Sea-change: Wivenhoe Remembered - Flooding of the River Colne
Memories of the 1953 flood
Page created by Peter Hill, copied from the earlier Wivenhoe Encyclopedia website
The Colne at Wivenhoe has been a working river for centuries, and it was above all the riverside which made the village such a busy and distinctive place. Fishing, shipbuilding, and also less continuously the port, can all be traced back to the late middle ages. There were two ferries across to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe, and cargo boats heading up to Colchester’s Hythe. Wivenhoe was also a key centre for laying up and crewing the great steam yachts, with up to 40 laying downstream for early 20th century winters.
In the last fifty years nearly all that has gone. The regular ferries had both ceased by 1961, although now a summer weekend ferry has been revived by volunteers. Both shipbuilding and the port finally ended in the 1980s. A century ago there were more than 200 fishermen in Wivenhoe, today under five. With the closing of the Hythe port in 2005 you no longer see great cargo ships slip silently upstream. Today the Colne lives primarily as a pleasure river, for dinghy and cruiser sailing.
Flooding houses – Frank Hodgson
It always puzzled me, because, for someone who lived in Wivenhoe, apparently all his life, to build a house without having flood protection, just was beyond my imagination! I mention that because, on several occasions, we had floods. I remember, once, it was an exceptionally big tide, and I cleared everything from downstairs, upstairs, and I was using the rear of this house as a laundry, and I watched the water come up. But in those days, that house was regularly flooded to a depth of two-foot-six, three feet. Yes, this is what puzzled me, how a man could build a house, who knew the situation in Wivenhoe. Having said that, it also amused me that the people that lived along the Folly, well, they knew exactly what the tides were doing and what they weren’t doing, and when there would be floods, they, themselves, took no precautions. It wasn’t until those houses were sold and people came in from Colchester to occupy those houses, that they had the common sense to put up flood boards! It’s just something people accepted and lived with.
Granny wasn’t daft – Freda Annis
I don’t say the floods was a yearly occasion but it was quite a normal thing. My granny would say, ‘Oh, it’s so-and-so tide,’ or moon, something to do with the moon. ‘We shall get high tides.’ She always said, ‘if you don’t get them in November, you do in January.’ And it was true! We did. And, of course, they’d always lived by the water, I suppose they knew. But we used to laugh, but she knew when there was a full moon, and she would know all the changes. And I bought a countryside book and it explained and I thought, ‘Well, Granny wasn’t daft, by any means!’
Water up the ceiling – Sylvia Weatherall
We moved down on to the Quay in 1949. In the Folly House – the big one, I think it’s an American professor got it now. It wasn’t like it is now, I can assure you! Because we used to have the river in, regularly. It was tide in, everything out, upstairs. It was nothing to have water up to the ceiling. Oh, nothing to have water up to the ceiling. Then, of course, it used to go out and it was rats, and dirty, and lost everything with it.
1953: Fireman – Ray Hall
In the ’53 floods my father was a fireman – part-time – and we had a bell in the house so they used to sound the siren, day and night, but they reverted to sounding the siren during the day. But at night time, so they didn’t disturb anybody, they used to press the button and a bell used to ring in the house. Well, on the night of the ’53 flood, that was the last night of January, actually 1st February, and I should think it was about half past twelve when the bell went, and quarter to one. Well, I used to get up to get the bike out the shed for him, ready, because he used to have to fly down the street, and normally they’d get to the corner of East Street, Anchor Hill, and they’d leave the bike there, and as the fire pump came round the corner they’d all jump on – the blokes who weren’t close. Well, anyway when I got up in the morning, that was a Sunday morning about seven, my mother said, ‘Must be a big fire somewhere,’ she said, ‘Dad hasn’t come home yet.’ ‘Oh! All right.’
Well, I used to go down after they got down to the street and take the bikes round to the fire station, so when they come back he’d got his bike to come home. But when I got down there there was no bikes on the corner of East Street there. So I rode round to the fire station and there was a fireman there, Nelson Crosby, and so I said to Nelson, I said, ‘Where have they gone?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, don’t know?’ He said, ‘I don’t know where they’ve gone,’ he says, ‘the phones are dead.’ He said, ‘I’ve been here all night,’ he said, and he said, ‘I don’t know where they are.’ I said, ‘Well, there must be a tidy fire somewhere!’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He says, ‘Bloody good tide last night.’ I said, ‘Was it?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll go and have a look at my boat,’ I had a little look at the boat in Gassie Edward’s yard, and it didn’t dawn on me then! And all the water was still in the Folly, and there was people sloshing out. And I went into the yard to look at my boat and old George Mitchell, he lived on his smack, he owned the Bethell Alice, and he looked up and he said, ‘Oh, Raymond,’ he said, ‘I’ve slackened the lines last night,’ he said, ‘that was a big tide,’ he said, ‘I’ve slackened all the lines off.’ And at the same time Gassie had broke open the flaps on the valves to let the water out of the gasworks. The water was pouring out, and it should have been low water, but that was still quite half up at least.
So I looked at it, and I said, ‘That’s some hell of a tide,’ I said, ‘all that there.’ ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘That’s all over the marshes,’ he said, ‘flooded the Shipyard out,’ because he’d heard nothing about this being the North Sea floods, you see. So I thought ‘Oh!’ I rode round towards the railway station and sure enough, all the marshes, and they were just getting old Mrs Woods out of the Tollgate House, out of the bedroom window, in a dinghy. Well, the funny thing is, I think that’s John Stewart, he’s got some photographs there of them doing that, and it says, ‘Wivenhoe firemen rescue a Mrs Woods,’ you see, and I said to him, ‘No, it isn’t Wivenhoe firemen.’ I think it might have been Ben Welham, but he wasn’t in the Fire Brigade then, and it might have been someone like Len Barton, who was a Special Constable, that they went because, unknown to me at that time, the firemen had been at Jaywick all night, rowing about rescuing people from the chalet bungalows. And of course in them days they weren’t supposed to be there in the winter but, there you are, they were!
And that’s how I found out where they were. They were actually at Jaywick and they were there all the next day so he didn’t come home for several hours. But I couldn’t believe that he didn’t know where they’d gone! Communication was so bad really. Nobody knew Felixstowe had been under and all them people had died. All we thought, ‘Oh, that broke through the wall at Jaywick, had it?’ And, of course, that night was predicted one of the big Spring Tides and it just happened that the flood surge had come up at the same time as the tide and it was nine foot above. So the new Sailing Club would probably be about ten inches under water now. I mean, they’ve built the bank here and they’ve taken it over to the old railway level, the railway banking, and it’s level with the top of that, but that bit was under water! It flooded the dry dock out. In the Fitter’s Shop, in the yard it was up above the bench level. All in North Sea Canners, old Mr Worsp’s, all them houses there were desperate, under. And it got the railway station…
The Tollgate – Freda Annis
We went down by the river and along to the end there and John laughed because I said, ‘Ere! Where’s the Tollgate House?’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘that hasn’t been there for years!’ I said, ‘oh no!’ I said, ‘They couldn’t have taken Mrs Ticket’s Tollgate down!’ Well, they roared with laughter. There was a family lived there, we called one of the boys ‘Ticker,’ he was a little bit short, I think, and they weren’t a very spicy lot! I think perhaps they might have been one of the crummiest ones we had around but when they had the floods they had to get them out of the bedroom window. It was an old house and of course once when the water came up the dykes all along there the poor old things were surrounded by water. And I said, ‘Well,’ I said, ‘fancy them taking down the Tollgate House,’ I said. And that used to fascinate me as a kid, as to why you had to pay to take a bike or a pram or anything through the tollgate. And, of course, we all thought that the people there had…but they didn’t, they had to pay it over to old Bowsey and he took every ha’penny he could get.
So sad – Freda Annis
The 1953 did a lot of damage but it was still in the Quay area. I mean, we’d known down at Jaywick there because we used to go all round that way. We knew the people who were at the Tower, at Point Clear, and they used to have a restaurant there and we used to go there a lot – we were very friendly with them. They had a lovely place there. And it was so sad. Well, it was inevitable, because they built all those places and people had caravans there. Well, once the water was over the Promenade bit it went right down in a dip and there was quite a number of people drowned there. It was awful to go round there afterwards and see the wreckage because they were only glorified beach huts, some of them, and they’d just been washed right away with the strength of the tide.
Floodwaters – Freda Annis
It used to come to the bottom of Anchor Hill – just a bit above that. It went into the cellars in several places and along Mr Worsp’s part there. But they’d always had it in. They didn’t take too much notice, and he had an alarm system put in so that he knew when they were going to get a high tide and they would just clear out anything from the downstairs and just put it up and let it get on. Well, you couldn’t do anything else about it. I went and helped when Aunt Alice was working there, I went and helped her clear up one time and it was three feet up the wall and oh, it’s a terrible mess. It is really. The people that owned it then, the Douglas’s, they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. If anything gets wrecked, well, it does.’ They were very nice people.
Three foot up – Don Smith
In the 1950s floods would have been up West Street, because I was working in the Shipyard at the time and the height of the water there was just about level with your work bench, which was somewhere about three foot up. Of course, the cottages along the front – Mr Worsp’s and all those – they got quite a lot of that.
Home by dinghy – Joyce Blackwood
It was the night of a Cricket Club Dinner and I was at the Dinner in Colchester with Frank Pike. And, of course, he lived in the Folly and we came home from there and we had to get a dinghy to get to his house. Although the houses were there, right near the water, they were built higher. I don’t know whether they had a cellar or not but you went up steps. He was living down the bottom end of The Folly.
Tide level – Don Smith
Funny enough, on the wall of what was the engineer’s shop at the end of the Quay here -you’re going up to Mr Worsp, where his two yachts are and one fishing boat, that property what faces you on there – if you look about so high above the ground you’ll see, neatly cut in there, tide level of a date, 1921. Well, that’s only so high. But ’53 was up there but it hasn’t been marked at all.
Coke and pitch – Ray Hall
But, of course, what really upset the things [with the tollgate] was the ’53 floods, because one of the Bowes’s, Alf, he had his coal yard there, lost all his coke and everything. And, of course, there was still a lot of stuff in that dump and for years afterwards, if I ever wanted any pitch, I used to just go down there and look in the ditch for a barrel, and that’s still there! Just open it up and tip the pitch out.
Not safe – Betty Govan
Those houses that are built down on the marshes, as you walk along the front by the river, they look nice but I wouldn’t want one for a gift. I wouldn’t live in one of them. I wouldn’t feel safe. Because those people that have bought those never saw the ’53 floods, did they. That was bad. As you go along Ferry Road now we had the Tollgate at the end, where Mr and Mrs Woods used to live, and I can remember going down there on our bikes in ’53 and seeing the farm and getting the old lady out of the house and the water was well up over the window. And that was at Anchor House. The water, inside, was well over the top of their fireplace. And that barrier’s not going to stop it.
Floating away – Betty Govan
All the coal floated away, all the coke floated away, because that’s where Jolliffe’s – my father’s two brothers – kept all our coke and coal down on the marshes. Just big heaps of coke and big heaps of coal, and that all floated away.
Out of the bedroom window – Charles Tayler
The 1953 flood, you can see the mark, I think the mark’s on the Legion wall. That’s still on the Legion wall. That’s West Street and Brook Street and all those, Gas Road. But that rose into Hamilton Road and up there a bit, and old Mrs [Woods], she lived in that Ferry Cottage. They had to get her and her son and old man, out the bedroom window! Oh, we won’t get no more of that now. If we do get heavy floods they’re going to put some water over so it come round it. That’s what worry me. That barrier can’t stop that tide coming but that still come over down at Marriages, down the wood there, that’ll still come along and round the outside. That’s got to happen. I mean, Brightlingsea, all the Prom and that still get flooded, don’t it, when you get a big tide, where Wivenhoe don’t because that push the water back, so it’s got to go somewhere. So I don’t know whether that’s for the good or for the bad. We haven’t had the flood tides since 1940. 1953 was the last one, wasn’t it? I remember the one in 1947. That was a big one. I was at the Bakery. I can remember that was the same year as Wivenhoe was completely cut off with snow.