Today (January 7) in London History – Escape Was Impossible

London’s old. 720,000 days old. That’s a lot of days. January 7, 1928 is a day of infamy – one of the ten or so worst day’s in London’s long history. A disaster unique in the annals of London’s long history, January 7, 1928 is largely forgotten today. That’s why I’ve gone into the attic, found it, pulled the sheet off it, dusted it off, put a black ring around it and pushed it out where everybody can see it – why it’s made it into the Today in London History series. London’s trailing – like a string of tin cans – 2,000 January 7ths. January 7, 1928 is the abomination.


This one’s grim. 

It’s January 7, 1928.

Much of riverside Westminster is under water. Ditto Putney. Ditto Hammersmith. It’s being described as an event – a disaster – unique in the annals of London. Fourteen of your fellow Londoners drowned. Entrapped in their basement flats. There was no warning. The inrush of water was so swift and unexpected escape was impossible.  It hardly bears thinking about. You’re sound asleep, warm, cozy, tucked up in your bed and suddenly there’s a roaring sound the likes of which you’ve never heard before and in a matter of seconds your flat’s turned into an underwater cave and you’re drowning under tons of cold black water. 

It happened so fast. The swollen Thames breached the Embankment walls in several places. Streets were turned into canals. Hundreds of homes wrecked. Tate Gallery badly damaged. The ancient Tower of London “moated” – as if brooding, glowering, mediaeval London had made a comeback. Londoners dazed, shivering at the cold – replaying in their minds what happened. Shivering at the memory of their narrow escape. 

The post-mortem. The flood was the result of what a later age would term a perfect storm. A confluence of three main causes. 1. Heavy gales blowing in from the sea had banked up the water in the Thames, preventing it from flowing out of the estuary. 2. There was a vast quantity of floodwater coming down the river and its tributaries – a vast quantity of flood water swollen by masses of ice and snow from the hills. And 3. Abnormally high tides, coinciding with the full moon at this time of the year. 

Another one of those disasters waiting to happen. Probably won’t happen again for a century or so because we have the Thames flood barrier. Would have happened again did we not have the barrier. It’s a sobering thought that those gates have closed in anger 200 times in the last 40 years. “Closed in anger”, what’s that mean, you say. Closed for flood defence purposes, that’s what it means. Do the maths. 200 times in 40 years. That’s five floods a year.

That – is a sobering thought. As is the corollary that the barrier will only keep London safe for another century or so. Global warming, the ice caps melting, sea levels rising – yes, if we look into the seeds of time we can see that the Thames Flood Barrier will only be equal to its task – only be able to keep London safe – for another century or so. Twenty-2nd century Londoners are going to need new, improved defences, new little Dutch boys with their fingers in the dike.

And on that note, on this January 7th in London, wherever you are, sending you that pilot’s benison: may you have blue skies and tailwinds. 

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