receded, after water had drained off the raised roadways and after the floodwater had settled. In the early hours of the 1st of February, things would have been rather different. Water would still be pouring through the sea defences and, inland, it would be flowing over Middle Wall.  Thus, during this early phase, flooding on The Salts may have been significantly above 6ft in places. Whatever the precise depth, it was devastation that went beyond damage to property, human misery and heartbreak. It was life threatening.

Whilst the northern section of High Street suffered flooding, Oxford Street remained "dry" (as you can be seen from the map above). Thus, it was able to serve two important functions in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. Firstly, it became a key transport artery for the import of equipment and relief aid. Secondly, it acted as a base from which to launch rescue operations for the stranded inhabitants of The Salts - many of whom were trapped on the upper floors of their properties. In particular, the slope down into Nelson Road from Oxford Street resembled a beach from which rowing boats were launched. The photo below is one of a series of shots taken by Derek Fallon and kindly supplied to Simply Whitstableby his daughter Barbara Wardle.

Photo "Beach Head" at the Oxford St-Nelson Road Junction

"Beach Head" at the Oxford St-Nelson Road Junction

A temporary tarmac "beach" was formed on the slope leading down from 'dry' Oxford Street to flooded Nelson Road  This was the base for for many rescue operations undertaken in rowing boats. The photo was taken by Derek Fallon and kindly made available by his daughter, Barbara Wardle. © B Wardle

Water drained from other elevated roads around The Salts during the course of 1 February and these could also be used for rescue operations.

Not surprisingly, floodwater on The Salts took far longer to drain away than that on the Gorrell Flood Plain to the east. This is largely because of the bath tub effect of the banking and the fact that much of the land was close to (or even below) sea level. With the drainage system damaged or clogged with silt/debris, there was nowhere for the water to go. In fact, it is one of the ironies of the flood that the failed sea defences actually causedproblems by preventing the natural flow of water back into the Thames Estuary. Recovery was long and slow and many inhabitants had to be evacuated and housed with friends and relatives elsewhere in Whitstable.

Flooding of the Gorrell Flood Plain

Flooding on the Gorrell flood plain was a little different - see the enlarged extract below....

Map of floodwater on the Gorrell Flood Plain (Whitstable) in 1953

Map of floodwater on the Gorrell Flood Plain in 1953

With such a wide expanse of flat terrain, the flood spread unhindered. There was less of a "bath tub" effect because the water lost momentum before it could reach any barriers of high ground. Furthermore, it was a much shallower basin than the Salts.

As a result of all this, the height of the floodwater was considerably less. Again, we have found no official records but I would estimate it at around 2ft to-3ft. This is consistent with the following photo of Westgate Terrace as viewed from the embankment of the Canterbury-Whitstable railway. It was taken by Gordon Phillips.

Flooding of Westgate Terrace (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

Flooding of Westgate Terrace (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

The photo was captured from the embankment of the Canterbury & Whitstable railway line and shows floodwater of some 2-3 ft. It was taken by Gordon Phillips and made available to us by his son, Terry.
© T G Phillips

It was a similar scene along the northern section as shown in photo kindly supplied by Derek West....

Flood of 1953 in Westmeads Roads (Whitstable)

Floodwater in the northern section of Westmeads Roads

The photo shows Westmeads Road looking north from its intersection with Diamaond Road
Photo supplied by Derek West

The map of the flooding has some interesting features....

Harbour Street (Upper Section)

During the initial deluge, water poured over the raised section of Harbour Street adjacent to the harbour's south quay. However, when the tide receded,  that section of road dried out enabling the following photo to be taken of the slope down into Cromwell Road North. Again it was taken by Gordon Phillips.

Flooding of Cromwell Road North (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

Flooding of Cromwell Road North (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

The photo was taken from the banked section of Harbour Street looking down the tarmac slope into Cromwell Road.  The old reservoir (backwater) is located to the left of that metal fence but it is barely identifiable amidst the general floodwater. The shot It was captured by Gordon Phillips and kindly made available to us by his son, Terry.
© T G Phillips

Tower Parade

Curiously, nearby Tower Parade didn't shake off its floodwater quite as quickly as that upper section of Harbour Street. The water was probably trapped by the hillside of Tankerton to the east, the sea wall at Beach Walk to the north and the raised path of Tower Parade to the south. A slight dip in the road may also have stopped it draining towards Harbour Street. Take a look at this photo captured by Gordon Phillips....

Flooding at Tower Parade (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

Flooding at Tower Parade (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

This photo was taken at the junction with Beach Walk with Jimmy's amusement arcade to the left. The boat is believed to have been one of the pleasure craft operated from the nearby beach by the Waters Brothers. The shot  was captured by Gordon Phillips and kindly made available to us by his son, Terry.
© T G Phillips

It shows the junction of Tower Parade and Beach Walk with the old "Jimmy's" arcade on the left. The boat in the foreground appears to be one of the summer pleasure boats operated  from the beach in front of the Hotel Continental by by the Waters Brothers.  It could be the Monarch or the larger Moss Rose 2. The picture ties in with one of our other Flood Pages - Memories of '53 by Bert Ruck. Bert was a special constable at the time of the flood and his article describes the scene in the early hours of 1 February.

The Uneven Spread of Water

Notice from the map that, unlike The Salts, there is a somewhat "pear-shaped" spread of floodwater across the Gorrell flood plain. A broad band of flooding aligns approximately with Wheatley Road but there is then a narrow "arrow-head" that stretches way beyond this to reach the railway line at Cromwell Road South. Here, it filled the tunnel that allows Stream Walk to pass under the railway tracks. The logical explanation is that the water penetrated along the course of the Gorrell Stream. It's easy to overlook such a seemingly minor geographical feature. After all, the brook's insignificant trickle causes no problem in normal circumstances. However, like any river, it marks the line of "lowest relief" and the route most likely to be exploited by flooding.

Initially, that "arrow head" appears to have been created in a pincer movement. Reports in our Visitors Book suggest that there was a flow down Cromwell Road North and a separate rush of water along Regent Street. The latter had sufficient momentum to damage a wall in the front garden of a house in Cromwell Road South before diverting eastward to meet up with the other flow at the junction with Railway Avenue.

The Curious Island

There was a curious' island' that escaped the flood in the vicinity of Victoria Street and St Peters Road. We are not yet sure of the extent of that 'island' but it appears to have resulted from subtle variations in the contours of our town centre. These variations tend to go unnoticed...... until water is poured on them!!!!

Flooding in Tankerton!!!

Some water suceeded in penetrating the land between the embankment of the Canterbury-Whitstable railway line and the foothills of Tankerton and it extended as far as the dip in Clare Road. This is notable as it was the only part of Tankerton to suffer direct flooding from the sea!!!

Recovery

Water on the Gorrell Flood Plain cleared somewhat quicker than The Salts. There were probably a number of reason for this. The land wasn't as low lying and the flood was shallower. I would also guess that the backwater and associated link to the harbour via sluice gate provided a route for water to flow back into the Thames estuary.

Belmont Road... Secondary Flooding?

Our overall flood map shows a curious area of flooding south of the London-Thanet railway - see the enlarged extract below

Map of the Secondary flooding at Belmont Road (Whitstable) in 1953

I had been unaware of this until Barbara Wardle kindly forwarded photos taken by her dad, Derek Fallon. Take a look at these and note the locations....

Flood water in Belmont Road (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

Flood water in Belmont Road (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

The water extended across the Whitstable cricket ground (behind the fence to the left) onto a substantial section of Belmont Road.The culprit was the Gorrell Stream which enters a covered drain beneath those black and white posts. The photo was taken by Derek Fallon and kindly made available by his daughter, Barbara Wardle. © B Wardle

Flood water in Belmont Road (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

Flood water in Belmont Road (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

Another view of the floodwater - confirming that it spread west as far as the old gas works. The photo was taken from the raiesd bank of Whitstable railway sidings by Derek Fallon. It has kindly been made available to us by his daughter, Barbara Wardle. © B Wardle

Flood Water in Old Bridge Road (Whitstable) during the flood of 1953

Flood Water in Old Bridge Road (Whitstable) during the flood of 1953

This shot is taken from Old Bridge Road looking north across fields that have since become Milfield Manor. The houses of Cromwell Road can be seen in the distance. The entrance to Stream Walk is alongside the house on the extreme right. The photo was taken by Derek Fallon and kindly made available by his daughter, Barbara Wardle. © B Wardle

Shallow water appears to have covered the Whitstable cricket ground and a section of Belmont Road from its junction with Old Bridge Road to the site of the old gasworks (now the Windsor House tower block complex). It also spread across the fields to Stream Walk and lapped onto a section of Old Bridge Road . (NB Nowadays, those fields are occupied by the resdidential road called Millfield Manor).

This flooding surrounds the very point at which the Gorrell Stream feeds into the concrete drain beneath Sream Walk. I would therefore suggest that it  probably comprised fresh rather than sea water. With the sea occupying much the Gorrell flood plain to the north and "The Backwater" flooded at the harbour, the concrete drain would have been blocked. This left the stream with nowhere to go and, as the water built up, it broke its banks along its uncovered section at Belmont Road.

If this assessment is correct, the escape of fresh water would have occurred some time after the initial sea flood. In effect, it was secondary flooding... and this brings home another interesting point. Until I saw Barbara's family photos, I had never fully appreciated that the events of "1953" were not only an "instant disaster". Rescue and aid services would have been confronted with a sequence and 'build up' of problems in the immediate aftermath of the sea defences being breached.

Finally...

Well, that's our assessment so far.... but if anyone can add to the picture, please let us know.


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