From the archive: 1960s London prepares for a flooded capital

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There was some brazenly fake news on the cover of the Observer Magazine of 19 November 1967 with the headline, ‘Thames tidal wave swamps London’. Turns out this was a mock front page to give an idea of ‘what might happen if the tides and weather combine to overcome London’s vulnerable flood defences’.

There had been warnings. In 1928, people in basement flats in Westminster and Hammersmith were drowned in their beds. The North Sea flood of 1953 caused the deaths of 300 people along the east coast of England. The Waverley Committee recommended a ‘structure across the Thames’ in 1954, but this was ‘swiftly eliminated’ in favour of a ‘retractable barrier’. But in 1967 ‘not a single brick has so far been laid’. (Thames Barrier construction began in 1974.)

The feature showed how Westminster and Whitehall would be quickly knocked out if there were serious flooding of the Thames. When the Observer Magazine checked, hardly any of the 22 government buildings had a plan of action. A spokesman for the MoD old war office building said he was ‘quite sure that the problem of flooding would not arise’. Perhaps they were later involved in pandemic planning.

London was sinking by about 13in a century and was up to 15ft lower than in Roman times. ‘A complicated drill exists for alert, evacuation and rescue of those engulfed,’ the article claimed. For warning the public: ‘Loudspeaker cars begin patrolling after the first warning from Southend.’ Tube flood prevention was rather old school: ‘Ordinary staff gauge danger by looking over the Embankment.’

It also warned that the Nasa computers at Electra House could be hit, ‘which could delay the manned moonflight programme’. The irony is that the idea of sending people to the moon in the 1960s was far more realistic than Operation Moonshot 2020.

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