Published by Frontline Books
hardback, pp 382
A look at wartime Britain, usually with a London slant. Mostly the Second World War but sometimes we look at other conflicts - notably the First World War and sometimes the Cold War too. Zeppelins, The Blitz, Battle of Britain, V Weapons. Local heroes and villains, the equipment, the offbeat. Book reviews and sometimes films as well. You name it, we've covered it - come and join the party!
hardback, pp 382
|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)|
|Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (IWM)|
|Sir Keith Park (IWM)|
|Richard Eager cover (author's photograph)|
|"Friends at Last" (courtesy of Bobbie Kinnear)|
|The newly unveiled plaque at Lansbury Lawrence School (author's photo)|
A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Lansbury Lawrence Primary School in Poplar to attend the dedication ceremony for the latest of the memorial plaques placed by the Firemen Remembered charity. This particular plaque had been unveiled back in 2006 at the school but due to an impending major refurbishment of the school buildings, a permanent site was not fixed at that time. More time passed and the pandemic then delayed matters even further and it was not until November this year that the plaque could finally be installed and properly dedicated.
The origins behind the plaque go back even further to July 2006, when Stephanie Maltman of the charity was contacted by an elderly lady, Cis Keefe who asked Stephanie whether she could arrange to get a plaque placed for her friend "Joanie" as she called her. Joanie turned out to be Auxiliary Firewoman Joan Ridd, who lost her life whilst serving at Ricardo Street School, as the school on the Lansbury Lawrence site was then called, on 1 November 1940.
Cis, Joan and another young lady named Hilda Dupree, were best friends from Poplar who decided to join the Auxiliary Fire Service in 1939. Hilda was to sadly lose her life at the Old Palace School in Poplar when this was bombed on the night of 19/20 April 1941 in what was to prove to be the largest single loss of Fire Service personnel in our history. Cis had seen this plaque and rightly wished for her other AFS friend to be duly honoured.
|Old Palace School plaque (author's photo)|
Once the connection became established, it was only a matter of time for the new plaque honouring Joan and her colleagues who perished with her on that November night, then almost eighty years ago. In July 2006, the plaque was unveiled at the school with Cis in attendance but as mentioned at the start of this piece, the plaque then went into storage until such time as it could be permanently displayed once the refurbishment of the school had been completed. Sadly, Cis was to pass away just two months after the original unveiling and so did not live to see her friend "Joanie" and her colleagues honoured but I'm sure that she would have been very pleased.
|Cis Keefe (to right of plaque) at the original unveiling in July 2006 (Firemen Remembered)|
Joan Ridd was a local Poplar girl, born in 1920 and worked at Hope Brothers in Ludgate Hill, a clothing shop that specialised in school uniforms but on joining the AFS, she was posted to Ricardo Street School, which like many such school premises in London, whose pupils had been evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside, had been requisitioned by the Auxiliary Fire Service. In this case, the school became known as Station 24Z and was under the control of Brunswick Road Fire Station, in "C" District of the London Fire Brigade.
|Joan Ridd (Firemen Remembered)|
Joan's duties would have been as a telephonist and as such, on the night of 1/2 November 1940, she was on duty at the station, together with many of her male colleagues. The school was devastated when it was struck by a high explosive bomb, which trapped many of those inside the building. Some were freed but sadly, Joan and four of her male colleagues were killed.
|LCC Bomb Damage map for the Ricardo Street area (author's image)|
As well as the damage to the school buildings, the entire area was to be ravaged by the Blitz and the subsequent V-Weapons campaign of 1944/45 and in the years immediately after the war, the entire area was cleared to make room for the Lansbury Estate, intended to be a showpiece built by the then London County Council to show what could be achieved when areas destroyed by the Blitz were redeveloped. The estate was built on the philosophy that it should comprise distinct neighbourhoods, rather than a bland "one size fits all" approach and contain everything within a neighbourhood that a community required - flats, housing, churches, schools, pubs, open spaces, shops and a covered market. The estate deliberately eschewed high-rise blocks and sought to retain the community feel of the old East End that it replaced, using many traditional materials such as the distinctive clay-coloured London Stock bricks and Welsh slate. Many of the new buildings were the work of architects such as Frederick Gibberd, who created the covered Chrisp Street Market and Adrian Gilbert Scott, whose St Mary and Joseph Roman Catholic Church is now listed Grade II by English Heritage.
|FBU Plaque at Lansbury Lawrence School (author's image)|
The informal but still very moving ceremony on 1 November was attended by pupils from the present day Lansbury Lawrence School, as well as member of the family of Fireman Arthur Wenborne, another of those who died here in 1940. Arthur lived close by in Brabazon Street and in peacetime worked for a furniture supply company. Also in attendance were re-enactors Neil Bloxham and Dave Porter, as well as modern firefighters from Bow Fire Station and representatives of the Fire Brigade Union, who had also placed a memorial plaque at the site. Another guest was historian Peter Quilter, whose grandfather Ernie Quilter had served in the London Fire Brigade from 1919 to 1948, initially at Bow and subsequently as a Divisional Officer at Brunswick Road Fire Station. Peter had researched the history of those who died here in 1940 and in addition to Joan and Arthur, told us about Walter Hart, born in Hackney in 1914, whose father had died during the Great War. Frank Wingfield was another local lad from Bow and Ernest Hyde had lived very close by in Ettrick Street.
|Neil Bloxham & Dave Porter in their 1940s uniforms (author's image)|
Peter explained to the children present that these stories needed to be told and that be passing them on to the children, they were now their stories to tell and to likewise keep alive. Readings from the pupils then followed, as did some excellent questions from them. Our two re-enactors then explained something about the 1940s uniforms that they were wearing, which differ greatly from those worn by modern firefighters, many of whom took a great interest in the clothing that their counterparts from eighty years ago would have worn.
|Members of Arthur Wenlock's family in front of the plaque together with Stephanie Maltman (second from right) and Peter Quilter (right) (author's image)|
|Firefighters old and new, together with FBU representatives (author's image)|
The ceremony closed with some comments from Mr Owen O'Regan, the Head Teacher of Lansbury Lawrence School, who spoke of his genuine interest in this aspect of the school's history and who assured all those present that the memories of those who died here would be cherished and remembered so that future generations would continue to learn of them.
Please note that all of the colour images in this piece are the property of the author and they may not be reproduced under any circumstances without the express written permission of the author.
|The Invicta Road plaque remembrance ceremony in 2018 (author's photograph)|
Since taking up guiding some twelve years ago, I have met some delightful people who have helped and encouraged me and frequently collaborated on various projects. One of my very earliest such contacts was Stephanie Maltman, the moving force behind the Firemen Remembered charity, an independent organisation that is dedicated to recording and remembering those firemen and women who served in the London Civil Defence Region during the Second World War and which commemorates those who died whilst serving.
Observant Londoners will have spotted the distinctive white, oval shaped plaques at various locations across the capital upon which the names of firemen and firewomen (the rank of "Firefighter" was not introduced until the late 1980s) are recorded, sometimes along with the names of other Civil Defence workers who died alongside them. Thanks to Stephanie, I have been fortunate enough to have been invited to a number of unveiling and dedication ceremonies of new plaques and on one occasion, worked with her to get a plaque installed at Invicta Road School, the scene of a tragic loss of fire service lives in November 1940.
The most recent plaque to be installed was of necessity, unveiled without ceremony due to Covid restrictions in 2020 but commemorates seven Auxiliary Fire Service members who died at the former Jackson & Allum's Garage at Rathbone Street, in the area of London's West End that we now know as Fitzrovia. The garage was then in use as an annexe of AFS sub-fire station 72Z but on 17 September 1940, received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb that killed the seven firemen, as well as nineteen civilians who were using the basement as a shelter.
|Firemen Remembered plaque at 7-9 Rathbone Street, London W1 (author's photograph)|
However, as the plaque informs us, apart from the tragic loss of life, Jackson's Garage was the scene of an act of great bravery that saw the only George Cross awarded to Harry Errington, the only member of the London Fire Service to be so awarded during the Second World War.
Harry Errington was born on 20 August 1910 in a small, two roomed flat at 47 Poland Street, Westminster. He was one of four children born to Yiddish speaking, Jewish immigrants from Poland, Solomon and Bella Ehrengott, who were tailors originally from Lubartov, near Lublin. They had come to England in 1908 in order to flee the pogroms and had changed their name to Errington shortly before Harry's birth. He was educated at the Jewish Free School in Westminster and had vague memories of the Zeppelin raids of the First World War, when with his school friends, he remembered collecting pieces of shrapnel from the streets after each raid.
Upon leaving school, Harry initially trained as an engraver but the fumes from the nitric acid used in the process affected his chest and so instead, he went to trade school and became a tailor working for his uncle in Savile Row. His job at this time was to take finished articles of clothing to other Savile Row shops and bring back other work for his uncle. After completing his training as a cutter, he got his first job with a famous Dutch tailor called Sholti but as soon as he discovered that Harry was Jewish, sacked him in a move that would be illegal today but was typical of the widespread anti-Semitism of the time.
|The site of Jackson's Garage in 2018 (author's photograph)|
Harry eventually obtained another job in 1936 with the famous tailors Simpsons of Piccadilly but in August 1939, three weeks before the declaration of war, he volunteered to join the AFS full time, along with three friends at Shaftesbury Avenue Fire Station. Harry was highly motivated in his desire to help defend his local neighbourhood, as he had numerous relatives still living in Poland, all of whom he later learned were murdered in the Holocaust.
His first base was at his former school at Hanway Place, which was the main Station 72Z and as this was during the period known as the "Phoney War", they saw little action and were able to concentrate on training. Harry and his crew of four had the typical equipment of the time - a requisitioned taxi and a trailer pump. Harry recalled that morale was high and that as they had several chefs amongst their number from West End restaurants, the food was excellent.
In early 1940, he was transferred to Jackson & Allum's garage in Rathbone Street, which for Harry was a bonus as it meant that he could now walk to work from his home in Poland Street. This station had five crews and larger purpose built wagons for towing the trailer pumps. One of the main raisons d'etre of the AFS was to act as a mobile reserve to reinforce other areas and on the first night of the Blitz, 7 September 1940, Harry and his colleagues found themselves tackling fires a long way from their usual "manor" in places as far-flung as the Surrey Docks, Peckham, Camberwell and the Woolwich Arsenal.
On 17 September 1940, Harry and some twenty colleagues were awaiting their next "shout" in the basement of Jackson's Garage, along with around thirty members of the public who were sheltering there. At 00:14, the floors above crashed into the basement as the building received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb. The garage petrol store was also located above the basement and the burning fuel created a fireball that swept through the basement. Harry was blown across the floor and knocked unconscious but quickly awoke to find himself unhurt but stunned. The cellar was burning and smoke-filled and although the main exit was blocked, he was able to make his way to the emergency exit but on his way, heard screams for help; he saw his friend John Hollingshead laying face down in great pain with his legs trapped by masonry. Without hesitation, Harry found a blanket and placed it over his head to try and get a measure of protection from the flames and returned to help his friend.
|Harry Errington GC (author's collection)|
Harry was able to scrape away and lift the rubble with his bare hands, seriously burning and cutting them in the process. Freeing Hollingshead, he then carried him out into the street but on his way, noticed another friend, John Terry, trapped beneath a heavy radiator. Having taken Hollingshead to safety, Harry then returned into the burning basement, by then in danger of imminent collapse and freed Terr, dragging him out of the building.
Harry was by this time in serious pain from his cut and burned hands, which he must have surely known could end his peacetime livelihood. The injured men, including Harry were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital for treatment but later transferred to the relative safety of a hospital in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. It was whilst recovering here that he recalled being given copious supplies of beer, courtesy of some Canadian soldiers who were also patients here. The Canadians didn't think much of English beer and so were happy to give it away to the English firemen!
Harry was eventually discharged by the AFS as his wounds failed to heal in the thirteen weeks allowed by the Civil Injuries Act and as his parents had moved to Bromsgrove, near Birmingham, he moved there and got a job working at Austin Aero, which manufactured Lancaster bombers. He also attempted to join the Army at this time but was refused as medically unfit due to his injured hands. Harry later re-joined the now-nationalised National Fire Service in Bromsgrove as a part-timer and remained with them until the end of the war.
Harry's George Cross was gazetted on 8 August 1941 based on the recommendation of Hollingshead and Terry, the two men he had rescued, who had reported his actions to a senior officer. Despite his injuries (he had third degree burns to his hands and arms), Harry had modestly not mentioned his act of rescue to his superiors. His GC was awarded to him in October 1942 by the King in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
After the war, Harry returned to Simpsons but eventually established his own tailoring business, Errington & Whyte in Sackville Street, which he ran until his retirement in 1992. In his youth, he had been a keen basketball player and after the war coached the Regent Street Polytechnic team and later still became Vice Chairman of the UK Amateur Basketball Association. He was heavily involved with the Great Britain basketball team at the 1948 London Olympics and travelled around the world with the British team. Harry was also an active member of AJEX - the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen, which have also placed a plaque in Harry's memory at Rathbone Street.
|AJEX plaque honouring Harry at Rathbone Street (author's photograph)|
Stephanie Maltman, who met Harry on several occasions, describes him as having been a "gentle and self-effacing" man. In his retirement, Harry was a welcome visitor to Soho Fire Station in Shaftesbury Avenue, who gave him a splendid 90th birthday party in 2000 and he was particularly honoured to have a road named after him at the Fire Services College at Morton-in-Marsh.
In 2002, Harry became a resident of the Nightingale Jewish Old Age Home in Wandsworth and died in 2004 at the age of 94, His medals are now on display at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town, having been gifted by his family.
|The steps to safety (author's photo)|
|The Gas-tight entrance or Gasschleuse (author's photo)|
|This is Wichernsweg in 1940 - the shelter entrance was to the left of the church (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)|
Elderly male shelterers pass the time with a card game (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)
|The Shelter Wardens' Area (author's photograph)|
|Re-creation of how shelterers' luggage was stored (author's photo)|
|The Air Filter with the only two bunk beds visible in the background and the toilet behind them. The emergency exit is at the far end of this area (author's photo)|
|Knives and Forks suffered the same fate in the heat (author's photo)|
|A large piece of shrapnel from a British bomb (author's photo)|