Sunday 29 January 2012

The eyes say it all

This hut was my mum’s home after she was made homeless in the 1953 flood. I think her eyes look so sad. That’s her father (Pop) with the pipe and her mother, my grandmother who I never met, sitting next to him. I don’t know who the little girl is, but I think the little boy is my mum’s cousin’s son.

My parents had lived with my sister in one of the houses in the street that faces the camera in the picture below. At the time my sister was 6, ill and needed urgent medical attention. My mum was faced with a choice – keep her little girl with her and hope for rescue, or pass her out of the upstairs window to soldiers in an already full boat.

She handed my sister over. She told me it was one of the most difficult things she ever had to do and the sight of her blanket wrapped child being taken away broke her heart.

She also didn’t know if her parents who lived nearby were safe. Her brother had been round earlier to warn them that a high tide was coming and to move everything upstairs. And she said when the water hit, it was like a tidal wave, smashing the front door in and gushing into the house.

Eventually they were rescued and taken by raft to dry land. They were then moved to a transit camp which was to be their home for several months and which they shared with several other families. The family doctor found them and let my mum know her daughter was recovering in hospital.

It wasn’t the first time they’d found themselves homeless. They lived in London during the Blitz and their home there was destroyed.

At the time of the flood most people were insured with one or other of two different insurance companies. One company paid out to those who lost homes and possessions – the other company said it was an act of God and paid out nothing. You can probably guess which one my parents were – or were not as it turned out – insured with.

When they were allowed back to their homes to salvage what they could, they found my sister’s piggy bank had been smashed, the pennies taken from inside. All my mum’s treasured books were ruined and many precious photographs destroyed.

What photographs and documents we do have from before 1953 are damaged and still caked in mud. My dad salvaged his mother's birthday book in which she'd written poems in memory of her cousins who died in WWI and her first baby who died. It is very damaged, but very precious.

The 31st January will be the 59th anniversary of the flood.

What makes the picture even more poignant is that my grandmother died less than two years later and it may well be the last photograph ever taken of her.

When you look back at the things your parents and grandparents lived through – things still in living memory – well it makes you realise how lucky you are really doesn’t it?


  1. Which flood was this? Where did they live? I thought at first it was the Lynmouth one, but I just looked it up and that was in 1952. What a terrible tragedy for your family. No wonder your mum had such a haunted look in her eyes. What a piece of family history those photos are. I'm glad they survived, not only as something to pass down the generations, but as an eye-opener for the rest of us who have never suffered such things. Did she talk about it much in later years, or was it too traumatic for her?

  2. It was the North Sea flood, hydra and it was on the east coast here and also hit the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, the Netherlands being worst hit with the most deaths.

    The picture was taken in Harwich. And oh yes, she did talk about it and as with everything bad that ever happened to her, she made it sound like a big adventure. She learned to bury her sadness, but it was still there. I wrote her experiences up as an article which was published several years ago x

  3. I alwayswanted to live by the sea but your story shows the other side of it. Terrible thing to happen to your family and the others.

  4. When these tragedies happen to you or someone you know, it brings it home that they are not just items on the news, but real events affecting real people. I read somewhere that there was a flood in East Anglia in 1950's that was thought to have been a tsunami. Was this it?

  5. Yes I suppose it does, Marian x

    I'd never heard of that, Gail. The 1953 flood was caused by a major storm surge that just happened to coincide with an unusually high spring tide x

  6. That must have been a real tragedy for your family Teresa. Yes, we don't realise how lucky we are, but sadly somethings like this is happening somewhere in the world all the time.

  7. Oh this was such a tragedy Teresa. So many people suffered at that time. My DH has relatives who lived on Canvey Island during that awful storm, and they likened it to "hell on earth" at the time. Thinking of you. Caroline x

  8. That is an amazing picture. I agree with you that your mother's eyes are sad. And she is also so elegant and dignified, with her hair immaculate and her back so straight, as if she is looking the disaster in the face, determined to make the best of things.

  9. You are right there, Maggie x

    Canvey Island was the worst hit I think, Caroline. There were other things my mum told me about it, awful things that must have haunted her really x

    Oh Joanna, you have summed my mum up perfectly, thank you x

  10. Like Marian above, I've always dreamed of living by the sea. But when you daydream of it, all you picture is the sun on the waves and the fresh breeze in your face. Yet of course there is another side to it, which we don't hear about so often.

    What a choice your mother had to make. Stories like this really put life into perspective.

  11. What amazing pictures to held of advent that happened to your family. Your mother tells it all in her face. I didn't realise that Harwich was effected to by the high tide that year.

  12. What a sad, sad photo, Teresa. Your mum looks as though she was used to suffering, too. The ransacked piggy bank remnnds me of the thieves who pinched the Poppy Day money from our local butcher last November. There seem to be no depths to which some can sink, now as then x

  13. I've lived here all my life, Joanne and I can't remember ever being scared of the sea, but it has taken lives over the years and that is sad x

    I believe the water was over 13 feet deep here, Jarmara which doesn't sound much, but at night with the wind howling and it coming in with such force, it must have been horrendous x

    Awful isn't it, Frances, to steal from a child. Most people, the vast majority, did all they could to help each other out and I firmly believe that most people are good x

  14. Reading this has made me realise what an easy life I've had.

  15. I remember watching a documentary about this flood, Teresa. Having had my own house flooded 4 times, but not to the degree your poor family suffered, I know how scared and helpless you can feel against the forces of nature.

    What a rotten insurance company. I hope the executives went to hell for all the misery they heaped upon their clients!

  16. I love this pic! I love the stories behind the faces too. Thank you so much for sharing these harrowing memories. I take comfort in the fact that your family were together and supported each other throughout this trauma. It's awful about that bad insurance company and sort of annoying that one company's policies differed from the other when they're in the same business! :-(

    Take care

  17. I'm so glad your sister was okay. What a horrible decision to have to make. Thanks for sharing your photo, Teresa :)

  18. It must have been very traumatic for all concerned.

    Your mum does look very sad - and also very lovely.


  19. Wow! Speechless. Sometimes we need to hear about things like this to make us realise how blessed we really are. x

  20. What a poignant story and photograph, Teresa. It's like something from the war days and reminds us how much we are at the mercy of the elements. Your mother looks sad, but lovely.

  21. I hope we never have to face anything like this, Patsy x

    I get upset if we get a leak in the house and water comes through the ceiling or if a radiator leaks - I'm a right wimp, Jacula x

    It was nice that they were together, Old Kitty - my mum's cousin and her family were in the same hut too. It was awful about the insurance x

    Thanks, Lacey x

    She was lovely, Suz x

    I try to look at these pictures when I'm feeling hard done by, Diane x

    And don't those beds look horrible, Rosemary - I'd never really looked at them before x

  22. I think that the generation who lived through the war must sometimes have laughed at their children's thoughts and preoccupations - everything is so trivial compared with what happened to them.

    Your poor mother. She must have been a strong woman.

    I wonder if now there would be a public outcry at the insurance company that didn't pay.

    A sad tale but I am glad that it was possible to salvage a few mementoes.

  23. What a wonderful photo, Teresa: so full of unspoken emotion. I think the wartime generation of our Mums learnt to take disaster with a stoicism that would shame us. Horrible that they had to go through such things but an amazing tribute to the human spirit - the way they coped. Terrible for your family to have survived the war and then have this to contend with too. I'm afraid we probably "don't know we're born" nowadays but I believe people have a knack of stepping up to the plate when circumstances dictate. I'm only thankful to have been spared this sort of natural disaster in my own life.x

  24. Yes I think there would be public outcry, Jenny. My mum was strong, but I think most of all she had a wonderful sense of humour x

    You're right there, Lydia. I think most of us have reserves we don't even know are there until we need them x

  25. Hi Teresa,
    Incredible photos that capture the ambience of such a traumatic and desperate time.
    Indeed, this may well be a poignant reminder of your grandmother, perhaps captured in the last known photo of her.
    Thank you for sharing such a moving and heartfelt story, Teresa.
    In kindness and respect, Gary

  26. Thank you, Gary. I wish I could have met my grandmother - she was very small and quite fiery I am told :-) x

  27. What a sad story. How incredible to think your family went through so much and coped so well. They all look so smart in the photo too. Such dignity!

    I'm so pleased your grandmother's birthday book was saved.

    We don't have any photos earlier than 1950s, when I asked my dad why not he told me that when my grandmother was evacuated from Jersey with him and his brother and cousin they only had a short while to gather their possessions and so things were left behind. We're so lucky not to have had to face these major traumatic events.

  28. That is awful, Debs - having to leave so much behind under such awful circumstances and things like photos can never be replaced x