My Memories of the Canvey Floods on the 56th Anniversary

1953 Floods on Canvey Island

By Mike Brown

I must be one of the very few people who saw all the events of the horrendous night of January 31st 1953. I lived on a houseboat in Small Gains Creek with my Mother, Father and older brother who suffered from Multiple Sclerosis I was 20 years old.

Photo:Houseboats in Small Gains Creek

Houseboats in Small Gains Creek

It started in the morning when high tide should have been around midday, that day the tide never even reached our boat before it started to ebb, something that had never ever happened before. There had been two weeks of SW gales but that morning the wind backed to NE gaining in strength, the tide started to flow again around 4pm in the afternoon with over 8 hours to high tide. Having lived on a houseboat all my life I knew this was not normal so we took the precaution of setting out extra mooring ropes, we had a gangway leading to the boat which was always above high tide level, by 9.30 in the evening the tide had covered the gangway with a further two hours to high tide, by midnight the water level had reached the top of the sea wall and from the deck of our boat we could see right across Newlands. It was bitterly cold in the NE wind with clouds scurrying across an almost full moon with the occasional snow flurry.

Soon the cries and screams for help could be heard, because I kept my dingy moored near the sea wall I could not reach it at first, I told my father to stay on the boat mainly because he could not swim, I put on my waders and managed to cross our gangway to my 14ft dingy and pull it over the sea wall. The scene of devastation was unbelievable and the screams and cries for help will be with me forever.

I decided to row to the other side of Newlands as I knew this was where the wall had been breached, I passed the bungalow on the corner of Brandenburg and Nordland road with the man sitting on the roof, a picture that was later on every front page of all the newspapers, he was still alive at that time, he would not get into my dingy he asked me look for his wife. I rowed round and saw a woman who had been caught in a tree the other side of the bungalow, she was obviously dead. I then rowed towards some cries for help and managed to rescue a family of four from the roof of a bungalow in Hornsland Road and take them back to Small Gains sea wall, because our houseboat was still not accessible they were taken in by another houseboat.

Photo:Bungalow on the corner of Brandenburg and Nordland road

Bungalow on the corner of Brandenburg and Nordland road

I went back again to Newlands another 4 times, I managed to rescue 11 people in total but unfortunately 4 died of exposure. By this time I was completely exhausted my hands where bleeding from rowing, after a hot drink, a change of clothes and dressings on my hands I decided to go once more to pick up the man on the roof but he had died of exposure, I felt guilty that I was not able to persuade him to get into my dingy earlier. All the emotions of that night then hit me, I gave up when dawn broke, all the cries for help had stopped, there was just an eerie silence. All I wanted to do was sleep but found I couldn't.

The first signs of any outside help were the Leigh cockle boats on the next morning tide, then the army arrived and commandeered my dingy, which I never saw again. The most upsetting thing for me was the body of the woman in her nightdress, that I found caught in a tree, was lying on the sea wall for 2 days with the press and other people walking round her, I found a tarpaulin and covered her up, she was eventually taken to the front of  Chamberlain Stores in the high street with all the other bodies. By late Sunday afternoon there were no living people left to rescue in newlands or sixty acres.

On the third day the police told us we had to leave as the island had been evacuated, I refused because I had a new motorcycle which I stored in a shed belonging to Joe & Amy Wyatt the other side of the sea wall, but they insisted, so we had to go. We stayed with an Aunt & Uncle in Thundersley. It was 3 weeks before I could get to my motorcycle which I had bought 2 weeks before the flood, I managed to push it up to the High Street and get a lift on a Scott's Coal lorry to Ticket's in Southend where I had bought it. The salt water had corroded all the aluminium parts and it was a write-off, my insurance covered the cost of a new one.

Photo:My wife, her Mother and her nine month old sister

My wife, her Mother and her nine month old sister

My Wife was also a victim of the floods, she was 11 years old at the time and lived in sixty acres. She spent 12 hours on a kitchen table, eventually to be rescued by another uncle and a friend who had carried a boat from The Haystack to Central Wall Path. She has been on many interviews for Radio and TV.

I was called up for National Service in March 1953 and served in Egypt and was involved in The Suez War of 1956 with 3 brigade parachute regiment. I saw some horrendous sights at that time but my memories of the 1953 floods will always be with me.

This page was added by Mike Brown on 01/02/2009.
Comments about this page

Thank you Mike for sharing your memories of this horrendous night, 31st January/1st February 1953.

By Janet Penn
On 01/02/2009

Before the Flood occurred I had never heard of Canvey Island, but remember collecting things to send off in parcels from our school- All saints Cof E, Clayton le Moors, Lancashire. But the Newsreel film and the horrors we saw still live within my memory 56 years later. I was 8 at the time, but it's etched on my mind.

God bless All of You.

By Sylvia Hobro
On 16/02/2009

Hey, was hoping you could help me in placing the photo of houseboats on smallgains creek. Which end of smallgains are we looking at? The cricket field end or the canvey tip end? Thanks.

By John
On 06/01/2011

The houseboats were where the current cricket ground is - the sea wall they are against being the current location of Michells Avenue

By David Bullock
On 06/01/2011

Thanks Dave, I've lived here all my life and played football on smallgains, I had no idea that the seawall came that far down. Would that mean the photographer must be somewhere above rainbow road facing north east to where kings now is, with the distinctive curve in the wall in the far ground being roughly where kings roundabout now is? Am I on the right track?

By John
On 06/01/2011

Hi John, yes you are on the right, our houseboat is the forth one from the corner which is moored further back than the others.

By Mike Brown
On 09/01/2011

Mike thanks for getting back to me, for those of you that remember the Island as it was in this picture, I really do envy you. I have been here since 1981 and lived at Ratwick drive, growing up on the island and exploring every nook and cranny by BMX, I have always been fascinated by the odd bits of seawall and ditches all over the place and look at all these pictures with delight and a burning desire to spin the photo 360 and capture all those priceless angles. What a great site! Just one more question, was there a wall on central wall road? If so where? Was harvest road always there?

By John
On 11/01/2011

John, starting from Waterside Farm it passes through the Golf Course and was called Central Wall Path, it goes the south side of Somes Avenue, until it reached the lake, then went north towards Castle View School, Tewkes Creek. That was the old sea wall of Canvey Island many years ago before it was reclaimed to the existing sea wall called Sixty Acres and Newlands. Harvest Road did exist, but just an unmade track. Mike

By Mike
On 18/01/2011

Thanks Mike, all makes sense now.

By John
On 29/01/2011

Hello Mike I've just re-read the fascinating account of your experiences on those dreadful days in 1953 . I also studied the photos more carefully. Is that a high water mark on the bungalows at Brandenberg and Norland Roads and is that someone sitting on the roof? Thanks for sharing it. Pat

By Pat Smith
On 14/02/2011

That is the high water mark and I am afraid that is a dead body on the roof Pat

By Janet Penn
On 14/02/2011

I was a year old in London at the time of the floods on Canvey, my dad was with the Civil Defence from Edmonton London and he told my mum on his return of rescueing a family from the Oysterfleet pub roof. He said the stench of water, sewerage etc was something he would never forget and from time to time would say " I can smell Canvey". 

Would be pleased to see any photos of Civil Defence recue work in 1953 Canvey. My dad died when I was 9yrs old and I have no photos or records. Jimbos wife.

By jimbo
On 23/02/2014

I am sorry to report that the author of this page Mike Brown died yesterday. Lovely man. RIP

By Janet Penn
On 11/06/2014

Very sad news about Mick Brown, truly an unsung hero of the 1953 Flood and a very gifted guy. Condolences to Sylvia and family.

By Graham Stevens
On 12/06/2014

I've only just read this news about Mike and feel very sad about it. I met him only once when delivering leaflets in his road. He was working on one of his handbuilt remote control boats and he kindly showed me his collection and spoke about his time during the 1953 flood. A true hero and a canvey man to be proud of.

 

By Sharon Harris
On 06/11/2014

Just read your story in Patricia Rennoldson-Smiths book. Amazing. Thanks for telling your story. You are a brave guy.

By Paul Chapman
On 24/02/2019

Mike died a few years ago Paul.

By Janet Penn
On 24/02/2019

Really sorry I did not read the condolences.  He was indeed a hero.

By Paul Chapman
On 25/02/2019

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