Floods of 1953: Family saved by dad’s toothache
11:30 30 January 2013
MEMORIES of the night of January 31, 1953, when 41 people died at Felixstowe as the low-lying southern part of the town was flooded by a sea surge, are still as vivid 60 years on. RICHARD CORNWELL reports.
Violet opened the door to disaster
WHEN Violet Sparrow heard noises downstairs, she went to investigate – and accidentally let a torrent of floodwater upstairs into her family’s home.
As she opened the stair door into the lounge, the water – which had already filled the bottom storey of the cottage – rushed up the stairs.
Mrs Sparrow, and her children, Maureen, then 15, Margaret, 13, and Anthony, nine, found themselves stranded in Gasworks Cottage, in Outfall Road, off Walton Avenue, just the other side of the railway line alongside Felixstowe’s gasholders, upstairs with the water rising.
Ironically, her husband Eric – who worked for the gas company – was a serving Coastguard, on duty at the top of the Martello Tower at Wireless Green, looking out over the sea and unaware of the terrifying danger facing his family behind him, where the River Orwell had burst its banks.
“The first thing I remember was mum waking us up,” said Maureen Rooke, now 75, who lives with her husband Gordon in Colneis Road, Old Felixstowe.
“There was no way we could get downstairs and we were worried at how high the water would come.”
They set about knocking a hole in the dividing wall through to the home of their neighbours Gladys and Johnny Haigh so they could climb through and be together. Then they smashed their way through to the loft and climbed up to sit on the rafters.
“My mum also broke through the roof tiles and we could see the bright moon. We were just in our nighties and pyjamas and were so cold we were numb,” said Maureen.
“We just say and prayed and prayed all night that the water would not come up any higher.
“It had come into the bedrooms about as high as the beds and we didn’t know when it would stop.
“We could hear the screams and shouts of the people on the roofs of the prefabs, which was awful. Then all of a sudden it went completely quiet. It was so frightening.
“All this time dad didn’t know what had happened to us. Eventually, he managed to get up onto the railway line and came along towards the gas works and could hear us shouting.
“It was astonishing and not something you could ever have imagined happening. It’s not something you ever forget and we count our blessings.”
After the flood, the family were split up for months, living with friends and relatives until they could be rehoused by the council. In
their house was found a dead cow and a sheep from West’s Farm, and they lost all their possessions. The property had to be demolished.
ROBIN Porter has the distinction of being the youngest survivor of the 1953 floods – saved by his father’s toothache.
Robin was just seven days old at the time, so of course can remember nothing about the disaster which struck Felixstowe on the night of January 31, but the drama has been talked about in the family many times over the decades.
His sister Jean Hart, who was 11 years old at the time, said: “As was the custom in those days my parents decided mother would give birth downstairs and the birth was attended by Dr Leslie Smith.
“My father Frederick awoke that raging night suffering from toothache, which you could say saved our lives.
“The water was by then pouring into our house.
“I awoke to hear my dad saying it was the sea and I ran downstairs. Dad was using all his strength trying to close the front door.
“I was standing knee deep in the water and I put my hand into the ice cold flow to taste it as I could not believe it was the sea as dad had said.
“It was and it was the coldest I had ever been.
“By this time my mother, Gladys, who was ill after Robin’s birth, and dad were struggling to get some of our belongings upstairs – especially the mattress off the bed and a chest of drawers that contained all of my new brother’s clothes.
“All I could think of was him. I lifted Robin from his cot and ran upstairs with him. I was wet and freezing and thought the world was ending, but I had my prize safe in my bed with me, my brother Robin. Then I heard my mother cry out, ‘Where’s my baby! Where’s my baby!’ I said, ‘I have got him, mum’.”
The family spent that night in one room on the mattress they had hauled upstairs at their home in Manwick Road. Mr Porter insisting that it was safest to be together.
“It was a good job he said that as we would have run straight into the torrent which we thought at that time was coming from the seafront not Langer Road,” said Mrs Hart.
“We listened to the cries of the people who drowned in the bungalow at the corner of St Edmunds Road and saw their hands waving out of the roof. I remember it so well that I have to look at the new tiles on the roof even to this day every time I go past.
“Some time during that night I saw a very brave policeman going down the lane beside our house. He was up to his neck in the water with his arms in the air trying to get to the people in the bungalow. A while later he came back with a bad cut across his nose and face – I thought he was so brave. That was when dad said the water was going down because it was only up to the policeman’s chest.”
In the early hours of the morning, the family saw a small rowing boat approaching, rowed by firemen with Dr Smith with them.
“Dr Smith said he had been worrying about mum and her new baby being downstairs. Mum and I were carried out to the boat by the firemen and dad carried Robin,” she recalled.
They were taken to the Cavendish Hotel, being used as an emergency reception and rest centre for the homeless.
■ Tell us your memories of the 1953 floods – write to Your Letters, Ipswich Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or email firstname.lastname@example.org