Victorian London - Weather - Floods



ON Tuesday, the tide rose so extraordinarily high as to overflow the banks of the river and inundate the various thoroughfares along either shore. So unexpected was the high tide, that no one had made any preparation to preserve their property, and the consequence was that mischief to an incalculable amount was done.  . . .  In Lambeth, and the two adjoining parishes, property worth many thousand pounds was destroyed. Its the neighbourhood of the Commercial, Belvidere and York-roads, a vast deal of damage was done. In the Crescent of Belvidere-road, the houses have sustained great injury, and the furniture is destroyed. As late as eight o'clock in the evening the whole of College-street was under water about four feet, the lower floors of the houses being full of water . . . Along Vauxhall, the Lammas lands at Fulham and Battersea, the open country presented broad sheets of water in many places several feet deep. At Bankside, Bermondsey, and Rotherhithe, a vast amount of damage has been done.  . . . The tide completely overflowed the Temple Gardens . . . 

Illustrated London News, February 2, 1850

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    THE sufferings of the poor in Lambeth, and in other quarters of the Metropolis, caused by the annual tidal overflow of the Thames, have been so graphically described as thoroughly to arouse public sympathy. The prompt efforts of the clergy and the relief committees in distributing the funds and supplies placed at their disposal, have done much to allay the misery of the flooded-out districts. Feelings of apprehension and dread again and again rose with the tides, and subsided with the muddy waters as they found their way back into the old channel or sank through the soil. The public have settled down with a sense of relief; and the suffering People returned to rekindle their extinguished fires and clear away the mud and debris from their houses; to reconstruct their wrecked furniture, dry their clothes and bedding, and live on as best they may under this new phase of nineteenth century civilization.
    Meanwhile the Metropolitan authorities, lulled to a sense of temporary security, have adopted no satisfactory measures to prevent the recurrence of similar disasters. A dangerous experiment is being tried with the health of the community at a time when epidemic disease is only held in check by the most vigilent efforts of modern science. It would be difficult to conceive conditions more favourable to the growth of disease than those at present existing in the low-lying, densely populous quarters of Lambeth, that have been invaded by the floods.
    In China, the people get used to floods, simply because they know that river embankments are costly, and not likely to be erected. The Chinese, some of them, construct their houses to meet emergencies. I have heard a Chinaman boast that a mud cabin was the fittest abode for man. In case of flood it settles down over the furniture, keeps it together, and forms a mound upon which the family may sit and fish until the flood abates. When the waters have subsided, the owner, with his own hands, erects his house anew, and calmly awaits the advent of another flood. In Lambeth the conditions-at present at least-are altogether different. There are no mud huts and no wholesome fish in the waters of the Thames. Nor when the waters recede are the conditions so favourable to the maintenance of health. The high tides have left a trail of misery behind, and in thousands of low-lying tenements, a damp, noxious, fever-breeding atmosphere.
    A few hours spent among the sufferers in the most exposed neighbourhoods will convince any one that the danger is not vet over; that disease may still play sad havoc among the people. The effects of disasters are still pressing heavily upon a hardworking, under-fed section of the community. Rheumatism, bronchitis, conjestion of the lungs, and fever have paralyzed the energy of many of the bread-winners of the families of the poor. I, myself; have listened to tales of bitter distress from the lips of men and women who shrink from receiving charity.
    The localities in Lambeth most affected were Nine Elms, Southampton Street, East and West, Wandsworth Road, Hamilton Street, Portland Street, Fountain Street, Conro Street, Belmore Street, High Street, Vauxhall; Broad Street, William Street, Belvidere Road, Belvidere Crescent, Vine Street, Bond Street, Duke Street, Prince's Street, Broadwall Street, Stamford Street, Prince's Square, and Nine Elms Lane. 
    Although the distress was not confined to any particular class, the majority of the sufferers are poor, and their misery was greatly intensified by the loss of furniture and bedding. Heavy losses were also incurred by the higher classes of working men; such, for example, as had invested their savings to purchase their houses through Building Societies. The structural damage done had to be repaired, thus throwing an additional burden of debt upon the prospective owners of small properties. 
    In such neighbourhoods as Broadwall Street, houses containing four apartments are let at weekly rentals varying from seven shillings and sixpence to ten shillings. These houses are, many of them, let to the men employed in neighbouring works, and to labourers engaged about the wharves and warehouses on the south of the Thames. They are again sublet, so that two or three families frequently shelter under one roof. Each family occupies one or two rooms at a weekly rental ranging from half-a-crown to five shillings.
    In one room I found a young married couple and their baby tended by an aged female relative. The husband is a labourer, but the floods had thrown him out of work, and, do what he would, he could only manage to earn about two days' wages during the week. The mother-in-law, a sempstress, had contributed to their support, the rent had fallen into arrear, but the landlady had kindly agreed to receive it in instalments of a shilling, or two shillings, at a time until the husband had secured permanent employment. I was much struck with the bright, cheerful appearance of the comely young wife, and the success of her efforts to maintain a clean, comfortable, and attractive home to cheer her husband on his return after his wanderings in search of work. "If my lad, she said, "could only get something to do, steady-like, we would be happy enough, but this want of work is hard on us, and like to break down a good man!"
    In woeful contrast to this interior was another, a few paces further on, occupied by a widow, her son, and daughter. In no land, savage or civilized, have I seen a human abode less attractive and more filthy. The mother, who goes out "charing, "had seemingly neither the time nor the opportunity to render her apartment habitable. It was at her own invitation I followed her, as she said she had something to say to me. At a loss to conjecture what her communication might be, I made my way along a dark passage to a small doorway, and stepping over an accumulation of turnip-tops and mingled garbage, entered a room measuring about eight feet by ten feet. The walls were begrimed by smoke, and such portions of the floor as were seen were black and damp. The tidal overflow had registered its rise by partially cleansing the walls to a height of four feet, and by leaving the paper hanging in mouldy bags around. In one corner stood the remains of six sacks of coal and coke, "the gift of the good gentleman." On a dark unwholesome bed lay a heap of ragged coverings, bestrewn with some articles of tawdry finery, and on one corner sat a little girl, whose bright dark eyes shone through a mass of matted hair. A broken chair was propped against the wall, near a chest of drawers warped and wasted by the water. The fire burned with a depressing glimmer, as fitful gusts of foul air found their way through a heap of ashes on the hearth: over the mantelpiece hung a series of small photographs, making up the collection of family portraits of husband and children who had passed away.
    "I am sick of it all," said the woman. "I wish I were out of it, done with it, God knows! Look at me, sir. Do you see that bruise on my face? My daughter truck me down with her fist this morning, because I would not let her sell the clothes off my back. She wont work; she lives upon me. She had been out all night last night, and came home this morning like a mad woman, and I have driven her from my door! " She came home ! I involuntarily glanced round the home of this unfortunate outcast, but saving the pictures, and the bits of cheap finery, there was nothing there to woo her back from the streets. The widow went on to say that she had some comfort in her son, who makes good wages in a mason's yard. "I live for my boy and he lives for me, but since the floods he has been troubled by a hacking cough; I don't like to hear it, and it don't leave him, sir. As for myself, I have never felt right since that awful night, when with my little girl I sat above the water on my bed until the tide went down."
    The reader will understand why I have brought him face to face with a group of the people who suffered from the Lambeth floods, in preference to photographing a street under water. 
    It is with the people and their surroundings that I have chosen to deal, in order to show that the floods have inflicted a permanent injury upon them, and that a succession of such disasters may at last affect the health of the metropolis at large. 
    The group was taken by special permission in front of the rag store of Mr. Rowlett. The Rowletts have occupied the house for twenty-seven years, but it is only in recent times that the water has invaded their premises. The family may be described as prosperous, at least they were prosperous, but the losses caused by the inundations and the failing health of Mr. Rowlett-who is now a confirmed invalid- have narrowed their means. In Mrs. Rowlett's own words, "The water has taken us down a bit, and the last midnight flood was too much for my old man. He has now severe congestion of the lungs. Had it not been for the shop-boy, our losses would have almost been beyond repair. The boy was on the watch, and in time to enable us to save a few things: he appeared below the window, shouting, 'The tide! the tide!!' We knew what that meant and saved all we could. Our heaviest loss was made four years ago. It was so heavy we had to part with our horse and van to keep things going. Our goods, rags, and waste-paper were soaked, and we sold tons for manure. We have never been able to recover our losses. Since the embankment was built, part of our business has gone down the water with the wharves. The beach pickers' don't pick up so much old iron and things now. At first I was too proud to take help, but now I am fain to get a little assistance when I can. As they say, the - water might be stopped if the Government would only do it. You see the water don't come into the drawing-rooms of fine folks. We would hear more of it if it did. It's never been into the Parliament Houses yet, sir, has it?" I assured the good woman that it had not, but that the question of the floods would be in the House before long, and that something would probably be done.
    "We saved our piano you see," continued Mrs. Rowlett, "it's what I prize most, next to my daughter who plays it. I had her taught by times, as I could spare the money. We have nothing to leave our children, but they got a good education, so my girl if she needs to work can teach music. I bought the piano as poor folks buy most things, by paying a few shillings or a few pence at a time to dealers who supply every thing. Our conversation was interrupted by the entrance of a pretty, poorly-clad little girl, who said, "Mrs. Rowlett, mother sent me to pay the twopence for the boots, and I was to ask if you had another tidy pair of stockings for Nell. "No, darling, I have not, but I will keep a look out for a pair. Mrs. Rowlett explained that the girl was one of a large family, and that the twopence was payment for a pair of boots and a pair of stockings she had picked out of a heap of rags and paper. 
    The woman in the centre of the group with the child in her arms, occupies with her husband and children an adjoining house. They are country folks tempted into the town by the hope of higher wages. The husband is a horse-keeper, whose working hours are from four o'c]ock in the morning to eight o'clock at night, and on Sundays from six in the morning to six at night, with two or three hours intermission when the horses do not want tending. His wages are twenty-five shillings weekly. Part of their house is sublet to another family. The woman is a skilled lace-maker.  She used to work at home with her pillow, pins, and bobbins, but being unable to find a market in the neighbourhood for her fine wares, she has discontinued working. She made very beautiful black silk broad lace at two shillings or half-a-crown a yard. In spite of foul exhalations, mouldy corners, and water-stained walls, the house in which these people lived was clean, comfortable, and attractive. But the family had not escaped colds and rheumatism. The woman complained of a constant cough, and severe pains in her chest and between the shoulders; while one of the children looked sickly and as if it would hardly survive to witness the probable floods of 1878.
    On the right of the photograph is a character of an interesting type. A sort of odd-handy man. Jack Smith is well known in the neighbourhood as a local comedian, whose tricks, contortions, and grimaces are the delight of many a pot-house audience. "Yes," said an admirer of Jack, "he's a rum'un, he is he can do the 'born cripple,' or the man starved to death, or anything a'most, and the jury inquestin' his remains." During his working hours Jack Smith is called a "beach-picker," or "tide-waiter," or a mud-lark. His business takes him wading over the shallows of the Thames, where he picks up fragments of iron, coal, wood, and waste materials. For such miscellaneous wares he receives one shilling or two shillings per cwt. As I have already pointed out, this class of river industry has been partially paralyzed by the erection of the embankment and the removal of the old wharves. 
    During the recent overflows this "odd man" found many new and comparatively lucrative fields of labour. The water in Prince's Square, after submerging the ground floors of the houses, rose to a height of four feet in the rooms above. All this took place in defiance of the Herculean efforts of a band of men of Jack Smith's class, who were engaged to stop windows and doors with mud, clay, and pulp formed by the paper floated out of extensive printing-works in the neighbourhood. Some of the barricades resisted the pressure of the water, but many more gave way, and the tide rushed in with such force as to break down partition-walls, shatter furniture, and send iron boilers adrift from their brick-work. The "odd man's" hands were full, at one time carrying women and children to places of safety, at another baling out an area with his bucket, or cleansing an interior. 


J.Thomson & Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London, 1877

Floods.-Many reasons have been assigned for the frequency of floods during late years, amongst these are the multiplication of locks and weirs, and the inattention of. those who have the management of these "stops" in not letting the inundations pass at proper times and seasons. There may be some truth in this, but anyone conversant with the Thames cannot fail to be impressed with the fact that the many mills on the natural outlets of the river's flow have much to answer for. The mechanism of these mills, particularly by the enlargement of their under-shot wheels, permits of their working much longer during floods than formerly, and it is to the interest of the millers to keep the water as high as possible until it is nearly over the axle, and then, of course, the power becomes nil. Then they may be careless of consequences, as they can use steam power, the larger mills having now shaft and steam-engine room to resort to in such emergency.
    The floods below the locks and mills have very greatly increased during recent years. But this was not so much the case while Old London Bridge stood. Our forefathers appear to have studied most carefully this subject of inundations, which we have evidenced in the building of Old London Bridge. This structure served the three-fold purposes of weirs, mill-dams, and locks; the narrow arches on the Southwark side were capable of being closed by gates, and those on the City side were blocked by the water-works, which extended far into the river. Thus the flow of water up-stream could be regulated, as the bridge served all the purposes for which it was designed. (See E. W. Cooke's etchings of Old London Bridge;  Lyson's "London," &c.) This judicious obstruction to the flow occasioned a fall of from four to six feet of water on the Pool side, the presence of which at certain tides influenced the building of the present bridge with wide arches, to the consequent occasion of an influx of water, which meeting an overfeed of accumulates from above, causes the inundations which are now so frequent at Lambeth and other low-lying districts.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881

    The low-lying districts adjacent to the Thames between Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridges, has been yet once  more afflicted with an inundation, and that of so peculiarly painful a nature as to demand special record, were it with no other view than to set, as forcibly as possible, before those concerned the urgent necessity of taking such steps as shall render such suffering to a great number of helpless and unoffending poor people in future impossible. During a greater number of years than one cares to look back on, there have been periodical floodings in this same locality, and each time that they occur public indignation is aroused, and everybody demands why such a scandal should continue, when it might be effectually put a stop to by building a river wall. On such recurring occasions the parish authorities bestir themselves a little, and confer with wharfingers and those whose premises abut on the river; a few promises are made, a few posts and planks put in store to be used to block up the threatened streets and alleys whenever a "rising" is anticipated, and then the matter for the time drops. 
    It is to be sincerely hoped that the terrible visitations, with such alarming and exceptionally painful results to hundreds of poor families, will lead to the matter being earnestly considered, and a lasting remedy adopted. At the full height of the furious gales and snowstorms, the oft-heard cry, "The water is coming! " is heard in Upper Ground Street and its neighbourhood when high tides are expected, and the ordinary precautions taken.
    The window gratings of the underground dwellings are battened over and covered with stable litter, the bye streets are barricaded about two feet high with planks and puddling clay, and all done that parochial sagacity can suggest ; the rest is left to fate. Fate takes the business in hand with a vengeance. With the icy blast in full career, and with the snow heaping in yard-deep wreaths at the road sides, the river over- tops its limits and the mischief begins. Broad Wall, Belvedere Road, Boddy's Bridge, and half-a- dozen other streets inhabited by the poor are swamped to an alarming extent, the place that suffers most being known as Princes Square. It would be well-nigh impossible to exaggerate the wreck and desolation that has overwhelmed the humble tenements here to be found, which are about five-and-twenty in number. Though of small size-there are but five small rooms and a washhouse in each tiny habitation - the number of inhabitants must be very considerable, since every house accommodates one, and in some cases even two, families-husband, wife, and children. As a natural consequence, most of the rooms contain a bedstead, with bedding and bed covering, according to the means of the occupiers. It is this that makes the calamity appear so disastrous. 
    When the roaring river, leaping over its ordinary boundaries, comes rushing through the wharf-yards fronting the tide, and surging across the narrow thoroughfare, it bursts into the houses on the other side and into the side streets and courts and alleys. The invading flood, even at its commencetnent, is so peremptory and powerful that it frequently brings great masses of ice that have been travelling to and fro with the tides for several days, tumbling them over and over and driving them forward until they come crashing against the doors, in some cases breaking them open with their sheer weight, and thus giving free ingress to the foul reek of mud and water. There is scarce time to catch up the little children crouching about the fireplaces, let alone to remove such cumbrous articles as beds and mattresses. 
    The suddenness of the flood is such that it is the main topic of conversation and wonderment amongst even those seasoned Thames-siders who have, as they express it, been " washed out of house and home" more times than they can count. At one of the floods, said a poor soul, " We hadn't had no dinner, my husband being out o' work, so I thought we would have a penn'orth of dried sprats, by way of a relish, for tea and while I built up a fire to toast ' em and make a cup of tea, one of my little girls went out to buy 'em, when all in a fright she comes in crying, 'Mother, mother! here's the river, here's the river!' and sure enough, it was following her so close up that I hadn't time to snatch up the little ones and time bread I'd been cutting before time water came rolling into the parlour like a great black sheet and leapt up against the stove, so that the fire was drenched out pretty nearly, and the teapot on the fender went floating."
    How, while the freezing wind is howling and the blinding snow is peppering like peas against time windows, wave after wave follows, is easy to understand, as well as that the force and weight of the water increases each moment of about three-quarters of an hour from the commencement of the flood - until the heaving slush has indicated its filthy high water mark within a foot of the ceilings of the lower rooms. But what is by no means easy to understand is the havoc and ruin of the incoming water, not only to the furniture of the unfortunate people, but to the dwellings as well, and that in their most substantial parts.
    Nor is this all. Shoaling in at the front door frequently the ice and snow laden deluge, breaking down all opposition and making a sheer break through each dwelling to the back part; and, if it finds there no outlet, bursting doors or windows and pouring into the little yards behind with such resistless violence t hat substantial walls, some recently built, and ten feet high, are sent toppling down, and lie higgledy-piggledy amongst the general ruin. Outhouses, sheds, chicken-houses, and workshops are made wrecks, and mingling with the broken bricks, the splintered wood and shattered tiles, are tubs, and trays, and stools that seek escape from the whelming rush by breaking a way for themselves through the washhouse windows.
    But it is, of course, within the little homes where time most pitiable sights are to be witnessed. They are to be seen at all events, not in one house or two, or half-a-dozen, but in an indescribable number. The most strikingly painful cases are, of course, those where the lower rooms serve as sleeping chambers as well as to live in. It will, perhaps, assist the reader to realise the dismal scene if he will picture what the same rooms are within an hour of these calamities. Poor and mean they might be, but for the class of persons who occupy them, they seem cosy and comfortable. The most prominent article of furniture the place contains is the bedstead and bed, the latter not very luxurious in its component parts, but good enough and warm enough for work-weary bodies to enjoy repose upon. 
    The humble abode has its table or two, its few chairs, its fender and fireirons, its something that did duty as a carpet, with a few pictures on the w alls, scraps of ornamental crockery on the mantelshelf and sideboard, and perhaps a chest of drawers. Call a broker in, and he will assess time lot at fifty shillings value perhaps; but that says nothing - it is home. Regard it as such, with a cheerful fire burning in the grate - remember the pelting storm raging without - and may be, tea in course of preparation for those who will be home when it is dark. Then, sudden as an earthquake almost, comes the drenching and drowning, and in less than an hour what a cruel change.
    Take a rule and measure from the ankle-depth of slime on what was once the carpet to the level stain on each wall, and it will be found that six feet six of water have been there; not clean water, but a liquid more of the nature of kennel slush, teeming with ice fragments, and bearing on its surface such a prodigious quantity of snow that the mire-soddened bed is heaped with it two feet high, while there is a hillock of the same muddy snow all over the floor and in the fender, and piled in the fire- grate. For several days after the disaster happens the rooms smell as though they had been left to mildew and decay for a year at least, and the smell would be much worse if it were summer instead of mid-winter, but the flavour of it would not be different.
    It could not be more nauseating, however, and it is to be doubted if inundation at any other time or season could present such deplorable results. Were the furniture of each lower room to be washed into the river itself, and cast upon its oozy banks, it could not look more hopelessly ruined. Icicles hang from the bedraggled quilts on the poor beds, crockery and chimney ornaments lay shattered and choked with slime on the ground, whilst chairs and tables have been dashed against the walls, so that they are fit for nothing but to be dried and then used as firewood. It may be mentioned, as showing the force of these floods that at one house, in the back parlour, I saw a chair standing on the mattress of an iron bedstead, and the latter was raised up to such a height and with such violence that the chair - back was driven through the ceiling, and there it still hung suspended.
    In the midst of all this ruin and desolation the people who live there are too bewildered and paralysed at times to be equal to the task of bestirring themselves to clear away the wreckage and make some show of putting their houses in order again. This, however is partly because of a widely- spread belief that the river will be sure to rise again that afternoon or the next morning, and it would be labour in vain to attempt to clear out the wreck until the worst was done. So there they sit, many of them, in the midst of the dismal swamp, mothers huddling with their little children over a fire in the rusty fire-place, in one instance roosting along the whole length of an old iron fender for want of a chair to sit on.
    The visitors who venture there need have their pockets full of handy coins, to do anything like justice to their natural impulses, the distress and the imperative demand for immediate assistance is so undeniable. On one occasion there was a poor woman, whose husband was out of work, very near her confinement, and there was the chest of drawers in which her motherly preparations were deposited, broken and tumbled face downward, the contents spilt, and the drawers filled with mud. And, what was of much more serious consequence, there was the bed and the sheets and blankets, a mere reeking, miry heap, fit to be handled only by a scavenger.
    There is one old fellow standing at his door crying, and on his being asked what is the occasion of his grief he can only point to his abode. His poor goods are turned completely topsy-turvey, a broken looking-glass and the legs of a broken table being reared on a soddened heap that has once been his bed, while his mattress is in the fireplace, and the frames of the pictures on the walls dangled disjointed and ready to fall away piecemeal. There is a chest of drawers in the room, and icicles are hanging from them, while an ominous "drip drip" betokens that the drawers still hold water. It is this chest of drawers, or rather their contents, that the old fellow is grieving so for. He is waterman at a cab-stand, and his wife is in the infirmary and his only son in the hospital, so that at present he is living entirely alone. He expects his wife home in a few days, however, and had made the place nice and comfortable to receive her, "and all the poor old girl's clothes and things, and her best gown and bonnet are in them drawers," says the old gentleman, in a choking voice. "She had that gownd and bonnet laid up in lavender, Lord knows how many years, and never wore em on'y to go to chapel in. It'll break her heart when she sees 'em."
    It is the same story of desolation and ruin whichever way one turns. The shattered furniture, the heaps of dirty snow and ice on the soaked and blackened beds and bedclothing, the wet walls with the six-feet-six water-mark, and with the wall-paper falling away in great patches, the floor wet as street pavement on a rainy day, and the grimy window curtain frozen stiff after the soaking, and butting against the window-frame with a dull thud like a piece of board, when the east wind comes whistling in at the broken panes.
    And, as before stated, there are the mothers and the children, the former each with a lamentable tale to tell of having no other article of clothing to put on excepting that they wore, and nothing to lie on until that which has been immersed in the flood is dried. In some cases the drying process commences directly the tide recedes, the bed or mattress being exposed to such heat as the fire of the small grate might give out. There is terrible danger here, and one that the parish authorities (who to their credit be it spoken, appear anxious to do for the poor people all they can) will do well to look to.
    Bronchitis seems very prevalent at these times. How this baleful disease and others as fatal may be induced and spread in this afflicted neighbourhood is painfully evident if the sufferers are permitted to lie on beds imperfectly dry, and in rooms that reek from ceiling to floor. There is only one proper and efficacious course to pursue, and that is to provide, without an hour's delay, other lodgings for all the poor creatures who, through no fault of their own, have been suddenly reduced to such miserable straits. When they are housed and rendered as comfortable as may be, then may be considered the best way of setting them up in decent homes of their own again.

James Greenwood, Mysteries of modern London, 1882