High Tides and a North Sea Surge 10 Dec 2013
The past week was a time of some anxiety for Burnham residents as we awaited the arrival of the much-heralded high tides coupled with an expected North Sea surge, combining to give the highest levels since the disastrous floods of 1953.
Thankfully, it was a non-event; the circumstances were quite different from those of ’53. The highest tide was expected early afternoon instead of the dead of night, there was little wind to whip up the waves and what wind there was came from the west rather than the easterly in ’53 which forced the water into the estuaries and creeks all along the east coast.
The biggest difference, however, is the change in communication. No mobile phones in those days, indeed, few households had a land line. The tragedy was that as the devastating floods worked their way along the east coast, although the various river board officials tried to warn the next area of the disaster heading their way, the emergency was far greater than anyone could cope with.
My copy of ‘The Great Tide’ by Hilda Grieve, a mighty volume produced by Essex County Council, records that on the evening of Saturday 31st January 1953, “members of the Burnham Sailing Club were running a fancy-dress dance at the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club, right on the river bank. The Burnham Surveyor was at the dance when he received a warning message about the tide, about 11.45 pm, from the river board’s acting divisional engineer. The news spread and members of the Club began to warn the occupants of houses fronting the river. At midnight the river was just beginning to spill over the wall.”
This was the beginning of a period of high activity at RCYC which was turned into a reception centre, particularly for residents of Foulness Island who had to be rescued under appalling circumstances. The dance was abandoned and all hands were turned into making up beds and preparing hot meals. The county doctor (un-named) arrived in Burnham but, on finding the arrangements at RCYC so well planned, abandoned the local clinic and made her headquarters at RCYC.
“The steward at the club worked indefatigably in making these preparations and his knowledge of local people was invaluable in mustering assistance in the early hours of the morning.” This included banging on on people’s doors, seeking clothes for those who had been rescued and who were soaked through and freezing.
“The Royal Corinthian Yacht Club proved, indeed, a halcyon landfall for these chilled voyagers. The rector of Foulness called it, ‘Heaven itself – it’s been Heaven itself here, there’s no doubt about it. These people have been magnificent – they couldn’t have done more.’ Hot and cold running water in all the bedrooms; professional waiters and stewards; a tot of rum all round at bedtime at the expense of a London member of the Club; a gong to call them to breakfast; doctors, health visitors, clinic staff, and both trained and untrained volunteers to attend to them and a fleet of four ambulances and five sitting-case cars to take them wherever they wished to go. ‘Nothing was impossible,’ said one of the doctors, ‘ and more was done than one could have asked.’
One tired old man was persuaded to go to bed but refused to undress; so they tucked him up as he was, in an army greatcoat, happy with an ounce of ‘baccy’ and a picture magazine, for though he was, as they say in Essex, ‘no scholard,’ he insisted he could ‘read pictures right well.’ “
Fortunately most of the rescued were able to enjoy their temporary circumstances. “Only two cases were put straight to bed: one a newly-delivered mother who had a large sunny room and very fortunately, was able to breast-feed her baby. One little nine-year old girl was very shocked and tired: she had a sleep then recovered enough to eat a poached egg and some apricots and soon improved. Two or three old men refused to change or bath – they seemed more afraid of baths than floods!”
From the perspective of 2013 one hopes that the ‘evacuees’ really did enjoy a few days’ respite, for the reality of their return to life on Foulness Island, which could hardly have been described as comfortable in ordinary circumstances, would have been grim indeed…
As for Burham, sixty years later in 2013, with an even greater high tide than that of ’53, there was little inconvenience. Several house along the Quayside experienced some flooding but the water came up through drains rather than over the top of the seawall. The raising of the seawall at the end of the eighties and the flood gates have proved so effective that Burnham rates ‘orange’ on the environmental flood map whereas the surrounding countryside is coloured red.
Tony reported that the basement suffered about three inches of water in the west end, a small amount in the beer cellar and a puddle in the east end sub bar – that was soon pumped out and life continues with a sigh of relief…