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Lessons of the 1953 East Coast flood disaster

01/29/2013 00:00:00

Sixty years ago, on 31 January and 1 February 1953, over 300 people died in flooding on the East Coast of England. Recent research has found that the Cabinet partly funded the response to avoid blame and further requests for funding.

Today such floods, caused by storm surges, are predicted by a warning system implemented after the 1953 flood. Despite the warning system, coastal flooding remains a key concern both for residents and government.  In 2007 warnings from the system led the government to call a meeting of the emergency COBRA committee.The impact of coastal flooding is predicted to become worse due to climate change.

The early history of this warning system and who paid for the research behind it has recently been researched by Anna Carlsson-Hyslop from the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University, funded by the ESRC.

Scientists based at the Liverpool Observatory and Tidal Institute had researched storm surges since the 1920s. The scientists, housed in the Bidston Observatory on the Wirral peninsula, had been funded by the shipping industry, the Navy and local government, but central government rejected funding requests for surge science until after the 1953 flood.

In the East Coast Flood 307 people died in England and almost 1800 in the Netherlands. In England the damage was estimated to have cost £30 million at the time, with 24,000 houses needing repairs and 32,000 people evacuated.

After the flood the government established an investigation known as the Waverley Committee. It recommended the establishment of a warning system for this kind of flooding, which was quickly put in place.

Since then this warning system has been developed by scientists in Liverpool with financial support from the state, but the research found that the Cabinet established the Waverley Committee and funded the response to the flooding in part to avoid blame and further requests for funding. However, other parts of the government were whole-heartedly in favour of the research, adopting the recommendations of the Waverley Committee even before they had been made public.

Before this event the scientists at the Tidal Institute in Liverpool had had intermittent support for their work on storm surges since the 1920s, first from the local shipping industry, then from local government after a flood in 1928 in which 14 died in central London, and then from the Navy during the Second World War. Since the 1953 flood the state has funded research into storm surge forecasting in Liverpool as well as by other oceanographers, the Met Office and the Hydrographic Office, but in the 1930s the Treasury repeatedly refused to fund this kind of research, seeing flooding as a local responsibility.

The Liverpool scientists named the cause of this kind of flooding ‘storm surges’ as well as developing ways of forecasting such events. They were also world leaders in predicting tides, including doing so for the D-Day landing. Their successors work at NOC Liverpool and continue to develop tidal predictions, storm surge forecasts and oceanographic science.