If you walk along the banks of the Thames today you’ll notice the embankments and river walls that keep London safe from flooding. The Thames is tidal for 55 miles so maintaining these defences is a very costly business – however the cost of London flooding would be far worse. In the 18th century the people who owned the land were responsible for maintaining the river wall. In the countryside of Essex this could mean farmers being given ruinous bills for river wall repair - it was tempting then for the repair work to be neglected.
This happened in Dagenham in 1707, then just a marshy bit of Essex land used for grazing sheep. An inspection of the river bank owned by a Mrs Susan Uphill showed it to be in a very poor state of repair and at risk of collapsing at any point. Sure enough, after a huge high tide and a very strong wind that October a gap opened in the river wall, flooding a thousand acres of farmland. Further storms widened the gap creating a U-shaped lake a mile and a half long that became known as Dagenham Breach.
Each tide would scour out soil from the Breach, dumping it into the Thames, creating a sandbank that started to block the river, and soon presenting a real threat to London's port. As early as November 1707 London newspapers were carrying advertisements requesting any workmen with experience of repairing dams and river walls to go to Dagenham where they would be paid to fix the breach. Such a blank cheque meant that even the most unqualified wanted to have a go at the work.
The site of the Dagenham Breach today. John Perry’s intervention saved London as a port.
Closing the Breach
The first scheme was orchestrated by Mr John Ward from Hackney, who lowered boxes filled with chalk into the Breach. These were quickly swept away by a storm in 1714. Indeed, there is a suspicion that Ward’s attempt to fix the Breach was somewhat half hearted - he was accused of deliberately letting land flood then buying up flooded land at a bargain rate with a view to selling it on at a profit when it dried out. When commissioners from Parliament came to investigate this Ward angrily chased them away with a boat hook.
The sandbank outside the Breach was getting steadily worse, and soon an act of Parliament was passed levying a tax on all ships using the Thames in order to pay for the repairs. The next person to attempt repairs was a shipwright named Boswell who sank old ships filled with rock in the breach. These ships were rediscovered when the Ford factory was built in the 1920s. Despite spending £16,000 on the scheme, Boswell was no more successful than Ward. With the situation becoming ever more desperate, Captain John Perry took over the project.
John Perry’s plan of Dagenham Breach. The small numbers in the Thames indicate the position of the sandbank that was starting to cut off the port of London
Perry had already had an interesting career. In 1690 he had been a young lieutenant on a navy ship that was attacked by the French. Perry lost an arm in the battle, but stuck by his post. He then designed a new lock gate for Portsmouth harbour, before returning to sea, and another clash with the French. Perry’s ship was captured and on his return to London poor Perry was court-martialed and sentenced to ten years in Marshalsea Prison. While in prison, Perry worked on a pamphlet setting out a new system for recruiting seamen and he was eventually pardoned. He then went to work in Russia building a series of canals between the Don and Volga that are still in use today. Sadly the Russian government refused to pay Perry, and eventually he had to flee the country.
Perry set about doing a proper job of repairing Dagenham Breach, using timber piling and overlapping boards to make a watertight lining. However he faced problems from Boswell, who was angry about being taken off the job. Boswell went to Parliament to try to get Perry removed, which lengthened the repair works, and there were allegations of sabotage and intimidation of workers that caused further delays. In the end Perry didn’t complete the works and remove the sandbank blocking the Thames until 1723.
Perry’s work complete
Perry’s work was seen as a marvel of modern engineering – Daniel Defoe was one of the many visitors that flocked to see it. However Perry made little money out of it himself – the expenses caused by all the delays exceeded the amount Perry was paid, and he unsuccessfully went to court to get parliament to pay him more money. He ended up writing a book on the project, the proceedings of which seem to have made him a living, and he went on to work on other dam projects.
The lake made by the Dagenham Breach remained and became a fashionable resort for Londoners, who came to stay in houses by the shore or go fishing. It is still there today, you can see it from the A13 as it passes the Ford works. As for Captain John Perry, the man who saved London from ruin and kept the City alive as a port – his only commemoration is a primary school named after him, and a small road in an industrial estate in Dagenham.
You can find out more about Dagenham’s Industrial History on Rob Smith’s walk on 24th September. This is one of the many hidden history stories of the Thames that Footprints of London will tell as part of Totally Thames.