David Boyle

When the seas rise

Town & Country Planning, February 2013


As I picked up my pen (as they used to say) to write this column, I saw that the architectural critic Ken Worpole is speaking at an evening to debate the work of fellow T&CP columnist, the late Colin Ward. 

The event will take place too soon for any readers to be able to go, but it is a reminder that Worpole is one of the most important voices in the UK for more human places, and many of the concerns developed over the decades by this journal.

It also provides me with a hook to write about a fascinating and moving article that Worpole wrote for the Open Democracy website to remember the great floods of 31 January 1953, exactly sixty years ago as I write. 

As a native of Canvey Island, Worpole was affected himself by these events, which claimed the lives of over 300 people in East Anglia and many others beyond – including the passengers and crew of the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria, sailing from Stranraer to Larne, which was overwhelmed by the heavy seas.

These days, there would be warnings about spectacularly high tides.  The Thames Barrier would be raised.  The Environment Agency spokespeople would fan out to the TV studios; but not then.  The first that anyone knew of what was about to happen was when the 7.27pm train from Hunstanton to King’s Lynn ran into a wall of water and was hit full by "a bungalow floating on the crest of the wave".

The North Sea tide that night was the highest ever recorded and many of those who died simply awoke trapped in bed by water rising too fast to escape.  Worpole pays tribute to the meticulous account published in 1959 by Essex County Council, and hails it as one of the great works of 20th-century English social history: Hilda Grieve’s narrative, The Great Tide.

He writes: “So vulnerable to disruption were communications at this time that many were already dead and their communities destroyed further up the coast, whilst along the Thames people slept soundly unaware of what was about to hit them.”  Families and children died of cold clutching onto their roofs.

It is extraordinary that there are so little memories of such a disaster today, but Worpole emphasises an important point which is absolutely central to this column, which is the extraordinary way that so many individuals and local organisations swung into action in the middle of the night to rescue neighbours and near neighbours.  “From Grieve’s account, almost every East Anglian appeared to belong to an organisation whose loyalties and resources could be called upon in an instant without demur,” Worpole writes.

This was partly the result of the war, which had finished only eight years before, and all these small organisations were still active and effective.  Ten members of the South Benfleet Yacht Club alone saved over 60 people from Canvey Island. 

The difference now is not that these small organisations have disappeared, or that they are somehow less effective – quite the reverse – but their existence is somehow taken for granted by the authorities. 

These are the kind of organisations that have either been swallowed up by big charitable agencies or have failed to jump through the hoops required by the Big Lottery and its predecessors, and have simply disappeared.

The localism debate tends to be dominated by arguments about democracy, and occasionally – though rarely – by arguments about economics.  Yet the critical spine of an effective localism is the continued existence of local institutions, largely autonomous, that are an insurance policy that paid off that night sixty years ago and but need to be nurtured.

I went to an event at the Imperial War museum a couple of years ago about lessons from the Second World War for a more sustainable economy.  I took the opportunity to ask the speaker from the Women’s Institute if they had received government grants to produce the tons of jam which their local branches churned out throughout the war.  The answer was they had not, though the government had given them can-making machines

But what the WI had in the 1940s was an army of married women at home during the day, with some time – if not on their hands – then at least at their disposal, to nurture and run these local organisations.

If they are at work now, earning money because they want to be out in the world, that must be a positive change.  If, on the other hand, they are at work because they have to be – because modern mortgages require both partners to pay them back, then that is less positive.

Especially when the tides rise and the floods strike.

title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers