The Perfect Storm: Norfolk 1953

By Raymond E. Aldous | 14 December 2004
shows a photograph of houses surrounded by torrents of water

© Eastern Daily Press

Raymond Aldous used our Storymaker programme to recall the events of January 31 1953 when a devastating storm lashed the coastal towns of Norfolk.

All pictures © Eastern Daily Press reproduced with kind permission.

I was just four-and-a-half years of age and living with my mum, dad and brother Terry in 1953 when the worst peace time disaster in 20th century Britain came to our many Norfolk seaside resorts on the night of Saturday January 31.

As a four year old I did not know anything about what happened. I was snug and warm in our council house in Argyle Street in Norwich, drinking hot Ovaltine and sitting by our roasting warm coal fire as the cold January night closed in.

But just 20 miles away on the Norfolk coast events were very different for so many towns and seaside villages. A weather front far out in the Atlantic had combined with wind and strong tides coming from the north at over 100 mph. With the wind and tide working together this sent a wall of water charging down the North Sea. What meteorologists sometimes call "the perfect storm".

shows a photograph of a truckload of people being driven through flooded streets of a town

Boats and trucks help the people of Gorleston to safe and dry ground. © Eastern Daily Press

It was in 1956 that my dad bought a Royal Enfield combination of motorbike and sidecar. As my mum and dad both went out to work we could afford to run our own transport. We started to go out on Sunday trips to the seaside and it was while we were walking the beach of Salthouse on the Norfolk coast that I saw bricks rising from the sand.

These were the remains of old red brick houses. I asked my dad where they came from and he told me they were the remains of the old Salthouse village, which was swept into the sea by a great flood.

He also told me that if you came out to Salthouse on a cold stormy January night you could sometimes hear the old church bell tolling out at sea. I don't know if it's true and I have never put it to the test, but I have never forgotten that story.

The storm hit with such devastating force on that Saturday night in 1953. It smashed into the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire coast destroying everything in its path. 40 people lost their lives as the storm rushed down The Wash overflowing the River Nene at Sutton Bridge.

Kings Lynn is the gateway into Norfolk from the north and more than 3000 homes were flooded there — 1500 people were evacuated and sadly 15 people drowned.

From there it devastated the whole of the Norfolk coast right round to Lowestoft on the Suffolk border. The Norfolk seaside resorts of Snettisham and Heacham lost 34 lives. Wooden bungalows, beach huts, chalets and caravans stood no chance against the oncoming storm.

shows a group of three men inspecting several upturned caravans, bungalows and prefabs

Devastation to the prefabs, bungalows and caravans at Snettisham near Kings Lynn. © Eastern Daily Press

Hunstanton received the brunt of the sea's assault. It wrecked the amusement park and washed over the railway line - a train that was travelling from Hunstanton to Kings Lynn was brought to a halt because bungalows had washed into its path.

Many properties were destroyed and the loss of life was 31 dead including 16 American servicemen who were billeted around Hunstanton.

The storm ran south down the Norfolk coast washing away concrete sea defences, houses and shingle banks. It swept away sand dunes, cars, trucks and many seaside stalls.

Wells, Blakeney, Cley, Salthouse — all were devastated. Sheringham and Cromer suffered major damage. Cromer Pier took a real battering just ninety minutes after the floods hit the area around The Wash.

The sea broke through the defences at Sea Palling causing much damage and seven people died. This was a great favourite seaside resort of mine while I was growing up in Norfolk. I was to have many adventures there as a boy scout in the late 1950s.

On Sunday February 1 the villagers of Walcott woke up to find a 4,000 ton coaster sitting high and dry on the beach. At Great Yarmouth (where nine died) and Gorleston there was also great flooding and damage.

The storm ran all the way down the east coast of England. 40 people drowned at Felixstowe; it was causing havoc around the Thames and was felt as far down as Kent and Surrey. More than 80 people died on the Norfolk coast that night. Many more survived a bitterly cold night on rooftops awaiting rescue.

shows a photograph of a beach with a crowd of people working away with picks, shovels and sandbags to repair a massive gap in the sand dunes

The sand dunes of Sea Palling showing the breach. © Eastern Daily Press

And rescue did come — there were many heroes that night. From Yorkshire right round the east of England the emergency services sprang into operation. At Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast, American servicemen based there risked their lives to help the victims of this terrible flood.

Firemen, Police, the St John Ambulance and many civilians laboured through the cold wet night and many medals were awarded for bravery throughout the rescue.

Some were awarded to civilians, others to the emergency services. Two American servicemen, one fireman and two policemen were awarded the George Medal. I cannot write about all of them as it would take a whole book to pay tribute to these very brave men and women. However the story of the great flood of 1953 can be found in local libraries listing all the seaside resorts that were devastated.

For Norfolk alone the cost of the storm was very high. 24,500 homes and 200 industrial premises were destroyed, hundreds of acres of farmland was made un-useable, hundreds of livestock were killed and the total loss of human life was 300.

It was in 1965 that I first learnt to respect the elements and the forces of nature. I went to sea school in Sharpness, Gloucestershire as a deckhand sea cadet. We were taught that the elements - wind, rain, lightning, snow, ice, strong tides and the might of the sea - can be very dangerous.

One of these elements on its own can be bad but put two of them together and you could be in real trouble. This was to give me strength through my working life as a seaman and a long distance truck driver. So in my latter years with a wife and family of my own I could well understand what happened on that terrible night in 1953.

shows a photograph of people being helped into a boat via a ladder leading from the window of an upstairs room in a terraced house.

Even pedal boats were used to rescue families from their upstairs rooms in Yarmouth. © Eastern Daily Press.

Much of the coast of Norfolk has changed over the years since I was a lad. The seaside and cliff top walks have all gone. Many of the old houses, bungalows and seaside chalets have been lost to the sea through cliff erosion. The coastal roads that ran through the village main streets of many seaside resorts are now the sea front walks and still to this very day the sea is reclaiming more and more of our Norfolk coast.

I ask myself if what happened in January 1953 could ever happen again? I sincerely hope it never does, but the North Sea is a very cold and dangerous place. Strong tides with undercurrents have caught out many a stranger to our Norfolk shores. Some have been unfortunately lost but many others owe their lives to the very brave men of our excellent Royal National Lifeboats Institute.

I remember a long time ago when I was a lad, on one of our Sunday outings to the sea. My dad said, as I dipped my toe in, “Get in boy, it's not cold.” As a seaman I was to remember those words when working in the North Sea. Just two miles from the Norfolk shore you could die from hypothermia in four minutes should you ever fall in without a survival suit on.

Being a seaman I have seen some very nasty weather so I know what the sea can do. Just any one of the elements is not so bad. Two can get a bit rough. But bring them all together and you will have… the perfect storm!

As a lasting tribute to those who perished and to the many men and women who came to the rescue of those in peril that terrible night, I have written a poem about a USAAF American serviceman.

It is based on my own account of how I swam in the freezing cold waters and rescued people from houses in Hunstanton on the night of January 31 1953.

shows a photograph of a man wading waist-high through flood waters

American Reis Leming saved 27 lives and was awarded the George Medal. © Eastern Daily Press

The Wild Night

I remember that night of '53, the dreams I have still awaken me,
Wind and rain combined with tide, and the many people who fought and died.
Hunstanton is a seaside town. In '53 it was torn right down.
Huge waves that beat the shores that night, invaded the land and everything in sight.
Houses, prefabs, shops and stalls, the night time filled with the people’s calls.
All was swept away in haste, the seafront now a total waste.
I swam the seafront to and fro, in shops and houses I did go,
Bringing the people to safe ground, but many more could not be found.
Many heroes became that night, from the rescuers who came to help the plight
Of this Norfolk town, a seaside place. Many from the American base.
I was lucky and live to tell, of this night that became a living hell,
For those who were lost to this terrible storm. I will always remember and truly mourn.

© Raymond E Aldous & 24 Hour Museum.

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