Late at night on 31 January 1953, a heavy storm erupted in the North Sea. By the early hours of the morning, strong winds combined with low pressure and fast currents had produced a surge that devastated the UK’s east coast. The storm caused damage all over the country – 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes – but it was particularly intense in the Thames. The river was already full to the brim after days of rain, and the extra water pushed into the estuary by the surge broke sea walls and inundated thousands of properties. More than 320 people in the UK died that night, many of them in Essex and the other coastal counties north of the Thames Estuary. It remains one of the country’s worst ever natural disasters.
Andy Batchelor has been working to prevent a similar catastrophe for all of his professional life. The 56-year-old manager of the Thames Barrier began his engineering career in the aftermath of the flood, building embankments in the outer estuary to keep the water out. Though more than half a century has now passed, the 1953 disaster is still shaping the UK’s approach to flood prevention.
When we meet in his office overlooking the south end of the Thames Barrier in Greenwich, Batchelor is keen to point out how much has changed in the 65 years since that terrible night. “What a lot of people don’t appreciate,” he tells me, “is that in 1953 there were no systems. There was no real way of telling local authorities and police groups along the coast that something was coming. They all saw it for the first time separately, and because of the lack of preparation, that’s what added to the loss of life.”
The Thames had flooded before – 14 people drowned in 1928 when the river broke its banks at Millbank in central London, for instance – but it was the 1953 surge that made policymakers think, “We’ve got to do something different,” Batchelor says. Four options were considered: do nothing, move the capital out of London, raise all the walls along the Thames by three metres, or build a flood barrier on the river. It wasn’t until 1972 that the fourth option was written into legislation. By the time Batchelor graduated from Westminster College in London in 1979, the Thames Barrier was under construction. It began operation four years later.
A tall, spare man with a precise manner and mode of expression, Batchelor says that it was always his dream to work at the barrier. As a young engineer, he admired the scale and originality of the structure, which has ten gates spanning the river’s 520-metre width between New Charlton on the south bank and Silvertown on the north.
Batchelor joined the maintenance team at the barrier in 1984 and became its overall manager in 1999. He leads a team of 87 people who work on a variety of day-to-day tasks, from servicing the barrier’s moving parts and forecasting future floods to leading tours for school groups around the site. He feels a great sense of duty to do his job well. Though very self-effacing, he makes it clear during our conversation that much is at stake on whether he closes the barrier or not. The safety of important landmarks and infrastructure – such as the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, several major hospitals and parts of the London Underground, as well as thousands of homes – depends on him. “It’s 375,000 properties, something like £300bn worth.”
His team takes great pride in the job that it does, Batchelor says. At times, he has to call on his colleagues to make sacrifices for their work. In the winter of 2013-14, when there was flooding in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere, the barrier was working hard. The rain was so intense that it closed 50 times in a three-month period, with 20 of the closures on consecutive tides. Staff worked round-the-clock shifts to make this possible. Most Londoners probably had no idea what was going on downriver to keep them safe. As of early January, the barrier has only been closed 181 times since 1983.
When he goes on holiday, Batchelor finds it hard to switch off. He trusts his team absolutely but he tells me that if there was any sign of a flood, he would be on a plane home immediately.
The decision to close the barrier (a process that takes about an hour and a half for all ten gates) is deceptively simple. Batchelor explains it patiently, with what I sense might be his habitual laid-back, logical tone. If A, the amount of rainwater forecast to flow down the Thames, plus B, the height of the next incoming tide, equals more than C, the amount of water the river can contain without flooding, the barrier must be closed. As a result, Batchelor works with a constantly updating bank of computer-generated forecasts. “We can’t stop the rainfall, but we can stop the tide,” he says.
When the barrier was designed in the 1970s, terms such as climate change and global warming “weren’t even in the dictionary”, Batchelor says. It was originally designed to be superseded by other flood defences by 2030, but more recent studies have shown that it is robust enough to remain the Environment Agency’s main point of protection for London until 2070.
As sea levels rise, a new barrier will eventually have to be built further downriver and other flood defences will also have to be improved. Who knows whether Andy Batchelor will be here to oversee those new structures, but for now he remains a vital, if mostly invisible, presence on London’s great river. If he does his job well and keeps the city dry, we barely know he’s there.
This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.