Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Last Rocket: The Tragedy of Hughes Mansions

One block of Hughes Mansions as built in 1929 (Evening News)

As we head into March and a new spring, perhaps we should cast our minds back to the early spring of 1945; Germany was in its death throes, assailed on all side by the Russians in the east and by the British, Americans and Canadians in the west. In Berlin, Hitler was already in the bunker where he would soon meet his end but lived in a fantasy world where he still spoke of some miraculous final victory.

In the capital of arguably the biggest thorn in Hitler's side, war-weary Londoners were still under fire from the most technically advanced of his so-called Vergeltungswaffen or  "Vengeance Weapons" which still fell upon their familiar streets, as well as on eastern England and across the North Sea in Antwerp with disheartening regularity.

The other day, I paid a visit to the site of where the very last of these missiles to hit central London impacted, on a now quiet estate in Whitechapel, in the inner eastern suburbs. 

The surviving original block of Hughes Mansions on Vallance Road (author's photo)

Hughes Mansions, on Vallance Road consisted at that time of three roughly similar apartment blocks which contained 93 flats spread over the three buildings. They had been completed in 1929 and were regarded as a welcome improvement on the old "back to back" slums that had once stood here. The blocks were named after Mary Hughes JP, a Quaker philanthropist and erstwhile member of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney's Housing Committee.

Born in Mayfair in 1860, Mary, or "May" as she was often known, was the daughter of Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays. She had left home in 1883 to become her uncle John Hughes's housekeeper in Newbury, where he was a vicar and had soon become involved on the Board of Guardians at the local workhouse, where she soon caused a stir by insisting on better conditions for the paupers who lived there. Upon her uncle's death in 1895, she moved to Whitechapel to live with her sister, who was married to the Rev. Ernest Carter and whilst there, continued her work as a Poor Law Guardian, as well as becoming a volunteer visitor to the local hospital and children's home. She had joined the Quakers in 1918 and in 1926, purchased a former pub in Vallance Road, which she renamed the Dewdrop Inn (a play on the words "Do Drop In"), which she turned into a community centre and refuge for the homeless.

Blue Plaque to Mary Hughes in Vallance Road (author's photo)

Mary was an indomitable character, who had once been run over by a tram. Before being taken to hospital, she had insisted on writing a note stating that the tram driver was not to be blamed for the accident and when she was in hospital and told that she was recovering faster than expected, she apparently sat up and shouted "Three cheers for vegetarianism and teetotalism!" 

She had died, aged 81 in 1941 but today is commemorated by a blue plaque on the former Dewdrop Inn building in Vallance Road, which stands opposite the blocks that bear her name. Mary would doubtless have been appalled at the terrible fate which would befall Hughes Mansions just four years after her passing.

Hughes Mansions on the bomb damage map, showing the two blocks marked in purple at the top, centre (author's photo)

On Tuesday 27 March 1945 at 07:12 GMT in the Haagse Bos area of Den Haag in The Netherlands, Battery 3/485 fired a V-2 rocket in the direction of London and just nine minutes later, reports came in to the Stepney Borough Civil Defence Control of a major incident at Hughes Mansions. The missile had scored a direct hit, on the very centre of the three blocks, making a crater some 30 feet by 10 feet and totally destroying the centre block in the process. The block immediately to the east was almost completely destroyed, whilst the rear of the western block, which faces on to Vallance Road was severely damaged. 

The impact crater and aftermath of the V-2 (UK National Archives)

Some victims were never found, vaporised by the blast whilst many others were trapped where the blocks had collapsed. Rescue work continued apace, with sixteen heavy rescue teams and five cranes on the scene, as well as eleven light rescue squads and over seventy National Fire Service personnel assisting in the work. The last survivor was extricated at around 22:00 that night, after which the squads concentrated on the grim task of recovering the victims. Many of the rescuers were veterans of the Blitz but found this particular job, especially at this eleventh hour of the war, the hardest they had ever encountered.

The Hughes Mansions site after clearance (Evening News)

Hughes Mansions, in common with much of the East End of London at this time, was home to a considerable Jewish population and so no doubt Hitler with his twisted mind, would have been extremely pleased had he known that what proved to be his penultimate missile fired at London had taken 120 Jewish victims out of the total of 134 people who perished in their own homes that morning.

Hughes Mansions was rebuilt after the war and ironically, some of those who survived the V-2 incident were rehoused here. Today, the demographic of the area has totally changed and the residents here are overwhelmingly from London's Asian community.

The replacement block at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

There is a very modest memorial to those who died here in the garden area of the rebuilt portion of the estate; so modest in fact, many of the local residents appear to be unaware of what happened here. Whilst I was taking my photographs, I was challenged by a resident and asked what I was doing - when I pointed out the memorial, showed him some of the archive photos and told him what had happened here almost 76 years ago, he was visibly shocked and thanked me for informing him. Perhaps this will lead to the memorial being better cared for, or perhaps supplemented by something more fitting.

The memorial plaque at Hughes Mansions (author's photo)

At 16:48 the same Tuesday, one further rocket was fired which impacted a few minutes later at Kynaston Road in Orpington in suburban Kent, killing 34-year-old Ivy Millichamp in her own kitchen and seriously injuring twenty three other people. These proved to be the final civilian casualties in Great Britain of the war, some six weeks before the end of the war in Europe.


Published Sources:

Hitler Passed This Way: 170 pictures from the Evening News - Evening News, 1945
Hitler's Rockets - Norman Longmate, Front Line Books, 2009

Unpublished Sources:

HO 182/808, Ministry of Home Security, Air Raid Damage Region No. 5 London (Stepney) - UK National Archives, Kew



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