Water and books don’t usually mix: North Sea floods

The threat of rising sea levels is a major concern related to climate change, and has undoubtedly led to increased research interest in historical floods and storm tides. A new book that has just arrived in the library, De grote en vreeselike vloed: de Sint-Elisabethsvloed 1421-2021 (C217.c.8893), looks at the St. Elizabeth’s flood, one of several large flood disasters affecting the Netherlands, which took place 600 years ago on the night of November 18-19 1421. It resulted in the city of Dordrecht becoming an island and the disappearance of many villages. The book accompanies a current exhibition (and related symposium) at Dordrecht Museum, showing the painted panels of a late 15th century altarpiece that was commissioned by relatives of villagers who fled the floods. Other cultural depictions of the flood are considered as well as a look at what lessons can be learned from the impact of the flood.

Here in Britain perhaps the most famous victim of coastal flooding was the thriving port of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast. Its demise was brought about by large storm surges in the late 13th and 14th centuries, one of which was the St. Lucia’s flood of 1287 which also killed thousands in the Netherlands. It is thought that the last parts of Dunwich were destroyed in 1362 during the Grote Mandrenke (literally great drowning of men), also known as the second St. Marcellus’s flood. This storm tide was also responsible for the destruction of the less well-known Ravenser Odd, a port in the mouth of the Humber estuary, probably close to where Spurn Head can be found today. Two books which shed more light on the story of these medieval ports are:

  • The lost city of Dunwich by Nicholas Comfort.(9003.c.4331
  • The lost towns of the Yorkshire coast by Thomas Sheppard (475:8.c.90.29)

In more recent times, the North Sea flood of 1953 was a terrible catastrophe affecting Britain and the Netherlands as well as Belgium. Vast areas were inundated, thousands of people had to be evacuated and many people lost their lives – almost 2000 in the Netherlands. Eyewitness accounts are given in the recent Ooggetuigen van de watersnood 1953 by Willem van der Ham (C213.c.7069).  You can find out more about how the English coast suffered in North Sea surge: the story of the East Coast floods of 1953 by Michael Pollard (477.c.95.20).  

This disaster was the impetus in the Netherlands for the construction of the sea defences known as the Delta Works which took more than 40 years to complete and which have successfully protected the country from serious flooding. This huge feat of engineering, sometimes described as a wonder of the modern world, is celebrated in Modern wereldwonder: geschiedenis van de Deltawerken (C214.c.2257). The British response to the 1953 floods resulted in the construction of the Thames Barrier, completed in the early 1980s. More on this can be found in The Thames barrier by Stuart Gilbert and Ray Horner (9428.c.3529).

Katharine Dicks

Further reading

Stormvloeden en rivieroverstromingen in Nederland by M.K. Elisabeth Gottschalk (200:01.c.30.11, 14-15)

Waterwolven: een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers by Cordula Rooijendijk (C213.c.8307)

The 1953 Essex flood disaster: the people’s story by Patricia Rennoldson Smith (2013.9.1049)

The great tide: the story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex by Hilda Grieve (477:2.b.95.3)

Historic storms of the North Sea, British Isles and Northwest Europe by Hubert Lamb (347:5.b.95.14)

2 thoughts on “Water and books don’t usually mix: North Sea floods

  1. I’ve come across indications of a 12th century flood. It was this, the argument went, that brought many Flemish people to England – weavers, whose skills and industry helped grow many English towns.
    It is not an area I have had chance to look into yet, but intrigues greatly.

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