The Thames Barrier
London SE18 5JN
The Thames Barrier has been described as the eighth wonder of
the world. It is certainly a very impressive work of engineering.
High water level at London Bridge has risen about two and a half feet per
century, due to the melting of the polar ice caps and the activities of Man.
However, the main possible cause of flooding in the London area is surge tides.
These originate in the North Atlantic, and generally pass to the north of the
British Isles. Occasionally, however, northerly winds will force them down into
the North Sea, sending millions of tons of extra water up the Thames. One and a
quarter million people were at risk, spread over 45 square miles.
In 1953 a particularly disastrous flood occurred. Over 300
people drowned and about 160,000 acres on Canvey Island, near the mouth of the
Thames, were covered in sea water. The government appointed a committee to look
at the flood problem. One of the recommendations was that a barrier be erected
across the Thames. The main problem was that the volume of shipping using London
Docks was at its peak, and that ships were getting bigger. This meant that an
opening in the barrier of around 1400 feet would be required. A number of
schemes were put forward, but failed to come to fruition.
Spectacular view of the Millennium Dome from the Thames Barrier
Then the whole system of sea transportation began to change. Cargo began to
be shipped in containers on purpose-built ships, and a new container port was
opened downstream at Tilbury. The old London Docks became redundant. It was
decided that openings only 200 feet wide, the same as Tower Bridge, would be
sufficient, and the site of the barrier could be further upstream than
Finally, work on building the barrier started in 1974. It was designed for
the Greater London Council by Rendel, Palmer and Tritton, and was officially
opened by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II on 8 May 1984. The 1716 feet (c. 523m) width of the
river is divided by nine reinforced concrete piers, to form six openings for
shipping and four other openings. The piers are founded on solid chalk, over 50
feet (c. 15.25m) below the level of the river. The four largest steel gates are 200 feet
(c. 61m) wide and weigh 1500 tonnes each. 4,000 men and women were engaged in the
building work, which cost nearly 500 million pounds. In addition, eleven and a
half miles of the river, to the east of the barrier, were protected by new
walls, to a new defence level of 23 feet. New walkways and amenity areas were
created. This further work cost around 100 million pounds. Similar work was
carried out by other Water Authorities, improving the defences to the mouth of
It is worth visiting when the barrier gates are being tested.
See the Programme
of Closures of all the Barrier Gates - details on the
Thames Barrier website
Photos 1 - Thames Barrier, 2 - Visitors Centre © Graeme
Webb 1996 | Text by Alan Palmer