Floods of 1953: The cold night of terror that claimed 41 lives
10:39 29 January 2013
IT was a night of tragedy when whole families died together and others alone as a torrent of floodwater swamped homes – with little or no warning for those caught up in the disaster. RICHARD CORNWELL speaks to one of the survivors of the 1953 floods at Felixstowe.
Roll of honour . . . those who died at Felixstowe
■ Aircraftsman David Sibbett, 18
■ Sgt Cyril Tidswell
■ Vera Broom
■ Norman Bushnall, 30, and his wife Jean, 26, their son Keith, two, and daughter Brenda, six months
■ Jack Salmon, 37, and his wife Stella, 37, and their son Robin, eight
■ Frederick Flather, 33, his wife Annie, 34, and their daughters Janet, seven, and Suzanne, four
■ Warrant Officer Raymond Pettitt, 28, wife Sheila, 25, and their son Brian, six, and daughter Gillian, two
■ Iris Sadd, 32, and her daughter Patricia, four
■ Lucy Bridge, 85
■ Julia Burkitt, 76.
■ Muriel Allery, 29, and her daughter Sally, four
■ Arthur Cobb, 58
■ Thomas Collins, 79
■ William Damant, 45, his wife Stella, 43 and their son Keith, eight
■ Annie Haselden, 84
■ Alfred Howell, 77
■ Margaret Johnson, five
■ Ronald Studd, 38
■ George Taylor, 84, and his wife Mary, 72
■ Reginald Terry, 42, and his wife Gladys, 40
■ Joan Tong, 34, and her daughter Angela, six
■ Alison Watkins, four
■ Staff Sgt Jack Short
TERRIFIED, frozen stiff in clothes drenched by floodwater, Doris and William Watkins huddled together in the dark on the roof of their home trying to keep their children alive.
It seemed forever before rescue arrived, the screams and shouts of other frightened families all around them, the whistle of the wind, the sound of water lapping at the buildings.
Not only did Doris and William lose their home and all their belongings, it was a night filled with tragedy – the death of their four-year-old daughter Alison, who succumbed to the cold as the family shivered on their roof.
The youngster, wet through when she escaped from their single-storey prefab, suffered hypothermia and died a few hours later.
Showing just how cold it was that night for those waiting rescue, Mr Watkins was literally frozen when he was taken off the roof by rescuers and was found to have suffered frostbite.
Alison was one of 41 who died that night – half of them children – some from the cold, others who drowned, unable to get out of their homes.
It is a night etched on the memories of those who survived, and is as fresh in Mrs Watkins’ mind today as if it happened yesterday.
Now 92, Mrs Watkins, who still lives in Felixstowe, said she and her husband had had no qualms when they moved into the prefabs seven years earlier.
“They were lovely, really nice and warm – though we didn’t have central heating, only one fire – and made good homes. I loved it there,” she said.
“We had heard there had been flooding in that part of town in the old days, but nothing for years. I had never known any. That night in 1953 was a freak, a one-off.”
The first the family, who had gone to bed, knew anything was happening on the night of January 31, 1953, was when they heard noises outside and looked out to see their neighbour George Wallis standing outside and wondered why.
“Then a young policeman came cycling down Langer Road. There was some water in the road then and he told us he had had a message about flooding but didn’t know too much, or how bad it would be or anything – he said we needed to start preparing in case,” she said.
“He said we would be best to get out of the prefab and get to shelter.
“So at once we went back in and started to get the kids dressed and got some clothes on ourselves, but by that time we couldn’t get out of the front door because of the rising water. Then the lights went out and it was pitch black.
“The only way we could get out of the house was through the window. Then we had to get up on to the roof – it was the only place away from the water.”
It was not easy. The waters were rising fast, and Mrs Watkins was heavily pregnant with her third child at the time.
“We didn’t hardly have time to get some clothes on and we stood by the window and waited,” she said.
“The water started coming in and it crept right up to the window. My husband said we had to get out but we couldn’t open the door because of the pressure of the water so William climbed out of a window and managed to get on to the porch roof.
“I had to pass the children through the window to my husband and this meant putting them under the water. My little boy, who was just two years old, went through but Alison was too frightened and put up a struggle before my husband was able to grasp her hand.
“I couldn’t get through the window because I was eight-months pregnant so I had to smash it before I could get out and my husband hauled me up.
“I cannot tell you how long we sat there waiting on the roof. It was so cold – we were frozen. We were wet, too. My husband was so cold he got frostbite in one of his toes.
“When they came to rescue him – which was after us because the rescue boat which came was not big enough – he was frozen stiff, literally, they couldn’t bend him, and he was unconscious when they took him to hospital.
“We were rescued by two policemen in a boat from one of the attractions at the Butlin’s park, where Manning’s is today.
“We lost our Alison. She was only four but the cold was too much for her.
“We lost everything in our home, including all our clothes – they gave me clothes at the hospital because I had nothing.”
Mrs Watkins’ son Christopher, now 62, survived and a month after the disaster she gave birth to another daughter, Hilary, now 59.
■ 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