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A Tideless Thames: London's Highest Priority?

12-July-2012
12-July-2012 0:00
in Planning
by Peter Berthoud

"The removal of the tides from the London Reaches is, in my opinion, the greatest single measure that can be taken for the benefit of London as a whole."

So wrote Lord Desborough in 1928 and he had much support.

As far back as the 1850s, Herbert Spencer and others had proposed building a barrage with locks to keep the Thames free of tides and so constantly broad, deep and clean. But in 1928 the issue was brought to a head for Desborough and his supporters.

On January 6th/7th in 1928 a very high tide swept up the river and fourteen people were killed in the resulting floods. Many people were made homeless and much damage was done.

The Thames Barrage Association was formed with a view to avert similar catastrophes in the future and to make the vision of a "Tideless Thames" a reality. An early plan was for this barrage at Gravesend.

The Barrage at Gravesend – 1928
The Barrage at Gravesend - 1928

Over the next few years increasingly detailed plans for a barrage shifted from Gravesend to Woolwich.

First Gulls-Eye Vision of Woolwich Barrage – 1932
First Gulls-Eye Vision of Woolwich Barrage - 1932

In addition to flood protection The Thames Barrage Association envisaged other important benefits of a barrage:

  • A new river crossing for road and rail traffic below London Bridge.
  • A reduction in sewage in the river.
  • More "tideless accommodation" for ships.
  • A reduction in costs for shipping using the Port of London.
  • Reduced transport costs for moving goods between the river and land.
  • A reduction in street congestion.
  • The improved safety of 27 bridge's foundations and 60 miles of river walls that would no longer suffer from the erosive effects of the tides.
  • And "The covering of the tidal mudflats, an offence to the senses, a danger to health, an indignity to a city of London's size and importance."

The Proposed Thames Barrage, A Dam at Woolwich – 1935
The Proposed Thames Barrage, A Dam at Woolwich - 1935

The Thames Barrage Association estimated that a dam or barrage at Woolwich would cost around £4.5 million and could be constructed within 18 months "if efficiently organized".

An artist's impression of the proposed new structure was produced.

“Things to Come” by A van Anrooy – 1936
"Things to Come" by A van Anrooy - 1936

But the mid 1930s were not the best time for grand new master plans. The general lack of funds and the imminent threat of war meant that no government backing was forthcoming. Talk of a barrage was curtailed, for "defence reasons".

During the Second World War bombing of London, water mains took many hits. Fire-fighters, struggling to deal with the ravages of the blitz, had been unable to draw water from the river whenever there was a low tide and so the damage caused by fires was far greater than it need have been.

In 1943 the Thames Barrage Association began again to promote the idea of a dam. An emerging spirit of optimism was developing and the replanning of London occupied many minds. With images of the blitz fresh in the minds of all parties the TBA were keen to promote the improved defensive capabilities that would be provided by a barrage, a constant source of water for fire-fighters.

But The Thames Barrage Association could never agree on a single plan. As late as 1943 they were still promoting two possibilities, "Projects A & B".

Thames Barrage at Woolwich, Projects A & B
Thames Barrage at Woolwich, Projects A & B

The Port of London Authority, London County Council and the Government did not support either project. By the end of the war enthusiasm had waned, finance was not available and the idea died a death.

It took the flooding of 1953, in which over 300 people lost their lives, to bring one of the Thames Barrage Association's objectives, flood prevention, to the fore. Plans for a Thames Barrier (to temporarily dam the Thames in the event of high tides) were supported by all parties and funding was forthcoming although work didn't begin until late 1974 and it wasn't operational until 1982.

Another of the Thames Barrange Association's objectives, a new down river crossing, was achieved with the opening of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford in 1991 but the realisation of their broader vision, a truly tideless Thames seems highly improbable today.

If you feel the need to immerse yourself in still more unrealised grand plans for London there is an excellent series of features on Unbuilt London on the Londonist site. I have also written about The Royal Academy’s outlandish plan for a post-war London, Mr Cawston’s eccentric 19th Century vision for the city and ambitious plans to demolish Charing Cross Station and replace its bridge with a road bridge.

All the images in this post come from Tideless Thames in Future London by J H O Bunge, published by The Thames Barrier Association, London in 1944. Copies typically sell for between £5.00 & £10 on Amazon and Abe.

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