Thursday 31 March 2011

They never closed (well not for long anyway)

'We never closed' was the motto of the Windmill Theatre situated in London's Soho. Famous for it's scantily clad and often nude tableaux, some Londoners changed this motto to 'We never clothed' but the truth is although The Windmill remained open throughout the worst of the Blitz, it did in common with the remainder of the nation's theatres, close for twelve days from 4th-12th September 1939 following a Government decree that affected all places of entertainment.

This decision, which seemed almost guaranteed to undermine the morale of the public and which was described at the time by George Bernard Shaw as "a masterstroke of unimaginative stupidity" was introduced by a nervous government seemingly in order to close down anything that could not be deemed essential to national life. Although churches were exempted, from this ruling, cinemas and theatres were closed immediately across the land. As with many things British, this edict was in fact, only a guideline issued by the government to local authorities and although they mostly fell into line, the town of Aberystwyth ignored it and allowed their cinemas to remain open. The real reason behind the ruling was that the government wanted to ban anything that could cause large gatherings of people with the potential consequences of bombs falling on such a gathering. When seen from this point of view, perhaps the decision of the government is easier to understand, although it still seems a panicky move which always seemed guaranteed to fail.

It wasn't just cinema and theatre that suffered either; professional sport suffered too. The 1939 cricket season had almost finished in any case and the touring West Indies side had hurriedly sailed for home on Saturday 26th August as the war clouds gathered. The remaining county matches were cancelled and it was to be the summer of 1946 before Test Cricket returned. The 1939-40 football season had only just started and this was cancelled by the Football League on 6th September after only a handful of matches had been played. Friendly matches were later allowed and later still, a league of sorts was introduced in which clubs were allowed to field 'guest players' from other clubs who were serving in the Armed Forces and stationed locally. There was also a 'War Cup' competition complete with a Wembley final which always attracted large crowds. Other sports which required floodlighting such as speedway and greyhound racing were doomed to fall prey to the Blackout and the phrase 'cancelled for the duration' soon crept into the vocabulary of the public. London Zoo and Kew Gardens were also victims of the policy, although both were soon open again, with the Zoo in particular being very popular with visitors - 1.6 million in 1943 alone.

The public soon became restless with this policy and as a result, one of the few British institutions to flourish during the war were the pubs. It would have been a foolish government indeed that tried to close down these generally cheerful places of escape for the public. The general ban on entertainment couldn't last and the cinemas and theatres re-opened from 12th September, in the outer suburbs of London at first and then grudgingly for the inner London venues three days later on 15th September.

Concerts had also fallen foul of the ban but these too resumed, although many of the orchestras suffered through losing members to the call-up. The Queens Hall in Langham Place, itself later to become a victim of the Blitz, re-opened by hosting the London Symphony Orchestra on 24th September 1939, with pianist Myra Hess (pictured) as soloist and it was Hess who was soon to provide some of the cultural highlights of wartime London.

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square had lost it's collection of paintings to the safety of a disused slate quarry in North Wales and had thus become a largely vacant space. Myra Hess made a proposal to the Director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark that she play a lunchtime concert there. His reply was to insist that she should play every day and although this was clearly not practical, she agreed to organise a series of concerts in which she would play whenever possible. The first concert was barely publicised but despite this, the queues to enter soon stretched all the way along the north side of Trafalgar Square. These lunchtime concerts became a wartime institution for Londoners and visitors to the capital, with Myra Hess performing in over 250 of the 1,698 concerts that she arranged during six years of the war. Neither were these concerts exclusively for the 'high brow'; soldiers and ARP Wardens rubbed shoulders with intellectuals and Cabinet Ministers and despite being initially limited to an audience of 200, this was frequently overlooked and often crowds of 1,000 plus managed to squeeze into the Gallery. For this contribution to maintaining the morale of the British public, Myra Hess was created a Dame of the British Empire by King George VI in 1941.

Apart from these pursuits, the overwhelming desire of many Londoners was to head for the dance halls. Venues like the Streatham Locarno, Hammersmith Palais and the Paramount Tottenham Court Road reported crowds well above the pre-war averages. There were more dance bands playing than ever before and even the smallest restaurants felt it necessary to employ musicians.

It was inevitable that with these gatherings and the coming of the Blitz in 1940/41, tragedies would ensue and sure enough on the 8th March 1941, the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street was struck by two bombs which killed eighty people. In a stroke of irony this restaurant, which was located twenty feet below ground, had billed itself as 'London's safest restaurant' but this shield of concrete was not enough to save it from the direct hits of the German bombs and when the rescue workers arrived they found a scene of utter carnage. The bandleader, Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson had been decapitated and diners were still sitting dead at their tables. To make matters worse, looters were mingling with the rescue workers and reportedly cutting the fingers off the dead in order to steal the expensive rings that some were wearing.

Attendances fell away for a while during the height of the Blitz and again during the Terror Weapons campaign of 1944-45 but always quickly picked up again. Civilians needed diversions from the routine of wartime life and service personnel on leave needed reminders of what civilian life was like and indeed a reminder of what they were fighting for.

Life continued and even during air raid warnings, the cinemas and theatres carried on regardless. Perhaps we should close with this message that was displayed to customers entering London's Adelphi Theatre. The gist of the message was repeated in cinemas and theatres across the country but for sheer 'stiff upper lip' this takes some beating:

'When an Air Raid Warning is received, you will be informed from the stage. Those wishing to leave will have seven minutes to find shelter. For those desiring to remain, the show will go on. Walk, not run to the exits. Do not panic. REMEMBER YOU ARE BRITISH.'

As they say in showbusiness - 'follow that!'

Published Sources: Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 1971
London at War - Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson 1995

The Lost Seasons; Cricket in Wartime 1939-45 - Eric Midwinter, Methuen 1987

Friday 18 March 2011

Saving an Icon: The St Paul's Watch and a Flawed Hero

Probably everyone today is aware of Herbert Mason's iconic photograph of St Paul's Cathedral standing proudly and seemingly untouched amid a sea of smoke and flame on the 29th/30th December 1940, the night that became known as the Second Great Fire of London. This photograph was circulated around the World and became a symbol of the British people's defiance against the Nazi hordes waiting across the Channel.

The truth is that far from being undamaged, the famous old cathedral did in fact sustain quite serious damage on a number of occasions during the War and on the night that Mason's photograph was taken, came within a whisker of joining the ten Wren churches destroyed within the Square Mile on that fateful night. Let us therefore tell the story of St Paul's Cathedral during the War and of those individuals who ensured the survival of Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece.

During The Great War, the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's had formed the St Paul's Watch in order to guard the Cathedral against German air attacks, which in those days came from the giant airships colloquially known as Zeppelins and the Gotha biplane bombers. In that conflict, the Cathedral had survived unscathed and the Watch had been disbanded in 1918. In 1939, the Watch was reformed as a dedicated team of three hundred fire watchers and fire fighters formed mainly from the Cathedral's own staff but augmented by members of RIBA - the Royal Institute of British Architects - including the future Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman. About forty of the Watch were on duty at any one time, with more being drafted in during air raids. On the night of the 29th/30th December, it was estimated that some eight hundred incendiaries fell on and around the Cathedral, all of which were successfully dealt with by the Watch - all except for one rogue bomb which lodged in the lead covering of the Dome. This bomb was too high for those stationed on the Stone Gallery to reach and too far down for the members stationed on the Ball high above street level. As the incendiary fizzled and burst into life, the onlookers could only watch helplessly and pray that somehow the bomb would not fall into the Dome and ignite the timber framework that supported the whole structure, for if this were to happen then the Cathedral was certain to burn like the rest of the City, leaving just a shell. Just as things were looking desperate, either a miracle or a result of gravity occurred, depending on one's point of view and the bomb fell outward, bounced down the side of the Dome and landed on the Stone Gallery where it was pounced upon by members of the St Paul's Watch and quickly extinguished.

The St Paul's Watch was disbanded once again after the war but was reformed once again in 1952 when it was renamed The Friends of St Pauls who today sell guidebooks and assist visitors to the Cathedral.

Even at this relatively early stage of The Blitz, this wasn't the first time that St Paul's had come close to destruction; this had happened just five days into The Blitz, on September 12th 1940 when a tale of bravery and heroism unfolded that ensured the Cathedral's survival but which would ultimately end in disgrace for one of the participants. During this particular raid, a 1,000 kg Delayed Action Bomb fell in the Dean's Yard and buried itself into the cloying London clay. At this time, the Bomb Disposal Squads did not have the means to defuse this type of bomb and the usual tactic was to evacuate the area and let the bomb explode, which usually happened within 72 hours. With St Paul's however, this was not an option; Winston Churchill had decreed that certain buildings were to be saved at all costs and St Paul's was one of them. So it was that Lieutenant Robert Davies and his team of three 'sappers' from the Royal Engineers arrived at the scene and began digging down to reach the bomb. It wasn't a simple matter though - the London clay was wet and the more the men dug, the deeper the bomb seemed to settle in the clay; so much so that by the time the team reached the bomb, it was thirty feet beneath the surface and to compound matters, fumes from a leaking gas main had overcome two of Davies's men and then to make matters even worse, the gas then ignited and the men had to retreat whilst the Gas Board turned off the supply. All of this wasted precious time but work was eventually able to resume and after the painstaking digging, Davies and his remaining assistant Sapper George Wylie, attached a steel hawser around the bomb and attached it to the winch on their truck and began hauling the monster to the surface. A short way into the process, the hawser snapped and the bomb slid slowly back into the clay. A second attempt ended the same way but with the third lift, the men succeeded in bringing the deadly bomb to the surface and it was at this point that Lieutenant Davies personified the phrase 'above and beyond the call of duty' by insisting that his men had faced enough danger and once the bomb was loaded onto the truck, he drove it alone to Hackney Marshes, where it was detonated, leaving a crater one hundred feet across. For their actions in clearing this bomb and undoubtedly saving St Pauls, Lieutenant Davies was awarded the George Cross, as was Sapper Wylie. The other members of the team Sergeant James Wilson and Corporal Herbert Leigh were awarded the British Empire Medal.

Lieutenant Davies's story was an interesting one, which after the award of his George Cross ended in ignominy and disgrace. Born in 1899 in Cornwall, he had emigrated to Canada at a young age and had served in the Canadian Army during the Great War. He had returned to this country shortly before the outbreak of war and had enlisted in the Royal Engineers, becoming a Bomb Disposal expert. Despite his undoubted bravery, Davies's fall from grace was rapid. In 1942, he was charged with and found guilty on multiple counts of Fraudulent Behaviour and Improper Use of Government Materials and Manpower for Personal Enrichment. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment but was released after serving six months and cashiered from the Army. In 1950, he emigrated to Australia, presumably to try and make a fresh start but cut a sad figure wearing medals for campaigns he could not possibly have served in due to his serving his prison sentence and subsequent dismissal from the Army. Davies died in Australia in 1975, aged 74.

The Cathedral was struck again on the night of 16th/17th April 1941, this time by a bomb that exploded, when a 250 kg High Explosive device pierced the roof and exploded on the High Altar, which was destroyed but mercifully without loss of life. This damage although serious, was not irrepairable but without the actions of the St Pauls Watch and of Lieutenant Robert Davies and his team coping with the earlier incidents, it could all have been so much worse.

Published Sources:

Blitz - MJ Gaskin - Faber & Faber, 2005
The City Ablaze - David Johnson - William Kimber, 1980
The Times - London, September 15th 2010