Dear reader, kindly sit back, make yourself comfortable and enjoy our Christmas tale. It has the usual cast of characters – dastardly villains (the Boards of Works and their successors), a wronged heroine (the River Quaggy) and a dashing hero who comes to her rescue (QWAG). There is a neat twist in the plot and best of all – it’s completely true.
Exactly 130 years ago, the district experienced its first major flood since the start of urbanisation in the 1850s. When a second followed barely 15 months later, a clamour arose for a solution to the problem. Unfortunately for future generations, the Victorian authorities chose wrongly.
CHRISTMAS DAY 1876 was a less than merry occasion for the good people of Lee and Lewisham. The catastrophe struck early. According to the Kentish Mercury, ‘…residents who had retired to rest … were awakened about three in the morning by the cries of the police, “Take up your carpets,” to find the floors of their lower rooms a foot under water.’
Damage was everywhere. The cellars of the Highlander and Sultan beershops were flooded. In Lee Green, water was up to the steps of a carriage in the roadway. The inhabitants of Weardale Road, recently built near the Quaggy on Okum Pokum fields, ‘suffered severely.’ So did the residents of Molesworth Street, ‘the basements of whose houses were filled to a depth of several feet, with furniture floating about, their gardens also being under water.’
At Southend, the Bromley Road was submerged, Silk Mills path was impassable while, ‘between St Stephens Church and Lewisham Bridge was one large sheet of water connecting the Quaggy with the Ravensbourne.’
A tragic story. But less than two years later, on 11th April 1878, an even worse flood followed. Three inches of rain had fallen in eight hours and the Mercury was once again dutifully recording dismal scenes from across the area.
Outraged residents penned angry letters. Returning from work in the City, one Mr J. Mariano Williams of Thurston Road, had been forced to wade waist deep in water, carpet bag and umbrella in one hand, shoes and socks in the other. He reached home to find his sitting room full of water and his seventy-guinea piano in a sorry state. ‘Now, Sir,’ he demanded of the Editor of the Mercury, ‘I wish to know what cause is assigned for this disaster and what steps were being taken to prevent a recurrence’. These were questions the whole community was asking.
Alas, the official response was to prove regrettable. The Boards of Works had spent the last 20 years conquering the sewage problem through a massive construction programme. Now surely the floods would succumb to similar treatment. After all, controlling nature was something they knew all about.
Their solution? Move the floodwater at any cost out of the area as rapidly as possible. To challenge the ‘obvious’ was heresy. So, over the years, the local rivers were deepened, widened, straightened and increasingly contained within high walled, artificial structures.
But again and again the floods returned!
By 1989, a hundred years later, the bankruptcy of this method should have been clear. Yet, unbelievably, in that year the then National Rivers Authority proposed even larger and more extensive concrete channels for the River Quaggy. It was in response to this threat that QWAG – then called Friends of the Quaggy – came into existence.
QWAG successfully proposed a method of flood alleviation based on safely storing flood water in open, green spaces. Today, we have Sutcliffe Park, which at rare times of exceptionally heavy rain, can hold back enough water to fill 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It’s also a magnificent amenity space, with river, ponds, lake and meadows for local people to enjoy.
So, dear reader, a story with a happy ending. But was it really necessary for our poor River Quaggy to have suffered for over a century before QWAG came to the rescue? Not at all, for at least one heretic dared to challenge the authorities. If only they’d listened…
Mr J. Mariano Williams had demanded to know the cause of the flood and how a recurrence could be prevented. He need of looked no further than another letter, published on the very same day as his own, wherein a Mr Frederick Barff offered his insight. With ancestors of several generations freeholders in Lee, Mr Barff felt qualified to speak of, ‘floods which from time immemorial have visited the valleys of the Ravensbourne and Quaggy.’
‘The evil,’ he wrote, ‘is unquestionably preventable; and the mode of prevention will be inferred by noting the cause. Now those who have observed the floods of this district in former times are aware of the fact that, after having risen to a certain height, the flood water spread over vast areas of open fields, and as soon as they had found vent, the water ceased rising. The open fields were the flood’s true safety valve – a valve that has, unhappily, been closed along the whole of the lower banks of the streams, through the enormous growth of buildings in these districts.’
‘The cure which has lately found favour with the local Boards, namely, that of building high river walls, is childish to the last degree, and if persisted in to the exclusion of other plans, will I venture to predict, be productive of still more calamitous floods.’
Spot on Mr Barff. As is not uncommon, the ‘authorities’ and their ‘obvious’ solution were proved wrong.
And that, dear reader, is the the end of our tale. But should you be wandering through Sutcliffe Park on a misty morning and happen to meet a slightly smirking Victorian gent muttering, ‘I told them so,’ have no fear. It’s only Mr Barff admiring the realisation of his idea 128 years later. Fanciful maybe, but then there has to be a ghost in every good Christmas tale!
Thanks to QWAG supporter Brian Herring for researching this article.
Photos marked ©LLSC are Copyright Lewisham Local Studies Centre and reproduced with their kind permission.