Floods of 1953: Flood water hit prefabs in Felixstowe like a sledgehammer
11:58 31 January 2013
COMMEMORATION of the 60th anniversary of Britain’s worst peacetime disaster this week has brought back some astonishing and harrowing memories.
Brenda took tea to battling firefighters
AFTER hearing of the floods, 12-year-old Brenda Fenton was desperate to help.
A young volunteer with the St John Ambulance, she made her way to the emergency centre set up in the Cavendish Hotel in Sea Road.
“I was at Sunday School and people were talking about a flood but they had not idea how bad it was,” said Mrs Fenton.
“I walked along the prom and went down to see if I could help. We given the jobs of making tea for the people who were there and the firemen and others helping to pump the water out of the houses.
“I went home to change into my St John Ambulance uniform and mum gave me a ticking off for being late for Sunday dinner – she didn’t believe me about what had happened.
“My mum had been at a dance at the Pier Pavilion the night before and she said there had been talk of a bit of flooding, but like a lot of people who lived in other parts of Felixstowe just didn’t realise how bad it was.”
Mrs Fenton – nee Gadsby – recalled one young mum who had been working at a café when the flood struck and had been unable to get home to the RAF house where she and her children lived because of the water.
“She was very distraught and we were all asking everyone we could for information and eventually someone was able to tell her that her family was safe. People were coming in all the time to find out about people.”
Mrs Fenton worked as part of a team taking tea to the firefighters.
“I remember we couldn’t cross Langer Road because the water was still too deep,” she said.
“I was always pleased to have been able to do a little bit to help. I was selected to represent the St John Ambulance at the Queen’s Coronation because of the work I did.”
Felixstowe editor Richard Cornwell has been discovering what it was like for those caught up in the 1953 east coast floods ahead of tonight’s anniversary.
Ray Versey is one of those who has looked back across the decades to the night when unimaginable horror swept through Felixstowe’s low-lying seafront on a torrent of water, it was still the only feeling he could muster.
The 60 years since that night in 1953 when a surge tide smashed through the river walls and flooded homes has failed to dim his memories or the feelings from that time.
They say time heals, but for many caught up in the disaster – in which 41 people died in the dark, wet and bitter cold in just a few hours – the memories are still as raw today and not a day has passed when a photo, building, news report or person has failed to jog them.
“When I saw the coffins lined up next to each other in a marquee that was put up specially at the cemetery, it was heartbreaking,” said Mr Versey.
“To know their bodies were in those boxes, people of all ages – including families together.
“It is still as vivid in my mind today 60 years on. It was heartbreaking then and is still heartbreaking now.
“It was so totally unexpected and no-one would have imagined a set of circumstances in which it could have happened. Everyone would have expected flooding to have come from the sea – over the promenade, from where people could see it. Not from the river.
“Eyewitnesses said that when the water came down Walton Avenue and hit where the railway crossing is, it shot into the air and hit the prefabs there like a sledgehammer – the power of the sea is incredible.”
Then 23 years old, Mr Versey was drafted in to help with the aftermath of the emergency as a special constable.
He had been waiting to be sworn in when he suddenly got a message asking him to report to the police station as help was needed urgently to patrol the flood area and relieve those officers who had been working non-stop since the disaster struck.
“I didn’t know about the floods, even though I only lived in Walton,” said Mr Versey, now 83, living in Constable Road, Felixstowe.
“There were few telephones, no communications in those days – even when I was working with the police you had to find someone with a telephone to ring in if you needed help or to find out what your next task was.
“I was sworn in by a Justice of the Peace, then sent into a locker room where there were piles of clothing and told to sort myself out with a hat, a long mac that went almost to the ground and a pair of gumboots, and that was the uniform, designed to keep the wet out.
“My first duties were to patrol the flooded area in the evenings just to keep an eye on properties in case there was any looting.
“People had been evacuated or rescued and homes were just left, doors couldn’t be closed because of the water, windows open or broken, and there was a real concern that some looters might go in and try and steal folks’ belongings.
“When we went down to patrol, there was still water in the roads but it was just inches deep by then and most of it had gone.”
He could recall the RAF using massive air heaters to dry out the homes.
Mr Versey also worked part-time as a pallbearer for Knights and Parkers, funeral directors, as did his father, who got him the job.
“I remember being told, keep yourself on standby, there will be a lot of funerals in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
The urban district council staff put up a marquee at the cemetery for the coffins as the funerals drew near.
“We went up to help with the burials and it was awful, so sad. I had never seen or experienced anything like that before. If there was ever a need for counselling it was then, people were so distressed.”
■ Give us your memories of the 1953 floods – write to Your Letters, Ipswich Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich IP4 1AN, or email email@example.com