PortCities London

The Thames Barrier (1984 - present)
London's flood defence

What is the Thames Barrier?

The Thames Barrier.
View full size imageThe Thames Barrier. © NMM

The Thames Barrier is a unique structure built to protect London against flooding caused by tidal surges from the North Sea.

It is the world's largest movable flood barrier, spanning 520 metres (a third of a mile) across the Thames at Woolwich Reach.

The Thames Barrier.
View full size imageShip passing through the Thames Barrier. © NMM
The Thames Barrier is a set of 10 separate movable gates positioned end-to-end across the river. Between the gates are the concrete piers housing the operating machinery.

In the event of a surge warning, the gates are closed to form a steel wall. This effectively closes off the Upper Thames from the sea. When not in use the main gates lie in special recesses on the riverbed to allow ships to pass through. The Thames Barrier is maintained and operated by the Environment Agency.

Why was it needed?

Tilbury floods.
View full size imageTilbury under water in 1953. © NMM
Much of London lies in the floodplain of the Thames and its tributaries - the Brent, Fleet, Lea, Roding and many others. Because of this, the city has always been vulnerable to flooding.

On 31 January 1953 Britain and the Netherlands suffered one of the worst floods in their history. Huge waves battered the east coast, and a devastating tidal surge rushed up the Thames, with sea levels 3 metres above normal in some places.

London was very fortunate to escape the worst of the flooding. The Thames and the Lea burst their banks and damaged more than 1100 houses in Silvertown and Canning Town, but the floods did not reach central London.  Although London escaped disaster in 1953, the floods showed just how vulnerable the city could be.

An early proposal for the Thames Barrier.
View full size imageOne of the many failed proposals for a Thames Barrier. © NMM
Had the tidal surge reached central London, the outcome would have been horrendous. Over a million people would have been in danger. The likely damage to London's infrastructure - water and sewage systems, and power, gas and phone lines - would have disrupted life in the capital for months and cost a fortune to repair.

After the floods, an enquiry was set up to work out ways of protecting London in the future. As the old system of embankments was clearly no longer adequate, the enquiry recommended the construction of a flood barrier across the Thames.


Life Story

1950sThe port is in its heyday and the river still carried heavy traffic
31 January 1953One of the worst floods in British history causes the Thames to burst its banks. An enquiry was set up to work out ways of protecting London in the future.
1960sIt seemed clear that a barrier with movable gates was the way forward
1972Approval was finally given for a barrier at Woolwich
1975Work began to build the Thames Barrier
October 1982The Thames Barrier became operational
May 1984The Thames Barrier was officially opened by the Queen