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 3 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.
Official figures released after the event record that 307 people died in England as a direct consequence of the floods, over 160,000 acres (65,000ha) of land and 24,000 homes were flooded, 50,000 animals were killed and over 30,000 people 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
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 6 metres “crashed through flood defences”, and waves over 7 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.
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 2 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 6300 BC 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 to 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 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 1/4 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
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.
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 1287-8
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Tradition has it that the sandbank was formerly an island belonging to Earl Godwine, friend and advisor to King Edward the Confessor (1042-66), 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 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.
- Duck, R. (2011) This Shrinking Land: Climate Change and Britain’s Coasts. Dundee University Press
- Hall, Alexander. (2013) The North Sea Flood of 1953. Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia, no. 5. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.
- Lamb, H. (2005) Historic Storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe. Cambridge University Press
- Sheppard, T. (1912) The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast. London: Brown & Sons
- A database of UK coastal flood events
- BBC News – On this day in 1953
You can explore over 400,000 digitised photos taken from our aerial photo collections of over 6 million photographs preserved in the Historic England Archive.
This blog was written by Marcus Jecock, Historic England’s Coastal Lead and Senior Archaeological Investigator, and colleagues from the Historic England Archive.
Excellent and very well researched. As a very small child, I was evacuated from our house during the 1953 flood, and remember it well
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!
I remember Hallam Ashley’s photographs of the 1953 flooding as ‘The Horsey Inundation’