Today (August 13) in London History –”London’s worst flood in centuries”

Mein gott. What a downpour. What floods. August 13, 1937 was probably the worst flooding in London history. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Ok, it’s been another scorcher in London. The high was about 32 degrees Celsius. That’s about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The average temperature for August in London – a normal August in London – is about 21 celsius. And, normally, it’s overcast or mostly cloudy about 45 per cent of the time in London in August. Today, like every day of late, there’s been 0 millimetres of precipitation and zero per cent chance of precipitation. 

It’s like being on a Greek island in August but with no blue Mediterranean to look at and no Greek coffee and ouzo ready to hand.

So bearing all of that in mind, I think we better head to August 13th, 1937. And we better get inside because it is bucketing down outside.

London’s getting a month’s average rainfall in a day. 

So make no mistake, It’s not a gentle English shower. It’s torrential. The heaviest rain for 27 years. More than an inch and a half in an hour. Accompanied by vivid lightning and almost deafening thunder. 

Think of the storm poor old King Lear goes out into.

It’s caused London’s worst rail hold-up. Seven services stopped by floods at rush hour. 40 miles of railway lines seized up. People queuing up at telephone boxes to acquaint their homes with their predicament. (Aside here: queuing for a pay phone – that’s a bit of yesteryear.) The worst flooding in the history of the underground. Water pouring down the stairways and flooding main entrances to a depth of two feet. Tracks in many places flooded to a depth of several feet. Signal failures everywhere. Buses stranded by floods. Buses on diversions. Bus drivers unfamiliar with the streets they were diverted to taking wrong turns. Adding to the confusion. A passenger reporting it took him thirty minutes to reach Harrods from Hyde Park Corner. That’s just a couple of hundred yards, normally takes three or four minutes. Hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded. Hundreds of families driven from their homes.

Roads turned into fast-flowing streams. Small cars partly submerged. Streets turned into rivers, rivers washing the floorboards of lorries. Water pouring into shops and private houses. Sewers and drains overwhelmed. The rush of the floods down the sloping roadways from Piccadilly and Bayswater into Knightsbridge and Kensington High Street was so strong it forced up the paving blocks. Traffic along Knightsbridge had to be diverted for some 300 yards between Sloane Street and Milton Place while the road surface was replaced. Water nearly three feet deep in several places. 

In one flooded neighbourhood boys swam around an abandoned car. Water shot up at least three feet from manhole covers in Kingston and Surbiton. 

Patrons fleeing the Palladium cinema in Wood Green where water rose to over a foot and covered the seats in the front twelve rows. 

Also at Wood Green, the High Road under three feet of water. Girl shop assistants take off their shoes and stockings and barricade the doors. Police and firemen carrying girls and women from buses which had become stranded in deep water. At the Capitol Cinema in Wembley the organist gives his interlude surrounded by a flood six inches deep. (Another aside here: I’d love to go to a movie and have a live organist play an interlude. A lost world, a lost experience. Pity.)

Finally, Canute’s descendants weren’t any better at it than he was. There were 1.35 inches of rainfall at Kensington Palace in 45 minutes. 

Well, going to London on August 13th, 1937 is one way of getting away from the heatwave.

Another way is looking in at Mr G. A. Roberts’ store at St Mary’s Road in Hornsey. Mr Roberts’ black cat is mothering her own three kittens. And for good measure, two baby rats which she’s adopted. 

That mothering instinct – it’s a thing of wonder and beauty. 

And that’s it from London on August 13th, 1937. If you got soaked to the bone – well, it’s something to write home about.

And fast forwarding to Today in London, let’s go for something completely different. Live music at the Railway Tavern in West Hampstead. 

Left Out of West Hampstead Tube and a couple of doors along to the corner – and over the way, there’s the Railway Tavern with its great music history. Jimi Hendrix played at the Railway, the Rolling Stones played at the Railway, U2 played at the Railway, the roll call – the rock and roll call of fame goes on and on. From about 8 or 8.30 every Saturday night. Maybe see you there. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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