The Thames Barrier was built to protect London from floods caused by a tidal surge from the North Sea. They were a response to the floods of 1953, which killed over 300 people on the east coast of Britain and 1800 in the Netherlands. Although many died in the Thames Estuary, the floods did not reach central London. Had they done so, the loss of life and damage to infrastructure could have been horrendous.
The traditional protection against floods- mainly the building of embankments - was no longer enough. As the port was at its peak in the 1950s, there was confusion about how to build a barrier that would not interfere with the movement of shipping.
In 1972, approval was finally given for the building of a barrier with movable gates at Woolwich. Work began in 1975, and the Thames Barrier became operational in October 1982, and was officially opened in May 1984.
The Thames Barrier is a set of 10 separate movable gates positioned end-to-end across the river. Between these 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. When not in use the main gates lie in special recesses on the riverbed to allow ships to pass through.
The Thames Barrier is designed to protect London until 2030. As southeast Britain is slowly tilting into the sea, London is gradually sinking into a bed of clay, and sea levels are rising because of global warming, further protection will soon be necessary.