Harwich Society’s Memories Exchange Interviews

Recently, we have been uploading a collection of oral history interviews conducted by The Harwich Society between 2009 and 2014 (Catalogue Reference SA 49/1/2).

These twenty-four interviews are just the first instalment of an ongoing project to record the experiences of current and former residents of Harwich and Dovercourt. As with most collections of oral history interviews, they reveal shared experiences but also how life varied even in one town depending on personal circumstances.

Harwich Junior School (T/Z 241/1)

The playground of Harwich Junior School was flooded to a depth of 1½ metres (T/Z 241/1).

Most of the recordings touch on the 1953 flood. On the night of Saturday, 31 January, a storm surge caused the sea to overwhelm flood defences along the eastern coast of Britain. Harwich was one of the places affected, and the traumatic experience is unsurprisingly etched on the town’s corporate memory.

Even here, experiences varied. Some residents in Dovercourt only knew about it from news bulletins on the television. But in the Bathside area, the water rose to the first floor of people’s houses. Tom Bell and Danny Goswell, then young lads who belonged to the sailing club, were kept busy ‘fishing people out of houses’ in boats, ‘rowing around doing what we could’ (SA 49/1/2/12/1).

Evacuees sought refuge in the drill hall, where the Salvation Army was handing out blankets and cups of tea, before being billeted with family members or kind-hearted strangers with rooms to spare. The water took a week to recede, and the houses were permanently damaged. Ruby Cooper-Keeble recalls how they lost all their possessions. By the time the family moved back to the house, it had been cleaned out and redecorated, but the smell ‘stayed with it for years and years’, and ‘you could actually scrape the salt off the [wall]paper’ as it seeped out of the walls, residue from the sea salt water that flooded the home (SA 49/1/2/9/1). But as a child, she still saw the ordeal as something of an ‘adventure’.

Some people, such as Mr and Mrs Moore, never moved back (SA 49/1/2/14/1).

The interviews are full of memorable details that bring the event to life: tables laid for breakfast that neatly settled back into place once the water receded; the vigour of local hero Leonard ‘Pummie’ Rose in organising the rescue operations. The stories take different tones. Tom and Danny chuckle over how, after working all day in rescue boats, they still had the energy to go out in the evening. ‘Commandeering’ a dinghy tied up outside the police station, they rowed down the main road to the Spread Eagle pub that remained defiantly open, to enjoy a couple of Vimtos before rowing home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, recalling the childhood trauma of that long, cold, dark night spent trapped in the bedroom waiting for rescue affected one interviewee so much that it sounds as if he had to pause during the interview to compose himself.

Whether they were only onlookers or whether they lost everything, when listened to together the interviews reveal how the town rallied together to overcome this ordeal – as they had done just ten years earlier during the Second World War. From the family who tirelessly worked to restore their grandparents’ house to normal in time for Christmas (interview with Diane Butler, SA 49/1/2/11/1), to the boy who joined with his friends to build a sea wall in the sand when they moved back, ‘in our own simple way to try and stop the waves coming again’ (interview with Ray Chippington, SA 49/1/2/22/1), the town was determined to recover. And what better way to cheer flagging spirits than travelling in a ‘cavalcade of coaches’ to a football match at Wembley to support your local team in the FA Amateur Cup final? Harwich and Parkeston Football Club’s finest hour was among the happier events of 1953, as recalled by Malcolm Carter (SA 49/1/2/16/1).

The collection covers other topics as well, including experiences during the Second World War; growing up and working in Harwich; and how the town has changed. We are grateful to The Harwich Society for taking the time to capture these memories, and for allowing us to make them publicly available. We are also grateful to the participants who, as June Cummings describes, had to relive the events in the act of sharing them (SA 49/1/2/20/1).

 

You can listen to these oral history interviews in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, or, thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, in the comfort of your own home through Essex Archives Online.

It is not surprising that such a momentous event crops up in several of our other collections. You can search the subject index term ‘Floods’ to find related material, such as this film footage of the floods on Canvey Island. Or look up Hilda Grieve’s authoritative work on the 1953 floods in Essex, referred to in some of these clips: The Great Tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex (copies available in the Searchroom Library or in branch libraries across Essex).

Further afield, the East Anglian Film Archive holds a compilation of film footage of the floods which reveal the devastation caused. You can watch it for free on their website here.

Does your community have a story that should be recorded? Do you want to undertake your own oral history project? Contact us to find out more about the oral history training we provide.

New recordings to commemorate the 1953 floods

During the night of January 31st, many of the lower-lying districts of eastern England were overwhelmed by a devastating flood.

So begins the narration to a documentary created by the department that later became the Essex County Council Educational Video Unit about the 1953 floods (VA 3/8/4/1). The documentary focuses on Canvey Island, which was severely hit by the floods, and was put together from film footage taken at the time.

The floods caused terrible suffering: people drowned or died from exposure to the bitter cold, waiting on islands of rooftops to be rescued; houses and possessions were ruined; livelihoods destroyed. But is there a purpose in holding commemorations year after year, making the same observations, telling the same stories?

We could point you to a blog entry we wrote in 2013, on the sixtieth anniversary of the floods. It cites some staggering figures of the losses suffered, illustrated by harrowing photographs showing the full extent of the flood. Is there anything more to say four years later?

Recent bad weather no doubt brought back the full fear of flood to coastal residents, particularly those who were evacuated from Jaywick. The sea defences are vastly improved, particularly with the sea wall erected round Canvey Island, but we can never guarantee safety from the threat of flood. Can the history of the 1953 floods help us when facing such threats today?

One of the audio-video kiosks touring the county for our You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place project is currently visiting Canvey Island Library. To prepare for this, we have been digitising sound and video recordings about the floods in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, including the documentary mentioned above.

Listening to memories of the survivors and those who helped the rescue efforts, like watching the contemporary film footage, gives greater impact to studying the events. Hearing the emotion in people’s voices, learning about individual experiences, brings the history to life as no text book can do.

Listen to one woman’s memories of that terrible night in this clip from a special BBC Essex programme about the floods, ‘Tide on Tide’, first broadcast in 1988 (SA 1/313/1).

Still image from the 1953 documentary about the floods on Canvey Island (VA 3/8/4/1)

Still image from the 1953 documentary about the floods on Canvey Island (VA 3/8/4/1)

More than that, people’s stories of the clear-up efforts can teach us lessons if facing similar catastrophes. The documentary shows people rowing for their lives to bring people to safety, helping at rescue centres, pulling together to rebuild the sea wall. Much of this work was done by the Army, the police, and voluntary organisations, but members of the public also pitched in to help. It is encouraging to see how whole communities came together in the face of danger. And how many smiling faces can you spot in the film footage, despite the ordeal?

Sir Bernard Braine, then MP for Canvey, praises his constituents in this clip from the ‘Tide on Tide’ programme (SA 1/313/1).

One local hero, Winne Capser, illustrates this attitude. In subsequent days, she took it upon herself to rescue pets and reunite them with their owners. We could question whether it was worth the risk. But to the owners, having these non-human members of their families back again was probably a great comfort, and a big step towards returning to normality.

Clip of Winne Capser talking about rescuing animals after the 1953 flood. This is from a Sounds of Brentwood feature on the floods produced by Dennis Rookard and broadcast in 2013 (SA 2/1/110/1).

It wasn’t just local people who helped: as news spread, people nationally and internationally were prompted to donate clothing, household goods, and food to help families get back on their feet. In Harwich, whole houses were donated from Norway to relieve evacuees temporarily accommodated in caravans on the Green.

Another clip from the Sounds of Brentwood feature, this time with Cllr Ray Howard and Fred McCave describing the donations sent from across the globe to help flood survivors (SA 2/1/110/1).

We should also raise questions about how the floods are commemorated. Jaywick lost 5% of its population – but how often is this town mentioned in comparison to Canvey or Harwich?

Further clip from the ‘Tide on Tide’ programme, talking about the impact of the flood on Jaywick, and the impact of Jaywick on public consciousness of the flood (SA 1/313/1).

We talk about the community spirit, but do we also talk about the police that were put in place to protect against looters in the aftermath? Which stories are absolute fact, and which have turned into folklore?

Clip about a thief caught stealing money from gas meters after Canvey Island had been evacuated, from the BBC Essex ‘Tide on Tide’ programme (SA 1/313/1).

By combining contemporary film footage, personal memories, newspaper reports, and official documents, we can build up a full picture of that awful night. We can then use this picture for commemorating the local heroes who saved countless lives, and for drawing inspiration to respond to future disasters.

You can watch the full documentary and some of these sound recordings through Essex Archives Online. You can visit the audio-video kiosk at Canvey Island Library, or view the same content on our second touring kiosk at Brentwood Library, until they move to their next venues at the end of March.

You Are Hear is a three-year Essex Sound and Video Archive project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. You can read more about it on our project blog site.

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Harwich Inspired Youth Action collaborates on listening bench

As part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we have been installing listening benches across the county. These solar-powered park benches have in-built speakers, so at the touch of a button they play back clips of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive. The clips give an insight into the heritage of the surrounding area, mostly from memories of long-standing residents first recorded as oral history interviews.

We have been working with volunteers from each community where we are installing these benches. With training, the volunteers have listened to relevant material from the Archive; chosen interesting snippets; and edited the audio recordings to create a series of short clips for the bench. They have also decided on the location of the bench and arranged for its installation and unveiling.

Photograph of Harwich listening bench on St Helen's Green

One of these benches is in Harwich, in a picturesque spot on St Helen’s Green looking towards the Treadwheel Crane and the sea beyond. The memories shared on the bench include experiences during the Second World War, visiting the Electric Palace Cinema, and of course the harrowing 1953 floods, such as Bett Calver’s experiences on that dreadful night:

 

The audio for the bench was selected and edited by members of Harwich Inspired Youth Action (HIYA). This group of teens takes on campaigns to improve the town and provide information and activities for other young people. They are supported by Teen Talk Harwich, a valuable information and support centre for the town. Here, two of the volunteers involved with the listening bench project share their thoughts on the experience. First, Brandon says:

We have both given up our own time to help create the sound bench part of the You Are Hear project, which is now located in old Harwich. The You Are Hear project was very interesting, learning about Harwich history with specific fascinating points like the floods, the building of the promenade and so much more. We spent some time picking out and editing the clips we thought would be good to use for the project and had to create 11 minutes of historic memories of the local area. Creating this project we felt not only inspired but also educated, learning about our town’s history. Once the audio was completed we went to the grand revealing of the bench by the mayor and mayoress. I felt proud to have taken my great-nan, who is 95 years old, to be part of the unveiling of the bench and felt I had shared some of her memories growing up in Harwich.

Photograph of Brandon with his family

Brandon with his family on the listening bench. Courtesy of Maria Fowler.

Stephen says:

Although this project took a long time to go through the different clips available, we had the difficult task of choosing the ones that seemed the most informative about Harwich and creating a short 11-minute audio clip with a number of people sharing their memories. I enjoyed meeting the mayor [at the unveiling ceremony], and I feel proud of what we have accomplished. We would hope you all can take the time to go along to sit and listen to the You Are Hear project in Harwich and to feel the same humble connection we did, listening to all the memories people shared over the years about Harwich.

Photograph of Brandon and Stephen holding HLF sign behind listening bench

Brandon and Stephen at the listening bench launch. Courtesy of Maria Fowler.

Read more about Harwich’s listening bench on the You Are Hear website. We are grateful to the HIYA teens for working so hard on the project.

Do you want to be involved with the next round of listening bench installations? We are looking for volunteers from Burnham-on-Crouch, Chelmsford, Clacton-on-Sea, Clavering, Coggeshall, Epping, Galleywood, Harlow, Southend-on-Sea, and Witham. Please get in touch if you can help.

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Favourite ERO documents: interview with Mrs Champion about the Canvey Island Floods of 1953

Today is World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, organised by the International Association of Sound and Video Archives, and this year’s theme is “Saving Our Heritage for the Next Generation”. We thought that this was a good opportunity to dip into the Essex Sound and Video Archive as part of our favourite documents series.

As well as asking our users about their favourite documents from our collections, we have also been asking ourselves. Here, Sound Archivist Martin Astell tells us about one of his favourite recordings in the Essex Sound and Video Archive, an interview with Mrs Champion about the Canvey Island Floods of 1953 (SA 6/306/1).

Choosing a favourite item from the Essex Sound and Video Archive is difficult for me as I have heard and watched so many wonderful recordings of all kinds relating to Essex people and places. The archive holds numerous recordings which can be enjoyed for their entertainment value – beautiful music, amusing anecdotes, interesting documentaries, dramatic productions, and so on.

However, I have chosen one of our oral history interviews which, rather than being entertaining, is sobering, shocking and moving. It is an interview with Mrs Peggy Champion, recorded in 1978, in which she remembers her experiences during the floods which engulfed Canvey Island and other parts of Essex on the night of 31 January 1953.

In this interview – which lasts only 7 minutes – Mrs Champion (who, at the time of the floods was Mrs Peggy Morgan) tells the story calmly and without hyperbole of how she woke in the night to find sea water in the bedroom of her home on Canvey Island and how, during the course of that night, she witnessed the deaths of her husband, her mother-in-law, and her five-year-old son.

It has been said that listening to an oral history interview is the closest one can come to time travel since it involves real people from the past talking about real events as they were genuinely experienced, and the emotional impact of this one recording can perhaps tell us more about the experience of natural disaster than any number of statistics or written reports.

I believe that hearing this recording was one of the things which spurred Patricia Rennoldson Smith to gather testimony from other survivors of the 1953 floods for her book The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster: The People’s Story, and every time I hear it I am reminded of why it is so important that sound and video recordings are preserved and made available alongside the other records held in the Essex Record Office.

The 1953 Floods in Essex

On the night of Saturday 31 January 1953 a severe storm coincided with a high spring tide in the North Sea, and the resulting tidal surge caused great devastation all along the east coast. In eastern England 307 people were killed, 120 of them from Essex.  The worst hit communities in the county were Canvey Island, where 58 died, and Jaywick, where 37 people were killed (5% of the population).  A major operation was mounted to rescue as many people from the flooded areas as possible. Along the east coast of the UK, 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

Damage was caused to over 1,600 km of coastline, as well as to thousands of homes.  It is estimated that the damage in monetary terms today would be over £5 billion.

It was of course not just England that was affected by the floods; 19 people died in Scotland, 28 in Belgium, and a staggering 1,836 in theNetherlands. Over 230 people also died on ferries, fishing boats and other vessels which were in the North Sea that night.

We have been going through some of the many documents in the ERO which tell some of the stories of the floods in Essex, a small sample of which will be on display in our ‘Document of the Month’ case in the Searchroom throughout February.

To the sea (D/Z 35/15)

To the sea – rescuers at work in Jaywick (D/Z 35/15) (Photo: Reuters)

Jaywick completely flooded

Fire Brigade log book reporting phone calls to say that Jaywick was completely flooded (D/Z 35/3/1)

Canvey Island underwater (ref??)

Canvey Island underwater (D/Z 35/15) (Photo: Southend Standard).

Albermarle St & Alexander Road, Harich (T/Z 241/1)

Photograph of the junction of Albermarle Street and Alexandra Road in Harwich. The flood in Harwich was described as a two metre high wall of rolling water. Eight people drowned trapped in their basements in Main Street (T/Z 241/1) (Photo: Harwich and Dovercourt Standard).

Harwich Junior School (T/Z 241/1)

The ground floor and playground of Harwich Junior School were flooded to a depth of 1½ metres (T/Z 241/1).

Harwich police station telephone log (D/Z 35/6/1)

This note in the Harwich police station telephone log tells us that at the army base on Bramble Island, near Harwich, the magazines had been breached by the flood waters. High explosives had floated away and the police and public were advised to be on the look out for them, and not to touch them (D/Z 35/6/1).

Peter Pan's Playground (D/Z 35/15)

Photograph of Peter Pan’s Playground, Southend (D/Z 35/15) (Photo: Southend Standard). At Southend the effects were not as severe as at Canvey. The Kursaal flooded, along with the Gasworks and Southchurch Park.

Letter from Mr E. Staunton (C/DC 11/Fd43)

Letter written month after the floods by Mr E. Staunton of Benham Road, Canvey to Essex County Council to pass on the ‘thanks and gratitude’ of himself and ‘friends in this area’ to the fireman who sounded the air raid siren ‘thus giving us a chance to dress and find out over the telephone what was the meaning of the warning’ (C/DC 11/Fd43).

 

A selection of these documents will be on display in the Searchroom throughout February. Others can be ordered to view in the Searchroom. Find out how to visit us.

To find out more about the floods, why not go to hear Patricia Rennoldson Smith talk about her new book The 1953 Essex Flood Disaster: The People’s Story as part of the Essex Book Festival.