Lewisham Underwater

Remembering the Great Flood of 1968

Lewisham High Street during the 1968 flood
Image courtesy of the Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

On 15-16 September 1968, following days of torrential rain, much of Lewisham found itself underwater. What became known as the ‘Great Flood’ had a profound effect on Lewisham’s people and their relationship with its rivers.

This project will gather memories of the Lewisham residents who were affected, connecting an event over 50 years ago with our relationship to local rivers today. Through public art, fun-filled river activities and even a new flood Beer, Lewisham Underwater makes rivers everybody’s business.

Find out more about the flood beer, ‘Deluge’, and how you can donate locally foraged hops to the brewing process.

Background

Boats drifting down highstreets, shop windows submerged, public parks transformed into lakes; these were the scenes that greeted the people of Lewisham on the morning of the 15th.

Image courtesy of the Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

The persistent rain had burst the banks of the Rivers Ravensbourne, Quaggy and Pool, grinding travel to a halt and flooding the area for almost a week. Residents struggled to get to work or school and thousands and homes and businesses were seriously damaged.

Image courtesy of the Lewisham Local History and Archives Centre

The government’s reaction to previous floods was to try to control the rivers, encasing them in concrete and hiding them away underground in an attempt to mitigate future flooding. This reactive approach lasted until the mid-90s when attitudes started to change.

Together with Lewisham Council, Lewisham Underwater is co-led by the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG), a local community group committed to restoring the natural condition of local rivers to help reduce flood risk, boost wildlife and improve the area so that rivers are treated as a major asset to any urban environment.

Formed in 1990, the group has worked to restore Lewisham’s rivers, demonstrating that the best way to avoid flooding is to allow rivers to exist naturally, with their soil and gravel beds and banks acting as absorbent sponges. Treated in this way, the group’s successful restorations have produced valuable scenic spots for the people of Lewisham to enjoy.

Project

This project will relate past to present by gathering the stories and photographs of Lewisham residents from the time of the flood, using them to discuss what can be done today to improve river conditions.

To mark the floods’ 54th anniversary on 15-16 September, a newly commissioned public artwork will be launched on the banks of the Quaggy in central Lewisham. Inspired by the memories of local people and connecting the 1968 floods with the existential climate and ecological emergency, the site-specific artwork will have sustainability at its core.

River walks, clean-ups and other activities will run across 2022 to connect communities with the waterways we all share.

Share your memories of the Great Flood of 1968 or of Lewisham’s rivers and waterways.

Project team

  • Paul de Zylva, Chair, Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG)
  • Marcus Gayle, Flood Risk Manager, Climate Resilience Team, Lewisham Council