Our community has lived with the river and all it brings for generations. Nowadays there is protection from flooding thanks to the structure dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ – the magnificent Thames Flood Barrier at Silvertown. But locals have not always been so lucky.

The Great Flood of 1953 began as low pressure out in the mid-Atlantic. On February 1, the Spring high tide struck the lowest areas of Essex and Kent in the middle of the night.

The tidal surge swept to the Thames, with sea levels 10ft above normal. In our area factories, oil refineries, gasworks, electricity stations and more were brought to a standstill.

Just before 2am water started coming into Silvertown from the docks. As Silvertown fire station was being evacuated the tide reached its peak at Bow Creek Outfall, six feet above the level predicted.

Minutes later firefighters made their first rescue in Dock Road where a night watchman had climbed onto the roof of a caravan from a factory. Two men were then rescued in Tidal Basin Road where they hid in the roof of a lorry. Fire crews used their 100ft turntable ladder to lower crews on a sling for their mission.

 

Canning Town after floods, 1953 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library
Beached whale in the Thames at North Woolwich, 27 November 1899 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

Roads were filled with icy water. Sewers were blocked with debris and pumping stations broke down. The Dock Cut was overflowing and canoes, brought from Barking Park, helped rescued trapped people.

The local paper reported how volunteers made rafts out of oil drums. Householders dropped ropes from upstairs windows to haul up the flasks of tea.

Amid the drama, the heroine of Mary Street was revealed. Mrs Annie Shepherd, wearing only her nightdress, battled her way through freezing water to wake the neighbours along the road in the early hours.

She was woken by her daughter who took her children to their gran, not believing the water was advancing on Mary Street. Before Annie could light a fire to dry the children off, the water began pouring through the front door.

She fought her way into the street and began knocking on doors until all her neighbours were aware what was happening:

I went through all the air raids, but this was worse than any of it, there was no warning,

she told a reporter. 

Silvertown flood, Saville Road, 1957 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

The water was between two and three feet high inside the homes. 

Ground floor rooms were flooded, and furniture was floating.

Despite the horrors of finding your home flooded, Cockney humour and wit remained intact during the troubles, with many residents used to regular flooding.

 

Colin Gascoyne said:

My nan lived in Knight’s Road, Silvertown, and said that when there was a flood my grandad would lift the piano up onto milk crates to stop it getting ruined. For years there was a dirty line around the scullery walls where the floods came up to. There were steps down from the living room to the scullery.

 

Free coal was given out in a bid to speed up the drying out of homes.

The RAF supplied bomber engine heaters,

said Bill Grainger.

Franciscan sisters of St Margaret’s Church, Canning Town, and other volunteers came to help people clean up their homes. 

Hospitals helped by opening their laundries to dry soaked clothes and bedding.

Storm flood at Tate & Lyle, Silvertown, 1948 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

Bill, now 92, lived in Albert Road, and said West Silvertown and Silvertown fared worse than North Woolwich. 

Like most events, it played a part in bringing the communities together more.

Stan Dyson said: 

There were also floods in August 1957. They were a nuisance or a delight, depending on whether you were an adult or a child.

Pictures from Saville Road showed the extent of the flooding and pictures from both ends of the street, showing children playing knee deep in water.  

David Bullard said: 

I remember going for a game of snooker in Tate Institute upstairs. When we came down two hours later it was flooded up to our knees. Everyone was stepping on and off chairs to move about. But they were still serving drinks and people just sat on tables and carried on as if nothing had happened!

Flood levels were made worse by the old underground River Ham. The cellar of the house at the Institute was always flooded.

West Silvertown seem to get flooded out particularly regularly – up to two feet of water at a time. Locals remember paddling to the shops in 1957 in an old tin bath.

The floods finally encouraged authorities to look at flood defences. An inquiry was set up to work out how to improve protection.

The magnificent Thames Barrier opened in 1984 after a project costing more than £500 million, which also provided jobs for local people. And it has kept us safe ever since.

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Photo: Newham Archives and Local Studies Library