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A memorial plaque has been unveiled beside the Thames at Westminster to Sir Thomas Peirson Frank, an engineer who saved London from drowning no fewer than 121 times.

Sir Thomas co-ordinated repairs to roads and public services for London County Council during World War II. 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Recent fieldwork and research of unpublished reports, by archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP), have revealed the extent of the unit’s heroic efforts.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 who later became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), knew 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.

'Engineering great'

ICE President Geoff French said: While historic engineering greats like Brunel are frequently revered and well established in the engineering ‘hall of fame’, others like Sir Thomas Peirson Frank have remained unsung heroes.

" It was down to the ingenuity of this engineer that parts of our capital, including the main infrastructure network that supported it, survived the Blitz without being submerged. Needless to say the consequences could have been devastating. It is a truly fascinating story, and I am delighted that Sir Thomas’ feat has finally been discovered and acknowledged.”

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.

1941 archive Image © by permission of London Metropolitan Archives.

Research, supported by University College London, has explored unpublished records in the London Metropolitan Archives and revealed Peirson Frank’s detailed plans.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.

Gustav Milne, Thames Discovery Programme Director, said: “Last winter illustrated the danger posed by floods. It emphasises the Herculean efforts of Sir Thomas Peirson Frank’s highly successful rapid-response team, at the height of the bombing. It’s a real credit to the Thames Discovery Programme’s community team that they were able to unravel this forgotten story, since all news of their efforts was deliberately supressed at the time.”

The plaque is 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 repairs by Peirson Frank’s team.

Martin Frank, his grandson, said: “The demands at the time for secrecy meant that this work was never widely recognised and so it is fitting, even after all these years, that we will have this plaque to remind future generations how close we came to catastrophe and how much we owe to Sir Peirson and his team.”

The Thames Discovery Programme is a community archaeology project run by Museum of London Archaeology, providing access to archaeology and leading efforts to record the largest archaeological site in the UK: the Thames foreshore. Find out more about the Thames Discovery Programme on the website, on Twitter @ThamesDiscovery, on Facebook Thames Discovery Programme.

Story dated November 3rd 2014