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Meet Andy Batchelor, the man who keeps London dry

Most Londoners have no idea they're being constantly protected by a team of people working round-the-clock to prevent the Thames from flooding.

Late at night on 31 January 1953, a heavy storm erupted in the North Sea. By the early hours of the morning, strong winds combined with low pressure and fast currents had produced a surge that devastated the UK’s east coast. The storm caused damage all over the country – 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes – but it was particularly intense in the Thames. The river was already full to the brim after days of rain, and the extra water pushed into the estuary by the surge broke sea walls and inundated thousands of properties. More than 320 people in the UK died that night, many of them in Essex and the other coastal counties north of the Thames Estuary. It remains one of the country’s worst ever natural disasters.

Andy Batchelor has been working to prevent a similar catastrophe for all of his professional life. The 56-year-old manager of the Thames Barrier began his engineering career in the aftermath of the flood, building embankments in the outer estuary to keep the water out. Though more than half a century has now passed, the 1953 disaster is still shaping the UK’s approach to flood prevention.

When we meet in his office overlooking the south end of the Thames Barrier in Greenwich, Batchelor is keen to point out how much has changed in the 65 years since that terrible night. “What a lot of people don’t appreciate,” he tells me, “is that in 1953 there were no systems. There was no real way of telling local authorities and police groups along the coast that something was coming. They all saw it for the first time separately, and because of the lack of preparation, that’s what added to the loss of life.”

The Thames had flooded before – 14 people drowned in 1928 when the river broke its banks at Millbank in central London, for instance – but it was the 1953 surge that made policymakers think, “We’ve got to do something different,” Batchelor says. Four options were considered: do nothing, move the capital out of London, raise all the walls along the Thames by three metres, or build a flood barrier on the river. It wasn’t until 1972 that the fourth option was written into legislation. By the time Batchelor graduated from Westminster College in London in 1979, the Thames Barrier was under construction. It began operation four years later.

A tall, spare man with a precise manner and mode of expression, Batchelor says that it was always his dream to work at the barrier. As a young engineer, he admired the scale and originality of the structure, which has ten gates spanning the river’s 520-metre width between New Charlton on the south bank and Silvertown on the north.

Batchelor joined the maintenance team at the barrier in 1984 and became its overall manager in 1999. He leads a team of 87 people who work on a variety of day-to-day tasks, from servicing the barrier’s moving parts and forecasting future floods to leading tours for school groups around the site. He feels a great sense of duty to do his job well. Though very self-effacing, he makes it clear during our conversation that much is at stake on whether he closes the barrier or not. The safety of important landmarks and infrastructure – such as the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, several major hospitals and parts of the London Underground, as well as thousands of homes – depends on him. “It’s 375,000 properties, something like £300bn worth.”

His team takes great pride in the job that it does, Batchelor says. At times, he has to call on his colleagues to make sacrifices for their work. In the winter of 2013-14, when there was flooding in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere, the barrier was working hard. The rain was so intense that it closed 50 times in a three-month period, with 20 of the closures on consecutive tides. Staff worked round-the-clock shifts to make this possible. Most Londoners probably had no idea what was going on downriver to keep them safe. As of early January, the barrier has only been closed 181 times since 1983.

When he goes on holiday, Batchelor finds it hard to switch off. He trusts his team absolutely but he tells me that if there was any sign of a flood, he would be on a plane home immediately.

The decision to close the barrier (a process that takes about an hour and a half for all ten gates) is deceptively simple. Batchelor explains it patiently, with what I sense might be his habitual laid-back, logical tone. If A, the amount of rainwater forecast to flow down the Thames, plus B, the height of the next incoming tide, equals more than C, the amount of water the river can contain without flooding, the barrier must be closed. As a result, Batchelor works with a constantly updating bank of computer-generated forecasts. “We can’t stop the rainfall, but we can stop the tide,” he says.

When the barrier was designed in the 1970s, terms such as climate change and global warming “weren’t even in the dictionary”, Batchelor says. It was originally designed to be superseded by other flood defences by 2030, but more recent studies have shown that it is robust enough to remain the Environment Agency’s main point of protection for London until 2070.

As sea levels rise, a new barrier will eventually have to be built further downriver and other flood defences will also have to be improved. Who knows whether Andy Batchelor will be here to oversee those new structures, but for now he remains a vital, if mostly invisible, presence on London’s great river. If he does his job well and keeps the city dry, we barely know he’s there.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist