Sunday, 15 February 2015

Ghosts of Wartime London

Shrapnel damage in London Street, Paddington

From time to time in the past, I have published various photographs showing some of what clues remain to be seen in London of it's wartime past; the last of these collections appeared in August 2013 so with the start of our regular scheduled walking season just around the corner, it is probably time for some more. Unless stated otherwise, all of the photos shown in the article were taken by the author and may not be reproduced without my express written permission.

Honourable Scars in London Street

Shrapnel scars can be seen all over London, sometimes in some unlikely and out of the way places and an instance of this can be found in London Street, Paddington, alongside the railway station. I haven't had the chance to examine the incident log for the locality as yet but the area was heavily bombed during the First Blitz of 1940/41, so these pockmarks almost certainly date from this period. 

In nearby Sussex Gardens, we can see another reminder of the London Blitz, this time at the Parish Church of St James's, the crypt of which, in common with many churches in the capital, was used as an air raid shelter, in this case one capable of accommodating some two hundred people. The church also housed an Air Raid Wardens' Post and in October 1940, was severely damaged by a Parachute Mine which fell in nearby Barrie Street. The top sixty feet of the spire was destroyed and many of the stained glass windows were damaged or destroyed. Notwithstanding all of this damage, the church never closed, either as a place of worship or as a shelter from Hitler's bombs.

The replacement Baptistry Window includes a panel that features ARP Wardens and searchlights panning the London sky in recognition of the church's role during the Blitz.

Detail from the Baptistry Window at St James's Sussex Gardens

Another reminder of the Blitz located at a church is located at Christ Church in Blackfriars Road and takes the form of a cross inset into the lawn at the rear of the church. The helpful explanatory plaque tells us that on the night of 16th/17th April 1941, the church was struck by incendiary bombs and in the ensuing fires, the blazing cross atop the spire fell onto the grass and reputedly etched the shape of the crucifix into the lawn, where it is now marked by white paving slabs; a simple but effective memorial to the second heaviest raid of the Blitz, which became known to Londoners simply as "The Wednesday."

The mark made by the burning cross at Christ Church, Blackfriars Road

During the Blackout, all manner of street furniture including kerb stones, lamp standards, bollards and even trees were painted with black and white stripes so as to provide a measure of a visual aid during the blackout. Surviving examples of these are now extremely rare but some can still be seen at the old Woolwich Arsenal site in southeast London on the steps of one of the surviving buildings.

White painted "Blackout" steps at Woolwich Arsenal

In my previous articles on surviving relics of wartime London, quite a few shelters have been mentioned but one that didn't get published last time around is this shelter, located at West Kensington Underground Station. This station is located on the District Line and as many Londoners will know, this is one of the earlier parts of the system, constructed using the 'Cut and Cover' system of tunnelling, which leaves the lines relatively close to the surface and therefore not suitable like the deep level 'tubes' for use as Air Raid Shelters. Indeed, West Kensington Station is actually on the surface, so the shelter at this station had to be purpose built. This shelter is not visible to the public and can only be viewed by appointment, so I was extremely lucky to take this shot a number of years ago. 

Entrance to the shelter at West Kensington Station

A more unusual reminder of wartime London can be found at the erstwhile Blewcoat School in Caxton Street, Westminster. Opened as a school in 1709, the building remained in this use until 1920, when it was taken over by the National Trust and used by them until quite recently as a gift shop. Now in use as a wedding shop, during the wartime years, the building saw somewhat more mundane use as a warehouse and was latterly used by the US Army for storing field equipment. Like all military establishment, however lowly, sentries were posted and an indication of the levels of boredom encountered whilst guarding a warehouse can be seen today in the shape of bayonet marks made by the sentries in the brickwork beneath the window frames. There is also other graffiti of the period that survives but you will have to come along on my Westminster at War walk in order to view this!

Bayonet marks left by bored US Army sentries

We close this brief look at wartime remnants by taking a look at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel which was constructed between 1899 and 1902, opening to the public in August of that year to provide a free and reliable method of commuting from south of the Thames to the then busy docks and wharves on the Isle of Dogs. Whilst the main part of the tunnel is obviously quite deep beneath the Thames, either end runs at a more shallow depth beneath the foreshore and in 1940, during a low tide period, the northern end of the tunnel was pierced by a bomb. The hurried repairs were formed from a thick steel and concrete inner lining to the existing tunnel which substantially reduces the diameter for a reasonably short distance and this repair can still be seen to this day.

Bomb damage repairs to Greenwich Foot Tunnel

There are many more reminders to be seen of our Wartime past and next time we shall take a look at some of the memorials and monuments to this period in our history.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Two Villains and a Hero in Wartime London

The article below first appeared on this blog in June 2010 but following the receipt of some new photographs from Captain Binney's Great Niece, along with one or two fresh pieces of information, it seems a good time to reproduce the article below, duly updated.

Memorial Plaque in Birchin Lane (Author's Photo)

Today, seventy years on from the end of the Second World War, it is easy to look back on life in London and imagine that the populace were to a man and woman, all pulling together with the "London Can Take It" attitude made so popular by the media of the time. Yet, whilst it is true that most law abiding Londoners did indeed get on with their lives as normally as they could, stoically keeping calm and carrying on, there was another section of the London population for whom the war also meant business as usual. Then as now, London had a significant criminal population although today many people seem to forget that 'normal' crimes still occurred in wartime.

However, the war meant nothing to these people - indeed in many ways wartime conditions with the blackout and with the huge influx of service personnel into London made life much easier for the criminal fraternity. Today, in Birchin Lane in the City of London, many people must have walked past the unassuming black plaque on the wall of what is now a sandwich shop without giving it a moment's thought. Closer examination of the plaque reveals that it marks the scene of one of London's most notorious wartime crimes and celebrates the memory of one of the heroes of wartime London, a Royal Navy officer who died not in action with the enemy but in trying to thwart this violent crime.

Capt Binney pre-war wearing the uniform of a Commander, RN (Caroline Brodrick)

Ralph Douglas Binney was born in Cookham, Berkshire on 14th October 1888 and joined the Royal Navy as a Midshipman in 1903. Promoted to Sub-Lieutenant in 1907, he served in the Great War in various appointments and postwar in the battleship HMS Royal Sovereign before eventually taking his first command, the monitor HMS Marshall Soult in 1930. In 1934, on the completion of a final shore appointment at The Admiralty he was promoted to Captain and placed on the retired list, seemingly the end of a blameless career in the Royal Navy. From 1934-39, he served with the Colombian Navy and was instrumental in the setting up of their naval cadet and officer training system. He was extremely well thought of in Colombia and indeed today there is still an annual "Binney" Class within the Escuela Naval Almirante Padilla's intake of cadets.

A portrait of Captain Binney (Caroline Brodrick)

On the outbreak of war in 1939 in common with many retired officers, he was recalled to the Royal Navy and had a series of staff appointments, most notably as Flag Captain of HMS Nile, the naval base at Alexandria. In January 1943, he was appointed CBE and was back in the UK serving as Chief of Staff to the Flag Officer in Command of the London Area.

So it was on December 8th 1944 whilst walking along Birchin Lane, no doubt on his way to or from a meeting, Captain Binney came across an armed robbery in progress at Wordley's jewellery shop. A man had swung an axe, smashed the shop window and was rushing across the road to a waiting getaway car carrying a tray of jewellery worth approximately £ 3,500 at 1944 prices. As the car pulled away, Binney ran into the road in an attempt to jump on the running board to stop the getaway but instead of stopping, the driver merely accelerated, causing the Captain to slip beneath the car and to be run over. By this time, a member of the public had blocked the road with another vehicle, so the desperate men reversed their car and ran over Binney once again, this time somehow trapping him beneath their car. As they sped away, horrified onlookers could hear the Captain calling for help but he remained trapped beneath the car until after they had crossed London Bridge, when he was jarred free of the car in Tooley Street, just south of the River Thames. Taken to nearby Guy's Hospital, Captain Binney died three hours later but before he died, the getaway vehicle was found abandoned further along Tooley Street.

A 'miniature' portrait of Captain Binney (Caroline Brodrick)

The Police launched a massive manhunt and felt certain that the robbers were both local men who knew their area well. After over 200 known criminals had been rounded up during a three week hunt, detectives learned that two local men, Thomas Jenkins, in his 30s and Ronald Hedley, 26 were still unaccounted for. After further searches, these men were quickly picked up - Jenkins in Woking, whilst an informant gave up Hedley who was found hiding out in Jamaica Road, very close to where the car had been abandoned. Both men were habitual criminals and had spent their lives in and out of prison.

Although both men denied any involvement in the robbery and subsequent murder of Captain Binney, they were identified by the many eye witnesses of the incident and were subsequently charged with both the robbery itself and the murder of the Captain. 

On March 6th 1945, they stood trial and whilst they both admitted to knowing each other slightly, they still denied all knowledge or involvement in the robbery and murder. Despite this testimony, the jury took only an hour and a half to find both men guilty. Hedley, the car driver was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, whilst Jenkins was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 8 years imprisonment.

However, the day before Hedley's sentence was due to be carried out, it was commuted to life imprisonment.

As a result of Captain Binney's selfless action, his fellow officers in the Royal Navy established a trust fund to enable an annual award to be made to members of the public who put themselves at great personal risk in attempting to intervene in violent crimes in the Metropolitan and City of London Police areas. 

The Binney Award has today been absorbed into the annual Police Public Bravery Awards but incorporates the award of a Binney Medal which is proudly presented every summer by the Captain's Great Niece, Caroline Brodrick to "The Bravest in The Land" and thus keeps alive the name of a man who died upholding the finest traditions of the Royal Navy, albeit in extremely unusual circumstances and surroundings.

Published Sources:
Crime Flashback by Max Haines - The Highland Observer 2007
Escuela Naval Almirante Padilla - Official Website

Unpublished Sources:
Author's Family Recollections
Caroline Brodrick's family photographs