Thames Flood of 1928
A plaque in the wall of the Mortlake Brewery on the tow path by Bulls Alley records the level of the 1928 Thames Flood – one of the last major floods to affect central London. Fourteen people were drowned and thousands were made homeless when flood waters poured over the top of the Embankment.
During Christmas 1927, heavy snow had fallen in the Cotswolds. A sudden thaw occurred over the New Year followed by unusually heavy rain, doubling the volume of water coming down the river. The sudden rise in water level coincided with a high spring tide and a storm surge caused by a major cyclone in the North Sea. This produced the highest water levels ever recorded in the Thames in London. The flood peaked at about 1.30 am on 7 January with the water nearly a foot higher than the previous record.
In central London the Tate Gallery, Westminster Hall and the House of Commons were all flooded, as were the London Underground stations along the riverside. The moat at the Tower of London, which had been empty for over 80 years, was refilled by the river. But the flood also affected areas further upstream.
A high tide was expected in Mortlake and the usual precautions were taken by the riverside residences that were liable to periodic flooding. But on this night the measures were wholly inadequate. Even the watermen with their long experience of the river were surprised by the height of the water and the rapidity with which it rose.
The Ministry of Labour offices at Kew suffered considerably. Over 3800 people were employed there, collecting in the stamped insurance cards of some 15 million workers and vetting claims submitted for unemployment benefit. Staff showed great determination to get to work: some walked through the water on stilts and others were taken in carts. The post on Saturday was found floating in the vestibule with thousands of claims for unemployment benefit ruined. A Ministry of Labour spokesperson said "it will be necessary to give the insured person the benefit of the doubt, and considerable expenditure of money that would otherwise have been avoided may be thus entailed".
In Mortlake premises in the High Street frequently experienced high tides near to Bulls Alley. But on this Saturday the water was higher than in living memory, rising to the level of the counter in the saloon bar of the Old George. The electricity works and other parts of the council depot escaped flooding but further along the High Street at Mr Eastwood's wharf the water came into contact with lime and cause an outbreak of fire. The fire brigade were quickly on the scene and contained the outbreak. They could then begin the process of pumping out flooded neighbouring premises which lasted several days.
In the aftermath there were, not surprisingly, complaints and lessons to be learnt. Those not roused by the police complained that they should have been; the wall erected some years earlier to protect Barnes Terrace would have been built higher but for protest meetings against the original plans; while the Herald found it "somewhat surprising that given the frequency with which the Thames encroaches on Mortlake High Street no proposal has ever been brought forward for preventing it". But Lord Desborough, chairman of the Thames Conservancy Board, placed the blame firmly on the North Sea. "The only way I can see [to prevent water coming in from the North Sea] is one I recommended 21 years ago – to put a barrage from Tilbury to Gravesend with locks on it". Some 77 years after Lord Desborough's proposal the erection of the Thames Barrier was completed – albeit further upstream that the noble Lord envisaged. Let us hope it continues to be sufficient to protect Mortlake (as well as the rest of riverside London) for many years to come.