Newspaper archives shed light on Hampstead Heath’s great flood of 1975

As controversial plans to rebuild Hampstead Heath’s dams go out to consultation, discussion has turned to the great storm which struck the area on August 14 1975.

On a summer’s night 37 years ago the skies darkened, thunder struck and a three-hour storm hit Hampstead.

Heavy rainfall deluged the area, sweeping over the Heath and damaging homes in Gospel Oak, Dartmouth Park and West Hampstead. According to one report, the storm even claimed the life of one man.

In a story which encapsulated the drama and devastation of that evening, that week’s edition of the Ham&High likened the flood to a “sea of disaster”.

The paper said: “A freak storm struck without warning, like a tropical monsoon.

“It left hundreds homeless as water cascaded through their basement flats.

“It left a trail of devastation estimated at tens of thousands of pounds.”

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Residents’ shock at the freak storm turned to anger as they demanded the authorities investigate the area’s flood protection, to avoid another disaster.

It is unclear which Heath dams may have been breached in the storm, and if this is why areas to the south were so badly affected. But as the City of London fine tune their costly dam strengthening plans, debate has turned to what role the overspill of the ponds may have had in this historic flood.

Mrs Constance Berg, a 75—year-old who lived in Belsize Road in 1975, laid the blame on blocked drains.

She told the Ham&High shortly after the storm struck that at least half the gutters she visited were so badly blocked that they “could not possibly cope with the amount of rain that fell during the storm”.

Other residents called for tighter flood protection.

Among the worst hit areas was West Hampstead, where more than 250 people had to leave their basement flats.

Some �1million worth of damage was thought to have been wrought by the deluge, prompting Camden Council to ask Harold Wilson’s government for aid for the victims.

But despite concerns London’s drains weren’t able to cope with the downpour, Arthur Edwards, chairman of the Greater London Council pubic services committee, told Camden Council the sewers were adequate.

As Hampstead residents again grapple with the most suitable way to strengthen their defences to protect against a rare but potentially devastating storm, the debate over whether the Heath’s dams pose a significant flood risk has reopened.

Helen Marcus, vice president of the Heath and Hampstead Society, has questioned the need for the costly re-building programme, and is sceptical that anyone actually died in the 1975 flood.

She said: “We thought the mention of the man’s death was probably a mistake because if somebody really had died it would have been front page news.

“In Ham&High reports of the flood there was never any further detail published on the alleged drowning. It has become an urban myth.”