Survivors share chilling stories of chaos caused by Felixstowe floods
PUBLISHED: 14:46 31 January 2019 | UPDATED: 17:17 31 January 2019
People in Felixstowe gathered in bitterly cold conditions to pay their respects to the victims of Britain's biggest peacetime disaster.
A short service of commemoration was held this morning at the Flood Memorial, Langer Road, to mark 66 years since 41 adults and children from Felixstowe lost their lives in the famous 1953 floods.
The town’s low-lying West End area saw floodwaters more than six feet deep as a tidal surge which swept south down the North Sea, fuelled by a deep depression over Scotland, broke through the banks of the River Orwell where today stands the Port of Felixstowe.
The water poured into homes, leaving those in prefabs and bungalows little route for escape and those in houses desperately dashing upstairs to seek safety.
About 800 acres – one fifth of the town – was flooded, including not just homes but part of the air base where the port now stands.
This year, to mark the 66th anniversary of the tragedy, people were invited to gather at 10am on Thursday, January 31 at the memorial, near the Langer Road-Beach Station Road traffic lights.
Among those gathered to pay their respects were a number of children from nearby Langer Primary Academy, along with survivors such as Carole Josey – whose teddy bear Jennifer was rescued from the floods.
“At the time of the floods my family lived in Langer Road – and I had an older sister, Ann, and my mum and dad, my grandmother and great grandma all in the same house,” she said.
“My mother was the first to realise the sea had come up, and woke everybody up. My sister and I huddled on the bed with my mum while my dad kept watch at the top of the stairs as the water rose. My grandmother and great grandmother were in the front bedroom.”
She said her first memory waking up in the morning was worrying about her teddy bear, Jennifer, who she had been given for her fourth birthday.
“I’m sure my mum and dad had much more important things to worry about than my teddy bear, but eventually when my dad was able to get downstairs he found my teddy bear on the settee – so we were reunited,” Ms Josey said.
“After the flood my mum knitted a bathing costume for my teddy bear, complete with a little button on the back.”
She added: “Eventually when the water subsided my only route out of the house was via the back way onto the seafront.
“We eventually made our way onto the prom. My dad was an electrician and his employer had a workshop in Bridge Road, so we made for there for the night and I can remember sleeping on the floor.
“The authorities arranged for families to take victims in and we were billeted with a very nice family in Hall Pond Way. I believe my grandmother and great grandmother went to a hotel.
“Eventually we moved back in, but in the meantime my sister had been taken to my godparents’ in Luton.”
Ms Josey said she only moved out of the house on Langer Road ten years ago, and even then she had a “permanent reminder” of the floods.
“The salt was still coming through the brickwork, and you could see the mark of the water on the bricks at the front,” she said.
“We were lucky we survived.”
Margaret Nelson, who was 13 when the floods hit Felixstowe, was moved to tears remembering the bravery shown by her mother – who did everything in her power to keep her children from harm.
“It was the noise of the furniture banging on the ceiling downstairs that woke us,” she said.
“The water was rising rapidly because we were in a dip.
“Mother broke a hole in the ceiling to put us in the loft, and broke the tiles so if necessary we [could get] onto the roof.
“We were all soaking wet and we were like that until eight o’clock in the morning when we came down – the water had subsided and it was halfway up our bedroom wall.
“It was about one o’clock before they could get a rowing boat to us to get us out through a bedroom window.”
Rev Andrew Dotchin, Vicar of St John’s Church and St Edmund’s, and Rural Dean of the Colneys Deanery, led the service, and Mayor of Felixstowe Graham Newman laid a wreath to commemorate the disaster.
Mr Newman said: “It will always be remembered, I think, even when the people who were bereaved at the time have passed away. We will always remember this.”
He said the 66th anniversary could be viewed as something to celebrate too – as the reality of the disaster brought a lot of investment to Felixstowe in the form of defences on the seafront and around the port.
“Everything that has ever been designed since has taken into account what happened here on January 31, 1953,” Mr Newman said.
“We just pray it never happens again. We’ve had a few scares on this road alone in heavy rainfall, so we have to be ever vigilant for that.”
When asked how important it was to have the children from Langer Primary Academy join in the commemorations, he added: “It’s part of the heritage of this town – we need them never to forget as well.”
More than 300 people died in coastal towns and villages on a night of sheer terror.
In Felixstowe, the 41 dead included whole families, 13 of them children. Many of them lived in prefabs in Orford Road, where the torrent of water ripped the buildings from their foundations and took them into Langer Road.