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The Floods of 1953: No busman’s holiday for Robert

PUBLISHED: 09:16 29 January 2013 | UPDATED: 09:16 29 January 2013

Left to Right; Bob Barkes, Claud Smith, Sid Harvey and Fred Mingay at Eastern Counties buses. Pictured in the late 1950s

Left to Right; Bob Barkes, Claud Smith, Sid Harvey and Fred Mingay at Eastern Counties buses. Pictured in the late 1950s


When Robert Barkes woke on the morning of February 1, 1953 in his Great Yarmouth home he got ready for work as normal - not knowing colleagues and neighbours just a few streets away had been deluged with flood water overnight.

The day before he had driven his wife Stella - who he met while serving in Greece during the second world war - to Heathrow for her first trip back to her homeland since the couple married in 1948.

The then 28 year old - known as Bob - recalled the drive home in his Ford Perfect was “hard” as strong winds had buffeted the car. He arrived back in Yarmouth at 8pm and went straight to bed.

Waking just before 6am he left his house in St Peter’s Road - that had escaped the storm surge - and headed for the Eastern Counties Bus depot in Wellington Road to start work.

By 10am not many staff had arrived and after a colleague mentioned Southtown was flooded Bob, a mechanic, leapt into action to help those stranded.

Along with a handful of colleagues he hopped into a single decker and using a ladder and a board, the group fashioned an escape route for people to climb from their water logged homes to the safety of the bus.

The 88 year old, who now lives in Colomb Road, Gorleston, drove the bus on its rescue mission and headed first for Bus Inspector Crane’s house in Stafford Road.

He said: “I travelled in one foot of water along Southtown Road and parked outside his house. At this point the water was 3 - 4 foot deep and I hadn’t noticed water had come into the bus, sitting in the driver’s cab I was higher up and nice and dry!”

Inspector Crane tested the ladder, and was happy it was safe, but his wife did not want to leave their house.

Leaving them with a fresh bottle of water Bob’s rescue team headed to mechanic Lesley Andrews’ house in the Olive Road area, which was four foot underwater, and was able to rescue him, his wife and young daughter.

Bob, a grandfather of two, said: “I wasn’t scared because I was just concentrating on my driving and keeping the engine running by keeping my revs up more than normal.”

Having got Les and his family on board the team headed back to the depot, but stopped to pick up more people in Cobholm who did not want to wait for a boat rescue.

Bob dropped the extra passengers on the Conge, where the floods finally got the better of the bus and it “conked out”. Luckily he had brought his tools along and got it running again.

Les’ house was uninhabitable after the devastating floods, which claimed nine lives, but Bob came to the rescue again.

The great granddad of two added: “He and his family ended up living at my house for a month, which was fortunate for me as I didn’t have to cook my own dinner with Stella away! Some of the lads helped over this month to clear his house and once they returned it was family life as usual.”

But while the town recovered, Bob suddenly received terrible news via a letter informing him Stella was seriously ill. He put the Ford up for sale to pay for a ticket to be with her but a fortnight later good news came.

Bob added: “Stella had turned a corner and was out of danger and even better she would be home in 2 - 3 weeks. I took my car off the market and could not wait to be reunited with her.”

The couple went on to run a guesthouse in Kent Square, raised three children and were married 63 years until Stella died in 2010 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

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