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A photograph showing the Thames Barrier in London

How UK flood defences have changed from the Victorian era to modern day

Image: | Above: A photograph showing the Thames Barrier in London

It may seem as though severe and flash flooding is becoming more and more prevalent in our lifetime, but in fact, our Victorian ancestors suffered their fair share of extreme wet weather as well. While global warming and climate change is undoubtedly causing more issues in the modern day, the Victorian era simply wasn’t technologically advanced enough to deal with torrential rainfall. Their less effective river management strategy and sewage systems meant major rivers, like the Thames, actually flooded a lot more regularly than in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Although we now have better technology in place, there is still an over-reliance on outdated Victorian drainage structures, especially in London. In February 2022, a report from a London Councils' task force went as far as to say there is a danger that lives will be lost in the city if action isn’t taken sooner.

In order to get to the root of the problem, it’s worth travelling back a few hundred years to see how flooding affected the generations before us.

The Great Sheffield Flood

Undoubtedly one of the worst floods and natural disasters of the Victorian era was the Great Sheffield Flood in 1864. A total of 238 people, many of whom were children, lost their lives when the dam at the nearby Dale Dyke Reservoir completely gave way.

The dam was approximately 100 feet high and made using puddle clay, a material that wasn’t strong enough to hold that much water. In total, 650 million gallons flowed through Sheffield and its neighbouring villages, destroying everything in its path. The event was a severe wake-up call and forced engineers to go back to the drawing board.

Flooding of the River Thames in London and Windsor

The river Thames flooded regularly in the 19th century, albeit on a much smaller scale. Parts of Windsor were largely affected as well as the main residential areas in the capital. While these floods weren’t necessarily deadly, they did wreak havoc on the homes and livelihoods of many people. London’s drainage system was updated to keep sewage and surface water out of buildings, but it was by no means perfect. The Thames Flood Act of 1879 was introduced to build higher and stronger river walls as the main solution.

The so-called ‘Great Flood’ came a little later, in 1928. On 7th January, the Thames burst these bigger embankments and submerged the city’s narrowest streets under four feet of water. In total, 14 people died and thousands more were left homeless. The tragedy adversely affected the poorest families who lived in basement residences.

The Thames Barrier

Fast-forward to 1982 and London became exponentially more protected against the threat of flooding as the Thames Barrier became fully operational. Approximately 1.25 million people in areas such as Tower Bridge, Southwark, and Whitechapel are protected by the flood control structure. Even the Houses of Parliament would be at risk of being submerged in flood water without the revolutionary new defences. The Thames Barrier is made up of 10 separate movable steel gates that can be opened and closed to allow a controlled amount of water to pass up the river towards the city.

2015 Boxing Day Floods

The UK Government and the Environment Agency had to rethink the flood defence strategy in the north of England after major flooding across Yorkshire and Lancashire in 2015. The city of York was severely impacted after the Foss Barrier (where the rivers Foss and Ouse meet) failed. While nobody officially died as a result of the flood, hundreds of homes and businesses were out of action for several months.

The £38 million York Flood Alleviation Scheme (FAS) was assembled in 2018 to improve the city’s aging flood defences. The scheme noted that the existing defences had been built over many decades and no longer provided an adequate level of protection against the increasing water volumes and population size. The Foss Barrier was newly refurbished in June 2022 and now offers greater protection to 2,000 properties.

2022 threat

While flood defences across the country have been drastically improved it’s no secret that a lot more work needs to be done. London has greater protection from the river Thames, but thousands of people still occupy basement flats that could be easily flooded due to inadequate drainage systems in the highly urbanised areas.

An extended heatwave and new record temperatures across the United Kingdom in July and August 2022 caused droughts. The country is now braced for thunderstorms and heavy rainfall that will run off the parched earth, rather than being absorbed. In the 21st century we can prepare for floods a lot more than our Victorian ancestors, but the threat of danger and disruption is still very much here.