Britain could be bracing itself for either one of the coldest or wettest winters in 100 years depending on which forecast you read. Since the 2007 prediction of a “barbecue summer”, which ended in a washout, the Met Office stopped publishing public seasonal forecasts. They may return now that the Met have purchased a super computer. Personally I’m hoping for the cold rather than the misery of floods.
Last 5th December when most of the world was mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela the Thames Barrier was coping with the largest sea surge since 1953. In that surge 1800 people in the Netherlands and 326 people in the UK were killed. Inevitably tragedies like this have prompted proposals for better river defences.
The Thames last flooded central London in 1928 when 14 people were killed some trapped in the basements which were used as habitable rooms. Tragically the Harding sisters lost their lives: Florence 18, Lillian 16, Rose 6 and Doris 2. This event set in motion plans for a flood barrier across the Thames. In January 1935 the Port of London Authority considered two schemes. The first was a dam at Woolwich which carried a £2m price tag or £3m if it also had a road spanning the river. The impact of this scheme would have been dramatic as it would cut off tides west of Woolwich creating a pool of still water. The second scheme was a dam across the river at London Bridge. Hard to imagine now but in the 1930s the area along the Thames and London Bridge was docks and industrial land.
After the 1953 floods the Government appointed a Committee chaired by Lord Waverley (John Anderson) better known for giving his name to the air raid shelter. The Greater London Council was formed in 1965 and they were responsible for the design and construction of the barrier. A huge civil engineering project for its time and beset with the difficulties of the 70s. The 1972 estimate of £49m rose to a whacking £450m by 1976 reasons cited for the increase (Financial Times 1976) were; rising oil prices, inflation and the effects of the three day week. Yes, the three day week when cities were plunged into darkness, schools and factories closed, people wore blankets and woolly hats and there were record sales of jigsaw puzzles.
The 70s may have set in motion events that led to the de-industrialisation of Britain and the privatisation of many public services yet the Thames Barrier is a powerful reminder of the way a large strategic public body can bring together a scheme of such magnitude that 30 years on it is still protecting London.