“The sea is in, Sir” — Coastal Flooding on the East Coast of the UK on 12th February 1938

by Shari L. Gallop

On 12th February 1938, severe coastal flooding occurred on the UK east coast, and persisted for months afterwards. Winds of 80 mph (129 kph) blew across the English Channel, disrupting ship and air transport (The Argus, 1938). Norfolk was the worst affected area, with coastal flooding recorded at Horsey and Cromer. The high tide at Horsey was 10 ft (3 m) above the Newlyn datum, and said to be 7 ft (2.1 m) higher than a normal spring tide (Mosby, 1938).The north-westerly wind forced large waves to create a breach through the sand dunes (Summers, 1978), flooding 7500 acres of land (Mosby, 1938). Sea water rushed through the breach and swept away gates, fences, and hay stacks, and even carried a bridge ¾ mile (1.2 km) inland (Mosby, 1938). Sea water reached five miles (8 km) inland (The Argus, 1938), flooding fields, roads and houses (Ludham Community Archive, n.d.). Two hundred people fled the rushing waters, and it was said that waves were breaking across thousands of acres which led to heavy losses of stock (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1938). Three lives were lost on the east coast (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1938.), although the exact causes were not reported.


Flooding around Horsey Corner, Horsey, 1938 – Britain from Above

Horsey local Anthony Buxton recalls that the first he heard of the coastal flooding was when a farmer burst into the house at 7:30 pm and said “The sea is in, Sir” (The Spectator Archive, 1938). Upon seeing sea water 150 yards (150 m) from the house, he saw the road was “a mass of dead worms, many drowned hard, rabbits, pheasants and partridges”.


Whiteslea Lodge on Hickling Broad, Horsey, taken on 17th February 1938 by the Boardman Family from How Hill (Ludhman Community Archive, n.d.).

Land in Somerton, Horsey, Waxburn and Hickling remained flooded for three months (The Spectator Archive, 1938). This had dramatic impacts on the local ecology. The first night, all the fish in Horsey (except eels) were reported killed and were replaced by salt water species such as sea smelts, herrings, flat fish, crabs and barnacles (The Spectator Archive, 1938). In addition, all of the vegetation apart from reefs was destroyed (The Spectator Archive, 1938). The area was previously a famous habitat of marsh-birds and the flood had “disastrous” consequences through destroying their food supply and preventing breeding (The Spectator Archive, 1938).

The land could not drain naturally after the storm and it was a daunting task to pump flood water out of the marshes (Mosby, 1938) into the high-level system of broads and dykes, so that it could slowly drain the 21 miles to the sea at Yarmouth (The Spectator Archive, 1938). After the land was drained, there were experiments to test what (if any) vegetation could grow, with no success in initial experiments (The Spectator Archive, 1938).

Further afield, in London the Thames overtopped banks at Chelsea, Battersea, and Putney and flooded basements where people were sleeping despite warnings (The Argus, 1938). The Thames was said to be at its highest since the 7th January 1928 flood  (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1938). At Southend (Essex) and Margate (Kent), it was said that the floods were ‘the worst in living memory’, and water 3 to 10 ft (0.1 to 3 m) deep caused hundreds of families to be evacuated (The Argus, 1938). At Margate, the entire 10 mile (16 km) of seafront was damaged, a 50 ft (15 m) hole was torn in the jetty, hundreds of chalets were destroyed (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1938.) and many boats were sunk in the harbour (The Argus, 1938). At Whitby (North Yorkshire) the destroyer Walrus was run aground (The Argus, 1938). Coastal flooding was also reported in Maldon, Felixstowe and Grimsby (Zong and Tooley, 2003).

Anthony Buxton recalled of Horsey “The question of everyone’s lips is how long, if the sea be kept out, will recovery take?” (The Spectator Archive, 1938).

Ludham Community archive (n.d.). Floods, 21/01/2016. Retrieved from http://www.ludhamarchive.org.uk/flood.htm

The Argus (1938). Sea wall smashed in great storm; miles of coast lands flooded in England; wreckage at holiday resorts, 14/02/1928. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/11148502

The Sydney Morning Herald (1938). Gale in England; destroyer aground, 18/02/1938. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/158856255

Zong, Y. & Tooley, M.J (2003). A Historical Record of Coastal Floods in Britain: Frequencies and Associated Storm Tracks. Natural Hazards, 29(1), 13–36.

Mosby, J.E.G. (1938). The Horsey Flood, 1938: An example of storm effect on a low coast. The Geographical Journal 93(5), 413-418.

Summers, D. (1978). The east coast floods. David and Charles: Guildford.
The Spectator Archive (1938). Sea-sodden Horsey, 15/09/1938. http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/16th-september-1938/10/sea-sodden-horsey