Little Christmas – traditionally the day when the 12th and final day of Christmas is celebrated. However, it was on this night, ninety-three years ago, that a tragedy unrolled onto the busy streets of London. For one night, the roaring twenties became the raging twenties as the ferocious river stole the homes of four-thousand people and, most tragically, the lives of fourteen souls. I wrote about it on the Elsetime blog tour with the wonderful Victoria, The Book Activist:
It might come as no surprise to you that one of my favourite past-times is treasure hunting – searching the pebbles and mud alongside a river or the sea for something sparkling: an old button once part of a queen’s gown, perhaps, or a key to a mythical treasure chest, or a war medal from a hero who saved countless lives. It’s no wonder a hobby so rich in possible stories was the inspiration for Elsetime with its tale of a young mudlark called Needle, searching the foreshore for treasures he could sell. Glory, an impetuous jeweller’s apprentice sprung to mind too, and I imagined her taking those muddy finds and transforming them into treasures to behold under the eyes of her strict mistress, Mrs Quick. They had to be from the 1920s, my imagination assured, but I wasn’t, at that stage, quite sure what was going to happen to my new-found friends.
Then, I found a newspaper clipping. It told of a real-life tragic event: The Great Flood of London in 1928. At its epicentre was Needle’s haunt – the stretch of foreshore alongside the Tate Gallery (now known as the Tate Britain). I needed to know more, and my research began.
Ninety-three years ago, at the source of the Thames, families enjoyed a snowy Christmas akin to picture-perfect postcards. But, quick as a wink, the snow thawed, sending torrents of water along streams and brooks that fed the Thames. A deluge of rain in the days that followed raised the level of the great river higher and higher as it twisted and turned its way towards the bustling centre of London and out towards the sea.
Freezing cold water raced down stone steps and into the homes of poor basement dwellers, trapping them before they even knew their fate. Muddy water inundated the basement galleries of the Tate Gallery, destroying many fine pieces of art, including several priceless Turner paintings and drawings. Big Ben was surrounded, the Underground submerged. The moat at the Tower of London filled for the first time in nearly a century.
Fourteen souls lost their lives that night and, as my research deepened, so too did my shock and sadness when I read the names listed on that Daily Mirror 1928 newspaper clipping. One name stood out: Mrs Quick – a name I had already chosen for the owner of The Frippery & Fandangle Jewellery Emporium where Glory worked. As I stared down at her name, it felt like a message from the past. Though Elsetime and its characters are merely figments of my imagination, I knew one thing for sure: the Great Flood would star in this story of mudlarks, mysterious crows and jeweller’s apprentices – it was a story I had to tell.
It took several years for the buildings of London to recover and a lifetime for those who lost loved ones. The run-down slums were demolished and replaced by fine buildings, the walls repaired and heightened by a further few feet. But to finally put the fear of another flood to bed, proposals for a Thames Flood Barrier began with haste amongst inventors of the day. However, like the carving of the hole in Needle’s treasured hagstone, it took much determination and many, many years before it was finally built in 1982.
To this day, other than markers showing how high the waters rose, no monument or plaque is known to exist to commemorate the fourteen souls lost to the Great Flood of London, 1928.