Bomb strike on river wall at Westminster (c) by kind permission of London Metropolitan Archive

The man who saved London from drowning

Nicola Kalimeris
29.10.2014

An engineer who saved London from drowning no fewer than 121 times finally get recognition for his efforts. Sir Thomas Peirson Frank, co-ordinated repairs to roads and public services for London County Council during WWII. He established a secret rapid-response unit to deal with the destruction of London’s flood defences from the Luftwaffe’s intensive bombing raids. Recent fieldwork and research of unpublished reports, by archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP), have revealed the extent of the unit’s heroic efforts.

Peirson Frank, a respected civil engineer who later became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), knew well the catastrophic consequences that a flood defence breach could have, potentially submerging low-lying areas of the capital, including the London Underground, where so many Londoners sought refuge during the Blitz.

As the prospect of war loomed, Peirson Frank set about making preparations: identifying the most vulnerable sites, introducing secondary flood defences, and setting up depots staffed by rapid-response teams, called the Thames Flood Prevention Emergency Repairs unit. Their endeavours were conducted in secret, so as not to alarm the public or alert the Luftwaffe to this soft target.

Research, supported by University College London, has explored unpublished records in the London Metropolitan Archives and revealed Peirson Frank’s detailed plans. Recent TDP fieldwork, to record the Thames riverwall, has exposed the devastation and extensive repair work covertly undertaken to protect the capital.

A plaque supported by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), unveiled on 29 October by the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Audrey Lewis,  is situated in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament, along the riverwall. On the other side of that wall are the deep in-filled scars of the Blitz and evidence of the laudable efforts of Peirson Frank’s team.

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