Since Roman times, London has built its most important public buildings on or very near the banks of the Thames, and gradually embanked the river to protect them. By the 1920s London was the biggest city in the world, and the Thames was compressed into a sinuous coil that wound through its heart. On both banks, natural safeguards against flooding like mudflats and marshes were largely filled with buildings and concrete. London failed to notice: the river had ceased to be a primary benefit to its booming prosperity.
The river took its revenge in 1928. Heavy snow at Christmas in the Cotswold Hills, the Thames’s source, swelled its entire length with meltwater and heavy rain. By the time it got to the tidal reach below Teddington, it coincided with both an exceptionally high, incoming tide and a storm surge from the North Sea. The water level at Southend, 50 km (30 mi) from central London was 1.5 m (4 ft.) above normal. As it was funneled into the sharply narrowing estuary and met the downstream flow it soared in a few hours to a peak of 5.5 m (18 ft.), just where it could do most damage.
In parts of Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, people struggled up to their waists, but it was worst in the heart of London. Where the river bends, at Charing Cross and Waterloo, water spilled over the embankments and flooded Southwark, the City, Lambeth, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Hall, London Underground train stations, Hammersmith and all the way to Putney. At the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) nine galleries went under, threatening millions of pounds worth of irreplaceable fine art. Outside the gallery on Millbank, a section of the embankment actually collapsed, flooding the east side of Pimlico so quickly that 14 people drowned in their basements; and 4,000 people lost their homes.
When was The Thames Flood: January 7 1928
Where was The Thames Flood: London, UK
What was The Thames Flood death toll: 14 people drowned and a few were injured. The worst damage was to tunnels, underground electrical and other systems, and to the fabric of historic buildings and their often priceless contents along the flood’s path. Cleaning and restoration took years in some cases. The embankments were raised, Millbank was entirely rebuilt, and the first discussions took place about creating some sort of ‘barrier’ to halt similar surges in the future (it took 50 years to happen). London has never been seriously flooded since.
You should know: HMS President is a former Royal Navy corvette once used by the Royal Naval volunteer Reserve, it is still to be seen (now permanently) moored on the Thames at the Victoria Embankment, where it’s been since 1922. On the day of the flood it floated majestically into the streets, and had to be tethered to Cleopatra’s Needle.