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

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