Saturday, 15 December 2012

Charlton SE7: A London suburb at war

The piece below was written by me in 2009 for inclusion in my friend and guiding colleague Clive Harris's erstwhile 'Front Line London' website. Clive kindly mentioned this article recently on the Charlton Life forum and so suitably updated and with some additions, the article is reproduced below.
Spotter on duty at The Valley (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

With a father who served in HM Forces, most of the time overseas and a mother who worked at Woolwich Arsenal throughout the Second World War, it was probably inevitable that I would have more than a passing interest in the history of those times, although admittedly for some reason that I’ve never quite been able to work out, my interest has always been slanted towards the war at sea. Notwithstanding this, possibly because of hearing my Mother and her friends talking about those days, interest in the home front, especially in my own corner of south east London has never been too far from the surface. 

These days, there aren’t too many visible signs of the war in SE7, although with a bit of local knowledge and with a little research, it is quite easy to get a good idea of what was bombed and what evidence remains. 

The first place to start when researching an area is the local authority’s archive to study the Civil Defence Incident Logs. Scandalously, in the sixties and seventies, perhaps before the social history value of such information was fully appreciated, some boroughs destroyed their records. Fortunately the Royal Borough of Greenwich, as we should now call it, has an excellent Heritage Centre in which is held the records of the old Metropolitan Boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich. 

From a study of these logs, it can been seen that much of the heaviest damage was done to what is now known as North Charlton - that is the area at the bottom of Charlton Church Lane and bordering the Woolwich Road. There were many factories in this area, especially between Woolwich Road and the River and it was these that suffered repeatedly. Johnson & Phillips, British Ropes, Harvey’s, Stone Manganese, Siemens, the Central Tram Repair Depot at Rainton Road and many other local industries were all heavily bombed in 1940-41, as was the Woolwich Arsenal, where my late Mother had been working since joining as a 16 year old in 1937. Despite working in what was arguably the most dangerous place in London, she always felt safer once at work, rather than chancing the public shelters that were the only option if the warning went whilst travelling to work on the bus. She maintained until the end of her life that if the siren went as she was crossing Beresford Square, as it did on more than one occasion, she would always hurry up and get through the Arsenal Gates. This probably false feeling of safety was shared by many of the workers that I have spoken to subsequently.

The story as far as Charlton was concerned actually began before what is now viewed as the official start of the Blitz. On the 4th September 1940, St. Paul’s Church, which was located at the junction of Charlton Lane and Fairfield Grove, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb which entered through the roof of the main building, completely destroying it. This was something of a landmark, as it was the first church in London to be destroyed in the War and the day following the incident, many thousands of people came to view the ruins. Sadly, the novelty value of this occasion was to wear off very quickly indeed. The gutted shell of the building remained until after the war, but was then demolished and the land sold to the local council for housing purposes. Today, the only clue to the existence of this landmark is an unremarkable block of local authority flats, which bears the name of the church which once stood on the site. This incident was covered more fully in this blog in April 2010

Mum did have one lucky escape, which was on ‘Black Saturday’ 7th September 1940, the first day of the Blitz. For reasons that she could not later recall, her boss had given the Pay Office (where my Mother worked) a Saturday off. This was a real bonus, because Saturdays were a normal working day at that time. My Mother remembered spending much of her day off – from the late afternoon onwards – in the Anderson Shelter of her parents’ home in Montcalm Road, Charlton. When she reported for work on the following Monday, the whole area where she worked, including her own office building as well as many of the air raid shelters, had been destroyed. 

The destroyed Charlton Station (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
In Charlton, ‘Black Saturday’ also saw the railway line between Charlton Junction Station (as it was then called) and Woolwich Dockyard completely closed due to unexploded bombs. This pattern was followed many times during the following two months, with the line being closed again on the 12th September and again on the 20h, 24th and 25th September, when Angerstein’s Wharf was struck, with four railway personnel being killed. In October, the lines were again blocked due to bomb damage and once again, Angerstein’s Wharf was struck by incendiary bombs. No evidence of this damage is really apparent today, as most of the buildings were demolished post-war. Jumping ahead in time, the Booking Office and ancillary buildings of Charlton Station were completely destroyed on 23rd June 1944, when it received a direct hit from a V-1 flying bomb, killing four civilians, including Mrs. Newick, the wife of the signalman, who lived in the Stationhouse. As a result, the whole station was demolished and remained as a collection of temporary buildings until 1967, when the station was rebuilt into the style we see today. 

The railway received one further blow, on 8th February 1945, when the signal box at the opposite end of the platform to the booking hall, received extensive blast damage from a V-2 that exploded 400 yards away from the building, although happily causing no casualties. 

The familiar sights of London at war were already apparent in SE7 by the time the Blitz started in September 1940. Although there was no heavy anti-aircraft battery in Charlton itself, my mother recalled a mobile gun that used to drive along Canberra Road firing sporadically, which presumably did little good, other than to give the impression to the general public that we were fighting back, albeit in a small way. There was also a battery of 3.7” guns on Blackheath, which again, at that stage of the war, would have been more of a morale-boosting exercise than anything else. Charlton Park was the home of one, possibly, two barrage balloons, which of course, were dotted liberally all across London. In Canberra Road, number 106 received a near miss and severe blast damage, which caused the building to be demolished and which now gives one of the few clues to the Blitz still visible in SE7. The house was rebuilt to a slightly different layout to the other undamaged houses, which still stands out today. It was this blast that did the only lasting damage to the family home in nearby Montcalm Road. Roof tiles were blown off, windows blown out and the upstairs ceilings were all brought down. The evidence of post-war rebuilding is still evident today, with the ceilings being reconstructed in a different style to the originals. 

Invicta Road School (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
On November 14th 1940, the same night as the great raid on Coventry, southeast London also suffered. In Charlton Park Lane, near the junction with Shooters Hill Road, near to where Charlton Lido now stands, a parachute mine fell and became entangled in trees. Fortunately, there was sufficient time to evacuate the residents of the adjacent houses, before it exploded some hours later, destroying several houses and causing severe blast damage to many other properties. By far the worst incident in London on this night was in nearby Blackheath, when Invicta Road School, then in use as a fire station for the Auxiliary Fire Service received a direct hit from a Parachute Mine, killing twelve firemen and three civilians. These two incidents were separated by a matter of minutes and presumably the same aircraft dropped both of these mines. 

Back in Charlton proper, The Village also attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, when the Bugle Horn public house and St. Luke’s Church also received severe blast damage. The stained glass windows of the church were almost completely destroyed and what is now the Lounge Bar of the pub was severely damaged. This was not rebuilt until after the war, and whilst today the building looks much as it ever did from the outside, a closer inspection of the interior of this bar reveals it to be a pastiche of the original. 

Once the First Blitz of September 1940 to May 1941 was over, Charlton in common with the rest of London enjoyed something of a respite with only sporadic raids until the ‘Little Blitz’ of late 1943 to the spring of 1944. Then in June 1944 came the Allied invasion of Europe and the war-weary citizens of Charlton perhaps thought that the end was in sight. It was at this relatively late stage of the war that Londoners were subjected to their final and arguably worst ordeal in the form of the terror weapons – the V-1 Flying Bombs and later the V-2 Rockets. 

The first V-1 in London fell in Bow on 13th June 1944 but the boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich were spared until three days later, when the first of many of these weapons fell in both boroughs. Greenwich’s first fell harmlessly on allotments in Tunnel Avenue, Greenwich, whilst the first ‘buzz bomb’ in Woolwich fell in Heavitree Road, Plumstead causing seven fatalities. The V-1’s fell regularly thereafter in both boroughs, with the casualties mounting steadily. The V-1 assault fell away and then stopped altogether by early September 1944 when the Allied armies overran the launching sites in the Pas de Calais. Another brief respite followed but then on 8th September 1944, a house in Staveley Road, Chiswick was obliterated without warning. At first, the authorities tried to calm the populace by informing them that the explosion was caused by an exploding gas main but when the explosions continued, they finally had to come clean and tell Londoners that yet another new weapon was being used against them. Thereafter, some of the more cynical Londoners christened the rockets ‘flying gas mains!'

Like everywhere in London, as well as many other places in England and indeed liberated Europe, the V-2s caused havoc in Greenwich. The first one to fall in the borough also proved to be the worst. This was on 11th November 1944 when the Brook Hotel in Shooters Hill Road was completely destroyed by a direct hit. There were twenty nine fatalities, many of whom were passengers on a number 89 bus which happened to be passing when the missile fell. The pub was rebuilt after the war but subsequently closed; the building however is still extant as a small supermarket. Most buildings that suffered from the attentions of these rockets were completely destroyed but there is one building in Charlton, which although rebuilt after the war, still shows the extent of the damage caused. The building is Charlton House, the splendid Jacobean manor house that greets visitors to Charlton arriving from the direction of Blackheath, which suffered a near miss from a V-2 on the evening of 25th January 1945. The entire north eastern wing of the building was destroyed, and although the post-war rebuilding work was painstakingly done, unfortunately shortages of materials and perhaps a low budget caused the wrong colour brickwork and stone to be used and the rebuilt area can still be clearly seen, giving the present day viewer some idea of the extent of the damage caused. 

Johnson & Phillips in March 1945 (Greenwich Heritage Centre)
The final V-2 incident of the war as far as Charlton was concerned occurred on 9th March 1945, barely two months before the end of the war in Europe, when the Johnson & Phillips factory, which had suffered so much during the First Blitz received another direct hit, this time on the Cable Shop causing one fatal casualty. The last V-2 of the entire war fell in Orpington on 27th March 1945 causing one final fatality but with the Allied armies closing in on the shattered remains of the Third Reich, the final surrender of the Nazis on the 8th May 1945 meant that London and Londoners could at last begin to return to their peacetime routines. 

To end on a brighter note, the final word must go to an incident which my late Mother remembered until the end of her life. It was June 1944 and her husband to be, Ron was on leave, having just returned from nearly four years service overseas in North Africa. The air raid siren sounded and both Mum and Dad began to walk down the garden to the shelter. As they were doing this, a V-1 could be seen and heard overhead. The engine then stopped and instead of running, my Mum made some comment about the engine having stopped and just stood there watching. Ron told her in no uncertain terms to get down, whereupon he pushed her to the ground and she ended up face down in the dirt with a muddy face. 

Mum was uncertain where the V-1 fell, but given the chronology, it is just possible that it was the same weapon which fell on Charlton Station as described above. 

She still laughed about this incident some 60 years on, as apart from the muddy face, it was the first time that my Dad had ‘sworn’ at her, apparently having called her a “Silly Cow” when she was gawping at the Doodlebug!

Unpublished Sources:

Author's family recollections
Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich ARP Incident Log
Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich ARP Incident Log

21 comments:

  1. Thank you for this article. My great-grandfather was in the Home Guard and killed at Charlton train station June 23 1944, your article helped shed some light on the events, and the accounts and photographs were fascinating.

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  2. Hi Kate - I'm glad you enjoyed the piece about Charlton. Was your Great Grandfather's name by any chance William Oliver Brown? Of the five victims on the day in question, he is the only one I can see who was a Home Guardsman.

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  3. Yes, that's him! I have no idea if he was there on duty or whether he was travelling, it was quite close to where he and his family lived. He was 38 and a father of 9 when he was killed.
    Can I ask where the names of victims are listed?

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  4. Hi Kate. Rather than carrying on this conversation in public, if you'd like to DM me at steve@blitzwalkers.co.uk I will be able to give you some more information as you request. Regards Steve

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  5. We lived in a prefab at 11 Deerfield road built on the bombsite behind the station in the photo.I went to our lady of grace rd school.I left school and was a messenger boy the the merchant navy.

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  6. Hi. Many thanks for this fascinating account. I was born in 2 Rathmore Road, next to Johnson and Philips cable shop in 1950. Obviously after the war.Many of the bomb sites and subsequently torn down prefabs were our playgrounds. I recall a story about a bomb which hit the railbridge on Victoria Way. The bomb was supposed to have hung there for some time just swaying. Was this just a story or is there some truth in it.

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  7. Hi Chris - I seem to vaguely recall my late Mum talking about something similar. She lived and worked in the area right through the war. This would have been a parachute mine, which were basically naval mines adapted for use as blast bombs. The parachute lines often got caught in guttering, trees, street lamps etc., so this rings true. There is an incident reported on 19th April 1941 of two Para Mines in the Victoria Way/Elliscombe Road/Ellis Mews area, so I suspect this is the incident you heard about. Thanks - Steve

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  8. I have a record of a John Gotts who died according to CWGC records in Shooters Hill Road on 11/11/1944. I presume he was either in the bus you mention, or the hotel. Where could I get more information on this?

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    1. Hello Ian. The CWGC will give you the basic details as to which borough the person died and in, date of the incident etc., but for more details I can only think of checking with Greenwich Town Hall to see if the registry of deaths are open to the public - this might give some more details as to whether he was on the the bus, in the pub or a passer-by. Sorry I can't be more precise. Regards, Steve

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  9. Does anyone know if there was a Co-op in Church Lane, Charlton - and if it got hit by a V2 rocket?

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    1. No record of a V-2 hitting a Co-op. Maybe it was the same V-1 incident that destroyed the station. I don't know if there was a Co-op nearby?

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  10. My mother and aunt were caught up in the V1 blast that destroyed the railway station they were near the railway bridge going to the shops from 14 Wellington Gardens. both were covered with glass and had minor cuts and scratches, my mother was pregnant with me so she was evacuated and I was born in mid September 1944

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    1. Hi Terry - thanks for the feedback. I think I've had more replies to this post about Charlton than any other subject I've written about including an email from a lady who lost her Dad in this same incident. Regards - Steve

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    2. I believe that the co-was just over the bridge as I remember my mother talking about a butcher there and that where she and my aunt was going when she and my aunt were caught in the V1 blast. My Aunt Doris would like to contact anyone who remembers it. She lived at 14 Wellington Gardens at the time until 1955.

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    3. I think you've answered your own question there Terry. If the Co-op was just over the bridge, then it would have been the blast from the V-1 that destroyed the station that did the damage.

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    4. Is there a record of people injured in this attack and if so where do I get a copy

      Thanks
      Terry

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    5. Hello Terry - I only have the fatal casualties of which there were 5 - Harold Cox, 35 of Bexley, William Brown, 38 of 43 Undercliffe Road, Ronald Hughes, 22 of Radcliffe, Manchester, Ernest Bromelow, 32, of Radcliffe and Alice Newell, 61, who was the wife of the Station Master. As far as I know, the details of the injured are not recorded.

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  11. My parents lived for a while in Floyd Road Charlton near the athletics field I believe that they had to move back to my fathers mothers house in Wellington Gardens because there house was damage/destroyed does anyone have details of bombs/V1 or V2 attack

    Thanks

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    1. According to Greenwich Incident Log, nos. 55/61 Floyd Road were demolished by a HE Bomb on 11/9/40. 31/33 damaged on 18/9/40. Football Ground damaged on 18/10/40.

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  12. Dear sirs, my father was born in Charlton in 1916 in his father's shop, Holmes Brothers, Builders and Furnishing Ironmongers, the address was 17, The Pavement, later renamed as 341 & 343, Woolwich Road. His father was Earnest Allenby Holmes. The family were bombed out sometime in the blitz but survived physically but from then on the family was split up as they had nowhere to live for some time. I should like to know more of the details of this time and your article is very interesting. I do have photos of the shop at that time and of the family in their garden. They all lived over the shop and even as a young child my Dad remembered being in his pram, a "bassinet", in the shop itself as an alert to his mum if anyone came in while she was brushing his sisters unruly hair. He also told us of the Silvertown explosion which happened early in 1917 when he was only three months old. His sister, who was only two at the time, was with him upstairs in their home, he was in his cradle which was suspended in some way on the clothes rack, when the explosion happened on the other side of the Thames I believe. Glass shattered and shards wers blasted across his cradle above my Dads head and became embedded in the all opposite the window. The blast was heard 200 miles away! He said little of the time the shop was bombed and as my Grandfather was 60 years of age he seems to have lost his way from then on. He did live into his early 90s and I met him very briefly, just once when he came to our front door one day. It makes me sad to think of his life alone for so long without his family but there was a rift, perhaps because my Grandma had invested all her youth and savings in her family and he never made any attempt to get some sort of war damage compensation which they thought he could claim. They may have been wrong and he may not have been entitled to anything or I have got the story wrong as over time things get forgotten . The family story of my parents wartime experiences they each wrote themselves before they died and it is amazing they lived until dad was 92 and Mum was 88. Mum was born in Grosvenor Buildings, Poplar but that is another story.
    It has been fun telling you and I hope it adds to your archive a bit. If you know of anyone who might help me research my London family history when I come to London at the end of April 2017, I should be grateful. Best wishes with your project. Eileen Farnworth, nee Holmes.

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    1. Eileen - many thanks and as promised, I have posted the contents of your email above. As you know, I have contacted you directly with an offer of help for your family history enquiry.
      Kind Regards - Steve

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