Remembering Lewisham’s 1968 floods – and lessons 50 years on

The lake in Lewisham High St’ - Daily Mirror, front page, 16 September 1968

The lake in Lewisham High St’ – Daily Mirror, front page, 16 September 1968

50 years ago, on 15 September 1968, much of Lewisham flooded.

QWAG has searched the archives for pictures and people’s recollections of the floods and the clean-up.

We’ve also found out what the local MP of the time and the government thought of our local rivers and what they had planned for them.

Lewisham in the headlines

Lewisham hit the front page of the Daily Mirror on 16 September 1968 with the picture above and the headline: “The lake in Lewisham High St.”

The borough was not alone in being affected. The Daily Telegraph’s ‘Great British Weather Disasters,’ reported:

“After two moderately wet days, it rained almost without a break throughout the 15th September, the day’s total amounting to 201mm in Tilbury and 200mm at Stifford. Some 6,250 square kilometres of land, chiefly in a broad zone stretching from Hampshire and north-west Sussex across Surrey, north Kent and south Essex, received over 100mm of rain.”
“All routes out of London to the south-west, south, south-east and east became impassable, and thousands of homes were flooded, especially in south-west London and north Surrey. It took over a week for the floodwaters to subside.”
Emily Hay was 5 years old when water from the River Quaggy flooded her street, Longhurst Road, SE13:
“It is one of my earliest memories. A man in a brown raincoat was standing up in a boat, looking at us all around him, contemplating the scene. The boat was in the middle of Lewisham High Street, a small dinghy, and he was being rowed past Boots to my left, Chiesmans the department store ahead of me, and then the giant 1930s block of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society which stood on a raised pavement.”
Lewisham’s Mayor at the time, Alderman Clifford Combes, owned a boat and decided…
“…that the best thing I could do was to go back home, get my boat, hitch it to the car, and go out to see what I could do.”

 

A 185 AEC RT bus on Lewisham High Street

A 185 AEC RT bus on Lewisham High Street

The River Quaggy in full spate at Longhurst Road, Manor Park, SE13

The River Quaggy in full spate at Longhurst Road, Manor Park, SE13

“I remember the Quaggy wall that run along the gardens on our side of the road was in a very bad state so it did not take much for flooding to occur.” (Theresa Joy)
“I lived in Leahurst Road and our garden backed onto the Quaggy. The water rose to the top of the garden wall. The bridge that went into the park was under water. I was 11 years old then and also remember the park that was flooded had lots of dead rats lying on the grass.” (Sue Ingram)
“I can recall walking through the park at Ladywell – walking from Catford to Lewisham – it was like a boating lake there – I had wellies on but they weren’t long enough!” (Barbara Davis)
Ladywell road bridge is roped off as the River Ravensbourne flows into Ladywell Fields

Ladywell road bridge is roped off as the River Ravensbourne flows into Ladywell Fields

“Remember it well, Lee Green was flooded as the Quaggy runs along the back of Brightfield Road, it zigzags all over the place. Had to paddle to get to work.” (Lorraine Wilkin)
“I remember it too. My brothers got their canoes out and canoed down Lee High Road.” (Lindsay Dale)
Some children hoped for a day off school:
“I remember it well. I was in 6th Form in Camberwell. At least two of our teachers lived in Catford and no buses were going through Lewisham. We had a couple of really easy days catching up on homework and reading. I’d just got to the age of 16 and had a boyfriend and social life by then. It was a godsend!” (Janet Setter)
“The flood was so exciting for kids, not so much for people whose homes and business were ruined. Think I was about 14  – remember hoping it would stop the buses running and we would get a day off school but in those days nothing stopped life going on as normal.” (Yvonne Leonard)
Children wade home from school by the River Quaggy, central Lewisham

Children wade home from school by the River Quaggy, central Lewisham

“The council used dustcarts to ferry people to and fro. You had to watch where you put your hands though!” (Geoff Barnes-Warden)

“The council used dustcarts to ferry people to and fro. You had to watch where you put your hands though!” (Geoff Barnes-Warden)

The clean up

“I remember it well, my Dad carried me to drier surfaces, the smell of the highly damp remains in our house never really left me. I too would have been 5 at the time and was living on Church Grove.” (Janet Roberts)
“Walking down the street, I saw women hanging out carpets on their front garden washing lines, to disinfect in the sun. The pictures show abandoned household goods in the street, remarkably few, because many people had so little.” (Janet Roberts)
“Walking down the street, I saw women hanging out carpets on their front garden washing lines, to disinfect in the sun. The pictures show abandoned household goods in the street, remarkably few, because many people had so little.” (Janet Roberts)

“Walking down the street, I saw women hanging out carpets on their front garden washing lines, to disinfect in the sun. The pictures show abandoned household goods in the street, remarkably few, because many people had so little.” (Janet Roberts)

People queue for the ‘flood sale’ at Chiesmans department store

People queue for the ‘flood sale’ at Chiesmans department store

“Troublesome rivers” – lessons 50 years on

A few years before the 1968 floods, the then local MP, Christopher Chataway (Lewisham North) told fellow MPs that there are,
“…a number of very troublesome rivers and streams which run through south-east London.” (House of Commons debate, 9 April 1965)
Mr Chataway regarded our local rivers as “a curse and an eyesore”. He told MPs:
“These little rivers, have been a curse and an eyesore ever since Lewisham was suddenly transformed at the turn of the century from a rural community into an urban area.
“We have a chance now to turn them into really attractive features of a modern town environment. In places they will disappear underground and Londoners will forget that they ever existed. Elsewhere they could be laid out so that we have pleasant walks and paths, playgrounds and parks alongside clear and attractive streams and small rivers.”
In some ways his vision for local rivers was not so different from ours at QWAG:
“Part of its value will be lost if we do not also make these streams and rivers something of real amenity value. Properly looked after and skilfully laid out they could make South-East London a pleasanter place in which to live.”

The big difference is that where Mr Chataway wanted our rivers encased in concrete, routed underground and forgotten about QWAG’s vision is of our rivers being visible, restored to a natural condition and able to play a role in natural flood prevention.

“This so-called river…a wretched stream”

Replying to Mr Chataway, the then minister, John Mackie MP, said:

“The difficulty about this so-called river – I noticed that, in the middle of his speech, the hon. Gentleman called it a wretched stream, which is a better description – is that, over the years, because of housing and other developments, the stream has been totally incapable of carrying all the extra water put into it. There have even been developments into the river itself – narrowing it at places and creating sharp bends. All this has made it impossible to get rid of surplus water from heavy rainfall.”

At least the government recognised that our local rivers had been encroached upon and were constrained. But it had a low opinion of them and its ‘solution’ was to stick them underground in dead concrete, compounding decades of the rivers being hemmed in by development and generally misused and abused.

Act naturally

For decades following WWII – and well into the 1990’s – the attitude was that the rivers had to be tamed, as one local resident, Dave Goodwin recollected:
“All of those floods led to the River defences being built everywhere. Strange really because as kids, we had known then as being nothing more than streams to paddle in and catch tiddlers in with a net. Just goes to show the power of nature.”

Long after the 1968 floods, politicians, engineers and the authorities persisted with that view.

Since 1990 QWAG has worked to show that the best way to avoid flooding is to allow the rivers themselves to act naturally.

This is simply because rivers with natural beds and banks absorb water – like a sponge – and release it slowly as flood waters subside.

But rivers encased in unnatural concrete cannot absorb water. Instead they allow flood levels to rise and they encourage high volumes of water to rush headlong downstream posing a bigger threat to communities, property and businesses.

Rivers in concrete are also dead rivers devoid of wildlife and of any interest or use to residents.

2018: Children play safely in the River Quaggy, restored to its natural condition in Chinbrook Meadows, Grove Park

2018: Children play safely in the River Quaggy, restored to its natural condition in Chinbrook Meadows, Grove Park

QWAG formed in 1990 to change the authorities’ ill-informed obsession with putting rivers into concrete culverts and to make them true natural assets, as former MP Christopher Chataway spoke of in Parliament in 1965 but did not envisage. As a result of our work, south east London now has proven examples of restored rivers:

  • Sutcliffe Park, in Greenwich on the boundary with Lewisham, is where QWAG’s work began to change entrenched attitudes to our local rivers. Here the River Quaggy was invisible as it was stuck underground in a concrete culvert. In the early 1990’s the authorities wanted to add to this. QWAG eventually changed their minds and today the Quaggy flows above ground, aids flood prevention, boosts conditions for birds, bats and other wildlife and provides an evolving wetland woodland for people to enjoy.
  • Chinbrook Meadows in Grove Park – here the River Quaggy has been removed from a concrete channel to now provide important habitat for wild species and recreation for local people.
  • Ladywell Fields – here the river has been diverted to meander through the fields allowing people to explore being in or near the River Ravensbourne perfectly safely.
  • Cornmill Gardens, central Lewisham, – here the River Ravensbourne has been broken out of concrete and the widened river channel helps soak up excess water as well as being accessible to local residents.
  • Also, the Weigall Road flood storage scheme has the capacity to store 34,000 cubic metres of floodwater when there is heavy rainfall and the River Quaggy is in spate.

These and other restorations and measures act as a natural form of flood protection and allow our rivers to attract and support wildlife and be better places for people to relax, learn and enjoy their area.

QWAG is now working for further restoration of the River Quaggy to complement these successful examples of treating rivers with respect.

Do you recall the 1968 floods?

Tell us your experiences at mail@qwag.org.uk

Or contact us using our social media channels

Written by Paul de Zylva with thanks to Pamela Zollicoffer, Emily Hay and all contributors for research. Thanks to Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre (London Borough of Lewisham), the South East London and Kentish Mercury and the Daily Mirror for use of photographs.

For more see Running Past’s blog about the 1968 floods.

To check flood risk in your area see https://www.gov.uk/check-flood-risk

Make a splash without getting wet!