Storm Event

Devastating floods hit South Devon villages

Severity ? 4


On 3rd January 1979, a storm was approaching the south coast from the Atlantic. The storm passed into the English Channel, causing blizzards in the Channel Islands, and strong easterly winds in southern England. By January 5th, it was reported that: “mountainous” seas generated by force nine gales “smashed” through walls and windows (West, 2014).

Although local sea level data is unavailable, we are aware that the sea level return period at Newlyn was less than a 1 in 1 years (there was, however, a 0.5 m non-tidal residual during the morning of 4th January).

We are unaware of any sources describing the wave conditions during this event.


There are no sources describing the specific details of the flood pathways during this event.

Receptor and Consequence

Villagers in the South Devon resorts of Torcross and Bessands battled with “the worst sea storms and onslaught in living memory” as during the morning high tide waves of 30 ft. [9.1 m] waves picked up and hurled “massive boulders” (West, 2014). Water depths reached several ft. [around a metre] through many homes, and residents in both villages battened down windows and moved furniture and carpets to the relative safety of upstairs rooms; but the force of the ice-cold sea proved too much to cope with (West, 2014). Newspaper reports mention that in Torcross 300 people were evacuated. On January 5th, the sea had reduced some buildings to “rubble” and “floating planks of wood”. In Beesands, 200 people were evacuated, initially, as men from the fishing community stayed on to try and salvage what they could. An early casualty was a £70,000 house which was completely destroyed. Distraught residents of Beesands recalled the woe that had befallen their “sister” village of Hallsands (which was completely engulfed and destroyed by the sea in 1917, also during southerly gales combined with spring times.

Zong and Tooley (2003) report an event dated 4th January 1978 impacting Beesands and Torcross, however it is likely that the year was misreported and it is actually in reference to this event in 1979.

Summary Table

Loss of life *
Residential property Houses and seafront cafes damaged/destroyed by waves
Evacuation & rescue All seafront homes evacuated at the two main affected Devon villages: Torcross and Beesands (300 and 200 persons, respectively)
Cost *
Ports *
Transport The Slapton Railway line closed for a number of days
Energy *
Public services *
Water & wastewater   *
Livestock *
Agricultural land *
Coastal erosion *
Natural environment *
Cultural heritage *
Coastal defences *

*No known sources of information available


  1. West, I.W. (2014). ‘Chesil Beach -Hurricanes, Storms, and Storm Surges’. Geology of the Wessex Coast of Southern England. Available at: (Accessed: 8 March 2015).
  2. Zong, Y. and Tooley, M. J. A. (2003). ‘Historical Record of Coastal Floods in Britain: Frequencies and Associated Storm Tracks’. Natural Hazards,29, 13–36. Available at: (Accessed: 5 March 2015).