Marine Flooding and Storm Events in the Thames Estuary c.1250–1450
Summary of a report on the research by Dr. Jim Galloway
The later middle ages were a period of climate change. Unlike the present, however, this was an age of climate cooling, at least in the North Atlantic region, including northern and western Europe. A relatively warm climatic phase was coming to an end in the 13th century, and a cooling trend had set in which, with some temporary interruptions, led into the well-known ‘Little Ice Age’ of the early modern period. This process was associated with an increase in storminess, particularly marked in the countries bordering the southern North Sea, where damaging storm surges became more common. In the Low Countries such storms caused widespread loss of life and the permanent loss of extensive areas of land, which had been reclaimed in earlier centuries. Numerous storms and storm surges also battered the coasts of eastern and southern England between the 13th and 15th centuries, among the most damaging being those of 1236, 1286–88, 1334, 1375, 1404 and 1421.
During this research project (January–June 2006), Dr. Jim Galloway investigated the impact of the increasing storminess upon the coasts of the Thames Estuary (including the tidal river downstream of London Bridge and the mouth of the Medway) between 1250 and 1450. This was one of the most economically advanced areas of medieval England, characterised by – for a pre-industrial society – significant levels of urbanisation and by a commercially-oriented agrarian sector. It was in no sense a subsistence economy wholly at the mercy of natural forces. Nevertheless, the climatic deterioration posed real challenges, particularly as it coincided with a ‘stalling’ of economic growth about 1300 and a collapse in population caused by recurrent outbreaks of plague (the ‘Black Death’) after 1349.
Violent storms, which caused the deaths of men and animals, damaged buildings and infrastructure, sank ships and disrupted trade, naturally attracted the interest of contemporary writers. The chronicler Matthew Paris described how a major storm in November 1236 ‘deprived all ports of ships, tearing away their anchors, drowned a multitude of men, destroyed flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, plucked out trees by the roots, overturned dwellings [and] dispersed beaches’. In the same year, recounts Stow the historian of London, flooding of the Thames turned the river marshes to sea, while ‘in the great palace of Westminster men did row with wherries in the midst of the hall.’
The reports of chroniclers must be treated with caution, however, and correlated where possible by other sources. The main body of sources drawn upon in this project were the less colourful but more reliable and voluminous documentary records created by the royal and local bureaucracies of medieval England. Three main types were:
The published Calendar of Patent Rolls (HMSO, various dates), which records royal letters and instructions to local officials on a wide variety of subjects, including responses to petitions from local landholders affected by flooding, and the establishment of commissions to enquire into drainage and coastal defence in specific localities and manuscript Inquisitions Post Mortem and miscellaneous inquisitions, comprising enquiries into landholding and valuations of landed assets. The ‘extents’ appended to these inquisitions often make reference to factors influencing local land values, which may include the effects of flooding or the costs of maintaining sea and river defences. The manuscript inquisitions are held in the National Archives at Kewmanorial account rolls held in the National Archives and Canterbury Cathedral Archives. These accounts provide detailed annual accounts of farming practice and finances on a range of demesnes – lands that were farmed directly on behalf of manorial lords. Accounts for manors with holdings in the estuarine marshlands often record expenses of maintaining sea defences, and may record the direct impact of flooding upon cropped land and livestock herds.
The Tidal Thames
Along the tidal river downstream of London storms allied to a high and growing tidal range caused repeated breaches of the river walls. Recurrent flooding affected the lands of the Abbess of Barking, and other breaches occurred near Rotherhithe and in the stretch of the Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich. In Stepney a sequence of damaging floods began on New Year’s Eve 1323 with the inundation of 100 acres of land, an event the lord of the manor described as ‘a mighty flood, proceeding from the tempestuousness of the sea, which overflowed all the banks.’ As the waters ebbed they tore a great breach in the river wall, allowing subsequent tides to flow across the land.
Over the following 100 years, numerous commissions of walls and ditches (later known as commissions of sewers) were appointed to oversee defence against the tidal river in Stepney and adjacent areas, but flooding still recurred. A further disastrous breach occurred in 1448, possibly the result of a North Sea surge, and around 1000 acres of land were submerged. Much of this land remained subject to the tides for the remainder of the 15th century, resulting in loss of livelihood to tenants and loss of revenue to the lord of the manor. Abandoning attempts to defend some marshlands may, however, have been a sensible response to an increased flooding threat in a century of depressed agricultural prices and rising labour costs.
Even flooded land was capable of generating some income for lords and tenants. For example, there was rich fishing in Barking during the 1380s on grounds that were inundated when a breach in the river wall was left unrepaired.
The Outer Estuary
In the outer estuary a variety of activities were threatened by an increase in the frequency and severity of marine flooding. Here extensive unenclosed saltmarsh and mudflats coexisted with highly-valued reclaimed pasture and arable land behind sea walls. The former environments were characterised by the grazing of large sheep flocks, producing wool for export and for the local cloth industries of Kent and Essex, by salt-making and by fishing using large ‘kiddles’ or fish-traps – medieval examples of which have been uncovered by archaeologists working in the inter-tidal zone. The ‘inned’ or reclaimed lands provided richer grazing and highly productive arable land, the grain from which was in demand from London and other urban markets at home and abroad. An increase in storm surges threatened both environments, drowning sheep in open or lightly-defended marshes, eroding saltmarshes, damaging salt-making and fishing structures and threatening reclaimed land with loss of crops and salt damage to soils.
The extensive marshes around the mouth of the Medway in northern Kent were particularly vulnerable. Detailed manuscript accounts surviving for the manor of Barksore in this area show that it suffered serious damage in the storms of 1286–87, necessitating ten times the normal expenditure on walls and ditches in the marsh, and was even harder hit in the 1330s when large numbers of sheep were drowned. A major breach in a sea wall occurred in the winter of 1334–35, probably caused by the same surge that struck the coasts of Flanders, Holland and Zeeland in November 1334. Several thousand man-days of labour were expended in repairing and heightening sea walls on the manor over the following three years, only for the work to be largely undone by a further inundation in the winter of 1337–38.
A vivid picture of the almost tsunami-like impact of a major storm surge in this same location several centuries later was given by Mr. A. Hawkins of Lower Halstow, adjoining Barksore in 1897:
‘The day was the 18th of November 1897 and the wind had switched suddenly into the opposite direction from that it had been blowing the day before. The day was overcast and dull, and the morning tide had ebbed so far out that no water could be seen in the creek. After dinner the tide suddenly appeared far down the creek and rushing up with a ridge of white foam at its front edge. Very soon it was breaking over the sea walls, overflowing low-lying roads, houses and buildings. The marshes of great Barksoar Farm were flooded and many sheep were drowned in spite of great efforts of Mr. Hanmer and his farm hands…’
(cited by J.H. Evans ‘Archaeological horizons in the North Kent marshes’, Archaeologia Cantiana 66 (1953), p118).
Two farmhands stranded on the sea wall between two breaches had a narrow escape and were rescued by boat.
While many of the outer estuary marshes continued, by considerable human effort and expenditure, to be defended against ‘the violence of the sea’ throughout the later middle ages, in some locations there was long-term or permanent reversion to inter-tidal conditions. Slayhills marsh, part of the Upchurch marshes northwest of Barksore, was severely flooded, along with large parts of the Isle of Sheppey and the north Kent coast, by a storm surge in the autumn of 1404. Four years later it was reported that the profits of the marsh there had been ‘mostly lost’ since that time, its lord’s income from it falling from £10 to 26s8d per year, and the tithe income accruing to Rainham church from the marsh had also fallen to no more than an eighth of its previous level. In the eighteenth century the 500 acre Slayhills marsh was described by the historian Edward Hasted as ‘gone to sea…nearly the whole of it is become a tract of salts, which is covered by every spring tide.’
Overall indications are that there was no wholesale abandonment of marshland around the Thames estuary, but climatic deterioration, particularly the increasing frequency and severity of storms, made it increasingly difficult and uneconomic to defend the more vulnerable stretches of coast during the period 1250–1450. The abandonment of some land may, however, have enhanced the security of other areas by increasing the extent of inter-tidal and saltmarsh buffer zones capable of absorbing the power of waves and storing the floodwaters driven against the coast by all but the most exceptional surges – strategies which would today be termed ‘managed retreat.’
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________This report summarises the excellent research carried out by Dr Jim Galloway during a fellowship at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich in 2006. The research was subsequently taken further in a project based at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, between 2008 and 2010. Further details and links to publications can be found on Dr. Galloway's webpages: