11 Feb 2014

Ten pictures that show what flooding looked like in 1953

It has been the wettest January since records began, with the worst floods in more than 250 years. But in 1953 more than 300 people died in flooding in Kent, Essex and East Anglia.

Avis Henger, who was relaxing on the tow-path at Richmond-upon-Thames, is carried to safety after being trapped by high tides in 1953

On the night of Saturday 31 January 1953 and the morning of 1 February 1953, the North Sea was experiencing spring tides.

A deep Atlantic depression passed to the north of Scotland and moved south east down the North Sea.

Due to flooding around Foulness in Kent, this herd of cattle gathers in and around an old abandoned farm

The northerly gales on the western side of this depression forced sea water south at the time of high tide, causing a tidal surge down the North Sea which locally exceeded 5.6m (18.4 ft) above mean sea level.

The winds also generated very large waves in the North Sea that damaged coastal defences.

A group of people walking along a tow path at Richmond suddenly find themselves marooned by unusually high tides and take refuge on a park bench

The combination of high spring tides, storm surge, winds and very large waves resulted in sea defences being overwhelmed in some locations, leading to extensive flooding.

In England, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Nineteen were killed in Scotland, while 1,800 people lost their lives in the Netherlands.

Commander Nigel Parkinson tests his new flood warning siren in the Norfolk village of Salthouse in late 1953

Following the floods, the UK constructed storm surge barriers on the River Thames below London and on the Humber estuary.

An official service for forecasting coastal flooding – the Storm Tides Warning Service – was also established within the Met Office.

Residents of Canvey Island, Essex, are rescued by boat, during the flooding in early 1953

Twice since that Sunday night of 31 January, a similar combination of spring tide and storm surge has raised the North Sea as high or even higher: in January 1978 and January 1983.

In 1993 the Thames barrier was raised again to deal with lesser storm surges and high tides.

Debris at the edges of floodwater on Canvey Island on 21 February 1953

There has also been minor sea flooding around Colchester in Essex and Wells in Norfolk this year.

But there has been no repeat of the 1953 tragedy because a major programme of rebuilding and heightening of east coast flood walls began soon after the disaster and the strengthened defences have taken the strain.

Troops equipped with sandbags on Canvey Island during flooding

Yet the barrier, which has been in operation since 1982, is being used now to help regulate the swollen waters of the Thames and stop flooding west of London reaching the capital.

The barrier’s vital role reflects the fact that the Thames estuary is the place where the freshwater Thames is met twice a day by the incoming tide from the North Sea, making water levels rise and fall by 7 metres.

The Lord Nelson public house on the outskirts of Sittingbourne, Kent, surrounded by floodwater some 10 feet deep on 3 February 1953

The EA says the barrier has been raised 141 times since 1982, but the need is becoming more frequent. It has been closed more than 100 times since 2000 and 13 times in January 2014 alone.

Sea walls appear to have been breached at Jaywick, near near Clacton-on-Sea, in Essex

Experts say that if there are 50 closures a year, it is time to start improving the tidal defence system.

The EA’s current forward plan, called Thames Estuary 2100, estimates that we will have to replace the barrier in about 2070.

Two men in a boat searching for stranded residents during a flood pass a floating table on their way through the gate of a house in New Road, Canvey Island

According to the latest climate change predictions, this is the point when the rising sea levels mean storm surges could come crashing over the top of the barrier.

The Thames Barrier and the other barriers and flood gates near it are currently thought to offer protection against everything but a freak once-in-1,000-years event.