Waters over Wapping: A brief history of floods in Wapping

With all the recent wet weather and my own holiday to Cornwall looking likely to be affected by the damage to the railway track at Dawlish, I thought I’d have a look at newspapers to see if there were any reports of Wapping suffering from flooding over the years.


1834

On 29 January 1834, residents of Wapping, Shadwell, Limehouse, Blackwall and Rotherhithe were somewhat shocked when at 4 am they found water pouring into their cellars. However, it was not just the East End that was affected, in the centre of London, the Strand was flooded and  furniture was seen floating about the streets of London.

The unexpected nature of the flood meant that warehouses weren’t prepared, and this was a major problem for warehouses that stored goods that could spoil, and one group of businesses badly affected were the granary keepers on the river front. As the tide receded large quantities of the granaries’ corn flowed with it and even greater quantities of flour and corn sat spoiled by the flood water.

Douglas’s granary on Wapping High Street stored 200 sacks* of flour and several hundred quarters of wheat*  in their cellar and 200 quarters of wheat were damaged, whilst much of the flour had been turned into a contaminated paste.

Both the Town of Ramsgate and the Waterman’s Arms (number 92) on Wapping High Street were flooded, with water inundating their cellars and also rising into the bar areas. At the Waterman’s Arms the water level was described as having reached the top of the settles, so perhaps 3 or 4 feet deep. Not only were the furnishings damaged but several barrels of beer were ‘broached by the violence of the inundation’.

With the High Street under water, boats piloted by the local watermen were called into action to rescue residents.

The Tower of London
moat filled in 1928

Fortunately there were no reported fatalities in Wapping. Down river in Blackwall people sleeping in their kitchens on low floors had some narrow escapes, including one house where an elderly couple and their daughter were rescued by a passing boat who heard their cries. The frightened trio were stood on a bed that had itself been submerged. The watermen put a plank through the window frame and rescued the family, just in the nick of time as moments later the house was swept away.

River walls failed across London and water forced its way up sewers and drains and flooded houses from beneath. Even the Tower of London had its cellars flooded. As soon as the tide subsided, people began to bail out their cellars, only for the flood tide to refill them that evening.

The Times declared ‘confidently’ that it was the highest tide in 40 years and appeared to have been caused by a surge from the sea resulting from hurricanes.


*I assume these are hessian bags, not the measure of 20/26 stones. A quarter is 28 pounds.

1835

Floods in Wapping were not restricted to Winter, with the tide reaching a ‘most unusual height’ on 14 May 1835.

Both Wapping High Street and Tower Wharf were flooded. Again, furniture could be spotted floating about and warehouses lost considerable stores. As in the previous year, the second  tide of the day also led to the river spilling into the streets.

Both this and the flood the year before appear to have been driven by storm surges in the North Sea.

1841

One day in October 1841, the ebb tide at 11 am was so great that the Thames was nearly fordable in places and a number of boats ran aground in the shallow water. At 3pm, an hour before high tide the water had already exceeded the high water mark. Wharfs and warehouses started to move their valuable stores as water started to flow into their cellars. However, action was too slow in many cases and The Times reported scenes of confusion and alarm.
By 4 pm the entirety of Wapping High Street was flooded and ‘presented the appearance of a canal’, with the water flowing along the numerous courts and alleys which intersected the High Street. People began to move furniture to upper rooms of their homes. Boats began plying for trade, operating as water taxis. Approximately 100 streets in Wapping were affected. Ships’ stores, furniture and other property were seen floating along the street meeting in ‘one common disaster’
The Thames Police Station became an island, but this was not an excuse to justice to go on holiday. The magistrate presiding over the police court, a Mr Broderip began to order boats to collect suspects and witnesses to ensure that the court could continue to process cases.
A number of buildings suffered significant damage, with the Leith and Glasgow wharf was flooded for the first time in 41 years, since when a series of piles were driven into the river and the wharf raised. At Harrison’s wharf in St Katharine Docks where a large number of casks and bales of sugar had been stored was also inundated.
Pubs were also affected including the Town of Ramsgate, the Watermen’s Arms at Wapping Old Stais, and the Black Boy opposite (whose gas meter was destroyed) an the the White Swan experienced various problems, not least their beer and spirits being carried away by the waters. At the Ship at Execution Dock, the landlord and his family had to climb onto the roof.
Water travelled down Old Gravel Lane [Wapping Lane] up to for a distance of at least 400 yards to the Pelham house. The Pelham’s infant son who had been left sleeping in the parlour was discovered by his mother as she came downstairs floating in his cradle, asleep and oblivious that he was about to leave the house by the front door.
There was at least one fatality in Wapping, at an address on Plough Alley [Lilley Close] when a bed-ridden woman drowned after being forgotten by the other tenants of the building. Another woman, at 9 Plough Alley was clinging to the top sash window of her home crying out for help. Aid came from a 15 year old John Brander, who stripped down to his smalls in a barn on nearby Great Hermitage Street and carried the woman up to second floor window using a ladder that had been left abandoned.
The Times reported that the effects of the flood were so great that in the evening the postman was unable to collect letters. I’m not sure how shocking this was, but I doubt that the Royal Mail today would bother trying!

1877

Environment Agency photo showing how flood defences have changed over time
Environment Agency photo showing how
flood defences have changed over time

In 1877, parts of London again flooded, with some suggesting that Bazalgette’s new embankments were the cause of the flooding, by reducing the width of the river and affecting its flow.

After the flood, thought was given by the Metropolitan Board of Works as how London could be better protected and this led in part to the 1879 Flood Act which gave the Metropolitan Board of Works the power to require land owners to raise the level of the river wall.

In Wapping Bowyer’s Granite Wharf [Smith’s restaurant], Hoare’s Brewery Wharf [St Katharine’s Way], the Red Lion Brewery [Matilda House], South Devon Wharf [HMS President] were identified as needing some works to enhance river defences.

The Metropolitan Board of Works noted that building owners were reticent to spend money on improvements (even were it simply constituted adding an extra few courses of bricks to walls) which would not only defend their riverside wharves but also properties behind theirs. The owners’ argument was why should they suffer expense if other building owners did not do likewise, as otherwise they would just get flooded from the land-side. A textbook example of why flood defences are a ‘public good’.

Similarly Alderman stairs [by Millers Wharf] and Union Stairs [between Cinnabar East and Central] were identified as needing raising by the Vestry (the local council). A big problem was that many of the warehouses in Wapping were designed with doors and windows on the ground floor level to allow easy unloading of cargoes. However, whilst many warehouses had some form of flood protection in the form of slides that could be put in place, these defences were not routinely put in place. Where improving the design of buildings was not possible, penalties were identified as a way of ensuring that removable defences were put in place as necessary.

1928

The extent of flooding in central London in 1928

1928 was a significant year for flooding in London, as it was probably the last time that London experienced major flooding. The impact of the flooding was significant – the river wall at Mill Bank failed and the Tate Gallery was flooded with several works of art damaged beyond repair and many others damaged to varying extents.

1928 is remembered because of the extent of flooding in Central London, across Pimlico, and along the embankments as well as much of the South Bank.

In Tower Hamlets, much flooding occurred on the low lying Isle of Dogs and by the river Lea.

Areas of Tower Hamlets affected by the 1928 flood are hatched.
Blue areas are at risk of flood but protected by the Thames Barrier

However, Wapping escaped any significant flooding, particularly when compared to Rotherhithe and Bermondsey just across the river. The breach of the river defences in Rotherhithe meant that water ran inland before then reaching the entrance to the Rotherhithe tunnel and ‘poured like a cataract’ through the tunnel and completely flooded it.

Extent of flooding in Wapping/Bermondsey and Rotherhithe
is shown by the red area.
The hatched area shows areas at risk but protected by flood defences.

1953

Canvey Island, 1953

In 1953 the North Sea Storm saw river levels reach some six inches above the 1928 level. Canvey Island in Essex, which was developed from land reclaimed from the sea was devastated and 13,000 residents were evacuated. In Lincolnshire flood waters reached 2 miles inland.

The leader of the London County Council (LCC) wrote to The Times to set out the defences that had been put in place as a result of the 1928 flooding, disputing suggestions that nothing has been done to protect London.

Post 1928 a new warning system was developed and physical defences were also improved, with river walls and embankments increased in height to a new statutory minimum height.

As a result of these defences there was not much significant flooding in central London in the years after 1928 including two occasions when the tide reached the unusually high level last experience in 1928.

One key element of the protection of London was that Southend Pier was used as a measure of the height of a tide: should the tide reach a certain point a buzzer would activate in Southend Police Station and Scotland Yard would be notified.

Extent of the flooding around
the Royal Docks

In a chain of command, once the warning from Southend arrived, Scotland Yard would then contact County Hall (home of the LCC) switchboard who would call officers of the Chief Engineer’s department. Those staff would head to allocated positions along the river walls and be prepared to contact contractors at the first sign of damage to any flood defence. This arrangement gave an hour and a half’s advanced warning of a high tide reaching London Bridge. Further automatic alarms were in place at Erith, Waterloo and Hammersmith. Wapping was home to one of six tide indicator boards, which each had a mark one foot below the height of the flood defences. If the tide reached above this mark, a local warning was issued.

There was some flooding in Blackwall and Wapping reported in The Times, which stated that in ‘the Whitechapel area, the water swept through many streets and basement property was damaged’. However, the Environment Agency records no flooding in Wapping in 1953.

The Grand Surrey Canal
(black line running due
south from the Docks)

The impact of the flooding was greater elsewhere in the Docklands. In the Royal Docks area (referred to in reports as ‘West Ham’, which was the name of one of the County Boroughs that became Newham), over a thousand families were evacuated and several hundred people were forced to seek refuge in Canning Town public hall.

In low lying Rotherhithe, the depth of the waters were some 4 feet in places, apparently as the result of a dock wall in the Surrey Docks being breached. In turn the levels of the Grand Surrey Canal rose and then flooded Camberwell and Peckham. However, during the Second World War, floodgates were added to the Rotherhithe tunnel, which might explain why there was no reported flooding of the tunnel.

1971

At the beginning of October 1971, the highest tide for several years was expected. Flood warning systems had been further developed and the risk of a tidal surge was detectable as far away as  the Shetlands which would give four hours notice to London.


However, because of the uncertainty of quite how high the level of the Thames would rise (as much depended on flows upstream) and to prevent false alarms, an alarm would only be activated one hour before the river was expected to ‘over top’ the flood defences.

Despite Wapping being identified as being at a special risk in the event of flooding, people found the idea of the river causing danger hard to take too seriously.

One Wapping resident who lived in a ground floor flat told The Times that ‘the council did send a notice round warning us about the flooding, and it said we should go one floor up if the water did come over’. However personal issues with his neighbours would prevent such a course of action: ‘I don’t get on with them upstairs so I’d rather stay down here and get me feet wet.’ A typically stoic Eastender.

One veteran of the Blitz said: ‘I stayed here all through the war, so a bit of water isn’t going to turn me out. I’ll jump on top of the wardrobe.’ It’s not clear if this was a particularly large wardrobe, but her 80 year old neighbour also planned to join her atop the wardrobe like a Wapping ark. Another man was sceptical about some of the preparations: “They say the sirens would be sounded if there was any danger, but there is so much noise going on round here anyway, that we wouldn’t hear them if they were”. The lively East End humour was not far away, as one man explained his neighbour’s plans: “[she] said she might go and buy some extra tinned food and put it upstairs in case her larder floated away, but I said to her, with the prices they charge round here I was surprised she could afford to think like that!” Clearly the cost of living crisis isn’t anything new. The police station was boarded up to ensure it wasn’t inundated by flood waters. One police officer noted ‘it is the old British attitude round here of “it won’t happen to us”’. The officer didn’t seem aware of any contingency plans: ‘I like the way people are saying ‘we have a master plan if the worst should happen. What else can you do besides go upstairs, and mop up afterwards?’.

Despite the officer’s concerns, the council did have a master plan to evacuate anyone who was unable to reach a place of safety. Fortunately none of the contingency plans were needed and the North Sea storm passed without event for Wapping and Wapping has been unaffected by flooding since, in part thanks to the Thames Barrier.

Today

Height of modern flood defences

Today Wapping is protected by the Thames Barrier, but in addition is also protected by a variety of walls and buildings to protect it from high river levels. In the map, the areas marked in blue have river defences that are at least 5.28 metres AOD and those in green have a height of 5.23 metres.

The last major flood in central London was in 1928 when the river rose to 5.18 metres AOD, so we’d have to experience a flood another 10 cm higher.
So, Wapping has been pretty flood free for the past 60-85 years, and let’s hope it stays that way.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *