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Hunstanton flood 1953 victims recorded on memorial Esplanade Gardens plaque

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Last week’s Turnstone column focused on the bravery of rescuers, risking their own lives in heroic efforts to save the lives of those in danger of the Great Flood and Tempest of January 31, 1953.

In the run-up to the 69th anniversary of this tragic event, the focus is on the 31 victims whose names are recorded on a memorial plaque in the Esplanade Gardens.

When these names are read out, as they are each year, on, or near the anniversary of the tragedy, my mind goes back to the late 1940’s and early 1950’s when I attended Hunstanton County Primary School. David Axford was a contemporary of mine. He survived, but his parents, Fredric and Mabel were not so fortunate.

Town Mayor Tony Bishopp laid a wreath in memory of the lives lost during the Hunstanton floods in 1953.
Town Mayor Tony Bishopp laid a wreath in memory of the lives lost during the Hunstanton floods in 1953.

Phyllis Papworth died along with three of her four daughters. Patricia (Pat) the eldest, was in my class and I remember that she always seemed so happy.

Her smiling face appears on a photo in the Heritage Centre showing a school outing to the Tower of London.

Derek Stubbins, another popular classmate of mine, is also pictured on this trip, not far from David Axford and me. Sadly, Derek perished along with his father William, a widower, and sister Marjorie. Another sister survived because she was the baby-sitter for Freeman A Kilpatrick and his wife. Derek had another sister who had left home and was married. His older brother, Victor, was abroad at the time, doing military service.

In 1955-56 Victor was among a number of local men working alongside me, when R Robinson & Co Contractors of Westminster were constructing a brand new sea wall and promenade from Johnson’s gift shop to the ‘winding steps’ at the cliff end. Another local man whose life had been shattered by the 1953 storm was Snowy Nobes, my Aunt Lil’s brother and a larger than life character.

He had tried and failed to reach the Papworth’s bungalow at the height of the tidal surge, but it would have been impossible for anyone to save the lives of those unfortunate victims who must have been totally unprepared for the tempest.

The reason for leaving it until the very end of 1954 before work commenced on new defences at the north end of the prom, was because priority had been given to building a wall to protect the South Beach Road area from future storms.

Amongst the 16 American victims there were six with the surname Martin. It was not until the Heritage Centre reopened in the former NatWest Bank that a niece of the second Dorothy Martin came in to tell me that her English aunt was married to an American airman, Russell Martin, and that they had perished along with their two very young sons.

It still fills me with sadness every time I am reminded of those young lives that were cut short. I know from flood survivor Neil Quincey that the area devastated in 1953 had been flooded to a depth of about two feet in 1948. This leads me to wonder why no attempt was made to construct adequate flood defences and/or introduce an early warning system. Is there a very real danger that today’s decision makers are putting lives at risk by failing to make adequate preparation for extreme weather events caused by man-made global warming?


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