Friday 23 October 2015

The Blitz and Peace in The Pleasaunce

Simon & Barry Day, Ann Veitch and Chris Mansfield (author's photo)

For those not familiar with the area, East Greenwich Pleasaunce is one of those hidden gems that one can find in London, a green oasis of peace that provides valuable open space for the local community. It is a public park but also houses a Royal Naval cemetery that provides the final resting place for around 3,000 sailors who had spent their final days at the former Royal Naval Hospital, later to become better known as the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

In common with many of London's open spaces, the onset of the Second World War saw East Greenwich Pleasaunce turned over to more warlike usage, with part being used as allotments to boost local food production in the so-called 'Dig for Victory' campaign, with another part allocated as a trench air raid shelter with a capacity for 150 people. These trench shelters appeared in open spaces across London in the early days of the war as an expedient for those people who did not have a garden to accommodate the iconic Anderson Shelter but were not well liked by Londoners and with good reason. They quickly gained a reputation for being cold, damp and not particularly safe places of refuge. This was a reputation which spread after a particularly nasty incident at Kennington Park on the night of 15th October 1940, when a trench shelter located in the park was 'near missed' by a 50 kg bomb, causing the packed shelter to partially collapse, burying alive hundreds of people. The final death toll was believed to be 104, of whom the bodies of only 54 were recovered during the frantic rescue effort. The remaining victims lie buried beneath the park to this day.

Locations of local shelters in 1939 (author's collection)

East Greenwich Pleasaunce is hemmed in by the Southern Railway on one side and by housing on the other three sides, so it was perhaps inevitable that bombs would fall on and around the area. Apart from bombs which fell on surrounding properties and on the railway line, the local Civil Defence Incident Log recorded a High Explosive Bomb falling shortly after midday on 18th October 1940. No damage was recorded and to this day, the exact location of the bomb remains sketchy but this incident, mentioned in a casual conversation with local resident Neil Sharman, was the catalyst for an extraordinary community event that came to fruition last Sunday, on the exact seventy fifth anniversary of the raid.

Land Girl Lizzie with Barry & Simon (Eve Daniels)

Neil had noticed during a rare dry spell in the English summer, the outline of what was the trench shelter and upon learning the fact that the Pleasaunce had been 'collateral damage' from a bomb no doubt intended for the railway line during one of the Luftwaffe's 'tip and run' daylight raids during the dying days of the Battle of Britain, decided it would be a nice idea to commemorate the event with a community day to mark 75 years of 'Peace in the Pleasaunce.'

A panoramic view of the event gives an idea of the numbers attending (Neil Sharman)

Several local groups were brought on board and a small committee formed to build an afternoon's wartime themed event, focusing on the more positive aspects of life in Wartime London, such as the community spirit and bonds formed between people at the time, songs and music from the period, how people lived and how the war inevitably shaped people's lives. All of us involved in the event felt that it was also important to honour those local residents from the 1940s, some of whom still live in the area and who still use the Park. An appeal through the excellent local newspaper, The Greenwich Visitor and via the thriving Cafe in the Pleasaunce, Pistachios in the Park, tracked down three such 'veterans' from the time, Barry, Charles and Vic, all of whom are remarkably sprightly and were only too happy to share their memories from those times.
After much hard work, the day of the event finally dawned and the casual visitor to the Pleasaunce might have wondered if they had unwittingly wandered into a time warp that had taken them back to the London of the 1940s, with soldiers, Land Girls, an ATS Driver and a wartime Policeman on patrol, carrying the inevitable 'tin hat' in case the sirens should sound!

This young local resident tries on a Tin Hat for size! (Neil Sharman)

Fortunately, there were no sirens, no bombers and no bombs falling and the afternoon concentrated on the more peaceful aspects of 1940s life but without forgetting why we were there and what we were commemorating. Local people responded to the event magnificently, with over 200 enjoying the autumn sunshine and joining the event.

The afternoon opened with the local Halstow Choir singing a range of well known songs from the era, including my own personal favourite song from that time 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square' as well as other favourites such as 'We'll Meet Again', 'The White Cliffs of Dover' and 'You Are My Sunshine.' 

Local re-enactors, Barry and Simon Day, Ann Veitch and Chris Mansfield, dressed as a Major from 1st SAS, a Sergeant from the Ox & Bucks Glider Airborne, an ATS Driver and a wartime 'Bobby' mingled with the crowds and happily posed for photographs and fielded questions as to the roles played by their real-life counterparts in wartime. The musical theme continued with local singer Rachel Jenkins and her group 'Scarlet', whilst Rich Sylvester entertained the children with the story of Chicken Licken, which with it's connotations of the sky falling in, must have seemed quite appropriate to any Londoners living through the Blitz at the time.
A part of the wartime memorabilia on display (author's photo)

A memory trail formed largely of reminiscences from our local 'veterans' Barry, Charles and Vic was to be found around the Pleasaunce, whilst a Blitz Quiz also teased the minds of those attending. Apart from the Blitz veterans we knew would be attending, we had a most pleasant surprise in the form of two amazing local ladies, May Wellard and Joan Harbottle who decided to come along. These two ladies, both in their 90s, had vivid memories of living and working in the area during the Blitz and were happy to share their memories of those times, making lots of new friends in the process. The 'Blitz Spirit' epitomized!

The Friends of the East Greenwich Pleasaunce reminded everyone of the Park's 'Dig for Victory' connections and encouraged present day visitors to do the same, this time though with spring bulbs rather than fruit and vegetables!

The Cafe did a brisk trade in teas and coffees, thankfully these days not rationed, as well as a nice line in Spam Sandwiches, French Baguettes and remembering Noel Coward's exhortation of 'Don't Let's be Beastly to the Germans', Hot Dogs with German sausages!

For those more interested in more static exhibits, we also had a fairly sizeable display of wartime memorabilia, including uniforms, medals and badges (British & German), books, photographs, bullets and shrapnel (which had been found on the Thames foreshore at Greenwich).

The writer of this blog contributed with a short illustrated talk about the Blitz and it's impact on the people and buildings of Greenwich before fielding many questions and the afternoon was rounded off by a return appearance from the Halstow Choir, who got many in the audience joining in with their rousing singalong.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable afternoon, with a genuinely warm community feel to it and as we were clearing up in the gathering October dusk, this writer was certain that he heard a Nightingale singing in East Greenwich Pleasaunce......

Thanks to all of my new friends who helped arrange and organise this event and to all those who attended, especially our amazing veterans, Barry, Charles and Vic as well as May and Joan, all of whom truly epitomized the Blitz Spirit.

For those wondering about the Kids' Blitz Quiz - here it is below. It's nothing too strenuous, so give it a try and send your answers via the comments form!

The Pleasaunce Blitz Event Quiz

How well do you know the language of the Blitz? Below are seven words or phrases and below that are seven explanations. Can you match the words to the explanation?

1. Dog Fight
2. Ack Ack
3. Rest Centre
4. Hermann
5. Moaning Minnie
6. Morrison
7. Doodlebug

a) A cage-like, table sized construction that could be used as a refuge to shelter inside a house. They came in self assembly form and the householder bolted it together.

b) Two or more planes battling with each other in the sky.

c) The nickname given by Londoners to the air raid sirens that gave warning of a coming raid and the need to take shelter.

d) The place you were directed to if you emerged from the shelter to find your house destroyed.

f) Slang for a German V-1 Flying Bomb.

g) The nickname given to the largest type of German bomb in regular use, so called because of it's supposed likeness to Reichsmarschall Goering.

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