Saturday, 26 November 2011

What Still Remains

Shelter Sign in Frankham Street, Deptford (author's photo)
As a Blitz historian and part time guide for walks around the bombed areas of our capital city, this writer is often asked what clues of London’s wartime past remain visible. The answer is that perhaps surprisingly, there is still evidence to be seen; not exactly plentiful but certainly still out there if one uses one’s eyes, knows where to look or has the occasional piece of luck. Sometimes, it can be it a tip-off from a friend or occasionally one can blunder across a little gem by accident

Finding these pieces of our wartime heritage using one’s own detective skills is half of the fun, so it would not be right to spill the beans about everything that remains and this writer certainly does not profess to know about everything that still remains but for those that wish to make their walk to work or school, around their local neighbourhood or simply a stroll around a much loved area a little more interesting, here is a guide to the sort of thing that can still be spotted by the discerning eye.

Shrapnel damage at St Clement Danes (author's photo)
Probably the most striking evidence of London’s bomb strewn past are the “honourable scars” worn by many buildings in the capital caused by bomb fragments, or shrapnel as it is more commonly known. Colonel Henry Shrapnel, whilst still a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery in 1784, invented on his own initiative, a hollow cannon ball, filled with shot that after firing, burst in mid air, thus spreading the shot over the unfortunate soldiers beneath. This first crude form of anti-personnel weapon, when formally adopted by the British Army in 1803 was immediately christened the Shrapnel Shell and whilst during the Second World War, neither side used this sort of weapon against either civilians or military, any sort of bomb or shell fragments were also given the Colonel’s name.

So it is that many buildings in London still bear scars caused by this terrifying by-product of bombing. Some of the better known examples can be found at St Clement Danes Church in the Strand (pictured), the General Wolfe Statue in Greenwich Park, Waterloo Place in Westminster and perhaps best known, the Victoria & Albert Museum in Exhibition Road, which even has a helpful commemorative plaque explaining what the damage is, how it was caused and why it has been left unrepaired. There are many other examples of this sort of damage to be found right across London and it is probably the most vivid reminder to be seen of our wartime past. It also provides ample food for thought. If pieces of white hot steel, flying through the air at massive speed can cause the sort of damage to solid masonry that remains today, what it could do to the vulnerable human frame does not bear thinking about. If one does think about it, the bravery of the Air Raid Wardens, the Fire Brigade personnel, Police, Ambulance and other Civil Defence workers, both men and women exposed to this lethal barrage, defies belief.

Whilst out walking, look for the tacit signs of damage; the replacement brickwork around windows, the lighter coloured masonry that even after nearly seventy years, still hasn’t quite blended back in with the original, or the most tell-tale sign of all, a terrace of Victorian or Edwardian houses that is abruptly interrupted with a more recent building before resuming its original progression. These are all sure signs of bomb damage, not a dramatic memorial to the Blitz, but a memorial nevertheless. A closer examination of Civil Defence Incident Logs for the area concerned will usually prove one’s suspicions correct and will often reveal that on the site in question, people perished in the own homes. Each piece of repaired damage or replacement building is often therefore a mute memorial to times gone by.

Less widespread, but still visible in places are the painted Air Raid Shelter Signs. The Wartime lead-based paint was surprisingly durable, although with the passage of seventy-odd years, even the hardiest of these signs are starting to look their age now. In some cases, it is the paint used to obliterate the sign which has worn off, thus re-exposing them to public view long after they became obsolete. For some reason, there is a plethora of these Shelter signs in southeast London, with Deptford in particular, being the Shelter Sign Capital of London. Quite why London SE8 has so many of these surviving signs is a bit of a mystery; perhaps it is because (with all due respect to the area) it has escaped serious redevelopment until recently, perhaps it is just good luck. Whatever the reason, we can only hope that with the rediscovered interest in our Wartime past, some or all of these signs can be preserved. Already, one of these southeast London signs, in Jerningham Road, has been lost forever after the wall it was on was recently demolished as part of a housing scheme. Let us hope it is the last to be lost in this way, for these signs deserve to survive and act as a reminder of more troubled times. Apart from Deptford, there are Shelter signs to be found in Westminster, in Poplar and opposite the Oval Tube Station, although this sign has recently been partially covered with a street sign.

Shelter at NPL Teddington (author's photo)
From Shelter Signs, we go to the Air Raid Shelters themselves. As has been discussed on this blog in the past, Shelters came in many shapes and sizes, from the corrugated Anderson Shelter in the back garden to the communal ‘Morrison Sandwich’ shelter via the Deep Level Shelters in Central London. Examples of all these and more remain; most Anderson Shelters have long since been uprooted from their original back garden locations but some remain as sheds on allotments in odd parts of the capital. The communal brick and concrete shelters were christened ‘Morrison Sandwiches’ by some laconic Londoners, when some of the early examples of these structures showed a propensity to collapse at the merest hint of a nearby blast. The concrete slab base and roof of these shelters provided the bread and when the poorly keyed in and frankly Jerry-built brickwork was blown out by the blast of a near-miss bomb, the unfortunate occupants of these buildings provided the meat in the sandwich – enough said. Some of these shelters still survive; Fawe Street in Poplar, Battersea Park, Raynes Park and Norbury all possess surviving examples as does the one pictured in the grounds of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. The Deep Level Shelters were built from 1941 based on the experiences of the London Underground stations used as shelters; eight were built in total, four north of the Thames at Chancery Lane, Belsize Park, Camden Town and Goodge Street and four south of the River at Clapham North, South and Common as well as at Stockwell. Designed to take 8,000 people each in relative comfort and unrivalled safety, these shelters all survive and the ungainly concrete entrance structures can all still be seen at these locations.

EWS Sign on Albert Embankment (author's photo)
Altogether a rarer specimen of wartime signage is that which signifies the “EWS” or Emergency Water Supply. This usually takes the form of a white or sometimes yellow rectangle with diagonal black stripes painted across it with the letters E W S in the lateral and lower quadrants, with the water capacity shown in the upper. These Emergency Water Supplies were large static water tanks, originally formed from the sealed basements of bombed out building, but later often purpose built tanks designed to augment the Fire Brigades’ supply of water should the regular water mains be damaged by bombing. Few of these signs still survive; Camberwell Church Street has two splendid if slightly faded examples and Copperfield Street in Southwark still sports one. There is another example pictured on Albert Embankment and there are one or two others that remain dotted around London.

Other sundry structures remain; Wardens’ Posts, Pillboxes, Anti-Tank defences, Anti-Aircraft Gun emplacements, rifle loopholes and the like remain across our capital. Putney Bridge Station is the home to a highly visible pillbox, Blackheath is the home to a set of Home Guard rifle loopholes and Epsom Downs is the home to a set of Tank Traps. These defences all formed part of the ‘Stop Lines’ formed to slow down and delay the advance of the advancing Germans in order to buy time for the British defenders to call up reserves. Fortunately, these defences were never put to the test but this fascinating and untried part of our wartime history can still be seen gently crumbling away in many parts of suburban London. Mudchute Park on the Isle of Dogs is the home to an almost complete Anti-Aircraft emplacement (without the guns!) Wardens’ Posts are rarer creatures although one or two others are still extant; Blackheath and Kew Station are the home to two of them but there are others about.

Stretcher Fencing at Watergate Street, Greenwich (author's)
Another evocative piece of wartime London still visible, albeit not being used for its original purpose and in declining numbers, is the once ubiquitous stretcher fencing. Mass produced in steel and wire mesh for the expected vast numbers of civilian casualties caused by German bombing, the ‘ARP’ stretcher was designed to be easily cleaned and re-used in clearing the dead and wounded. Many of these were never used and the war’s end saw hundreds of thousands of these simple pieces of equipment suddenly made redundant. In an early piece of recycling, an ingenious use was made of these stretchers in order to replace the wrought iron railings sacrificed for the war effort. There were also many new estates being built to replace the vast swathes of local authority housing destroyed in the Blitz. The stretchers provided a simple and effective solution and can still be seen in several locations across the London suburbs; Watergate Street in Deptford, Amherst Road in Hackney, the Springfield Estate in Stockwell are but three of the places that these can found.

Apart from these physical reminders, there are of course, an abundance of monuments which commemorate events, people and places connected with the wartime past, not only of this country’s wartime achievements but the Allied cause as a whole. So, across London we find plaques and statues galore commemorating such diverse personalities as the Polish General Sikorski, the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied invasion at Normandy, Dwight D Eisenhower, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Viscount Alanbrooke and General De Gaulle as well as many others. Plaques mark the spot of the first V-1 Doodlebug falling in Bow, the V-2 Long Range Rocket in Chiswick as well as the location of the Special Operations Executive, the Headquarters of the Norwegian Merchant Marine. There are also memorials to the fallen; across London there are still springing plaques erected by the charity Firemen Remembered marking the locations where members of the Fire Services fell in the course of performing their duties whilst under fire.

The reminders of our wartime past referred to above merely scratch the surface of what is still out there to be seen. As mentioned earlier, there is much enjoyment to be found in discovery and as always, any comments from the readership are welcomed. If you know of some aspect of London’s wartime heritage that can still be seen, then please feel free to share the information with us.

3 comments:

  1. Julian Birch6 July 2012 20:55

    You often see garden walls that look a little higgledy piggledy & seem to have lots of blackened brick within them. I was once told these were built from the bricks of bombed out buildings after the blitz. I wonder if this is true?

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  2. It's quite possible Julian. I don't know the definitive answer to this but given as 'Make do and Mend' was the watchword of the wartime and immediate post-war years, I wouldn't be surprised if this were the case. I know a lot of rubble was shipped across the Atlantic as ballast in merchant ships going across to the States to load, so there are some significant parts of old London buried in the foundations of some New York skyscrapers!

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  3. Julian Birch7 July 2012 18:49

    Great piece by the way and thank you very much for your reply.

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