PortCities London

Freak weather and the port

Floods and the Thames

London and the threat of floods

A large part of London lies on the floodplain of the River Thames and its tributaries - the Brent, Fleet, Lea, Roding and many others. Because of this, the city has always been vulnerable to sudden extremes of weather.

State of the Thames at Greenwich during the high tide of Thursday week.
View full size imageThe Thames at Greenwich in March 1860. © NMM
More than a dozen serious floods affected London before the 20th century. Fortunately, relatively few people lost their lives in comparison with other disasters London has suffered. However, with London growing bigger and becoming more densely populated, the prospect of a major flood in the future could not be ignored.

The great floods of 1953

The floods of 1953 were a major disaster for Britain and the Netherlands. On 31 January several factors came together to produce one of the worst floods in British history:

  • a deep depression moving south from the Shetland Islands to the North Sea caused the sea level to rise
  • gale force winds blowing from the north caused high waves
  • the shape of the North Sea - narrower and shallower towards the south - caused water to pile up in the southern part
  • during January, the high spring tides already meant higher levels of water.

On the evening of 31 January huge waves battered the east coast. A devastating tidal surge rushed up the Thames, with sea levels 3 metres above normal in some places.

A trail of death

Tilbury floods.
View full size imageTilbury under water in 1953. © NMM
The low-lying Netherlands suffered the worst of the floods. 1800 died there. 307 people died in Britain, including 58 at Canvey Island, which was completely submerged by the water.

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.  


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