Tag Archives: River Roding

When the River Lea was a mile wide

Floods in Somerset have, up to now, seemed far removed from our own back yard. But with thousands of homes by the upper parts of the River Thames now at risk of flooding I wondered how safe we were from our own rivers.

A look back through the reference books show the geography of the Roding and Lea Valleys has made the area prone to inundations for hundreds of years.

The Environment Agency's Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard's account that the river Lea was 'a mile wide' at its peak
The Environment Agency’s Flood Map for Planning shows the flood zone risk of the area. And endorses Howard’s account that the river Lea was ‘a mile wide’ at its peak

In January 1809 the lower River Lea burst its banks in several places following a deluge that dumped two inches of rain in the space of 24 hours. The rain abruptly ended a snowy cold spell that had begun over a month before in the middle of December. From Luke Howard’s readings it is likely that up to half a metre of snow had fallen in the previous weeks in the upper parts of the surrounding countryside with only slight thawing. With the frozen ground unable to absorb any of the rapidly melting snow and rainfall the amount of water flowing downstream must have been immense. Howard takes up the story…

“The River Lea continued rising the whole of the 26th… The various channels by which it intersects this part of the country were united in one current above a mile in width which flowed with great impetuosity and did much damage.”

Howard, his chemical factory located on the banks of the river Lea close to what is now Bow flyover, wrote at length about the event, his account replacing the usual brief notes about daily weather in his book The Climate of London.

He talks of embanked pasture land being “filled to the depth of eight or nine feet” and people driven to their upper rooms relieved by boats plying under the windows.

The Environment Agency's Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard's comment that "the Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible"
The Environment Agency’s Flood Plan map of the Thames illustrates Howard’s comment that “the Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible”

“The Thames was so full during this time that no tide was perceptible.” It took until February 23rd for things to return to normal.

Miraculously no lives were lost in the flood and cattle “by great exertions” were saved by being kept in their stalls. Howard, saying that the flood could have been far worse, believed a neap tide, strong westerly winds urging water down the Thames and mild weather helped avert a tragedy.

Howard’s statistics of the previous months show that the second half of 1808 were wetter than average – though not especially so. And nothing like the rainfall we have had this winter. From December 1st until February 8th Howard recorded 130mm of rain, which is about 100mm less than what I have recorded this winter.

This fact alone shows just how much the nature of the river has changed in the last 200-odd years thanks to spending on flood defences.

Work to improve the defences was prompted 67 years ago when similar catastrophic flooding came with the thaw that ended the severe winter of 1947, one of the coldest winters in recorded history and an episode remarkably similar to what Howard recorded in 1809.

Wanstead
Flood risk areas around the River Roding close to Wanstead are much smaller than the equivalent area in Lea Valley

The Lea Valley, along with many parts of the country, saw some of its worst flooding in a generation. The river burst its banks at several points bringing misery to surrounding communities. Valleys turned into lakes in 40 counties and East Anglia’s fens were a sandbagged inland sea. More than 100,000 properties were damaged and, then as now, heroic battles were fought by the military to keep water-pumping plants and power stations dry.

The sense of crisis was felt worldwide. Canada sent food parcels to stricken villages in Suffolk; the prime minister of Ontario even offered to help dish them out.

A marker of that flood, together with a history of flood defences, can be found here. There is also British Pathe footage of another flood between 1910 and 1919 here .

The River Lea Flood Relief Channel, that flows between Ware, Herts, and Stratford, took almost three decades to complete. The channel incorporates existing watercourses, lakes and new channels. Since it was completed in 1976, there have been no major flood events in the Lea Valley, although there have been three occasions when the river system was full virtually to its capacity: in 1987, 1993 and 2000. Since its completion, the level of protection afforded by the structure has declined, so that in some areas it offers 2 per cent protection, and in some, only 5 per cent protection. The Environment Agency published a strategic environmental assessment in 2008, which looked at ways to maintain the flood defences in the Lea Valley.

Wanstead Flats by Scott Whitehead
The water table appears to have come to the surface on Wanstead Flats

It remains to be seen whether we will see any flooding in Redbridge – a further 40mm of rain is forecast to fall up to Saturday morning. As well as the problem of rain there is also the issue of the water table which in the past week has risen to the surface in places. Inland lakes forming on Wanstead Flats have seen the cancellation of  football fixtures and a couple of people I’ve spoken to say standing water has started to appear in their cellars

It is all too easy to blame the Environment Agency for the current flooding in Somerset and elsewhere but the meticulous planning by its forerunners brought, at least to date, an end to the widespread flooding problem in the Lea Valley.

As the government struggles to find a solution to the current problems with flooding it would do well to look to the grand schemes of the past and forget about any planned cuts to flood defences.

London’s worst-ever lightning tragedy

©Scott Whitehead
©Scott Whitehead

One of the worst weather-related tragedies ever to hit the London area happened 75 years ago this month.

What started as a bright and sunny day in Valentines Park, Ilford, turned into disaster at ten minutes to five on Monday, 21 August 1939, when lightning struck a corrugated iron shelter where about 30 people, many of them children, had taken cover from a thunderstorm.

Seven people, including five adults and two children, were killed and 21 injured in the incident near an open air swimming pool where earlier families had been enjoying picnics.

The event was recorded in The Times the following day: “About 5 o’clock there was one final flash, followed by a deafening crash. Everyone in the shelter was thrown to the ground and rescuers who had heard the cries of the injured found them piled in a heap. One of the two women killed had most of her clothing torn off. A man was lying dead on the cross-bar of a cycle. A woman at the back of the shelter was lying unconcious with her arms round two screaming children.”

Looking south-east across the cricket pitches, and the site where the open-air swimming pool used to be, to where the tragedy is believed to have happened
Looking south-east across the cricket pitches, and the site where the open-air swimming pool used to be, to where the tragedy is believed to have happened

A survivor of the tragedy, Mrs H. Treves, of Barkingside, told how she had gone to the park that day with her two daughters, June, three, and Shirley, seven,  for a picnic. She told The Times: “Suddenly the storm broke, and we ran for the shelter. Inside there were about 30 people, and we were all huddled at the back away from the rain. I sat on a bench at the back of the shed with June in my arms and Shirley by my side. Suddenly I was flung from the bench. I must have been stunned for some minutes, because when I came to I found Shirley lying beside me and the ground heaped with people who seemed unconscious. I heard June whimpering, and eventually found her beneath three or four people. One of the men lying across her was dead. I escaped with only burns on my side. June had burns to her foot and Shirley burns on her shoulder and foot.”

One woman told how she had a lucky escape. Mrs A. Galey, of Ilford, said: “I stood in the shelter for about 20 minutes, and then something inside me urged me to leave. I had got about 50 yards when there was a flash and I felt numb. I turned around to go back to the shelter, and then saw all the people huddled on the ground. It looked like a battlefield”

Among the injured were a number of electrical workers who had been repairing a cable which ran through the 150-acre park. Neither the hut, which measured about 20ft by 12ft and had a sloping galvanised iron roof, or the two trees immediately behind it, were damaged.

The disaster was reported in the local paper The Recorder three days later
The disaster was reported in the local paper The Recorder three days later

The local paper, The Recorder, reported the horrific scene that unfolded moments after the strike. It describes other park users frantically trying to help the stricken people in the shelter. One of the first on the scene was Mr A.B. Rowe, an A.R.P warden, from Romford. He said: “I was coming from the pool when a boy ran up and said ‘They have been struck’. I went over and found a heap of people, some terribly injured, in the shelter. During the war I saw some terrible sights, but none more horrible than this. Many were terribly burned and others were twisted into all kinds of positions and unable to move.”

Another helper was Mr H.G.B. Goater, of Eastern Avenue, Ilford. He had also been to the pool and was attracted to the scene by the screaming. “It was like a battlefield. I have seen nothing like it. The dead and injured were in a heap in the shelter.” Mr Goater spent several hours going back and forth to King George hospital with his car, first taking the injured for treatment and then waiting to take home some of those who were allowed to leave.

Among the dead was Dorothy Cribbett, of Capel Road, Forest Gate. She had taken shelter in the hut and was waiting for her 11-year-old daughter, Peggy, to join her when the lightning struck. Her grandson, Ian Braithwaite, 44, whom I managed to track down while researching this piece, takes up the story. “As my mother was making her way from the pool to the shelter lightning struck a bicycle that was leaning against the shelter – leading to the deaths of the people.”

Ian, who now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, commenting on the original article, said: “It makes for very grim reading and was far worse than I remember my mother ever talking about. I know my mother found my grandmother dead in the park and for anyone, let alone an 11-year-old to find someone in the condition that was reported must have been absolutely horrendous.”

He added: “It is one of those stories that you think must be made up, especially as I am drawing on childhood memories from over 20 years ago. Also my own mother died when I was 14 and I have no other known relatives from her side of the family. But I remember her telling me that is what happened.”

He continued: “It seems like it was a pretty miserable time for my mum back then. She was only 11 when her mother was killed and when the war started her father took her to Devon where he came from. In 1943 her grandfather was killed in a bombing raid on Torquay by the Germans. In the same raid a bomb was dropped on a nearby church killing 20 children at a Sunday school service. And we think we have it tough today.”

Ian has been trying to piece together memories of his mother and said: “I am hoping that someone may be able to give me more information surrounding this event or if anyone knew my grandmother or my mother. My grandfather’s name was Ernest Charles Cribbett.”

The synoptic chart from the Air Ministry (forerunner of the Met Office) for Monday, August 21, 1939
The synoptic chart from the Air Ministry (forerunner of the Met Office) for Monday, August 21, 1939

The violent storm, in what up to that point had been a mostly cool and changeable summer, brought flooding to areas around the town and several properties were struck by lightning. Whole chimney stacks were brought crashing to the ground when houses in Selborne Road and Courtland Avenue were hit. Another resident in Woodlands Avenue, Ilford, described the moment before their chimney stack crashed into their living room. “There was a blinding flash and a great crash. We thought the house was going to cave in on us: it seemed as though a bomb had dropped on it.”

The storm also affected the Barkingside area. As the rain fell in torrents a chimney stack on two houses in Tomswood Hill was struck by what an occupant of the house described as a “ball of fire that crashed on to the roof and came zig-zagging though the front room and out of the scullery door”.
Elsewhere in London severe flooding in Ealing is mentioned in The Times. And large hailstones were reported in Surrey.

Rainfall in thunderstorms varies greatly – and this storm was no exception. Met Office rainfall data from the day shows that Loxford Park, the closest rainfall station to Valentines Park about a mile to the south-east, recorded 30mm – almost double that of City of London Cemetery, just over 1.5 miles to the north-west of the storm’s centre, which recorded 15.7mm. In view of the rain and the lightning strikes which happened less than a mile away, across the River Roding, Wanstead had a lucky escape that day.

This selection of newspaper bills, produced by Mike Ashworth, shows a media fixated with build up to the start of WW2 while the Daily Sketch and Daily Mirror focused coverage on the horrifying event in Ilford
This selection of newspaper bills, produced by Mike Ashworth, shows a media fixated with build up to the start of WW2 while the Daily Sketch and Daily Mirror focused coverage on the horrifying event in Ilford

While researching this I found it strange that local memory of the incident is very vague. The oldest generation of my family, a few of whom lived off Ilford Lane, cannot recall the incident though I believe quite a few had already moved out of London as part of the evacuation before the Second World War. Perhaps it is also possible that while this incident by today’s standards is horrific it pales into comparison with what was to come just over a year later with the start of the Blitz in September 1940 – which would result in the loss of thousands of lives in the East End and across the UK.

The disaster in Valentines Park equalled the number of deaths of those under a tree on Wandsworth Common in 1914.

Other deaths caused by lighting in London include two women who were killed while walking in Hyde Park in September, 1999.

According to TORRO, the Tornado and Storm Research Organisation, about 30-60 people are struck by lightning each year in Britain of whom, on average, three may be killed.  You can read further on lightning impacts and safety tips to avoid getting struck here. The Met Office also features a page of lightning advice.

Scott Whitehead
@wanstead_meteo
http://www.wansteadweather.co.uk

I would like to thank Redbridge Central Library for their help in accessing the archives for this piece. And to Mike Ashworth who kindly gave permission to use the superb newspaper bills montage. You can see Mike’s work at his Flickr site. Thanks also to the Met Office.