These stories have been collected and researched by our London Lost Waterways oral history volunteers. Many people shared memories of environmental events, especially when the Thames burst its banks and caused major floods in London.

The 31 January 1953 flood: Barnes and Canvey Island

On the night of the 31 January – 1 February 1953 a disastrous North Sea Surge struck the Essex Coast and raced up the Thames. Low lying reclaimed marshes were inundated, and sea/river defences were breached time and again as the sea took back the land it once used. Fields, streets, buildings, woods, whatever lay in the path of the surge was inundated. Sadly, it cost the lives of many people including 36 in Jaywick and 2 in Point Clear. In Essex 119 people lost their lives that night.

This event was not a one-off. Storms and flooding have plagued the low-lying coastal areas for centuries and owing to global warming similar storms are likely to become more frequent and more violent. The number of people occupying premises within the former marshlands has increased dramatically since the 1953 flood. At Jaywick Sands, St Osyth Beach, Leewick and Point Clear holiday homes proliferate, and some are used for all year-round accommodation.


53 floods more damaging than 87 hurricane

Forgotten Stories – the Great Flood of ’53

The devastating storm of 1953

St. Osyth Museum

BBC-Memories of Canvey Island.

Elizabeth Wood interviewed by Graham Strudwick

Elizabeth recalled

I do remember the 1953 floods… I think there was actually someone drowned in Barnes, I think he was a rough sleeper living in an air raid shelter.

She explained her school friend in Barnes had slept through flood of 31 January 1953 and how a new Flood Warning Scheme was set up afterwards.

Later in the recording Elizabeth told the story of a friend whose family lost all their belongings in a flood.

Sadly, thinking back to the floods I have an old friend who used to live with her family on Canvey Island and it’s very strange she has no family memorabilia as a result of that disaster.


Flood mark from 1774 flood at Twickenham ©Graham Strudwick

Graham noted a couple of reports of the 1774 floods at Twickenham. The first of these is recorded on a website called and notes the following on their website:

The British Evening Post of London recorded on 15th March 1774:

At Kingston, the water having reached up to the town hall, and spread over far the greater part of the town; the people could not keep the market there on Saturday last … At Teddington, the water rose in the church to a considerable height. And at Twickenham, the flood on Saturday evening was full one feet higher than it was 115 Years ago; though at that time it was higher than was ever known before … At Isleworth, the water was so high, that they could not get to the church without boats, so that this flood in the River Thames, was, in all probability, the greatest that ever was in this river.

In 1774, the man-made lake at Virginia Water burst its banks, and there was flooding along the Thames to Richmond. Horace Walpole reported the discomforts of the deluge on 27th September:

It has rained this whole month, and we have got another inundation. The Thames is as broad as your Danube, and all my meadows are under water. Lady Browne and I, coming last Sunday night from Lady Blandford’s, were in a piteous plight. The ferry-boat (from Richmond to Twickenham) was turned around by the current, and carried to Isleworth. Then we ran against the piers of our new bridge, and the horses were frightened.

For the time being the Thames Flood Barrier protects London but if global temperatures continue to rise and ice caps melt then new engineering solutions will be needed to protect Londoners from new flooding.

Learn More

Explore more of our oral history themes:

  • Boats and transport
  • Business and Industry
  • Environment and Flooding
  • Mudlarking Memories
  • Sport and Leisure