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When the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978

By John Nurden

The Isle of Sheppey was left bruised and battered when exceptionally high tides and gale-force winds whipped up the waves from the North Sea and pushed them over the promenade at Sheerness in the early hours of January 12, 1978.

Water quickly filled Beachfields and what was then Pavilion Gardens and then seeped into the High Street, Railway Road, The Broadway and Trinity Road.

As flood sirens wailed, shocked homeowners peered out of their front doors and windows to see a wall of water relentlessly approaching.

When the car was submerged by water this family in Delamark Road found alternative transport in the form of a dinghy when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. Picture KM photographer

When the car was submerged by water this family in Delamark Road found alternative transport in the form of a dinghy when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. Picture: KM photographer

Many scrambled for sandbags. Others battled to move furniture upstairs in a race against time. One family in Delamark Road abandoned its car and was seen navigating the street in a rowing boat.

Colin Johnson, 71, a retired priest living in Minster Road, Minster, was then a fresh-faced reporter for BBC Radio Kent and was busy filing live stories from a telephone box outside Sheerness Post Office.

He said: "I had a lot of trouble persuading my bosses I needed to buy waders on expenses to cover the story.

The Rev Colin Johnson reading the BBC news.

The Rev Colin Johnson reading the BBC news.

"They asked me what was wrong with wearing wellies like everyone else. When I explained the water was already over my knees and half-way up my thighs, they eventually relented and gave me permission.

"Thank goodness Fred Lardeaux, the gentleman’s outfitters and camping store, still had some in stock.”

When the waters finally subsided, hundreds of Islanders were left counting the cost.

Giants slabs of Tarmac were uplifted when the sea flooded Sheerness on January 12 1978. Picture Trevor Edwards

Giants slabs of Tarmac were uplifted when the sea flooded Sheerness on January 12 1978. Picture: Trevor Edwards

Homes were ruined and businesses put in peril. But nobody died.

Water began pouring over the sea defences just after midnight in a frightening repeat of what happened almost exactly 25 years previously when two days of gale-force winds whipped up the sea and flooded most of the Island in 1953.

Then, hundreds of cattle and sheep were drowned and 30 residents were treated for exposure.

The bowling ground in front of the pavilion was turned into a lake when the sea flooded Sheerness on January 12 1978. Picture Trevor Edwards

The bowling ground in front of the pavilion was turned into a lake when the sea flooded Sheerness on January 12 1978. Picture: Trevor Edwards

This time, the authorities had been expecting a high tide but nothing as devastating as what was to follow.

Police used loudhailers on their cars to raise people from their beds, along with a team of flood wardens.

Many residents in Thames Avenue slept on, unaware that water was lapping around their homes. Estuary Road lived up to its name and was turned into a lake. 

Estuary Road lived up to its name when the sea flooded Sheerness on January 12 1978. Picture Trevor Edwards

Estuary Road lived up to its name when the sea flooded Sheerness on January 12 1978. Picture: Trevor Edwards

At the other end of the Island, Shellness, Leysdown and Warden Bay all bore the brunt and fury of 90mph winds.

The story was covered by the Sheerness Times Guardian which had its own problems. With no electricity, and water three-feet deep in the machine room which housed the printing presses, production ground to a halt.

That week’s paper finally hit the streets on Friday evening – 24 hours late. Editor Peter Coleman later compiled the stories and put them together in a souvenir pull-out called A Wet Night In January.

The Times Guardian presses were under water when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. KM Photographer

The Times Guardian presses were under water when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. KM Photographer

It was ironic that work had already begun on building a new sea wall to protect the town.

Memories of Robert Dawson

"I was a production foreman at the bottle works in Queenborough on the night of the flood in January 1978.

"The first we were aware of a problem was when water started flowing down the factory road from the sea wall.

"Although the flood gate on the wharf was closed there was a four-inch gap at the bottom and about two feet of water on the wharf behind it.

You can't park there. A stranded traffic warden when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. KM Photographer.

You can't park there. A stranded traffic warden when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. KM Photographer.

"We tried to place sandbags against the gate to block the gap but these just washed away.

"Eventually we got hold of someone to drive a big shovel loader and used this to drop sandbags over the gate. Although this slowed the flow, it didn’t stop it and water was getting into the basements of workshops one and two worst of all, the electricity sub-station.

"The works manager arrived and made a mark on the wall with the instruction to shut down if the water came up that far.

A car aquaplanes in Granville Road when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. KM Photographers.

A car aquaplanes in Granville Road when the sea flooded Sheerness in January 1978. KM Photographers.

"We never reached that point but it was touch and go.

"In the morning I drove home to Minster via Sheerness and found water still flowing across the road by the train station into the High Street and down Station Road.

"With the High Street flooded I turned down Station Road and went round via Thames Avenue. The whole area was under several inches of water.

Sea water in the High Street outside what was Woolworth, Tesco and Risi's ice-cream parlour - now the Times Guardian offices - in January 1978. Picture Tim Oxley

Sea water in the High Street outside what was Woolworth, Tesco and Risi's ice-cream parlour - now the Times Guardian offices - in January 1978. Picture: Tim Oxley

"I proceeded down St George’s Avenue and back into the High Street and then to the clock tower.

"I could then see the amount of water in the High Street around Woolworths which I think was the worst affected.

"Along Marine Parade there were very large pools of water and a lot of the basements of the big houses were flooded.

Two boats broke their moorings and were washed up on the beach near the White House in January 1978. Picture Robert Dawson

Two boats broke their moorings and were washed up on the beach near the White House in January 1978. Picture: Robert Dawson

"The Coast Road between Barton’s Point and the White House was flooded by a couple of inches. At that time there was no shingle bank.

"In the afternoon I went back into Sheerness and took some photos from the sea wall and of one of two boats washed up on the beach near the White House as I went back home.

The Royal Mail had to get through - even when Sheerness Post office was flooded by the sea in January 1978. KM Photographer

The Royal Mail had to get through - even when Sheerness Post office was flooded by the sea in January 1978. KM Photographer

* Do you have any memories or photos to share? Email them to jnurden@thekmgroup.co.uk

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