A black and white aerial photograph of a flooded village and marsh, people can be seen fixing a sea wall.
Heritage and climate change Historic photography Maritime Archaeology

Historic North Sea Floods

The 1953 East Coast floods and other major historic floods that have impacted coastal England over the last 1,000 years.

On the night of 31 January and 1 February 1953, a deep area of low pressure moving south down the North Sea coincided with a high spring tide. It caused a massive ‘storm surge’, producing sea levels three metres higher than expected, that led to devastating floods along the coasts of Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In England, the worst flooding and destruction was experienced in Lincolnshire, East Anglia and the Thames Estuary. Many existing sea defences were overtopped or breached, and warning systems proved inadequate.

A black and white aerial photograph of a rowing boat going down a flooded road through a housing estate.
A lone rowing boat makes it way along Dickens Avenue in Tilbury, Essex on 2 February 1953. Around 2,500 homes were flooded in the port town. Queen Elizabeth II visited the town later in the month to see the extent of the storm damage. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EAW048224.

Official figures released after the event record that 307 people died in England as a direct consequence of the floods, over 160,000 acres (65,000 hectares) of land and 24,000 homes were flooded, 50,000 animals were killed, and over 30,000 people were left homeless. The total damage was estimated at £50 million (in excess of £1.2 billion at today’s prices).

19 people died in Scotland and a ferry sank in the Irish Sea killing a further 130. The impact of the flood was even greater in the Netherlands where 1,836 people lost their lives.

Here we look at the 1953 East Coast floods and other major historic floods that have impacted coastal parts of England over the last 1,000 years.

The North Sea Flood of 1953 and Operation Floodlight

A black and white photograph of a destroyed sea front with a stranded ship in the background.
Photographed on 14 February 1953, this Hallam Ashley photograph shows the devastating consequences of the storm at the seafront of Happisburgh, Norfolk. In the distance is the stranded ship, the tanker Olcades, which broke adrift when under tow and ran aground on 1 February. On the beach (extreme left edge of image) are Second World War anti-invasion cubes uprooted by the storm. © Historic England Archive. View image AA98/13329.

The 1953 North Sea storm surge was accompanied by high waves and caused damage to hundreds of miles of coastline in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent.

On the Lincolnshire coast, waves of over six metres “crashed through flood defences”, and waves over seven metres were recorded off the coast of Norfolk. Water gushed through streets and flooded homes and tens of thousands of acres of farmland. The entire population of Canvey Island was evacuated.

A black and white aerial photograph showing flooded marshes with some houses. People can be seen fixing a breach in the sea wall.
This Aerofilms photograph shows flooding at Sunken Marsh on Canvey Island, Essex. In the foreground, workers attend to a breach in the sea wall. The storm claimed the lives of 58 people on Canvey Island and the whole population was evacuated. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EAW048241.

The day after the floods, the Government launched a massive programme of aerial reconnaissance called Operation Floodlight to capture the extent of the flooding and identify the areas that needed help.

During the following two weeks, the Royal Air Force (RAF) completed over 70 flights and took over 20,000 photographs. The Historic England Archive holds many of these aerial photographs.

A black and white aerial photograph showing prefabricated bungalows dislodged by flood water.
This Aerofilms photograph from 2 February 1953 shows prefabricated bungalows dislodged by the flood waters around Langer Road in Felixstowe, Suffolk. In the distance, beyond the gas works, caravans have been washed up on the railway embankment opposite Beach Station. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EAW048298.

Breaches also occurred along the banks of rivers that drained into the North Sea. The River Great Ouse was breached in seven places in the Downham Rural District area of Norfolk, resulting in the flooding of 135 dwellings and around 5,000 acres of farmland.

People were evacuated to temporary rest centres in Watlington, St Germans and Downham Market. The council used its cesspool emptier to pump water from affected houses. The National Flood Distress Fund, inaugurated by the Lord Mayor of London, enabled the council to distribute coal to help residents dry out their homes.

Flight RAF/WAD/2 of Operation Floodlight took to the skies on the afternoon of 1 February 1953, just a few hours after the storm had passed. Its flightpath took in some of the worst hit areas of the Lincolnshire coast from Skegness in the south to Barton upon Humber in the north.

A black and white aerial photograph of flooded holiday chalets.
A Royal Air Force photograph taken on 3 February 1953 as part of Operation Floodlight. The view shows flooding at Billy Butlin’s first holiday camp at Ingoldmells near Skegness, Lincolnshire. The camp was officially opened in 1936 by the famous flyer, Amy Johnson. During the Second World War it operated as a Navy training base and returned to functioning as a holiday camp in 1946. One of the original chalets, which survived the war and the flood, is now a listed building. © Historic England Archive (RAF Photography). RAF_58_1005_N1_0081.

Most flights were completed by Numbers 58, 82 and 540 Squadrons, who were specialists in photographic reconnaissance based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire.

As soon as a plane landed the photography was processed and sent for interpretation by the Joint Air Photographic Intelligence Centre, who produced special interpretation reports recording the damage to homes, industry and transport infrastructure. Alongside the reports, a few small-scale, hand-coloured maps were produced to indicate the extent of the flooding.

A black and white aerial photograph of hundreds of flooded houses.
This low-level oblique Royal Air Force photograph from 5 February 1953 shows the flooding at Jaywick in Essex, where 35 people lost their lives when flood water rushed in to the village from the landward side. © Historic England Archive (RAF Photography). RAF_540_1017_N1_0405.

Copies of the reports were sent to various government Ministries and agencies including the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Geological Survey, River Boards and the Nature Conservancy.

Aerial reconnaissance allowed the rapid survey of a large swathe of the country that was difficult or impossible to reach by land. Its primary success was in identifying the location and size of hundreds of breaches to the sea walls, allowing engineers to target those for repair.

Operation Floodlight was not the first, or the last, time the RAF would be called upon to record flood events. It was a continuation of the change in priorities from military work to supporting regeneration and rebuilding imposed upon the RAF following the end of the Second World War, often working closely with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. However, the size and scale of the flooding marks 1953 as one of the more notable operations

A black and white aerial photograph showing a number of caravans floating in sea water, a martello tower can be seen to the right of the image.
This photograph from 2 February 1953 shows caravans washed up against the landward side of the sea wall at Seawick, Essex. Some have been carried over the wall by the storm and lie stranded on the beach. In the top-right corner is a Martello Tower, one of 74 similar towers built along the coast in the early 19th century to defend the country from invasion by Napoleon. Ironically, this tower guarded a sluice that could be opened to flood the surrounding marshland in the event of invasion. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. EAW048278.

It took 9 months for all the flood water to be drained and for repairs to be made to the scores of breaches in the sea walls along the coast. The historic environment was inevitably affected. On the north Kent coast, the seaward side of the historic site at Reculver required considerable work to repair great scars in the cliff and to update the rudimentary coastal defences.

A black and white photograph of men repairing sea defences on a beach with two towers in the background.
Workmen repairing sea defences at Reculver on the Kent coast. © Historic England Archive. View image P/A02251/005.

At Sutton on Sea in Lincolnshire, the First World War memorial survived the flood but was relocated afterwards to a new memorial garden. (The 1953 floods were not the first time this village had been devastated by the sea. Almost 400 years earlier, on 5 October 1571, a large part of the village including the church is documented as having been destroyed in a storm and flood).

In the aftermath of the 1953 storm, government reviews resulted in improved coastal defences along all North Sea coasts and the creation of the Storm Tide Warning Service. In subsequent decades, the Thames Barrier was built to protect central London from similar storm surges.

The current barrier is scheduled to be replaced by a higher barrier further downstream by 2060 as sea levels rise and North Sea storm surges undoubtedly increase in both size and frequency due to climate change.

An aerial photograph of barriers dotted across a large river.
Built to protect London from extreme high tides and storm surges, the Thames Barrier was designed as an alternative to building higher river walls and embankments. Located between Silvertown in Newham and New Charlton in Greenwich, construction began in 1974 and was completed in 1982. It was first used the following year. © Historic England Archive. 33084_010.

Other historic floods

The 1953 floods were not the first coastal flood event to wreak havoc in the British Isles. References to great floods can be found in late Saxon documents recording storms from over 1,000 years ago, while there is archaeological and geological evidence that around 6300BC a great tsunami wave impacted the shores of eastern Scotland and northern England, sweeping far inland. This event is thought to have been due to a massive underwater landslide, known as the ‘Storegga slide’, located off the coast of southern Norway.

Obviously, our knowledge of the prevailing weather conditions, the precise areas affected by these events and the consequential loss of lives and livelihoods is all limited and extremely partial. In addition, it is not always clear whether floods referred to in documentary sources were single events or a series of storms following on from each other in quick succession.

Dating is made more problematic by the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In Britain, the switch happened in 1752 and entailed the ‘loss’ of 11 days in September of that year to bring the Julian calendar in line (and keep it in line) with the tropical year (the true time the earth takes to complete one orbit of the sun, or just under 365 and a quarter days.)

When later documents refer to events preserved in folk memories or in early sources that may no longer exist, it is not always clear which calendar is being invoked. Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, there were also undoubtedly many coastal floods of which we have no direct documentary record.

Bristol Channel storm surge/tsunami, 30 January 1607

A photograph of a plaque to the flood that broke down sea banks in Kingston Seymour on January 20th, 1606.
A plaque in the Grade I listed All Saints Church, Kingston Seymour, Somerset, recording the great flood that devastated communities in the Somerset Levels in January 1607. The date on the plaque (20 January) is given according to the Julian calendar, which was superseded by the current Gregorian calendar in 1752 under which system of reckoning the date changed to 30 January. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Towards the end of January 1607, low-lying land along both sides of the Bristol Channel was inundated beneath feet of water for many days. At least 2,000 people drowned together with much of their livestock. Farmsteads and entire villages were destroyed.

It has been suggested that the flooding was the result of a tsunami wave perhaps 6 metres high, caused by an earthquake or submarine landslip occurring somewhere off the south coast of Ireland.

However, as the flood coincided with a gale and very high tide and there are also records of floods around this time along North Sea coasts, other experts think the inundation was more likely the product of a storm surge caused by a deep depression tracking east across England.

Saint Marcellus’ Flood, 13 January 1362

The 13th and 14th centuries are recorded as an exceptionally stormy epoch, with repeated and severe flooding affecting coastlines all around the North Sea. On this day in January 1362, a great storm surge destroyed whole towns in England, the Netherlands and Denmark. In total across the three countries, some 25,000 people are thought to have drowned.

An illustrated map of the lost towers of Holderness.
Map showing the lost towns of Holderness, East Yorkshire (from Thomas Sheppard 1912). The approximate presumed site of Ravenser Odd is shown towards the bottom right at the mouth of the Humber Estuary. The town was completely inundated in 1362 and soon washed away as Spurn Point moved westwards due to coastal erosion.

In England towns impacted included the ports of Ravenser Odd on Spurn Point in the Humber Estuary, which is reported to have been completely inundated and swept away. In Europe, the storm is known as St Marcellus’ Flood because it came a few days before that saint’s feast day, although it is also called Grote Mandrenke in Dutch or Den Store Manddrukning in Danish (the Great Drowning of Men).

Storms and floods of 1287 to 1288

Within the stormy 13th and 14th centuries, the years 1287 and 1288 stand out as exceptionally stormy, experiencing multiple severe weather events in rapid succession.

Matters started on New Year’s Day 1287 when a huge storm surge is reported to have washed away much of the town and port of Dunwich in Suffolk, hitherto one of the main seaports in England. Across the Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire Fens, churches and villages were destroyed and much of the lower-lying land inundated by seawater.

Towards the end of that year, on either 14 or 17 December (perhaps both), another ‘great storm’ or storms swept in. This again brought flooding all around the North Sea but this time also impacted the English Channel, inundating or destroying the ‘cinque’ ports of Romney and Winchelsea that stood on the edge of Romney Marsh.

A photograph of a nave pillar stained by sea water.
Nave pillar in the Church of St Nicholas, New Romney. The staining reputedly records the level of the 1287 coastal flood. © Historic England / Peter Murphy.

Romney, which lies at the mouth of the River Rother, had been suffering from silting of its harbour for much of the 13th century. The storm both flooded the town and aggravated the problem of silting. This former port now lies some 2km from the sea.

The neighbouring port of Winchelsea had the opposite problem, being entirely destroyed in the flood. The town was subsequently rebuilt (New Winchelsea) in a new location a short distance inland.

An aerial photograph of a small village surrounded by green fields.
Aerial view of New Winchelsea showing the new town laid out on a bluff a short distance inland following the destruction of the old coastal port in the storm of December 1287. © Historic England Archive. 24979_047.

At Hastings, part of the castle’s bailey was undermined and collapsed into the sea as the sandstone cliffs on which it stood crumbled under attack from the waves.

An aerial photograph of a castle on a hill surrounded by houses.
Aerial view of Hastings Castle showing the large embayment in the sandstone cliff on which it stands that collapsed in to the sea in the storm of December 1287, taking part of the castle bailey and bailey wall with it. © Historic England Archive. 29494_021.

Finally, early in 1288, on 4 February, another severe storm hit coasts around the Channel and southern North Sea region, causing more widespread flooding and damage.

Storm and flood of 11 November 1099

Although not quite the earliest coastal flood of which we have documentary record, the flood of 11 November 1099 is the earliest known flood event to have affected the Thames Estuary. It has been suggested that it was this storm that led to the formation of the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel.

The Sands are a large, sandbank lying a few miles off the Kent coast between Deal and Ramsgate. Although a serious hazard to shipping, the Sands protect a fine, deep-water anchorage known as ‘The Downs’.

An illustrated map of the Goodwin Sands in the English channel.
Map showing the location of the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel, off the coast of Kent between Deal and Ramsgate. The sands are reputed to be the result of a massive storm in November 1099 that flooded and eroded away a low island that was once owned by the Saxon Earl Godwine. © Crown Copyright. Historic England Archive. View image MP/DEA0174.

Tradition has it that the sandbank was formerly an island belonging to Earl Godwine, friend and advisor to King Edward the Confessor (AD 1042 to 1066), whose son, King Harold Godwineson, was later killed fighting William the Conqueror for the English Crown at the Battle of Hastings.

It has been claimed the storm of AD 1099 inundated and washed away the island, leaving behind the sandbank that came to be named after its one-time owner. Although modern opinion doubts the legend, historians do believe the storm and flood of 1099 resulted in the drowning of some 100,000 people living around the North Sea coasts of England and the Netherlands.

Written by Marcus Jecock, Historic England’s Coastal Lead and Senior Archaeological Investigator, and colleagues from the Historic England Archive.

The Historic England Archive
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Further reading

4 comments on “Historic North Sea Floods

  1. Dr,Charles Kightly [F.S.A]

    Excellent and very well researched. As a very small child, I was evacuated from our house during the 1953 flood, and remember it well

  2. Alison Fairman

    My father F/lt Monty Burton was one of the pilots from RAF Benson PR squadron taking the photographs from his Canberra. I have his log books detailing the flights he made.

    • Wow! That’s exciting & surely would be very interesting info to Historians & Archeologists!

  3. Moira Birks

    I remember Hallam Ashley’s photographs of the 1953 flooding as ‘The Horsey Inundation’

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