Historic events: Severe coastal flooding and damage in central London on 6th and 7th January 1928
By Shari L. Gallop
Disaster struck the streets of central London on 6th and 7th January 1928, when a North Sea storm surge combined with high tide and high river flows to cause severe coastal flooding (The Capricornian, 1928). Leading up to this event, Christmas 1927 saw heavy snowfall in the Cotswolds, and when it melted in early January 1928 it was said that the sudden thaw doubled the volume of water in the Thames (Tate Archive, 2003), flooding much of east London (BBC, 2014). This made the subsequent impact of the storm surge even worse.
At the time, flood defences on the River Thames were designed to withstand a storm tide of 18 ft [5.49 m] above ordnance datum (OD). These defences were designed after the previous high tide record of 17 ft 6 inches [5.33 m] OD in 1881, which was exceeded in January 1928 by 11 inches [0.28 m] (BBC, 2014). In some areas, it was said “…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…”, as reported by the Times (BBC, 2014). There was no early warning system in 1928 or protection from the Thames Barrier (BBC, 2014). This flood event does not appear in the SurgeWatch database due to a lack of tide gauges at this time.
There was widespread flooding in central London, including at the embankment by Temple Underground Station, Lots Power Station, Wandsworth Gas Works, and Blackwell Tunnel (Museum of London, n.d.). The flood saw the failure of the river banks (Figure 1), and it was reported that flood water flowed around notable landmarks including Big Ben, the Old Palace Yard at Westminster (The Capricornian, 1928), and the Tower of London (BBC, 2014). The Tate Gallery was flooded nearly to the top of the doors on the ground floor, which damaged thousands of drawings and paintings (Museum of London, 1928; Tate Archive, 2003; BBC, 2014). Other damages included the rail bridge collapse near Edmonton, just after the passing of a mail train; and beach huts were washed away (The Capricornian, 1928). Parts of the London Tube were also closed (Tate Archive, 2003). Damages were estimated as totalling ₤100,000  just in Bermondsey, South London (The Examiner, 1928) – equivalent to around £5.5 million today.
Figure 1. Breached embankment at Westminster (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26153241)
This flood resulted in ‘hundreds of homeless, hungry, and scantily clad persons, including many children’ (The Examiner, 1928). It is estimated that the flood made 4,000 people homeless (Museum of London, n.d.) and drowned 14 people in basement level apartments (Museum of London, 1928; Tate Archive, 2003; BBC, 2014). Almost 1,000 homes were rendered uninhabitable due to contaminated flood water containing creosote tar from riverside mills (The Examiner, 1928). Some entrepreneur’s charged fees for people to view the damage in their homes (The Capricornian, 1928).
The poor suffered the most (The Capricornian, 1928); some of the narrow slum streets in London were the worst affected, and inundated by 4 ft [1.22 m] of water (BBC, 2014). One man had to endure the harrowing task of identifying the bodies of four of his daughters (BBC, 2014). There were also tales of heroism, such as a champion swimmer in Putney who rescued several occupants of a flooded flat before the flood waters forced close the door, causing him to drown (The Capricornian, 1928).
Figure 2. People assessing the great damage from the flood (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26153241)
While this flood was devastating for many families and businesses, it was not until after the 1953 flood that plans were developed to build the Thames Barriers (BBC, 2014).
BBC News (2014). The great 1928 flood of London. London, 16/02/2014. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26153241
The Examiner (1928). After The Flood. Launceston, Tasmania, 10/01/1928. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/51457288
Museum of London (n.d.). Exploring 20th Century London: Floods. Retrieved 14 March 2015. Retrieved from http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/floods
The Capricornian (1928). Flooded England. Rockhampton, Queensland, 04/01/1928. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/69849000
Tate Gallery (2003). Archive Journeys: The Flood. Retrieved from http://www2.tate.org.uk/archivejourneys/historyhtml/flood.htm