Today (January 31) in London History – London 6′ Under Water

January 31st is the anniversary of the first testing of the Thames flood barrier. This podcast tells the story. The back story – the history of flooding in the southeast and what would happen to London if its flood defences are breached – is the main story. The first testing is just the bauble on the cap.


“First testing Thames barrier.” Four words. That was my first diary notation for this podcast. Those four words and the date: January 31, 1982. 

Pretty bland, eh.

You think so?

Well how about if we pick up that stone and see what’s crawling around underneath it. Or I should say, swimming around underneath it. Because if London’s flood defences were to be breached, Westminster and much of central London could be 6 feet deep in water. Chelsea, and many other rich and powerful addresses, would be more than head-high in water. 

That’s central London. It’s even worse if you head east. Lambeth, Bermondsey, Docklands, Poplar, West Ham, Dagenham would all be underwater. 38 Underground stations would fill with water. As would eight power stations, 16 hospitals and 400 schools. Ditto half a million residential properties. Thamesmead, population 45,000, would be a dozen feet underwater. The Isle of Dogs – home to some of this country’s most expensive real estate – would be swamped.

1.25 million people live and work in the Thames flood plain. It’s not scare-mongering to say there’d be immense casualties. It’s a disaster movie scene. Wherever you look. Transportation arteries, for example. Tube, trains and roads would be jammed with evacuees. 

That scenario playing out – that’s the immediate, nightmarish human cost. The other reckoning – also horrible – is the financial cost. The flood risk area encompasses some 48 square miles. The property value in those 48 square miles is north of 50 billion pounds.

And as long as we’re at it, let’s take stock of the capital’s defences. It’s not just the Thames Flood Barrier, as important as that is. London has 185 miles of flood walls and embankments. It has eight tidal barriers. It has hundreds of smaller floodgates on tributaries to the Thames. Reassuring?

Yes. And no. The grim fact of the matter is each year the seas inch higher. London is sinking. The country is tilting to the southeast. The ice caps are melting. So there’s more water every year in the ocean basins. And the other thing about global warming is the oceans expand with all the extra heat, just like a saucepan of water on a hot cooker. Each year the seas inch higher. And London sinks lower. Many of the Thames flood walls need raising. Consider the barrier itself. It was opened in 1982. It was closed three times in its first five years. In 2001 it was closed fourteen times. 

As of this month, January 2022, there have been 203 closures. 

That’s recent history. Some comfort in it. But plenty to worry about as well. And as for the long march of history – it’s the stuff of nightmares. 

The Grote Mandrenke, for example. You get that? It’s one of the most chilling phrases you’ll ever hear. The Grote Mandrenke. Shall I give you some help with it?

The Grote – that’s The Great. And Mandrenke is Man drink. The great man drink. When the North sea drank, swallowed thousands of men, women and children. It was the greatest North Sea flood disaster in recorded history. It happened in January 1362. An estimated 30,000 people drowned. 

More recently, just under a hundred years ago – January 1928 –London was flooded when the Thames burst its banks in several places. Fourteen people drowned. Thousands were evacuated and left homeless.

And what a close call January 1953 was. Well, a close call for central London. Let’s newsreel what happened, which was horrible. And what came so close to happening, which would have been catastrophic. 

Started with a storm in the North Sea. It unleashed a huge bulge of water that surged down the neck of the Channel. Flooded East Anglia and the Thames Estuary. More than 300 people drowned. 24,000 houses were flooded. The capital was saved only because flood defences on the East Coast were so poor that they collapsed and eased much of the floodwaters. Terrible as it was, this country got off lightly. 2,000 people died in the Netherlands. 

There’s a saying about American football: it’s a game of inches. London’s brush with catastrophe in 1953 wasn’t a game and it wasn’t a matter of inches. It was a matter of a single inch. The Thames came to within an inch of bursting its banks in London. 

Well, that’s enough Monday morning serious food for thought for you. For now I suppose we can count our lucky stars that we’ve got those ten piers – those 20,000 tons of steel and half a million tons of concrete – standing firm for the time being down in Woolwich Reach. They always put me in mind of Viking helmets, stalwart there in the Thames.

Let’s end with a touch of drollery from a newspaper account of the official opening of the barrier. It had already been operational for 18 months but it wouldn’t do not to have an official opening. That was May 8, 1984. 

The occasion was rich with London ironies. The Queen of course presided. Her host was the populist, extremely left-wing GLC leader, Ken Livingstone. The GLC – the Greater London Council – was about to be thrown on the scrap heap of history by the Thatcher government, so Livingstone and his people seized the opportunity to thumb a nose at Mrs. Thatcher. Each of the Thames Barrier’s ten piers were crowned in three enormous white letters: GLC.  The hundreds of dignitaries and workers were given blue paper GLC flags to wave at the Queen instead of the more traditional paper Union Jacks.

The Queen made her stately procession downriver in the manner of her ancient forbears – by Royal Barge. It of course passed under several London bridges. And here we go, how’s this for a delightful bit of cheese-paring.

London’s bridges were decorated with bunting – but only on the side Her Majesty would see.

Contemporary newspaper accounts for falling over themselves in the scramble to wax eloquent about the occasion. For example, the Daily Mirror gushed, “There have been countless eighth wonders of the world, but none was ever so wonderful as the Thames flood barrier, …”by one touch of a button, the Queen yesterday did what King Canute could not. She stopped the tide rising. London has been sinking for centuries. Without the barrier it would one day, when tide and wind combined, have disappeared beneath the waves. That’s why the hundreds of millions which the barrier cost must be set against the thousands of millions it will save. It will be copied all over the world where great cities are threatened by flood.” 

Usual thing isn’t it? World-beating Britain. 

I think the last word, though, should go to the Times. There’s something sly and wry about its account. The Times hack obviously appreciated the faint ludicrousness, let alone the rich ironies that made the salt sea air that much riper down there in Woolwich Reach where Her Majesty “reviewed” those ten Vikings, stalwart and stoic in the Thames, only the tops of their helmets sticking up out of the water. My guess it was the contrast between the Viking helmets and the Queen’s hat that led to this gem of a sentence from the Times correspondent. It reads: 

Dressed in lime green by Norman Hartnell, with a matching hat decorated with bobbing baubles that appeared to act as some form of royal bird scarer, the Queen was accompanied on her waterborne progress by Mrs Ethel Livingstone, the council leader’s mother, dressed in two-piece pink by Marks and Spencer.

That’s it from London on January 31st, 2022, the anniversary of the first testing of the Thames flood barrier. 

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