On this day in history : 7th January 1928 – The River Thames bursts its banks and floods much of Central London…. Fourteen people lose their lives and thousands more are made homeless…. The Tower of London, Houses of Parliament and Tate Gallery are all swamped….

During Christmas 1927 heavy snow had fallen in the Cotswolds, where the Thames has its source…. A sudden thaw on New Years Eve, followed by excessive heavy rain meant there was double the usual volume of water coming down river…. This coincided with a high spring tide – but at the same time a storm surge, caused by a cyclone in the North Sea meant water levels were raised in the Thames Estuary….

Floods at Reading in January 1928 – showing the impact of the Thames flooding even further down river…. Image credit : Alan Farrow via Flickr

The situation was made even worse by dredging work that had been carried out in the Capital between 1909 and 1928 to deepen the river channel – to allow easier access for shipping in to the Port of London….

The river burst its banks just after midnight – when most Londoners were in their beds…. The first section to break was a 75ft stretch at Millbank – opposite the Tate Gallery…. Water poured into the gallery, up to 8ft deep on the ground floor….18 paintings were damaged beyond repair, 226 badly damaged and a further 67 received minor damage…. Many were by renowned artist J.M.W. Turner….

Westminster Hall and the House of Commons were flooded, as were most underground stations close to the river…. The Blackwall Tunnel was submerged, as was the Rotherhithe Tunnel…. The moat surrounding the Tower of London, which had been empty for over 80 years, was filled…. The flooding extended from the City of London and Southwark right to Putney and Hammersmith….

A Southern Railway electric multiple unit tackles floods at Kew Bridge railway station Credit : Andy Dingley (scanner) – Public domain

However, the most devastating part of the disaster has to be the human cost…. As the embankment near to Lambeth Bridge broke floodwaters gushed onto the streets of the run-down working-class area between Southwark and Blackfriars, which backed on to the river…. Water poured into the basements….which were the homes of so many of London’s poorer people….

There was little time to escape; police went from door to door, urging people to leave….many did, wearing just their nightclothes….but for some it was too late….

As the water poured into these basements nine people drowned – and another died from a heart attack brought on by the shock…. Alfred Harding later had to identify the bodies of 4 of his daughters:- Florence Emily, 18 – Lillian Maude, 16 – Rosina, 6 and Doris, who was only 2-years-old….

Two more died in Hammersmith, domestic servants Evelyn Hyde, aged 20 and Annie Masters Moreton, aged 22 – who shared a basement room…. Another two people died in Fulham…. 4,000 were made homeless….

The flood peaked at 1.30am, at a level of over 18ft above the Ordnance Datum line….the highest water level ever recorded in the Thames at London…. The water had subsided by the end of the day – but it took a month to pump all of it away…. The damage took several years to repair….many of the old slum areas had to be demolished, Millbank and the surrounding area had to be virtually rebuilt…. Political rows broke out over who should pay for the clean-up operation – was it the responsibility of local or central government…. Arguments also occurred amongst authorities and politicians over the role the dredging work had played in the disaster….

Thames flood level markers at Trinity Hospital, Greenwich

The embankments had once been marshland but were reclaimed during the Victorian era and had been developed for housing and commercial purposes…. As a result of the 1928 flood the river’s embankments were raised…. Thankfully it was the last major flood to occur in the city – but it came close again in 1953 – when the river almost broke the embankment – and did cause some flooding at Bermondsey and other low-lying areas…. A further flood occurred on the Lower Thames in 1959….

At last the government were prompted to consider flood defence – once again there were disagreements over who should foot the bill…. Plans were made in the mid 1960s for a flood barrier – and in 1974 work finally got underway…. The Thames Barrier officially opened in 1984….


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