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January was wettest month on record, but flooding is nothing new for London
As London again prepares itself for more rain, JOSH BARRIE looks back at the south-east's history in the clutches of nature’s watery perils.
LAST year more flood warnings and alerts were issued in the UK than ever before.
Much of the country was submerged, homes were destroyed and travel disrupted - at huge cost to the economy and individuals.
January 2014 meanwhile saw the most rainfall ever recorded in the country and the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
This sentiment is echoed by former journalist and disaster historian John Withington, who says climate change brings fiercer weather and rising water levels.
In Mr Withington’s latest book, Flood: Nature and Culture, released last month, the 66-year-old studies London’s flooding in depth.
It features everything from Lewisham’s scourge in the late 1960s, where the River Quaggy rose from a matter of inches to 15ft in places, to the Coronation Year floods of 1953, where 1,000 Londoners were driven from their homes and 14 perished.
It documents a city so often battered by heavy rain, tidal surges and rising water levels; a place reliant on a major dam to keep it dry. Between 1209 and 1840 in fact, the Thames burst its banks 36 times.
The writer explains "the flood chaos of the first month of 2014 is nothing new - London has always been prone to flooding".
In fact, there are a number of poignant tragedies in the south-east.
Mr Withington mentioned Lewisham’s disaster of 1968 as one of the south-east’s most troublesome times. He recounted: "Hundreds were trapped in their homes. Water swept through houses. The Army had to be called in to deliver food."
Thankfully nobody drowned, but it later led to action to prevent such a serious incident happening again.
Most importantly, he said, it meant that in 1990 local people decided to take a different stance defending against water. Simply building bigger walls was an idea residents opposed. The river Quaggy was allowed to flow freely onto flood plains if levels rose.
But our understanding of nature has not always been so developed, explained Mr Withington. Way back in 1324 and two years later in 1326, Greenwich and Woolwich were hit by tragedies of epic proportion as their clay-built defences were breached.
"A great gap was ripped in the river bank between Greenwich and Woolwich," he said. "Both areas suffered very badly at the time."
Years later, in 1878, Beckenham was hit. But compared to Deptford it got off lightly. "Deptford flooded badly on a number of occasions," said Mr Withington.
"Maybe the most serious was 1651. It was down to a great storm - within half an hour the streets were 10ft deep in water. Residents had to be rescued."
When News Shopper went to print there were 24 flood warnings and 124 flood alerts issued for the south-east by the Environment Agency, while the Met Office was instructing the public to "be aware".
It remains to be seen whether things will get worse - but as far as Mr Withington is concerned, history is set to repeat itself.
The Book: Flood: Nature and Culture is published by Reaktion Books. Price £14.95.
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