This beautifully decorated award was recently donated to the Hammersmith & Fulham archives and local studies. It commemorates the heroism of Madge Franckeiss in rescuing two residents of Hurlingham Court in the disastrous floods of 7 January 1928, almost exactly 90 years ago.
A combination of strong winds, heavy rain, an exceptionally high tide and melting snow resulted in the flooding of many riverside areas in the early hours of Saturday 7 January. Near Lambeth Bridge, the embankment gave way sending a wall of water through a generally poor and run-down area where 9 people drowned, another two people died in Hammersmith, and two more in Fulham. A further 4,000 Londoners were made homeless as water filled the streets to a depth of four feet.
The floods were described by the West London Observer the following week (13 January 1928):
[The water] burst through the river walls and banks as if they were made of paper, and inundated all the surrounding districts. The plight of the people living near the river can be better imagined than described, the calamity occurring in the pitch darkness of early morning. The flood carried all before it, breaking down all barriers and rushing into the basements and rooms on the street level, doing inestimable damage and imperilling the lives of all those who happened to be sleeping in the inundated rooms.
The two Fulham victims, cousins Dorothy and Irene Watson, both 23, were sleeping in a basement flat in Hurlingham Court. They were trapped when the river burst through the Hurlingham Club banks. There would have been more deaths except for the bravery of their friend, Madge Franckeiss, who was staying in the flat with them. She rescued Mrs Watson, the mother of Irene, and her son Billy, swimming for over an hour in the pitch darkness, in and out of the rooms in the flat, in the “bitterly cold and filthy” Thames water as it reached nearly to the ceiling. She eventually had to stop as her feet and legs were badly cut and she was taken to Fulham Hospital.
Madge described what happened to a reporter of the local paper, the West London Observer:
The coroner, having heard her account, praised her “coolness, courage, resource and presence of mind” and concluded that two more people would have died without her actions. She was helped by other residents of the flats who lowered sheets and hauled up the survivors and the coroner paid tribute to the role of Mr Gilder from flat 2 although, unlike Miss Franckeiss, he was not in any personal danger.
The river burst its banks in the Hurlingham Club, flooding the grounds of the club to a height of six feet and then running into Broomhouse Lane and west to Ranelagh Gardens. The Hurlingham Club has kindly allowed us to use some images of theirs which show only too clearly the extent of the water:
According to the Chief Engineer of the LCC, Sir George Humphreys, the Hurlingham Club had done major work in 1883 to its banks under his supervision and had made further repairs as recently as March 1927. His conclusion was that the banks failed because the water was so high that it spilled over the top, causing the banks to give way. The coroner therefore concluded that no one could be blamed for the tragedy.
The Mayor of Fulham, Alderman W J Waldron, opened a testimonial fund in recognition of Madge Franckeiss’ bravery and there was a generous response from all parts of the country.
The beautifully illustrated citation described the rescue:
The donors were all listed and included not only the mayors of most of the London boroughs and many named individuals but also entries such as “4 office girls”, “an elderly admirer”, “a Chelsea housemaid”. More than £134 (over £7000 in today’s prices) was raised in just a few weeks and the citation, the money and a bronze medal from the Royal Humane Society were presented to Madge on the 10 February by the Mayor of London.
Hammersmith & Fulham, Local Studies and Archives volunteer
The two people that were saved that night, Lottie Taylor Watson, and Arthur William (Billie) Watson
Were my husband’s Grandmother and Father. Thank you so very much for posting this article. We never knew all the details of that horrific night. Our boundless gratitude goes to Madge Franckeiss and her family for the lives of “Billie” his four children, ten Grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren.
This is an amazing story about the rescue of my father in law, Arthur William Watson , known as Bill and his mother, Lottie Taylor Watson. Thank you for giving us this missing piece of family history. We are grateful to Madge Franckeiss for her heroic action on that terrible night.
Madge Franckeiss was my grandmother. She married my grandfather Suresh Vaidya, a writer and journalist, and moved to India in 1946. She had two daughters: Jalabala Vaidya (my mother — a famous stage actress who lives in New Delhi) and Vimala (Vima Vaidya Bauer) classical singer who lives in Florida. My grandmother passed away in 1995 in London. Just to complete the family history.
An amazing Lady