The Village That The Thames Washed Away

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 49 months ago
The Village That The Thames Washed Away
An engraving depicting Creekmouth Village, on a spot overlooking where it once was

The odds were always stacked against the village of Creekmouth. Rounded off by water — with the River Roding to the west and the Thames to the south — the land here is gloopy, the foundations unstable. Gunpowder magazines were installed in the 18th century, this location chosen so that if they'd exploded, the casualties would have been minimal. Generations of Barking Power Stations — one opened by George V in 1925 — pulled a toxic blanket over the terraced cottages overlooking the creek.

But it was the wrath of Father Thames that did it for Creekmouth village.

Creekmouth Village. Image: Creekmouth Preservation Society

On the night of 31 January 1953, the North Sea flood sloshed freezing, fetid water into the villagers' homes. They awoke to find their belongings floating in three-feet-deep filth. One resident recalled, "The council gave everyone bags of limes, which were buried in the garden and put under the floorboards to kill off germs."

Where Creekmouth village once stood

Such efforts proved futile; the cottages were summarily demolished and Creekmouth village was gone. It is now the site of a waste and recycling plant — gulls screeching over the clank of rubbish-groping megaclaws. Of the very few remains of the village, the gabled roof of the old school house, can be made out over a razor wire fence. It's now the offices of a bulk stainless steel company.

The concrete goalposts of Barking Creek Barrier, meanwhile, peer down on the site, installed 50 years too late to be of use to those terraced cottages.

But let's not go overboard with nostalgia. Creekmouth wasn't ever entirely bucolic. The 55 cottages, school house and mission church that were standing here by 1889 were for employees of the Lawes Chemical factory. Industry is in the veins of this place — it's just that the industry's grown.

One HGV after the next clangs past us on the River Road, which loops around the hinterlands (the only time you ever see a river is by the barrier). A Mixit mixer follows a Muckit tipper follows a Squibb lorry. Up on the verges, long haul drivers snooze the morning away in their cabs, lulled to sleep by the din of everything around them. The paths are thin, pockmarked and puddled, and the only pedestrians are in luminous overalls.

This is Industry Land — a bustle of cash and carries, garages and skip suppliers — and if it weren't for the occasional interaction, Creekmouth gets oppressive, pretty quickly. Best throw yourself into business, then: in the offices of Sam's Fast Food, chicken shop owners reel off £300 orders of fries and fillets — food that'll be frying later tonight in Stratford. A few doors down, Naz is egging on one of his regulars to buy Peugeot parts off him. It's not his day — his client has a better offer waiting in north London.  

Lee gets up at quarter to three each morning to commute in to Creekmouth

"All kinds of people stop here," says Lee, who runs a mobile cafe at the side of River Road, getting up at quarter to three every morning to commute in from Basildon. "Construction people. People who come to the cash and carries stop here. Lorry drivers."

He's on the busiest stretch of River Road, where workers chat as they queue for a £2.50 bacon baguette (three rashers); where you might hear the sound of a Romanian wedding at the former Crooked Billet pub (on that night back in 1953, licencees, the Stubbs, made sandwiches and hot food for the victims).

A mural by Tamara Froud, depicting landmark events in Creekmouth's history, including the flood

Continue anti-clockwise round the loop, and businesses thin out. The landscape becomes one of crackling pylons, and notices warning you of various fatal hazards by various doses of voltage. An abandoned suitcase is filled with empty coffee cups. The Ripple Nature Reserve — a swathe of prickly burrs — barely dents the greyness.

The Ripple Nature Reserve

Then you come to the Thames View Estate.

"Dismal" and "east London at its most depressing" is how one writer describes it. That's hardly fair, even if the name is something of a misnomer (there's no sliver of the Thames, let alone a view of it — not from street level, anyway).

In fact the estate became a saving grace for those flooded out of the village. It was built the following year, in 1954. It is, if you will, Creekmouth Mark Two, and has spilled out into thousands of homes, along with churches, pubs and a health centre.

The community is a shy and retiring one. Greengrocers and bakers decline to talk to us — maybe it's that time of the morning. But there are signs that Creekmouth knows how to have fun; there's a Sunday market that sets up by one of the old power stations each week. A chalkboard outside Curzon Social Club promises regulars a clairvoyant night with Poppy Bowling on 17 February.

Creekmouth Preservation Society has kept close ties with the estate, keen to honour its history, with images installed above the shop fronts. One is of the Handley Page Aviation Factory, which manufactured the questionably named 'Yellow Peril' in 1911. The same preservation group is behind engraved information boards up by Barking Creek Barrier, and the nearby mural in which Creekmouth's tumultuous history (it was also where the Princess Alice sunk) is spilt out onto the canvas by two 'old souls'.

A barber on the estate explains he'd rather the money was spent on fixing the roof on the promenade outside his shop, but then you can't please everyone. He also confirms the foundations of the estate are shored up piles and rafts; Thames View Estate might be further from the water than the original village, but it's still the same, boggy ground.

The Thames Laundrette

In search of someone who knew Creekmouth village, we find Doreen, and her brother Kenneth. They're from Barking originally, and their grandfather used to work in one of the power stations. Creekmouth is "not like it used to be," says Doreen, as elderly people are wont, and entitled, to say.

You feel that phrase is going to be bandied about a lot soon. Barking Riverside, a 350-acre development, will see schools, shops, GP surgeries. and 10,800 new homes in Creekmouth. Signs advertising Caspian Quarter — the first stage of the project — are already up. At the far east of Bastable Avenue, new homes like Bermuda House have already appeared.

New housing on Bastable Avenue

'Living. Breathing. London.', promises another sign from the London Housing Association. Right now, that seems quite a pledge, given the lorries thundering past.

"It's all closing now," says Lee, explaining the compulsory purchase of some businesses to make way for development, ""I won't stay here."

This is not a flash flood of change, but a gentle erosion. Gradually, the industries and the hubbub will be washed away. Creekmouth Village Mark Three is coming. And this residential plot is on an industrial scale.

That's the idea anyway

For more information on the history of Creekmouth, visit the Creekmouth Preservation Society's website.

Church near Thames View Estate
The Lighterman pub on Bastable Avenue
Thames View Estate
Chaos, on the other hand, is fine
Housing on Bastable Avenue
Change on the horizon
In Creekmouth you will nearly die a lot
A rare sight in these parts, but it does happen
We weren't lying
Where the Sunday market now takes place
Got that?
Do not wash your car immediately before coming here
The former school house, behind razorwire
A rare breathing space, courtesy of Creekmouth Preservation Society
Never be afraid to ask men in boats questions
The former Crooked Billet pub. A swinging sign still calls it this

Last Updated 31 March 2020