It is 60 years since the Great Storm of 1953, on 31 January-1 February 1953. Some years ago, because of my interest in the science around the global rise in sea levels, I first heard about this storm, in which sustained winds of over a hundred miles an hour combined with high tides to produce a powerful sea surge in the North Sea. Breached sea defences led to severe flooding that affected many coastal areas: in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Belgium, with the most extensive loss of life being in Zeeland. Nearly a tenth of Dutch farmland was flooded, and close to two thousand of the recorded fatalities were in the Netherlands.
But the area I wanted to write about was in Essex. Like a microcosm of Zeeland, Canvey Island is on marginal land that is partially below sea level (hence place names like the Sunken Marsh, or Newlands). Having grown up in Dublin, I didn’t actually know a whole lot about Canvey Island. But, with help from local residents, Canvey local library, Canvey Community Archive and the newspaper archive at the British Library, I found out. I even went to Canvey and talked with people who remembered the floods… It took a bit of time, but it was an fascinating journey.
In earlier centuries settlers from Holland reclaimed the Canvey wetlands, building walls or ‘dykes’ to keep out the salt water. On that day in 1953, the sea walls failed. There were no flood warning systems, and relatively few people even had a telephone. That morning, in the Orkneys, the storm had caused severe damage, but as it moved south the news did not pass on in time to warn those in its path. The sea surged through coastal defences with fatal strength. In one night, many lives were lost along the low-lying English south east coast.
This week, as Canvey residents pause to reflect on those difficult times six decades ago when the island was flooded, Dancing on Canvey is available as a single story at no cost (normal price c £1.50). The story is one of twelve in my collection SaltWater. To download a copy for the kindle, visit Amazon