A Knight’s Tale (96: King’s Lynn)

Sometime in the late 1970s I travelled to King’s Lynn on the Norfolk coast in order to deliver a speech about Social Work to the nuns of a convent about ten miles away. From London this involved a lengthy train journey and cab rides. The town was etched in my memory because it had suffered from the North Sea flooding of 1953.

(BBC News)

‘The devastating North Sea flood of 1953 caused catastrophic damage and loss of life in Scotland, England, Belgium and The Netherlands and became one of the worst peacetime disasters of the 20th century. 307 people died in England, 19 died in Scotland, 28 died in Belgium, 1,836 died in the Netherlands and a further 361 people died at sea.

The flood caused a major rethinking of coastal defences, weather prediction and warning systems after it became obvious that the majority of deaths could have been avoided had these already been in place. The failure of any preventative measures meant many people – babies, adults and the elderly – went to bed that on that fateful night of Saturday 31 January 1953 not knowing of the devastation to come and for many that they would not wake up in the morning.

The Terrain

The east coast of the UK has a number of low lying areas, some of which are barely above sea level, most notably in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Essex and the mouth of the Thames area. The Netherlands also has 50% of its territory less than 1 metre above sea level and 20% of it is below.

Sea defences in the UK were of inadequate design for flooding and tidal surges in 1953. What little there was had been designed in World War Two and was designed to keep invading armies out, not invading seas. The natural sea barriers such as sand dunes had also seen much erosion and had numerous gaps where people had walked over and worn away the natural height. Tragically, these would later prove to be natural inlets and gateways for the sea surge to flow inland.

Post war housing shortages also saw a rise in the number of pre-fabricated buildings (mainly in a bungalow design) in many of these low lying areas. This cheap type of housing was also popular with the rising post-war trend of seaside holidays especially in places like Essex and were nearly always located very close to the shoreline. The design of this type of house was never intended to withstand such force and many collapsed or were simply washed along with the current, ending up metres away from where they originally stood or washed out to sea entirely. 

Lack of warning

That afternoon of 31 January 1953, a number of people noticed a weak tidal ebb. However, it didn’t seem to cause any alarm and people carried about their daily business as usual. Fishing boats still went out as usual and buses still ran their routes along the seafront. It was a typical Saturday for the people living on the coast. The official weather forecast was a slight drizzle and strong winds but nothing regarding waves and tidal flow.

This calm evening was soon to change. At different points during the evening, the tide surged over the sea walls taking many by surprise and leaving no time to warn others. One survivor in Norfolk said it took less than 15 minutes from the water first tricking in, to reaching almost 5 ft inside his property. Those living closest to the sea reported that a wall of water came over almost immediately with many homes collapsing instantaneously with the force of the water rushing in.

The force of the sea also snapped telephone and electricity cables, rendering communication impossible. Similar stories were reported in Belgium and The Netherlands. The coastal residents on both sides of the North Sea were entirely at the mercy of the tide.

The death toll at sea also included those from a number of smaller fishing vessels to the larger passenger ferry MV Princess Victoria, which sailed from Stranraer to Larne with 179 people on board including 51 crew. A rogue wave broke open the already damaged ferry doors whilst sailing in the Northern channel. One survivor recollected seeing one of the lifeboats crashing back into the sinking ferry, capsizing and pulling all the women and children on board down to their deaths. Of all the passengers and crew on board the ferry that night, no women or child survived. 133 lives were lost in total and only 44 men survived.

Immediate aftermath

The preliminary emergency response came from the surviving community itself due to delays in communicating for outside assistance. Outside of the affected areas, the first that many knew of what had happened was many hours after the majority of people had been killed.

In the UK, 1600km of coastline was damaged destroying mile upon mile of sea wall and inundating 160,000 acres of land with seawater, rendering it unusable for a number of years for agricultural purposes. Livestock and domesticated animals were killed in the thousands and washed out to sea. Over 24,000 homes in the UK were seriously damaged. 40,000 people in the UK were left homeless and many people’s livelihoods were ruined. In the Netherlands where the death toll was much higher, 9% (337,300 acres) of Dutch farmland was devastated by sea water. Over 47,000 homes were damaged, 10,000 of which were completely destroyed.

When the official UK search and rescue operation was launched on the morning of 1 February it involved the police, ambulance staff, the fire service, army, the Navy and RAF personnel.  The ‘blitz’ spirit was once again in full swing with temporary shelters popping up and soups kitchens opening. The story of the flood went worldwide with offers of help coming in from many places abroad such as Canada, Finland and even from schoolchildren in Kuwait.

In The Netherlands, the US Army (based in East Germany) sent aid as well as other surrounding European countries. A national donation program was implemented as well as international aid pouring in. The Red Cross was so overwhelmed with contributions; they actually gave away funds to other countries in need.

Post flood

Questions soon began to emerge regarding the complete lack of warning given to the population and the consequent number of deaths. UK priority was initially given to repairing sea walls in addition to rehousing the displaced population. Long-term, building new flood defences were based much more on a cost/risk basis.

The Thames Barrier, which I photographed in April 2002) is one such example that was designed and built following the lessons from the 1953 flood. Warning sirens were put in place at the most at risk areas and are still in use today. The response in the Netherlands was immediate with the Dutch government quickly forming the Delta commission to study the floods and eventually the ‘Delta Works’ were commissioned, enabling the closing of estuaries to prevent upstream flooding and included dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and barriers. Taxes were implemented and readily accepted with a national mind-set that this must never happen again. Even today, commemorations still happen on every anniversary for the dead.

Weather and tidal forecasting leapt forward in the ‘60s with the use of satellites, which provided more accurate predictions and data. The Met office began working with the National Oceanography centre and the environment agency was created. We also saw the emergence of more immediate communication with TV and regular weather reports.

Despite all the huge improvements made since 1953 and as the famous story of King Canute and the waves showed, man can never control the sea. However, we can be better warned of its actions ahead of time. Sadly for the coastal residents of 1953, neither time nor tide could wait. ‘ Weather and tidal forecasting leapt forward in the ‘60s with the use of satellites, which provided more accurate predictions and data. The Met office began working with the National Oceanography centre and the environment agency was created. We also saw the emergence of more immediate communication with TV and regular weather reports.’


Back to the 1970s

The last passenger train was, as far as I remember, about 6.30 p.m. This was confirmed by the sole station staff member. I arrived in such good time that I went for a walk, returning to see a train departing.

I became further perturbed when I saw the single employee pedalling away. I caught up with him and asked if that had been my train. With a look of terror he informed me that there was only the night train to come and cycled off in haste.

There was a long wait ahead of me. No dining establishments were open. There was a cinema – showing ‘Stand Up Virgin Soldiers’. I bought a large cup of popcorn and settled into my seat – one of three now occupied.

The film was meant to be funny, but I wasn’t in the mood.

The night train got me home in the small hours of the morning.


  1. Being landlocked in the Midlands for most of my life, I had never given a thought about coastal flood defences. It’s such a shame it takes a tragedy like this one to come up with a solution.

  2. What a horrific night that must have been for those people. Once again, we are reminded that we are not in control of what nature will do!
    I see a tractor in the first photo that looks like 1940s Farmall H or is it HB in the UK?

  3. An interesting report Derrick. I was too young to actually remember it, but it was talked about all right by my family. My uncle used to tell us that he helped a woman giving birth on top of a roof that night, this was in Holland, he said it was a dreadful situation.

  4. I lived in Holbeach in Lincolnshire for 10 years in a house that was below sea level. It never flooded because of the sea defences there. I now live in Healing in North Lincolnshire which is a comforting 15 feet above sea level.

  5. Typical of this country. Always caught out by totally unexpected events such as a flood in low lying LIncolnshire. A flood in 1953, and sure enough, the Thames Barrier is finished a mere fifty years later. Where do we get our politicians from?

  6. Such a horrible tragedy! Thank you for the history lesson. I didn’t know about this.
    At least you had a movie theater and popcorn, even if you weren’t in the mood for it.

  7. How tragic! Thanks for sharing this story of humankind’s powerlessness against the raging seas. Similar events await us as sea levels rise with melting ice caps and glaciers. By the way, I was curious about the advice/tips you gave the nuns whose lives are devoted to social service.

    1. Thank you so much, Rosaliene. I, too, thought this was apt for our times; and am not surprised that you wonder what I might have said to the nuns. That I really don’t remember – but it would have been along the lines of what I have already written about the work – and it would have been learning from them, too.

  8. What a horrifying disaster! 😮 So sad! 🙁 One of those days/time never forgotten.
    It is a part of history I’ve never known before. Thank you for sharing.
    I wonder about your speech to the nuns. What you said. How they responded. Just my curiosity revving up. 🙂
    I googled that movie…the poster is funny. But, I can see how you were not in the mood to laugh. All that had gone on and I know you just wanted to get movin’ toward home.

  9. This was a terrible disaster. Thank you for the history lesson, Derrick, I was not aware of this one. Our own coastline out here in Oregon is listed as a tsunami danger zone in many places along it. I love the sea, but she can be cruel, and takes no prisoners.

    The long wait for the night train! I am sorry you were stuck with popcorn and a movie that was not funny.

  10. What a sad and widespread disaster! The way you describe it sounds like a tidal wave. I used to have a lot of nightmares about tidal waves back in my early 20s. Living near the coast, we need to be watchful.

  11. This was riveting. I did not know this story. It made me wonder whether it was from a spring tide or king tide, but I clicked your link and see it was a storm driving the tide higher. In many coastal cities here in the States, twice monthly spring tides have grown much bigger and are causing regular flooding, though nothing this violent. Miami and Portland ME get them.

  12. Fascinating account, and very sad. Good thing something was learned but we too often cannot match nature’s powers. As noted above, king tides on the OR coast provide tremendous waves and water volume but have not heard to serious flooods resulting.

  13. Well you’ve just wiped out an hour or so while I go and investigate the workings of the Thames Barrier.
    And, Andrew took me to see the levee near King’s Lynn. Simple but impressive.

  14. What a dreadful tragedy. I don’t remember any of this, though hardly surprising as I’d only just had my sixth birthday.

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