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Letter from survivor of 1953 Storm Surge

By Sarah Groves, also posted in News on

A service of remembrance at St Edmund's Church in Southwold was held yesterday to mark 60 years since a devastating storm surge caused extensive loss of life. The surge battered the coast of Eastern Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium. The storm hit Southwold on the night of Saturday 31 January 1953 and morning of 1 February 1953. It was a bitterly cold, dark and frightening night, as this poignant letter from a Ferry Road resident reveals. The family were staying at The Swan Hotel where they had been offered a week's free accommodation while they relocated to temporary accommodation. Written on Swan Hotel stationery, the letter is well preserved with just a little ink-damage obscuring some of the words. The name of the sender, however, is not legible*. Click here to view a facsimile, or read the transcription below (where words are not clear, a * has been used): 3rd Feb 1953 My dear Aunt Elsie* Many thanks for the wire. As I wired *, we are all alive and lucky to be so. Financially, we are practically ruined, as the insurance will not probably pay-up – flood damage. Our only hope is that the Government will give us something. The Dutch Barn, except for the flat, is ruined and one bungalow completely destroyed. The other bungalow is full of water and none of the furniture will be any good. Our car is upside down in the flood. The value of this we may recover. What happened was this. There had been a tremendous gale for 24 hours and there was also a very high spring tide. At about 9.15pm the sea started to pour over the dune into the road and in five minutes’ time it was running like a mill-race right up to the windows of the first floor. Escape was impossible and we could only pray that the house would not collapse. There were six buildings on the road beyond us - at about 11 o’clock I looked out of our drawing-room window and all except a fragment of our own bungalow were gone. Five people were drowned. The whole road is a waste of smashed furniture, debris of houses and countless tons of sand and shingle. Our garden is completely swept away – I think it’s probable that the Ferry Road will be declared dangerous and nobody allowed to live there. At about 2.30am, the tide went out and some men came along with planks etc and got us out through a window. The worse night I have ever been through. Bombs were nothing to it. My Olivia was wonderful and as cool as a cucumber in extremely frightening circumstances – the poor child has since been crying her eyes out for poor Busby, who is missing. We have been given a v good empty flat by some kind people here and have managed to get the furniture out of our flat into it. The only thing saved. The furniture from the restaurant is lying in heaps all over the place. Also that from the bungalows. The army are now busy with bulldozers etc. Three bodies are still missing. Address me c/o Post Office, Southwold. This hotel has very handsomely offered us free accommodation up to a week, but we hope to have the new flat in order before that. I think there is a curse on us. Misfortune has never stopped since we have been back in England. Josie has talked to her elder brother over the phone. There are now one million homeless in Holland and 1000 square miles under water. The family are all right so far. Love from us all * You can read more about the devastating 1953 flood on Southwold Museum's "Killer Floods" page here.

*Additional Notes (Dec. 2013)

Emma and myself were delighted to meet Olivia, who was mentioned in the letter, along with her husband Bill, and her sister, Angie, in March 2013. It was a joy to be able to meet the sisters, and to show them the letter at The Swan Hotel in Southwold. They explained that their Father, Regi, wrote the letter. We have also received a note from Regi's niece, Helen Kieboom-Trost, from The Hague: "I am almost certain that this person is my Uncle Reginald (Regi) Raffles, who was married to my aunt Jo (Josie) Trost from Holland. They had three daughters, one of whom is mentioned in the letter:  “Olivia”. Also my uncle in his letter mentions a telephone call from my aunt to “her elder brother in Holland”, being- I am certain- my uncle Lou Trost, who was my father’s brother. My aunt Jo had a restaurant In the Dutch Barn for quite some time, I don’t know for how long exactly. Major Raffles died a long time ago, but not before appr. 1966 when I have seen him. They then lived at 62, Pier Avenue, Southwold, now a home for the elderly. My aunt also died some time ago." Thanks to everyone who kindly commented on the letter and help us fill in the missing information.  

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Sarah Groves

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