Whitstable and the Flood of 1953: Anecdotes of Our Readers

From Our Readers

As mentioned in our introduction, Donald Laing's article and May Johnson's poem gave rise to a flood of their own - a wave of memories from our readers in the form of Visitors Book entries, email messages and articles. We have collated these anecdotes below. Together, they provide a fascinating insight into the tragedy, fear, kindness, and even humour of the moment. (Note: The collation process involved scanning more than 200 pages of Visitors Book. If we have missed any, please let us know!).

So, here is the story of  the night the sea came.

The Coastal Strip and the Initial Surge

When the sea breached the sea defences late on 31 January and in the early hours of 1 February 1953, there was no official warning and the elevated coastal strip suffered the initial torrent of water. This included roads such as Marine Terrace, Wave Crest, Island Wall, Sea Wall and the raised section of Harbour Street adjacent to the old "Backwater" reservoir. It was a frightening scene.....

Quote:

"A gushing torrent of water was coming from between the tennis courts and flowing down the hill into Nelson Road".

Donald Laing

Note: This quote is drawn from Donald's separate article Memories of the Flood of '53 in which he describes his family's escape from Island Wall

Quote:

"Dad and I hurriedly dressed and rushed out to the beach with coils of rope to secure my brother's vessel, Welcome Messenger 2. 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."

John Harman

Note: This quote is drawn from John's separate article "A Night to Remember". The Vigilant was the permenantly beached Thames barge that served as the Whitstable Sea Cadet headquarters. It was located just east of the Neptune Public House.

Quote:

"Seawater poured through and breached the partly completed new sea wall into the low lying parts of Whitstable. The water swirled into the Town over defence works at the Horsebridge, Harbour and Beach Walk areas."

Phil Page

Note: This quote is drawn from Phil's separate article "Events of 1953".

Quote:

"Water came over the harbour walls, rushed down Ludgate Hill past Starvation Point."

Stewart Tilley, Whitstable (12/8/04)

I suspect that the inital surge simply topped the sea defences but wave action then created damage that opened the way for a far greater torrent to pour across the coastal strip. It carried boats, wooden structures, beach shingle, mud, broken concrete and other assorted material with it. Such debris added to the destructive power of the surge....

Quote:

"On the seaward side of Island Wall, a space between two houses was taken up by a large boat which had been driven bow first and had stuck fast. I never heard how they moved it."

John Moore, Frankston, Victoria Australia 29/5/04

Quote:

"At the time of the 1953 flood, the barge Kathleen was on the slip of the Anderson, Rigden and Perkins yard, Island Wall. She was washed up..... and demolished the shipyard building and slipway!"

The barge "Kathleen" ready for relaunch after the flood

The Kathleen ready for relaunch after the flood
Photo supplied by John Wraight

"After the flood, a temporary slipway was built under her and she was launched back into the sea..... sideways."

John Wraight, Australia

Quote:

"At the Horsebridge, scores of oyster barrels were swept away and were found floating outside St. Alphege and Congregational Churches in the High Street."

Quote:

"Beach huts on Long Beach were cast over the sea wall into the harbour car park. The Neptune Pub, which had recently been rebuilt after earlier damage, suffered badly when the waves tore away the back wall"

Phil Page

Note: These quotes are drawn from Phil's separate article "Events of 1953".

All along the waterfront, beach huts were uprooted and carried many yards inland. Some ended up floating in the West Beach boating lake and on the Seasalter Golf Course. Furniture was also swept from houses under the force of water.

Amidst the carnage, there were perhaps a couple of benefits from living on the coastal strip. Firstly, some residents had a good view of the rising sea level and managed to take some "last minute" emergency action. Secondly, a considerable number of the houses and substantial sections of the waterfront roads (eg Island Wall, Sea Wall, Horsebridge and the eastern section of Harbour Street) were sited on the elevated banks of the town's sea defences. Once the initial surge passed through and the tide ebbed, water drained off the banking relatively quickly. This is noted in the following quote from Chis Daughton who lived at The Steampacket public house on the elevated section of Harbour Street adjacent to the harbour....

Quote:

"In 1953 floods, the 'drag' down Cromwell Road and Regent Street left the Steam Packet almost high and dry despite the awful devastation throughout the low lying parts of the town.

After some weeks all the children were invited to WVS in Oxford Street to be given a rubber ball and stick of barley sugar. Having given my name and address there was a whispered conversation and sympathetic looks in my direction after which I was given two of each as they obviously thought my house had been demolished when the sea broke over the harbour !!!!"

Chris Daughton (7/2/11)

Of course, most of the water drained onto the low lying heartlands of Whitstable..... and that is where we continue the story...

The Realisation

Inland, "first warnings" either arrived too late to do anything... or not at all. In fact, for so many Natives, awareness only came when disaster was at their door.... or, in some cases, inside it.....

Quote:

"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". We were rescued by some soldiers who took us by boat. As boys, we thought this was great fun.

In Douglas West's book, Second Portrait of a Seaside Town, there is a picture of our mother being rescued."

Dennis Begent, Whitstable (24/5/04)

Note: The row of cottages described here were demolished soon after the flood and the land used for the Middle Wall car park. The Doug West photo showed Dennis' mother being rescued from a bedroom window by rowing boat.

Quote:

The evening of the 1953 Flood, my best friend Pat Masters and I had gone by coach to The Coronation Ballroom in Ramsgate. (The term used by Whitstable boys for girls such as we was "Yank Bashers"). I believe Ted Heath's band was playing that night. I well recall the names of the vocalists -- Lita Rosa and Dickie Valentine!

We caught the coach back to Whitstable (no upcoming dates, by the way) and the journey along the Coastal Road was very strange -- the coach swayed out of its lane and we thought the driver was drunk. Arriving at Pat's home in Acton Road, we made our mugs of cocoa (with water) and sat at the dining-room table to chat. I lived at the time in Brookland Villas on South Street and routinely spent Saturday nights with the Masters family.

Two sips of cocoa - and we noticed water seeping under the living room door - by way of the front door. We opened the back door to discover a virtual river and the dustbin floating by. We had no idea what had caused any of this. We went upstairs to alert Pat's family and, within a very short time, the lower part of the house was submerged --- including the one toilet and I can't recall how we dealt with that!

It was a while before we realis ed the driver of the coach had been sober and the strong winds were responsible for the coach's swaying out of control. Next morning, I was rescued by Michael Fitt in a rowing boat. His parents ran the East Kent public house.

I recall, long after the waters had gone, that the walls in Pat's home continued to "seep." I don't remember losing any time from work. I was then employed by Mr. Arthur Howson, Solicitor, and his office was on Oxford Street near the Lantern Cafe. I believe it escaped the Flood. I think the night of the Flood was our most exciting spent in Whitstable.

Rosemary Gilbert, San Francisco, California (29/6/07)

Quote:

My Uncle, Ray Perkins, was on his way home from Faversham, I believe, where his band had been playing. They saw the sea coming over the wall at Seasalter.

He went straight to Cornwallis Circle where my Grandmother lived in a downstairs flat. He brought her to our house in Cromwell Road.

My grandmother lost everything as her flat was flooded right up to the picture rail. She lived with us for many months until her flat was ready for her to return.

Jean Clarke, Whitstable (5/10/05)

Quote:

My wife, Fiona, and her family have a vivid account of the flood as, at the time, they were living in Nelson Road (the sea end) and were badly affected."

"There was no warning and the first they knew about it was a knock at the front door in the early hours of the morning and people running up and down the road with torches. There was a wall of water pouring down from the sea after the sea wall had been breached."

Phil Page, Ramsgate (23/4/05)

Quote:

"Where we lived at the Harbour Street end of Woodlawn Street, the water came over the harbour walls, rushed down Ludgate Hill past Starvation Point and into our houses. It reached about 4ft in depth.

Photo of Whitstable's Ludgate Hill in modern tImes with the flow of floodwater marked

Whitstable's Ludgate Hill in modern tImes with the flow of floodwater marked by yellow arrows

Fortunately, we were roused about midnight by 'Cod' Kelsey banging on our front door and warning us of the danger to come. Then, it was a case of "evacuating" all our possessions upstairs - not many in those days - so not too difficult a task. I think we were one of the earliest areas to be flooded."

Stewart Tilley, Whitstable (12/8/04)

Quote:

"I woke up on the Sunday morning and walked into my mum and dad’s bedroom where they had hastily piled up all the furniture and many other things from downstairs during the night before the flood level rose too high.

I looked at the scenario with bleary eyes and asked: “What’s all this junk doing here?” - I’ve never been allowed to forget that!"

Ian Johnson, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire (25/5/04)

And Some of Us Knew Nothing!

For many people living outside the flood zone, first news of the town's greatest natural disaster didn't come until well into the next day (Sunday 1 February 1953).... and, often, it arrived by a process of discovery rather than effective communication.....

Quote:

"I remember my mum moaning because the milk hadn't arrived (on the morning of 1st February)! 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 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), Digswell, Hertfordshire

Quote:

"My Mum packed my doll's pram with jam jars for me to take down to my grandmother on that Sunday morning. I got as far as the bridge over Stream Walk but could go no farther as water was blocking the tunnel under the railway.

It was never a good idea to disobey my Mum and, so, I backed up, went up the walk to the station, hauled the darn pram over the footbridge to Station Road and was then sent back over the bridge by a policeman. I ambled off home quite happily as policemen were an acceptable reason for disobedience.

Mum set off on her bike, with the jars, and came back with them a while later."

Carole Parker, Carstairs, Alberta, Canada (8/8/04)

Carole's progress along Stream Walk was blocked by water in the underpass beneath the London-Thanet railway line. As you can see from the modern photo below, the path dips quite significantly below the London-Thanet railway tracks and the water would have been quite deep.

Modern day photo of Stream Walk and the tunnel under the London-Thanet Railway

Modern day photo of Stream Walk and the tunnel under the London-Thanet Railway

The railway line acted as a barrier to the water - thereby preventing the flood spreading further south.

When news finally spread around town, some people realised how lucky they had been....

Quote:

"I was in a caravan (at the golf links) the day the floods came in 1953. On that day, we moved to 66 Sydney Rd. The next day the caravan was gone - God bless us all! "

Robert Hedges BEM (21/1/04)

Perhaps, the most staggering conclusion to be drawn from all these quotes is that there was so little warning and considerable communication difficulty.

Rescue Operations

With much of the town centre under substantial levels of sea water, rescue operations were launched as quickly as possible. First on the scene were local people - particularly those with maritime connections and others who owned small boats. They were joined by many official organisations including the Fire Brigade, police, ambulance services, WVS, St John's Ambulance, Red Cross, armed forces, Salvation Army and various churches. All had to operate from the new (albeit temporary) shore line created by the flood.

The most urgent operations focused on the deepest and most "life threatening" flooding. That was on The Salts to the west of the High Street and included roads such as Nelson Road, Collingwood Road, Island Wall, Middlle Wall, Shaftsbury Road, Cornwallis Circle and Waterloo Road. The best remembered "beach head" was established at the junction of Nelson Road and Oxford Street where the natural contours had prevented the floodwater from progressing further inland. The gentle slope up from the submerged Nelson Road provided a broad concrete ramp from which small boats could be launched. The "dry" highway of Oxford Street afforded the essential artery for aid and transport. The photo below shows the slope in modern times.....

The junction of Oxford Street and Nelson Road (Whitstable)

The junction of Oxford Street and Nelson Road

This modern day photo shows the slope down into Nelson Road. In 1953, It served as a beach from which rescue boats could be launched

In 1953, it looked like this....

The Nelson Road 'Beach Head' (Whitstable) during the Flood of 1953

The Nelson Road 'Beach Head' during the Flood of 1953

Photo taken by Derek Fallon and kindly supplied to Simply Whitstable by Derek's daughter, Barbara Wardle.  © Barbara Wardle.

An armada of small boats transported residents from the The Salts. Often, people were plucked from bedroom windows as ground floor rooms had disappeared under the torrent of seawater....

Quote:

"I remember well the floods - watching people being rescued in boats and the golf course resembling a lake with beach huts floating in it"

Jackie Perry, Stevenage, Herts (21/5/03)

Quote:

"My dad (a Thames Barge skipper) was out in his rowing boat rescuing people down at Nelson Road and Cornwallis Circle. I remember him saying that one elderly lady would only come in the boat if she could bring her eight cats!"
Cornwallis Circle (Whitstable) in Modern Times

Cornwallis Circle in Modern Times

Jacqui Whatson, Dover (21/1/04)

Quote:

"During the day following the flood, Dr Nesfield arrived at my mother-in-law's house by rowing boat to check on  Fiona (my wife) who was only 8 months old at the time and very ill. He arranged for the rowing boat to go round the back of the house (which was opposite the golf course) so that they could climb out of the back bedroom window onto the shed roof and be rowed to safety in Oxford Street"

Phil Page, Ramsgate (23/4/05)

Of course, not everyone in Whitstable owned a boat..... but, in a seaside town with strong maritime connections, there were a number of places where one could be "borrowed". And boats weren't the only items commandeered... bottles were also available!!!!....

Quote:

"John Bennett and I comandeered a dinghy from the boating lake and spent all morning getting people to dry land from Nelson Road and around the golf club.

The waves went through the bars at The Neptune pub and deposited the beer bottles on a high spot on Island Wall. So, we beached the boat, sat on the road and had a liquid lunch. It is great that the pub still survives."

Michael Fitt, Kansas City, Missouri (20/11/07)

In some cases the commandeering went unnoticed for half a century!!!!!  If you revisit the first quote on this page, you will see that Dennis Begent refers to a photograph of his mother being rescued by boat from Middle Wall (featured in Doug West's book, Second Portrait of a Seaside Town). A few years ago, John Harman took a closer look at that photo and came to the conclusion that the boat may have been his!!!! Not that John had a use for it on that fateful morning. He was trapped in 6ft of floodwater along Island Wall.

Boat rescues weren't necessarily straightforward and there was no time to provide training for rescuers. Although the floodwater was high in some roads, there was normally a drop of five feet or more from a bedroom window to the hull of a rowing boat. On occasions, evacuees were taken directly into the boat. However, a ladder might be deployed as in the diagram below....

Diagram of a rescue by boat in Whitstable during the Flood of 1953

Other methods of escape were landbased and more stable.....  but precarious nonetheless...

Quote:

"In the early morning, my brother George was along Island Wall..... with long breakwater planks from the beach..... 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."

John Harman

Note: For the full story and diagram, see John's separate article A Night to Remember.

Access to a serviceable boat or length of planking wasn't the only qualification that rescue services looked for in "would be" helpers. Whitstable Natives could provide important local knowledge....

Quote:

"A friend of mine (the late Charlie Reed) and I went into the town - not realising the enormity of the situation. We appreciated just how bad it was when we saw row boats arriving and leaving the Nelson Rd "boat ramp" every few minutes.

We both offered our services when we heard that guides were required to assist American Airmen (from Manston airbase).

One trip I made was to the area around Collingwood Road and the Golf Course. The water there was level with the gutter of the clubhouse. It looked rather strange with just the roof showing. There was all sorts of debris floating around - such as drink crates, clothing and other things. I also went as far as Island Wall where we had to be particularly careful because the houses on the town side (near Terrys Lane) had small railing fences. (They may still be there).

On the seaward side of Island Wall, a space between two houses was taken up by a large boat which had been driven bow first and had stuck fast. I never heard how they moved it. They said the flood was caused by a second tide arriving over the first which was held in by gale force winds. Not being an 'expert', I am open to correction."

John Moore, Frankston, Victoria Australia 29/5/04

There was also a desperate need for land-based transport....

Quote:

"I was fourteen and, apparently, there was a call for people with cars to ferry the homeless to the various shelters. My father, John Neame, and I went to the beachhead at Nelson Road and were directed to take an older couple to the All Saints Church Hall. I remember feeling sorry to have to leave them there as the hall seemed quite bleak compared with our nice dry home on Clapham Hill."

Phil Neame, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Evacuation... or Not

Victims of the flood faced a key question .....  whether to evacuate or survive the tragedy on upper floors! Most victims of the deep flooding on The Salts chose to leave their homes. However, it was not always so and I am not sure that the decision to "stay put" was always based on issues of safety!!!....

Quote:

There was a famous photo of Middle Wall  (featured in the museum) with food being given to people who opted to remain in their houses. One of the residents was my Grandfather, Lewis Castle. If any of your older contributors remember him, I would appreciate any information.

He lived where the Middle Wall car park is now located. One amusing story come to mind. We were told that the reason he refused to leave was because of his safe on the ground floor. It contained all his money. Needless to say, when the flood waters receded, it was all ruined."

Tony Stone, Sittingbourne (25/2/04)

On the shallower flooding to the east of the town centre, more residents remained in their homes but many evacuations still took place....

Quote:

"I can remember my mum telling us that she lived in Westgate Terrace and she was 3 years old when they were evacuated. All she remembers is that the flood water rose halfway up the stairs and that her doll that she got for her birthday went floating out the door.

Her grandfather, Mr John Charles Shingleston, helped a lot of people by rescuing them from their homes in a boat."

Elizabeth Ann Hook, Native of Whitstable (23/8/08)

It was hardly surpising when that "shallower" floodwater amounted 2-3ft in roads such as Westgate Terrace.....

Westgate Terrace (Whitstable) during the flood of 1953

Westgate Terrace (Whitstable) during the flood of 1953

Photp taken by Gordon Phillips and made available to us by Terry Phillips
© Terry Phillips

Rescue Centres & Aid Supplies

With many victims of the flood being ferried from The Salts to the 'dry land ' of Oxford Street, rescue centres were set up close by....

Quote:

The people we ferried 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.

Extract from the account of special constable Bert Ruck - click here to see the full article

St Mary's Parish Hall was also used for relief aid. It was on the very edge of the most serious flooding. In fact, it couldn't have been much closer! It's "split level" structure had a  single storey frontage in Oxford Street but a "two storey" rear in the floodwater of Shaftesbury Road. I suspect that its basement was probably flooded. An advantage of the hall was that it was just a few yards north of the main beach head at the junction of Oxford Street and Nelson Road.

St Mary's Parish Hall (Whitstable) in modern times

St Mary's Parish Hall in modern times

Halls further afield were also pressed into action.... such as that at All Saints Church. Relief supplies came from many sources including "overseas"....

Quote:

"One interesting memory which might interest our readers from the Commonwealth was that locals were able to get extra food donated by the governments of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand."

Ian Johnson, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire (25/5/04)

In fact, the floods had become a major news item around the globe and there was even a chance for ex-pat Natives to spot relatives on film.....

Quote:

"My Gran was rescued from her house in Nelson Rd in the floods and, as we live in Australia, my parents saw it on the news at the local picture show. We used to live at 18 West Cliff until we migrated to Australia in 1949."

Mary Brass, Queensland, Australia (2/2/07)

Equipment and food was distributed from the centres. In the early stages of the disaster , some of this had to be delivered by boat to residents who had decided to remain in their homes....

Quote:

"My friend was in the flooding as she lived in Nelson Rd. They had many animals that all had to live upstairs with them for weeks. We all helped the Red Cross to give out blankets. I was very lucky as we lived up Millstrood Hill.... so I could go home to a warm dry home."

Ann Nash, Whitstable (25/2/04)

Other residents were able to visit the centres to collect items and this continued for some time after the initial deluge...

Quote:

"We remember going up with our Mum to the Parish Hall to collect things like rice, raisins and tinned food."

Ian Johnson, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire (25/5/04)

It is important to remember that life styles were very different in the 1950s and this had left residents highly vulnerable to a disaster of this magnitude. People simply didn't stock up with food supplies via substantial weekly shopping expeditions in those days. After all, there were no supermarkets, few residents had cars to collect massive supplies, few had fridges to store food and no-one had a freezer in their kitchen!!!!

Most people "shopped" every day to collect fresh food for the next 24or 48  hours. Yes, they had "tinned" and "dried" items but, with little or no warning before water poured through the door, not everything could be transfered upstairs before it was damaged or simply floated away.

With deep floodwater everywhere, it was no longer easy to "pop to the shop" for emergency supplies. Some shops did open but many were hampered by their own floodwaters whilst others would have experienced supply problems due to disruptions to transport.

Thus, the work of the aid centres was vital.

Transport

Rescue centres and relief operations were dependent on effective transport systems. Travel around town was difficult and this can be seen from our Flood Map page. However, Whitstable also suffered wider problems and, here, I would like to revisit an earlier quote.....

Quote:

"My Uncle, Ray Perkins, was on his way home from Faversham, I believe, where his band had been playing. They saw the sea coming over the wall at Seasalter."

Jean Clarke, Whitstable (5/10/05)

The flood at Seasalter led to floodwater penetrating deep inland across the marshes . In fact, so extensive was the deluge here that it severed the main London-Thanet railway line. It was quite a blow to relief operations as road links were not as sophisticated as those of today. There was no M2 motorway linking us to London and the Medway towns. We relied on the Coastal Road (now known as the Old Thanet Way) and the narrow and  tortuous A2 that burrowed its way through numerous hamlets and villages on its way west.

Some of the problems were solved by re-opening the old Canterbury-Whitstable railway line on 5 February 1953 - five days after the initial surge. The line had been closed a few months earlier (on 29 November 1952) but, fortunately, the tracks had not been removed. The line operated until  28th February 1953 and its main function was to bring coal into Whitstable for distribution by lorry.

The Town Shopping Centre

While we are talking about retail issues, we can discuss the town's main shopping centre.  From South (landward end) to North (the seaward end), this comprsied, the linked highways of Canterbury Road, Oxford Street, High Street and Harbour Street.  Younger readers may be a bit surprised at the inclusion of Canterbury Road but, in the 1950s, it had quite a range of retail outlets.

Canterbury Road was largely unaffected. Harbour Street was deluged. In the middle, Oxford Street and High Street benefited from being built on a slight ridge between the deep basin of The Salts to the west and the lowlands of the Gorrell flood plain to the east. Oxford Street remained "dry" but some premises on its western side were  split level structures built on the side of that ridge and their basements were affected by flooding in Shaftsbury Road. The High Street suffered general flooding - albeit somewhat shallower than other parts of Whitstable. See the photos below.

Whitstable HIgh Street during the Flood of 1953

Whitstable HIgh Street during the Flood of 1953

Photo taken by Gordon Phillips and kindly made available to Simply Whitstable by Terry Phillips. © Terry Phillips.

Whitstable High Street during the Flood of 1953

Whitstable High Street during the Flood of 1953

Photo taken by Derek Fallon and kindly supplied to Simply Whitstable by Derek's daughter, Barbara Wardle.  © Barbara Wardle.

The business world struggled to bring a strange form of "normality" to the tragedy....

Quote:

"On the Monday following the flood, many local shops in the High Street opened for business as usual albeit limited and sometimes from an upstairs room whilst the ground floor was being drained and repaired."

Quote:

"The Oxford and Regal Cinemas were partly flooded but soon returned to performances as usual but using balcony seats only."

Phil Page, Ramsgate (23/4/05)

Note: These quotes are taken from Phil's separate article,  Events of 1953 - click here to view

Those living on shop premises experienced the early, overnight moments of the disaster whilst others arrived to carnage the following morning...

Quote:

"I was 5 years old in 1953 and have some memories of the flooding. We lived above Greensteds (the Fishmongers) at 47 High St.

My bedroom was at the back of house but I woke up in the night because I could hear crashing and banging. I went into mum and dad's bedroom (which overlooked the High St) and told them I couldn't sleep because of the noise and was promptly told to go back to bed! However, a few minutes later, I was still very much awake and returned to their room and, this time, my dad got out of bed to look out of the window.

My dad never swore as a rule, but he did when he saw objects floating up the High Street. The beer barrels from the public houses on the sea front were crashing into one another as they floated by and it was this that had woken me up.

Dad flew down the stairs to unplug the power to the enormous fridges he had in the shop. He then waded out into the garden and collected dry coal from the bunker which, fortunately for us had been replenished the previous day.

Looking back on it, we were very lucky because we still had fire places in the bedrooms and we wereable to keep warm and cook simple things on the open fires.

Dad brought upstairs things that we could use that weren't already soaked. Bless him, he tried to bring my toy box upastairs but as he picked it up the bottom fell out and everything floated away.

My brother and I were able to sit in the window above the shop and watch everything happening including, Mr Butcher the milkman from Bartlett and Bissons delivering milk from a rowing boat. To me the biggest "adventure" was watching the Manager of Vyes, the Grocers opposite, come by boat to see what damage there was to the shop. He opened the double doors whilst swaying about in his boat, only to find all manner of things poured out through the doors including packets of soap powder and toilet rolls etc. I must admit the whole family couldn't stop laughing - it really was very funny!

I remember being taken up to the boating lake area a day or two afterwards and there being the most awful smell in the air, I later discovered this was from the rotting dead fish I also seem to recall being taken to a building to choose some furniture to replace what had been wrecked by the flood water. I believe this might have been donated by well-wishers but this is only a guess - maybe someone could put me right on this."

Anita Dailey, Harlow, Essex

Staff had much to do to recover... but not all salvage operations went to plan...

Quote:

"I was the junior at the then Westminster Bank. As I had keys to the branch, I thought I would put the ledgers and books on high shelves. On opening the bank door, the water flooded in carrying several oyster barrels and debris that had floated down the high street. Several days later the staff were all peeling apart valuable papers, stocks, bonds etc.... then trying to dry them with electric fires. The Bank was flooded to a depth of approximately three feet and the mud and debris (due to my diligence) was horrific."

Michael Dyde, Mollina, Malaga, Spain (21/10/04) 

Quote:

"We went to check on dad's office. He was, at the time, manager of Gann & Brown's coal merchants on Harbour Street and, coincidentally, next door to Daniels Bros. where I later worked for a few months. Being on higher ground, the main office was unaffected by the flooding, except there was no electricity. But dad decided to check out the basement and descended the steep stairs into the darkness. The next thing I heard was a splash and some uncharacteristic language and father appeared soaked to the waist."

Phil Neame, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Sadly, not all businesses survived...

Quote:

"My father used to run a shop in Harbour street opposite the Nelson Inn which has now I understand changed to an office. We were flooded out and, due to the insurance not covering flood, my father went bankrupt and we eventually moved to South Street Brookland Villas."

Ian Streeter, Paphos, Cyprus

Curiosities and Boundaries of Tragedy

As explained on our Flood Maps page, the heavily banked area of The Salts (west of the High Street) filled like a bath tub and the extent of the flooding was fairly predictable once the sea had topped the coastal defences . However, in the more open areas of the Gorrrell Stream flood plain to the east, there was a less regular spread of water - reflecting small and quite subtle variations in the natural relief. Thus, amidst the general surprise and astonishment, local residents noted some curious flood patterns. One was observed by several readers.....

Quote:

"I remember an 'island' running from the middle of Woodlawn Street along St. Peter's St. towards Victoria St. Being slightly raised, this remained dry throughout."

Stewart Tilley, Whitstable (12/8/04)

Quote:

"Although we weren't living on a hill, the location of the Fountain Inn was sufficiently elevated for us to escape flooding altogether. Within a hundred yards of us in most directions there was at least a foot of water in the streets and houses."

John Butler (Resident at the Fountain Inn, Bexley Street, Whitstable 1953)

(Note: The above is an extract from John Bulter's separate article "Fountain of Youth". This contains wider memories of Whitstable)

Quote:

"I remember waking up one morning and being at sea. Living in Victoria Street at the time, we were lucky as the water stopped at the doorstep."

Tony Stone, Sittingbourne (23/2/04)

That island saved some families from the full devastation of the flood..... but it still left them surrounded by water and, effectively, marooned. In a quote later on this page, Tony Stone mentions that he travelled to school by punt!!!

Another feature, concerned a two-pronged surge of water close to the Gorrell stream itself....

Quote:

"One of my most vivid memories is watching the water joining up the two Cromwell Roads outside Weatherleys Bakery on the morning of the flood.

I lived opposite in Cromwell Road at that time

Jean Clarke, Whitstable (4/5/04)

The site of Jean's "joining of the waters" is shown below in modern times. Weatherley's bakery is now Stocks DIY store at the junction of Cromwell Road and Railway Avenue...

Floodwater meeting in Cromwell Road

Water flowed towards the camera from Cromwell Rd North. At the same time, a parallel surge was hurrying along Regent Street and Stream walk behind the houses to the left. This parallel flow hit the garden walls in Cromwell Road South and diverted east to unite with the other flow. Jean relates the story of that dramatic emergence of water from Regent Street below.....

Quote:

"If memory serves me right then the force of the water coming out of Regent Street knocked down the walls in the front gardens of the houses opposite."

Jean Clarke, Whitstable (17/4/05)

Tragedy and good fortune were closely allied in some areas.... with near neighbours experiencing very different outcomes. That Cromwell Road area demonstrates the point.....

Quote:

"By 1953 my parents and I had moved to Surrey but my Grandmother still lived in Railway Avenue (between the junction with Cromwell Road and Station Approach).

Remarkably, on the Sunday in the middle of the flood, my grandparents drove up to Surrey to see us. She said the water had flooded Paynes corner shop at the Cromwell Road junction and boats were rowing along Cromwell Road but, since it seemed to have stopped 25 yards from her front door, she saw no harm in driving up to visit us! They had to get out of Whitstable via Teynham Road and the Monument pub etc.

Such faith in nature - but that was as far as the water got and she was never flooded where she lived in Railway Avenue in over a 30 year stay there. "

Howard Martin, Kidderminster, Worcs (7/11/10)

Quote:

"I can still remember that night - although we were out of the flood area in Railway Avenue (just). I think, it came as far as Weatherley's Corner in Cromwell Road."

Jacqui Whatson, Dover (21/1/04)

That surge of water reached deep into Cromwell Road to fill the Stream Walk underpass below the London-Thanet railway line and, yet, a little furher east, flooding stopped short of houses in Wheatley Road.......

Quote:

"I asked my cousin if they had been affected by the flood. The family live in Wheatley Road and she remembers the water coming to within 6ft of the back door but that no houses were flooded.

Their back garden had a slight rise towards the house. Some friends living in Westgate Terrace came to stay with them when their house was flooded and contaminated with sewage. I was only eight at the time and living in ...wait for it... Herne Bay!"

Christine Punter, Auckland, New Zealand (23/4/05)

It seems that the flood simply followed the lowest lying channel available - ie the Gorrell stream itself.

Another curious feature concerned a very small part of Tankerton - the only section of direct flooding that Tankerton suffered....

Quote:

"Clare Road was not flooded at the top end, but I believe the dip at the bottom end was - maybe it came through into that dip via the back of the houses in Northwood Road..."

Jackie Evans, Herts (11/8/04)

The water certainly did arrive via the route described by Jackie. It squeezed between the raised houses of Northwood Road and the embankment of the old Canterbury & Whitstable railway. In settling in that dip it seems to have exploited a tiny and long forgotten valley that may, at one time, have contained a stream or natural ditch. That valley seems to stretch down to the Gorrell flood plain from the Kingsdown Park area. Along the way it follows the dips in both Balliol and Clare Roads.  Of course, such natural water courses simply disappeared when areas were developed and modern drainage systems installed.

It just goes to show that subtle variations in relief go unnoticed until something pours water on them!!!!

Temporary Relocation

After the rescues and immediate aid, one of the major problems was to find longer term shelter for victims of the deepest floodwater. Relatives, friends and kindly strangers provided help in the true spirit of Whitstable..........

Quote:

"We were lucky for we had somewhere to stay - with my aunt (Miss Williams) who many of those who attended the Baptist Church will remember."

Dennis Begent, Whitstable (24/5/04)

Quote:

"We actually had a young couple to stay at our house as their houseboat had been wrecked. I can't remember their names - just that I liked them!"

Jacqui Whatson, Dover (21/1/04)

However, not all helpers could provide a temporary home for complete family units and families were often split up....

Quote:

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

John Harman (28/10/04)

(Note: The above is an extract from Don's separate detailed article A Night to Remember)

Quote:

"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."

Don Laing (2004)

(Note: The above is an extract from Don's separate article Memories of the Flood.

Coping in the Aftermath

After the intensity of the early deluge, life settled down... but, for some considerable time, it was a life that was far from normal....

Quote:

"I was five and a half at the time and living in Sydenham Street. I remember most vividly the excitement and confusion of having our domestic routines broken – the sheer 'unusualness' of everything.

"My sister and I remember how weird it felt to have our meals upstairs in the front bedroom and to drink soup out of cups – as all the crockery had got dirty in the flood. This was many years before “Cup-a-Soup” came along!"

Ian Johnson, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire (25/5/04)

Quote:

"I remember the floods well. I lived at 66 Argyle Rd and can remember my dad stripping down to go out to his shed to rescue a pet rabbit. As with many others, we lived upstairs for a few days."

Frank Miles, Milton Keynes (22/2/04)

Quote:

"My grandmother and 2 aunts lived at Marine Terrace from the late 1940's until about 1978, when the last aunt passed away.

The two aunts, Peggy and Jill Harris, ran the Red Spider for years and I remember visiting them for school holidays. Peggy cooked and Jill served. On our visits my mother Betty also helped out. My grandmother baked the cakes from her cottage in Marine Terrace.

I remember the big flood in 1953, it was before the sea wall and my gran's cottage was flooded. They had to live upstairs for weeks.

All the shelves in the Red Spider were packed tight with shingle and I helped dig it out with a spoon! I was about 15 at the time. I continued to go there until the early 60's, and the Red Spider was still going strong. I live in Australia now, and last visited Whitstable in 2008. The Neptune was much the same but I was sorry the Red Spider had gone."

Ann Penn (23/3/11)

Residents found that some 1950s designs had advantages over their modern counterparts...

Quote:

"We were lucky that our gas cooker had quite tall legs .... and so we were able to get some hot food. It was an odd memory..... Mum standing at the cooker.... cooking chips in her wellies.

Quote:

"We were also lucky that Mum and Dad’s bedroom had the old original fireplace"..... "At least, we were able to keep warm".

Margarett Emery, Whitstable

(Note: The above are extracts from Margarett's separate article Mum Cooked in Wellies)

Quote:

"Looking back on it, we were very lucky because we still had fire places in the bedrooms and we were able to keep warm and cook simple things on the open fires."

Anita Dailey, Harlow, Essex (23/2/04)

It was an exciting time for some children.....

Quote:

"For the children of Whitstable, the floods provided an opportunity for wonderful adventures. School was off, of course, so we "helped" fire-crews manhandle their pumps along the narrow roads near the beach and they even let me and some friends hold on to the hose nozzle laid out across the beach to discharge the water they were pumping from peoples' houses.

Of course, the crews knew in advance that the water pressure would make the hose thrash about like a demented python which even a gang of 8 or 9 year olds would have difficulty in controlling! We got fairly soaked in the process and, on reflection, it was probably quite dangerous but things were more relaxed then.

I was very impressed that any bollards that got in the way of the pump crews, were removed without ceremony, with a sledgehammer. We also tried “rafting” old doors across the more shallowly flooded roads but never very successfully.

Another feature of the storm, which had caused the floods, was that many of the beach-front warehouses had had their beach-side elevations completely torn away. They were thus not only open to the elements, but also to marauding bands of adventurous children who saw only excitement and no danger in these semi-derelict and collapsing structures. One was full of sacks of grey, granular material which was probably chemical fertiliser and possibly dangerous to handle. We had enormous fun swinging from ropes hung round roof beams now exposed and dropping onto the soft heaps of sacks."

John Butler (Resident at the Fountain Inn, Bexley Street, Whitstable 1953)

Note: The above is an extract from John's separate article "Fountain of Youth". This contains wider memories of Whitstable).

... but this did not extend to the medical aspects of it all.....

Quote:

"Horror of horrors after the floods...... clouds and clouds of white powder - the infamous DDT. This was used to get rid of those hopping blighters in our beds which resulted from the flooded gardens and flotsam. I could hardly breathe at night after my mother had squirted tons of the stuff in the bedroom."

Tony Stone, Sittingbourne (15/3/04)

Schooling

Some schools were partly commandeered as rescue centres - incuding the Oxford Street Boys School. Some others were located in the flooded areas and suffered damage...

Quote:

"I know water entered the Endowed Girls School because my needlework was destroyed. If I remember rightly, I was making a pillowcase!"

Rosemary Gill (27/4/05)

Perhaps the worst hit was the private Whitstable & Tankerton Collegiate Scool (known locally as the "Tom Cat School" due to its initials of "TCS"). This was in Shaftesbury Road and suffered some of the town's worst flooding. Some longer term planning was required....

Quote:

"I was at the Tom Cats School from the age of six in 1951 to 1956....."

"....During the Flood in 1953, the school was flooded to the roof and the boys had to go to other schools for a term or two. A handful of boys, including me, went to Dunelm, which was at the time almost exclusively a Girls School.

I think that going to a Girls School, especially changing for musical jerks in the school hall (which used to be at the end of the slopes opposite the Tankerton Hotel), even at a tender age, had a great influence on my adolescence. For the better that is!"

David Roberts, Whitstable (5/3/08)

Even when schools were open, there were transport problems that required unusual solutions....

Quote:

"Living in Victoria Street at the time, we were lucky as the water stopped at the doorstep. Nevertheless, I have fond memories of going to school in a punt "

Tony Stone, Sittingbourne (23/2/04)

Tony lived close to that curious island of slightly higher ground that we mentioned earlier. The issue of "getting around" also affected children attending schools in other towns. Some innovative and complex routes were devised.....

Quote:

"I was also made to go to school on the Monday morning. My sister and I lived in Cromwell Road and went to Simon Langton in Canterbury. So, we had to go down to the end of the garden, which backed onto the railway line, cross a plank of wood so that we could climb up onto the railway line as the alley way was flooded. We then walked along the railway line to the coal yard (now the area where they sell caravans) by the bridge and through the yard into Canterbury Road. We then caught a bus to school, I believe from the Tollgate - arriving very late and being sent home almost immediately!!!"

Jean Clarke, Whitstable (5/10/05)

That trip over the railway track wasn't as dangerous as it sounds because, as I mentioned earlier, the London-Thanet line had been severed out at Seasalter and all services had been suspended!!!!

Personal Losses

Many people lost personal items - some of which could never be replaced.....

Quote:

"I can recall how my Grandparents lost so much of their furniture during the flood as they lived at Stag Cottage then. Of course, there was no sea wall.

It wasn't all bad, however, as I have in my possession a small mahogany end table that was actually washed into their house. My Nan also had a beautiful Georgian solid silver sugar spoon that they found in the front room as they shovelled away tons of shingle!"

Mark Foreman, Canada (20/2/04)

Quote:

"Seasalter farmer Percy Miles had an ancient 'old bomb', which I was was told was a 1919 Jowett. He gave me a lift one day when I was waiting for a bus in the rain. I was grateful to get in out of the rain but a bit perturbed to find a large pig lounging on the back seat!

The car was sadly "drowned" in the 1953 flood."

Joan Baines (née Moss)

However,  some items were covered by insurance and some insurance companies provided a service above and beyond the call of duty...

Quote:

"I was only three years old at the time of the flood and I was confined to barracks for 24 hours before mum felt that it was safe for me to be taken out to see the carnage. Of course, I heard all the gossip that mum's of the day exchanged in the street. One piece of gossip has stuck with me for 60 years. It came from one of mum's friends who suffered substantial flooding at her home in Reservoir Road. She was "over the moon" with her insurance company. Apparently, the agent turned up during the flood wearing waders and settled her claim within days by delivering a cheque.

I wonder how modern day insurance companies would react. We'd all be diving into 5ft of floodwater to find our phones..... so that we could contact a Call Centre in Mumbai. Then, after we had negotiated the automated switchboard, would they reach for their waders... or wade through the smallprint? ;-)

Dave Taylor, Whitstable (15/3/04)

Media Interest....

The town became a temporary home for the national media and this gave rise to some amusing stories... s...

Quote:

"The picture of the "Nelson Road beach" brought back a memory.

Vincent Barker (his father was the manager of the Oxford cinema) and I spent some time rowing up and down Nelson Road, taking provisions and, when necessary, rescuing people who had got fed up with spending too long trapped upstairs.

On one occasion, we rescued a dear old lady who insisted that we must take her cat as well. He was pretty hyper having spent a day or two trapped indoors. So, we put him in a bird cage. As we approached the "beach", we were asked by a newsreel camera team to row back and come in again as they weren't set up.

The poor old dear thought we were taking her back to her house and she got nearly as hyper as the cat. Anyway, I think she was quite taken by having all the attention, being filmed and interviewed."

Jack Tuckwood, France (23/4/05)

It wouldn't surprise me if the national media asked for a complete re-run of the flood in the new millennium... so that it could be captured in colour

The Longer Term

Some effects of the flood lasted for months ....

Quote:

"One abiding memory of the flood was the smell – it took months, if not years, before we stopped being able to smell it somewhere or other in the town."

Ian Johnson, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire (25/5/04)

Quote:

"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 Doug West's photographic shop. After the flood, much furniture from homes that had been flooded was brought in for restoration - complete with their contents. Cupboards and drawers could not be opened as they had all swollen shut. It was some time before each piece could be dealt with and the smell was awful."

John Harman (25/10/04)

Quote:

"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. 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!"

John Harman (25/10/04)

... and some lasted for many years...

Quote:

"For several years after the water receded, silver crystals formed on the garden path in Victoria Street every time the sun was hot. All my granddad could get to grow were cabbages."

Carole Parker, Carstairs, Alberta, Canada (8/8/04)

Quote:

"My family purchased a home in Middle Wall in the mid 50's. I can remember marks around 6 feet high on the wall showing how high the water was from the flood."

Peter Miller, Weipa, Queensland, Australia (6/10/09)

Quote:

"When we bought our house in 2003, we had to chip all the plaster off due to damp. It hadn't been replastered since '53 and all the salts came out on the walls during hot weather."

Emily Turner, Whitstable

I have heard many stories of how people tried to rid walls of marks and the periodic appearance of salt crystals. Some included the use of hardboard and other forms of wall panelling. More bizarre solutions included tar paper covered with masonite... and lining the interior walls with sheets of (waterproof!) crunchy toilet paper!

The flood also left personal memories and scars that lasted long after the waters had subsided. These included a mistrust of sea defences and concerns of living below sea level.....

Quote:

"We moved from Victoria Street after the floods. Dad said higher ground would be better. So, Sydney Road was my domicile until August 1963 when I departed for pastures new."

Tony Stone, Sittingbourne (17/8/03)

I was just three and half years old at the time of the flood but the things I heard and witnessed have left an indelible mark on my memory. Like Tony's family, I have a healthy respect for and mistrust of the sea!!!!!!

  

We would like to thank all our contributors for the fascinating stories recorded here


Page 1 of 1