Run for the Hills

At the Tate Gallery among the paintings by Constable and Monet was a sight stranger than any picture by Jackson Pollock which would later adorn its walls. Wearing his pyjamas an off-duty policeman dived into the 8ft deep flooded basement to rescue a trapped man.

The policeman would then go on to spend the entire evening rescuing others before reporting for duty for the morning shift.

[O]n the night of 7th January 1928 the Embankment wall collapsed near Lambeth Bridge, right opposite the Tate. Flood water poured across the road destroying homes and forcing local residents in one of London’s most deprived areas to swim for their lives. Fourteen were drowned trapped in basements where they were living and 4,000 were made homeless.

During Christmas 1927 heavy snow had fallen on the Cotswolds. A sudden thaw on New Year’s Eve had swollen the River Thames and coupled with unusually heavy rain had doubled the volume of water. That night a high spring tide coincided with a storm surge pushing down the North Sea towards the Thames estuary had peaked at the river rising to over 18ft above mean average, the training vessel President floated at street level.

Flooding in the capital was far from unknown, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of flooding in Whitehall and politicians rowing boats inside Westminster Hall. But as today in 1928 in recriminations soon followed.

Dredging the Thames was blamed which had been carried out between 1909 and 1928, deepening the river channel by about 6ft to allow access for deeper-draught vessels into the Port of London. This had the side-effect of making it easier for sea surge to flow up the Thames on a high tide.

The land around Westminster previously was uninhabited marshland that had been reclaimed during the Victorian era and now contained housing and commercial premises where once there was nothing.

Today the Environmental Agency is deliberately allowing areas such as this to revert to a primordial swamp. Have they considered allowing an untamed river, the Westbourne to flood the low-lying, badly drained marshland between Westminster and the western part of Belgravia?

In medieval times it was known as Thorney Island and thus some of its edges were not drained being in the Tyburn marsh itself. In 1850 considerable parts of Westminster were under the high-water mark of the Thames, Victoria Street was designed to drain the area and clear the slums, such developments were termed ‘town swamps and social bridges’ the former street Duck Lane now renamed St. Matthew Street attests to this area was fit for, well, ducks.

Photo: Thames Barrier Kevin Perkins

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