The great 1928 flood of London
- 16 February 2014
- From the section Magazine
In 1928 the Thames flooded much of central London, with fatal consequences. It was the last time the heart of the UK's capital has been under water. How did the city cope and what has changed?
It was after midnight when the river burst its banks. Most Londoners slept as the floodwaters gushed into some of the nation's grandest buildings and subsumed many of city's narrowest slum streets under 4ft of water.
The Houses of Parliament, the Tate Gallery and the Tower of London were all swamped. So too, tragically, were many of the crowded basement dwellings into which the city's poorest families were crammed. Some 14 souls drowned and thousands were left homeless.
The date was 7 January 1928. There was no early warning system to wake householders, no Thames Barrier to protect the city from tidal surges.
A modern observer would not find the aftermath entirely unfamiliar, however. As the waters were drained from Tube lines and debris cleared from the Embankment, there were political rows about dredging and whether local or central government should take responsibility.
The river poured over embankments at Southwark, Lambeth, Temple Pier and the Houses of Parliament, where Old Palace Yard and Westminster Hall were quickly flooded.
"It came like a waterfall over the parapet and into the space at the foot of Big Ben," wrote the Times' correspondent.
The moat at the Tower of London was filled for the first time in 80 years. The Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels were under water. There was extensive flooding around Victoria Embankment Gardens, Charing Cross Station and King's College.
"There were miniature waterfalls at Cleopatra's Needle and the Royal Air Force Memorial, and the training ship President floated at street level," reported the Manchester Guardian.
According to some reports, the first section of the riverbank to give way was at Millbank by the Tate. Incredibly, given its proximity to the Thames, many of the gallery's works were stored in the lower ground floor. Some 18 were damaged beyond repair, 226 oil paintings were badly damaged and a further 67 were slightly damaged.
However, the most serious devastation was in the working class areas that backed on to the river.
What the Times described as the "many little narrow streets, courts and alleys, reminiscent of Shakespeare and his times" between Southwark and Blackfriars bridges were flooded, as was the Bankside area. Police went door-to-door urging residents to leave.
Many of them were taken away on carts. "The water was rising so quickly that many who were roused from their sleep simply threw a blanket round their shoulders and made their escape in their night attire," the Times said.
Worst affected were the slums on the Westminster side of Lambeth Bridge, where 10 of the 14 victims lost their lives.
"The people who died were poor people living in crowded basements," says Anna Carlsson-Hyslop of the University of Manchester's Sustainable Consumption Institute. They had little time to escape.
At one inquest, a man named Alfred Harding identified the bodies of his four daughters - Florence Emily, 18, Lillian Maude, 16, Rosina, six, and Doris Irene, two.
A separate hearing heard how two domestic servants, Evelyn Hyde, 20, and Annie Masters Moreton, 22, drowned in similar circumstances in a room they shared in Hammersmith. The coroner, Mr HR Oswald, said they had been "caught like animals in a trap drowned before they realised their position".
Flooding occurred as far west as Putney and Richmond. The high waters were caused by a depression in the North Sea which sent a storm surge up the tidal river. It was the highest levels the Thames had witnessed for 50 years.
The river had subsided by the end of the day. However, according to Alex Werner, head of history collections at the Museum of London, "It took maybe a month to pump out all the water."
What made the relief effort harder was that London had already suffered extensive flooding in the days leading up to 7 January. Heavy snow over the Christmas period had melted, swelling inland rivers and leaving much of east London under several feet of water.
The tidal flood along the Thames was a different order of magnitude, however.
The river's flood defences were designed to cope with a tide of 18ft above the Ordnance Datum. This height had been chosen to exceed the previous record of 17ft 6in, which was reached in 1881. The 1928 surge saw this exceeded by 11in.
In the wake of the flood, the embankments were raised. However, it would take the North Sea flood of 1953 to persuade the authorities to look into constructing the Thames Barrier.
Indeed, Carlsson-Hyslop says much of the political reaction consisted of a series of wrangles over who should pay for flood defence and research into storm surges. In 2014 it has seen an echo in ministers' confrontations with councils and the Environment Agency.
There were other similarities, too. "In late 1927 and into 1928 there were constant arguments about should we dredge or not," says Carlsson-Hyslop.
Having studied floods throughout history, she says the rhetoric from political leaders in the wake of such events is remarkably uniform.
"It's very common for politicians to argue that floods are natural and rare and an act of God," she adds.
The 1928 flood was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
But flooding in the capital was far from unknown, says Werner. Samuel Pepys' diaries describe flooding in Whitehall.
The difference in 1928 was that the Embankments, previously uninhabited marshland, had been reclaimed during the Victorian era and now contained housing and commercial premises where once there was nothing.
"Historically, people thought this was part of what happens every so often but you live through it," says Werner.
"Now we don't expect it. We think we have sorted the problem. We have built the Embankment up, we forget the force of nature. So these sorts of moments are quite disturbing to people."
That was true in 1928, and equally so 86 years on.