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.