Thamesmead: A late 20th century New Town

‘Town On Stilts’

The initial idea was to build a series of villages on concrete platforms linked by bridges to keep the residential areas well above ground level and therefore safe from the threat of flooding. This plan was originally dubbed the ‘town on stilts’.

Architects working on the project visited The Netherlands several times to look at buildings in the Dutch Polders (areas of land reclaimed from the sea in a region very similar to the Thamesmead site). However, the release of more land meant the project was completely rethought and the result is what you see today.

Before any actual work on residential buildings could begin the engineers had to ensure that the site would be suitable for the builders. To this end a new central pumping station was provided, linked to canals and channels to ensure efficient drainage of what was still marshland. Three miles (5km) of Thamesmead’s riverbanks were raised and strengthened to prevent any future flooding. But water draining onto the marshes could only be discharged into the Thames either side of low tide and so had to be stored somewhere temporarily. The architects came up with the innovative solution of building into the design of the site five lakes, which as well as being functional in storing water could also be used as amenities for the population and would be aesthetically pleasing as well. The first of these lakes, none of which would be more that 2ft (0.6m) deep was Southmere Lake, opened officially in 1971.

In addition, earlier building foundations had to be excavated (these were recycled for use in road construction) and transport networks had to be set up before any building could start. Since about the year 1700, attempts to reclaim the land had mostly involved using convict labour to infill the marshland with various materials – including, in later years, rubble from the bombing of London during the Second World War. Obviously this type of labour could not be relied upon to have done an efficient job and no one had any real idea of the type of material used to infill.

Skilled engineers took samples and assessed how well the land would support the building of a major residential area. As a result of this survey some areas had to be refilled or stabilised. Another necessary preparation was to move munitions and incendiary devices from the site. This proved to be a huge task and was never completed – many unexploded bombs and bullets were found during the laying of the foundations and also subsequently by local children.