The Great Flood of 1953

The Great Flood at Canvey Island

59 years ago today, on the night of 31 January 1953, the Great Flood swept across Europe, claiming over 2,000 lives. In the UK, tens of thousands of people were made homeless, and in Canvey Island alone over fifty people died.  The flood was caused by a terrifying storm in the North Sea, where many boats were sunk, including the British MV Princess Victoria, with the loss of 133 lives.

Although the East Coast of England bore the brunt of the flooding, the water soon made its way inland.  When the Thames overflowed into Silvertown, many of the factories there sustained some damage, although Tate & Lyle had good flood defences in place.  The water drained out into the sewers, only to rise up again in the lower-lying neighbourhoods of Custom House and Tidal Basin. The people there waited upstairs, terrified, as the water swept into their houses and began ruining their possessions.  Eventually the Salvation Army arrived with a dinghy, passing tea and biscuits through upstairs windows, and in time they were evacuated to the public hall in Canning Town, which had been converted into a rest centre.

Fortunately, there was only one local casualty – William Hayward, a nightwatchman at William Ritchie and Son in Tidal Basin, who had escaped the flood waters only to be gassed thanks to a damaged pipe.

Nonetheless, the effect of the flooding was dramatic for the local people.  Joan Kately, a can-maker at Tate & Lyle at the time, spoke to us of coming home to find the downstairs of the family home thick with black mud even after the water had receded.  ‘Afterwards everyone had all their furniture out in the streets, washing it down,’ Joan told us. ‘Not that we had much anyway.’

The Kately family washing down furniture

Meanwhile, rats which had been washed up from the sewers were still scurrying about in the streets.

For children, however, the flood offered opportunities for fun, and many enjoyed wading in the waters, despite the cold.  Joan Cook, who lived in Otley Road near the West Ham greyhound-racing stadium, couldn’t resist the temptation to have a swim.  ‘The water was coming up Prince Regent’s Lane and we were running towards it to get in it!’ she told us.

Boys playing in flood waters (Tate & Lyle factory in background)



For more information on the floods, see this from the Royal Society.  

Kathy Taylor has written an excellent account of the impact of the floods on Newham residents, including many fascinating interviews.

There are some amazing pictures of the flooding in Silvertown at Stan Dyson’s gallery.

The Newham Story offers a fascinating first-hand account of the flooding.


  1. I was in the factory on the day the water flooded in through the main gate. It was several feet deep, if I remember right


  1. […] The combination of the rain and a high storm surge (caused by the winds across the North Sea) left tens of thousands of people homeless in the U.K., according to […]