The Great Tidal Surge of 1953


Great Tides up to 1953

Eastern Essex is a low lying area with water on three sides by virtue of the North Sea to the East , River Blackwater to the north and the River Crouch to the South.

As such it has always been liable to flood despite the efforts of man to protect the land form the middle ages onwards.

Since 1800 there have been regular flooding affecting the sea marsh areas but flooding through the sea wall has been a comparatively rare occurrence.

Particularly bad floods occurred in 1897 where it was described as the highest tide ever known with the High street underwater and dinghies ferrying people away from their houses to higher ground.

Following this flood the sea walls were all raised by 18" with vulnerable points raised even higher.

The next big tide came in 1928 when Bridgemarsh Island was completely covered by water and although the tide was 7" higher than recorded in 1897 by and large the sea wall held.

10 years later in 1938 came another great tide which caused flooding in the country but with isolated problems again the sea wall held firm for our area of Eastern Essex.

1949 saw the next big challenge with more flooding throughout Essex but again this area escaped virtually unscathed. This flood came at a time when servicemen were able to provide assistance to help shore up the sea walls to an even higher standard.

Friday 30 January 1953

The lead up

A large area of low pressure covers the North Sea from Scotland to Denmark which means that sea levels are higher than normal whilst at the same time there are strong winds from the north west pushing the water towards the east coast of England

Then an area of high pressure developed to the north which effectively pushed even more water towards the East Coast.

The period also coincided with a high spring tide on the coast.

This rare double event produced a large area of high waves which swept along the east coast and then across the North Sea to hit Holland.

The weather forecasters were able to predict a very high tide and alerted the authorities although they were unable to predict just how high the tide would be.

Some preparation was begun but by and large life carried on as normal with the vast majority of the population unaware of the threat that they faced.

Graphic courtesy of the Environment Agency


The flood

During the late afternoon East Coast resorts in Yorkshire were reporting very high tides with levels continuing to grow bringing flooding to Lincolnshire.

By the time the tide reached Skegness it was 7 feet higher than normal.

The BBC radio news at 6pm carried a story about the high tides in Scotland but made no mention of any threat to England.  On the 9pm news the story included heavy seas in Yorkshire but again no mention of a threat to the coast.

As a result most people in low lying areas went to bed as normal

The tide continued to grow as it progressed through Norfolk and Suffolk arriving in Essex at about 10pm with immediate flooding of the Bathgate area of Harwich.

Graphic courtesy of the Environment Agency

At about 11.30 the wall of water arrived on Dengie peninsula flooding Steeple Marshes and turning St Lawrence Village into an island

A patrolling Policeman was at the Quay area and was able to evacuate residents of low lying cottages to the Green Man Public House that marked the upper limit of the flood at Bradwell.

The sea flooded the entire low lying area of the Blackwater estuary drowning cattle and sheep as well as sweeping away moored boats and even holiday caravans as well as invading farms buildings, cottages etc.

20 minutes later low lying land  near the River Crouch suffered a similar fate

By midnight the sea walls were beginning to suffer from the constant pressure and a large section of the wall at Bradwell was breached.

Once a breach was established the adjoining sea wall was quickly eroded providing large sections of breaches.

This process was repeated at several locations on the sea wall of the North Sea and the River Crouch leading to vast amounts of sea water flooding over the valuable arable land.

By now the low lying old town area of Burnham on Crouch was flooded  with up to three feet of water covering the area from the Quay to High Street and beyond.

By 2 am at last the tide seemed to turn - nearly an hour late and the risk of further flooding reduced for a few hours leaving the emergency services to cope with the existing water that was unable to flow back into the sea.

Graphic courtesy of the Environment Agency


The aftermath

Essex Fire Brigade worked through the night and following day pumping water from flooded houses.

Burnham Urban District Council led groups of residents in filling sandbags and building defensive walls against the return of the tide.

When the sand ran out the resourceful residents used the black waste that lined the floor of Burnham Foundry to fill more sandbags.

The problem for relief in most of the area was that the tide had struck the whole coastline of Essex to devastating effect and the available support services were stretched to breaking point.

The flooding also had a negative effect on public services such as electricity causing power cuts in affected areas.

At 4pm the tide came back but although at higher levels than normal and some more water poured though breaches the sandbagged areas at Burnham survived and there were no more reports of problems in the remaining areas.

By the late afternoon the scale of the devastating flooding at nearby Foulness became clear and Burnham was designated as a relief point and 96 shocked residents of Foulness were evacuated to Burnham by boat where they were provided with food, clothing and accommodation.

In Eastern Essex most people were able to return to their homes after the flood but 24 people remained homeless.

Once the water receded arable farmers were faced with the problem of fertile land damaged by the sea water , livestock farms were in many cases devastated and in the flooded areas wildlife has been virtually wiped out.

Despite treatment by gypsum and other deposits it was five years before crops could again be grown on the affected arable land.

Over the next few years contractors and troops thronged the area with the task of providing an adequate sea wall to deal with the next threat and each generation has further refined the defences against the sea.

Big tides still occur at regular intervals although the sea walls have yet to be tested against a tide of the magnitude of 1953.

More Information required?

The Environment Agency have some really useful pages on the flood -

There are many books on the flood but by far the best is the Great Tide by Hilda Grieve