Commemoration Event

At 2.00 pm on Wednesday 29th October 2014, a plaque was unveiled in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament to commemorate one of the untold tales of the Blitz. It concerns the activities of a top-secret rapid-response unit that went into operation in 1940, to repair breaches in London’s flood defences caused by the Luftwaffe’s intensive bombing raids. The team was set up by the London County Council’s visionary Chief Engineer, Sir Thomas Peirson Frank (1881-1951). By the end of the war, they had responded to over 100 major incidents, all of which were successfully contained, but any one of which could have had catastrophic consequences for low-lying London.


Sir Thomas Peirson Frank © Institution of Civil Engineers

Recent field work and archive research by the Thames Discovery Programme have uncovered this previously unknown story: with hindsight and in the light of recent Thames flooding problems, it seems that Sir Thomas Peirson Frank’s work deserves greater acknowledgement, since it can be shown that his team literally saved London from drowning.

The plaque was unveiled by Lord Mayor of Westminster Audrey Lewis, in front of representatives from the Institution of Civil Engineers (the organisation which generously funded the plaque – Sir Thomas Peirson Frank served as their President); the Greater London Authority (the successor body to the LCC); Museum of London Archaeology’s Thames Discovery Programme team; the Institute of Archaeology UCL and, last but by no means least, the proud descendants of the family of Sir Thomas himself.

Project Background

Research for the Thames at War Riverpedia Project supported by University College London, has revealed that the river wall was hit more than 100 times between 1940-45, however not one of these potentially serious breaches resulted in a major flood. Unpublished records in the London Metropolitan Archives have revealed how London was saved, thanks to detailed forward planning on the part of the London County Council’s Chief Engineer, Sir Peirson Frank. He had arrived in London in 1930 to take up his new post in the aftermath of the infamous 1928 flood that saw the river wall breached, many properties flooded and lives lost – Peirson Frank was thus fully aware of the potential threat the Thames posed to London.


As the prospect of war loomed ever larger, he therefore commissioned a survey of the most vulnerable riverside sites in all the riparian boroughs, grading them from I (the worst) to III. A programme of temporary works was then initiated to provide a secondary line of flood defence in the worst areas. Next, he established four depots to store sandbags, timber and tarpaulin, so that the most vulnerable areas could be reached quickly in the event of a major bombstrike. These were in Battersea Park, Southwark Park, Tunnel Avenue (Greenwich) and Pyrimont Wharf on the Isle of Dogs. The depots were staffed with new rapid-response teams, called the Thames Flood Prevention Emergency Repairs unit, or TF (Thames Flood) for short.

This careful planning paid off: all four teams were catapulted into action from 7 September 1940, when the Blitz erupted with startling ferocity: from then until 29 December, they were called out to no fewer than 40 riverwall bomb strikes. 1941 was no less hazardous: there were some 20 major incidents during the single massive 10 May raid requiring rapid repairs. All these endeavours were conducted largely ‘in secret’ with minimum publicity, so as not to alarm the public or alert the Luftwaffe to this particular soft target.

In tandem with the study of the contemporary documents, community archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme surveyed the present-day rivewall. Although extensive refacing of the waterfront has taken place over the last 70 years, some examples of brick or shuttered concrete repairs from the 1940s can still be identified with the incidents recorded in the log books. Between 1940-5, we now know the river wall was hit 121 times, with 84 incidents from 1940 to May 1941 (the Blitz), with a further 37 incidents up to 24 March 1945, covering the period of the ‘Little Blitz’ and the V1 and V2 rocket attacks. But not one of these potential disasters resulted in a major flood event. The highly organised work of the Chief Engineer’s team deserves plaudits: given the destruction caused upstream by the peacetime floods in 1947 and downstream by the floods in 1953 (not to mention the more recent inundations of the winter of 2013-14), then London surely does have a debt of gratitude to pay to all those involved. Perhaps now, some 70 years after the event, we can at last publicly recognise their real achievement.