Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Dr Johnson's House and The Second Great Fire of London

This week's guest blogger is Blitz historian and fellow Blitzwalker Neil Bright.

Christmas 1940 had passed without incident. However, Hitler had spent the Yuletide with his senior staff in Boulogne questioning why Britain had not come to the peace table following the Blitz on British cities, particularly London during the autumn and winter months of 1940.

The less than festive atmosphere in Boulogne prompted the now famous attack on the City of London carried out by aircraft of Luftflotte 3 and Luftflotte 2 which was to become known as the “Second Great Fire of London.” It is well documented that the Thames was subject to a neap tide and because of the Christmas break and with the attack being carried out on a weekend, there was a skeleton fire-watching staff across the capital.

Some 136 bombers were involved in the raid and approximately ten and a half thousand incendiary bombs rained down on the City in the opening of the attack and by the time the last bomb was dropped some one hundred fires were raging on both sides of the Thames. The wind was particularly high whipping sparks from building to building and temperatures of the fires reached 1,000 degrees. Fortunately bad weather made any further raiding that night impossible.

Many of the City’s famous and historic buildings were razed to the ground or severely damaged. Among the casualties were nine livery company halls including the Haberdashers, Coachmakers, Girdlers and Barbers Halls. Among the City churches, St Giles was gutted along with St Lawrence Jewry and St Alban Wood Street to name but a few. The historic Guildhall lost its Courtroom, the statues of Gog and Magog were lost along with some 25,000 books from the Library. The book industry around Paternoster Square was devastated.

One famous building which has a remarkable story to tell was Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square. Dr Samuel Johnson was the renowned compiler of the famous dictionary as well as playwright, author and wit. Phyllis Rowell was the curator of the house, which had been restored and re-invigorated by the Harmsworth family some years before.

Mrs. Rowell opened the house as a rest centre for the Fire Services and as Harry Stone, one of the firefighters to benefit recalled, Mrs. Rowell “was never without a tea-pot in here hand, providing practical comfort to her local firemen.”

Musical evenings, concerts and readings were arranged. There was even a string quartet (pictured) formed by members of the service who had been members of the London Symphony Orchestra. On numerous occasions there was standing room only as the music of Dvorak and Mozart seeped into the rafters. The quartet even performed at 10 Downing Street, although their esteemed host nodded off during the performance. Celebrated poet and firefighter, Stephen Spender also gave a stirring talk on Scandinavian poets and the actor Felix Aylmer reminisced on his long career. One of the Fire Fighters, Edward Gathergood, even married Mrs. Rowell’s daughter, Betty.

Dr Johnson’s House had come through the Blitz unscathed until 29 December 1940. but now Phyllis Rowell recalled how “all Hell let loose around 6.15pm as incendiaries rained down.”

Their cottage next to the house received the first strikes of incendiary bombs just as her family was sitting down to dinner. Betty busied herself by climbing a ladder and pushing off the bombs with a broom, but many had lodged in unreachable places. Gough Square was now ablaze, but Dr Johnson’s House had not yet been hit.

The water main had been struck and it was apparent that the area had to be evacuated with the family being ordered to the Daily Mirror Shelter in Fetter Lane. The family collected up Dr Johnson’s letters from the house together with part of the china plus some personal effects.

The journey was fraught with danger as masonry and other debris was falling at a rapid rate, plus the air was full of sparks. To make matters worse, Mrs. Rowell’s mother had a mild heart attack during the hazardous journey.

A rumour went around that Dr Johnson’s house was in flames, but fortunately the firefighters had found a large water tank in the area from which water was transported in canvass tanks to Gough Square and a jet of water was directed on to the roof of the house and more water was relayed up the stairway into the attic. Oil from a nearby factory had earlier compounded the situation.

The damage was remarkably little; some paintings were water-damaged and some furniture was destroyed.

Further damage was sustained later in the War by flying bombs landing in the proximity and sadly the Firemens’ rest centre had to be closed down.

Today, the House is open Monday to Saturdays and it is very much worth a visit, with a very knowledgeable and friendly staff. There is also an excellent gift shop.

Published Sources:

The Blitz Then and Now Vol. 2 - editor Winston Ramsey, After the Battle 1988
Dr Johnson’s House and the National Fire Service during the War - Harry Stone
Dr Johnson’s House during the War - Phyllis Rowell

Oil painting by Reginald Mills by kind permission of Dr Johnson’s House

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Angel of Cable Street

This week's blog is guest written by my fellow Blitzwalker, Neil Bright, who tells us about one of the heroines of the Blitz.

Barnet and Millie Billig were a young Orthodox Jewish couple who had escaped the Pogroms which occurred in Russia and other parts of Europe at the turn of the late 19th century and having fled to England, settled above a newsagent’s in Hanbury Street in London’s East End. Not long after their arrival the first of the couple’s children, Esther was born. There followed Levi, Hannah, David, Miriam and Rebecca. Two further children died at a very young age.

Barnet worked extremely hard to provide for his young family; initially as a Newsagent and later as a cigarette and a cigar maker. Barnet was keen that his children study hard and it was evident at an early age that the children were gifted. Barnet bought many books for his family and in no time the living room resembled a library. The Billig children were not allowed to play out in the street with the other children of the area but instead they were encouraged to read. Barnet’s insistence that the children diligently adhered to their books and studies paid off. Four of the children became doctors - Hannah, David, Miriam and Rebecca.

Hannah was born on 4 October 1901. In 1912 at the age of 11 she won a scholarship at Myrdle Road Central School. Her hard work at the school brought her a scholarship to London University. Following graduation she went on to the Royal Free Hospital where she qualified as a doctor in 1925. This type of profession for a woman was still very much scoffed at in the 1920s as it was thought to be a waste of time for a woman to put in a great deal of work only to give it up only to get married and have children. However Hannah was offered a position at the Jewish Maternity Hospital in Underwood Street.

After two years at the hospital, Hannah thought it was time to strike out on her own and she opened a small surgery at Watney Street in Shadwell, where her caring nature made her extremely popular with her patients. It must be remembered that there was no National Health Service in the 1920s and 1930s and therefore patients had to pay for treatment and medicines. Hannah treated everyone who came to her whether they could pay or not. She would often be seen riding around Wapping and Shadwell on her bicycle late into the evening to go and see housebound patients. Often she would pick up a prescription herself and ride back to the patient’s house with it.

She moved to a bigger surgery at 198 Cable Street in Shadwell in 1935 and about this time her rounds were also made easier by the purchase of a Morris Cowley. Hannah’s popularity increased as the years passed, particularly with children, who she would often take for a ride in her car when picking up prescriptions. In addition to her long surgery hours, which started early in the morning and finished often at 10 o’clock in the evening, she was on call as a Police Doctor.

As war broke out in 1939 Hannah became busier and busier. She was in charge of all the air-raid shelters in Wapping. Her bravery was unsurpassed as she would go out to tend her patients as the bombs were dropping.

Hannah was called out to tend to the injured at a blast at Orient Wharf in Wapping on 13 March 1941. As she was working another blast blew her off the steps of the shelter. As she tried to get up she realised that one of her ankles was badly injured. Unperturbed she bandaged it and carried on tending to the injured. She carried on for four hours until all of the injured were taken hospital. One further bomb only landed twenty yards from her. It was only later that it was discovered that the ankle was broken. For her bravery at Orient Wharf, Hannah was awarded the George Medal by King George VI. She was a local heroine and it was now the people of Wapping and Shadwell gave her the title of “The Angel of Cable Street.”

In 1942 Hannah joined the Indian Army Medical Corps with the rank of Captain. She spent much of the early part of her time in Assam treating the wounded and sick soldiers who had retreated following the Japanese Army’s advances in Burma. As well as wounds there were diseases such as Malaria and Typhoid to be dealt with. She didn’t only devote her time to the Army, but also to the local victims of the war and the multitude of refugees fleeing the conflict. One respite for Hannah was that she was able to meet up with brother David and sister Rebecca who were also both with the RAMC in India.

One of the tragedies caused by the war in this part of the world was a rice crop failure in 1944. The local farmers would sell their rice crops without keeping any back for themselves. The failure meant that the government had no reserve stock and the people starved. Hannah and her medical colleagues worked tirelessly with the many illnesses that the starvation brought

Hannah was awarded the MBE in the 1945 honours list. She wrote to the Palace explaining that she was too busy to come along and collect the award and asked that they post it to her.

Hannah returned to her practice in Cable Street in 1946. Times were still hard with rationing still in force. However the birth of the National Health Service in 1948 did bring some relief to the long-suffering poor of the country.

Hannah harboured no secret of her desire to retire to her spiritual home, Israel. Brother David had retired there and having bought a plot of land in Caesarea, Hannah retired there herself in 1964. This followed a farewell party for Hannah at the Bernhard Baron Settlement on 24 March 1964 and the presentation of a cheque to spend in her new country.

Once settled in Israel Hannah became restless and started work at the clinic at Baka-el-Garbiya near her home; treating Arabs and Jews alike. She worked on for another twenty years before ill health caught up with her. Hannah died peacefully in a retirement home on 11 July 1987. She is buried in Hadera Cemetery.

Published Sources:

Hannah Billig, The Angel of Cable Street, Rosemary Taylor - Privately Published 1996
British Medical Journal - Volume 295
Hackney Gazette - numerous issues
East London Advertiser - numerous issues

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Heroes with Grimy Faces

This was the name given by Winston Churchill to Britain's firefighters during the Second World War and although the Prime Minister was quick to recognise the contribution made by the Fire Services, it was not always the case with the public at large and when the Auxiliary Fire Service or AFS was formed in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis, there were many who dubbed volunteers for the AFS as "£3 a week Army Dodgers" for those who volunteered to join the AFS were exempted from the call-up to the fighting services and were paid the princely sum of £3 a week for their troubles. Whilst it was true that some people did join the AFS in order to avoid military service, the vast majority who served in the AFS did so because they wanted to save lives and 'do their bit' towards the war effort. There was also a certain amount of hostility aimed at the AFS from members of the regular municipally controlled fire brigades, who viewed these volunteers as well meaning amateurs despite the high standard of training they received from those same regulars who viewed them with some disdain. Neither was the AFS a male only concern, as there were many women members who were mainly employed on Fire Watching, Driving and Telephonist duties.

The cynicism from the general public aimed towards not only the AFS but at the Civil Defence Services in general continued beyond the Munich Crisis in 1938 and indeed the outbreak of war in September 1939 right through the Phoney War period and up until the start of the Blitz in September 1940, when perhaps not surprisingly, attitudes changed almost overnight. The AFS volunteers performed heroically, especially when one considers that the vast majority of them had never faced a 'real' fire, let alone the conflagrations unleashed by the German incendiaries, for which no amount of training could have prepared them. Any friction between the regulars and the AFS evaporated quickly as a result and the regular Fire Brigades and Auxiliaries worked happily side by side.

The main raison d'etre of the AFS, as well as supplementing the regular fire brigades was to act as a sort of mobile reserve which could be deployed from city to city to augment the fire services in times of great need. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off this particular plan very early in the Blitz - on the first day in fact, when the AFS volunteers brought in from Ipswich to tackle the enormous fires raging at the Surrey Commercial Docks in South London discovered that their hydrant connections were all of differing sizes and certainly of no use to the London firemen already struggling in vain to keep these huge fires under control. There were also petty arguments between the various local authorities who controlled the country's fire services. which sometimes prevented the rapid movement of the AFS volunteers from one municipality to another. Clearly, co-ordinated action was required, not only to ensure commonality of equipment but also to ensure that the petty jealousies were overcome.

Thus, on August 18th 1941 the 1,400 separate fire services in Britain were nationalised and a new body, the National Fire Service or NFS was formed in their place. This new body quickly set about tackling the problems caused by the differences in organisation and equipment thrown up by the huge number of former municipal brigades. There were some frictions at first as old habits died hard but it was quickly realised that the nationalisation was for the greater good and the new NFS under the command of the former head of the London Fire Brigade, Sir Aylmer Firebrace, was soon to prove itself more than equal to the challenges thrown up by the Baedeker Raids of 1942-3 and the Little Blitz of 1943-4 as well as the greater problems caused by the V-1s and V-2s of 1944 and 1945.

After the War, the NFS was eventually disbanded in 1948 and the regional fire brigades were taken back under municipal control. However, the standardised procedures and equipment remained in place and thus it is fair to say that the National Fire Service formed the template for today's modern fire services that we all take for granted in their efficiency and dedication to duty.

In London alone, over 400 firefighters both men and women were killed and today the charity Firemen Remembered strives to keep alive the memory of the wartime fire services in London both by placing memorial plaques such as the one pictured, at locations where firefighters gave their lives, which in the case of many AFS members were at the requisitioned schools that were often used as Auxiliary Fire Stations and also by means of an education programme in which talks are given to schools to ensure that the deeds of these men and women are never forgotten. The National Firefighters Memorial, opposite St Paul's Cathedral was originally commissioned in 1991 following a campaign led by Cyril Demarne OBE, a former senior officer in the NFS and later the London Fire Brigade. Originally designed solely as a tribute to those London firefighters who gave their lives during the Blitz, in 2003 the monument was expanded into a national memorial with the names of a further 1,192 firefighters from across the country who have died in both peace and war being added. Today, this memorial with its evocative image of three firefighters tackling the fires of the City of London and also protecting the Cathedral serves as a lasting and fitting memorial to those men and women of the country's fire brigades who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Published Sources:

London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995
The London Blitz, A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991
Firemen Remembered Official Website -