Thursday 18 February 2016

The Tide of Change

Enderby's Wharf 1946 (Dave Wood @liverpoolimages)

Whilst browsing through Twitter the other evening, I came across a photo posted by Dave Wood of the Greenwich Riverside in 1946. More precisely, the photo features the old Telcon Works at Enderby's Wharf, which is nowadays the proposed site of a Cruise Ship Terminal, which would have been unimaginable in those days when London was a working, industrial city. It shows a glimpse of a busier and more industrialised Thames than we are now accustomed to as well as a fascinating panorama of part of the Greenwich Peninsula in the immediate post-war era, when the scars of the Blitz were fresh, both on the ground and no doubt in the memories of those who had experienced it first-hand.

The Telcon Works runs vertically almost along the dead centre of the photograph but a closer look at the image reveals bomb damage in the form of large gaps in the terraced housing, freshly repaired roofs and even from the air, the look of general decay, as well as large areas which were soon to fall under the demolition ball for industrial use and later for the construction of the A012 Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach.

The excellent Greenwich Heritage Centre has the LCC Bomb Damage Maps for the area and checking the 1946 photo against the relevant map, we can see that it is quite easy to match up the damage on the map with many of the scars on the photo.

The corresponding portion of the Bomb Damage Map (author's image from original held at Greenwich Heritage Centre)

The road running diagonally across the top left hand corner of the photograph is Tunnel Avenue and whilst this road is still largely extant, much of it has been swallowed and overshadowed by the A102. The houses at the top of the map are shaded in orange, which according to the colour coding system in use for them, indicates that the damage incurred was "General Blast Damage - Not Structural" and which would have been relatively easy to repair. Looking at the Civil Defence Incident Logs for the area, it is difficult to ascertain exactly when this damage occurred, given the frequency of the attacks on this part of Greenwich but given the fact that there is a large circle indicating a V-1 Flying Bomb hit, with the smaller circle of a V-2 nearby, it is possible that this was the blast from one, or both, of these weapons. The V-1 involved was the very first one to fall on the borough, indeed one of the first to fall on London - on 16th June 1944, whereas the V-2 concerned was the penultimate rocket to fall on Greenwich, on 9th March 1945, just two months before the end of the war in Europe. No casualties were reported for either incident, falling as they did on largely open ground.

The only other V-1 affecting the area shown in the photograph fell at the extreme bottom left hand corner of the image and was a far more serious affair. This occurred at 19:40 on 29th July 1944 and was reported as falling on the 'Towpath' near the 'Sea Witch' Public House in Morden Wharf Road. This resulted in two fatal casualties, 18 year old Ernest Tinton of Grenada Road, Charlton and Walter Saveall, 39 from nearby Azof Street. Interestingly, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission report Saveall as being a member of the Home Guard but it is unclear whether or not he was on duty at the time of his death. Nine others were sufficiently badly injured to be taken to St Alfege's Hospital. The area was, as could be expected, devastated by the blast and as well as the human casualties, the 'Sea Witch' pub, was lost forever. Local Historian Mary Mills wrote about the pub in her excellent Greenwich Peninsula History blog in 2013 and as she points out, had the pub survived, it would doubtless nowadays be enjoying a new lease of life given the prime location it once occupied.

The two roads running parallel to the Telcon Works are Mauritius Road and Azof Street. Nearly every property in these two roads seems to have been affected in some way. Most of the damage is marked in yellow, which means "Blast Damage - Minor in Nature", although there are some buildings shaded in light red indicating "Seriously Damaged - Repairable at Cost." The buildings do appear to be still standing in the 1946 photograph but it is difficult to see what sort of condition they are in, although in 2016, there are newer properties at this location on the map. In common with the entire locality, the area received the attention of the Luftwaffe on a regular basis during the Blitz, doubtless because of its proximity to the various industries strung out along the Thames. Most notably, the area attracted a large number of Incendiary Bombs during September and October 1940. Most of these were efficiently dealt with by ARP Wardens, the Auxiliary Fire Service and occasionally by members of the public defending their own homes but 14 Azof Street was reported as being damaged by fire on 11th September 1940, as was 63 Mauritius Road later in the Blitz, on 19th April 1941, when one of the occupants had to be treated at hospital. By this stage of the Blitz, the area seemed to be attracting High Explosive Bombs in the vicinity and whilst no direct hits are reported, number 80 Azof Street was seriously damaged on 1st November 1940 by such a bomb and the blast from similar weapons falling nearby was no doubt responsible for the lesser damage to the other properties in these two roads.

Enderby's Wharf in 2016 (Google Maps)

The road leading off to the right of Azof Street is Bellot Street, named after Joseph Bellot, the French Arctic explorer, who perished in mysterious circumstances in 1853 whilst searching for Sir John Franklin, who had disappeared on his own expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. This road, like the eponymous explorer, is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. A close look at the 1946 photograph clearly shows some fairly catastrophic bomb damage, with 'prefabs' or some other type of temporary buildings appearing in the gaps left by the demolished houses. The Bomb Damage Map confirms this by showing several properties shaded in black, meaning "Total Destruction" and yet on the Incident Log, Bellot Street features only once, on 14th March 1944, with the explosion of an Anti-Aircraft Shell. Such an explosion could not possibly have caused the demolition of what looks on the map like 39 properties but nothing is mentioned. This level of damage could only realistically have been caused by either a Parachute Mine, or by a V-1 or V-2 weapon. The Incident Logs are usually a pretty good indicator of when and where bombs fell but just occasionally, being written up in the heat of the moment, things can go off the rails and this seems to be a case in point. One possible answer to the mystery lies on 9th September 1940 when an Unexploded Bomb is reported in Christchurch Way which is the road running parallel and beneath Bellot Street on the map. No further mention is made of this bomb, whether it was defused, or whether it subsequently exploded. This lack of further information might suggest that an error was made in the initial entry and that the UXB was in fact, in Bellot Street and that it did indeed explode. The only other possibility was the Parachute Mine that fell in the vicinity on 29th December 1940 and is reported as 'Dyson House, Ship & Billet P.H. and 28 Commerell Street.' This spreads the net pretty widely but seeing as the majority of the fatalities emanated from Dyson House (10 from this location), it does seem unlikely that the blast affected Bellot Street whilst leaving buildings in between still standing. We shall possibly never know the answer but the former of the two theories put forward seems the most plausible.
Christchurch Way is the road running at the bottom of Mauritius Road and Azof Street and shows some fairly serious damage on the map, with a long stretch in light red "Seriously Damaged - Repairable at Cost", with similar levels of damage in adjoining Derwent Street, along with some black "Total Destruction" and an area of green indicating a "Clearance Area." As before, the damage in September and October 1940 seems to have been caused more by Incendiaries, with one report on 18th September 1940 stating that "every street in the district" was affected. It must have been a nightmarish scene for those attempting to fight the numerous fires lit by these innocuous looking but deadly bombs. A High Explosive bomb on 1st November 1940 caused serious damage at the Azof Street end of Christchurch Way, whereas a further HE on 17th September seems to be the culprit for the damage at the junction with Derwent Street. 

The roads running at the top of the 1946 photograph also suffered their fair share of damage. The thoroughfare running across the top of the Telcon Works and intersecting Tunnel Avenue is Blackwall Lane and the first road running off this immediately after the green space at Tunnel Avenue is Lenthorpe Road. There is a large empty space both in the photograph and also marked in black on the Bomb Map. This building was destroyed in the early hours of 19th September 1940 by a High Explosive bomb, which not only demolished the building but which ruptured the gas and water main supplies for the area. There was one casualty resulting from this incident but fortunately not a fatality. The next turning along is Glenister Road and it was here, on the  afternoon of 17th October 1940, that a more serious incident occurred. Another High Explosive bomb caused the destruction of numbers 27-35 Glenister Road as well as seriously damaging several others. The destruction is duly marked in black on the map as well as a large swathe of purple, indicating that these properties were "Damaged Beyond Repair." More serious was the human cost, with two fatal casualties, both of whom were children; Ronald Rose, 12 years old of 31 Glenister Road and 4 year old Ronald Finch of 19 Glenister Road. A further 14 people were seriously injured and taken to St Alfege's Hospital. Closer inspection of the 1946 photograph reveals the bomb damaged sites to have been cleared and replaced by Nissen Huts or similar temporary housing.

This part of Greenwich, in common with the rest of London, was to face many years of rebuilding war damage, so-called 'Slum Clearance', demolition due to the 1960s mania for road building and coming into the present day, more development due to that scourge of modern London - "Luxury Apartments." The Google Maps image, when compared to the 1946 photograph and the Bomb Damage Maps, show the Greenwich Peninsula vastly changed, although not perhaps totally out of all recognition to a 1940s resident who was transplanted into the area in 2016. Whether he or she would prefer the modern version has to remain a matter for conjecture!

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Logs 1939-45 - Greenwich Heritage Centre
LCC Bomb Damage Maps for Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich - Greenwich Heritage Centre
Internet Sources:

Sunday 7 February 2016

Book Review: Heavy Rescue Squad Work on The Isle of Dogs - Ann Regan-Atherton

Cover to the book - Bill Regan at front, extreme right (author's photo)

Christmas seems a long time ago now but during the Festive Season, several new books arrived at Blitzwalker Towers but only now am I beginning to make some headway with reading them. One excellent addition to my 'Home Front' library comes in the form of Heavy Rescue Squad Work on The Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan's Second World War Diaries, which were discovered by Bill's daughter Ann Regan-Atherton as they were on the verge of being thrown out - indeed Bill had already disposed of some pages. Being a History Graduate, Ann immediately recognised the importance of these diaries, not just as a family heirloom but as a document of wider historic value and originally transcribed them in the late 1980s. This latest version has been edited by local Island historians Con Maloney and Mick Lemmerman, whose recent book The Isle of Dogs During World War II was reviewed in an October 2015 edition of this blog.

Readers of MJ Gaskin's excellent book Blitz: The Story of 29th December 1940 will be familiar with the exploits of Bill Regan and his wife Vi, as their efforts in reaching home on the night of 'Second Great Fire of London' forms an integral part of her book.

Bill Regan was a bricklayer by trade but for the majority of the War, served in the Heavy Rescue Service, which like the majority of the various arms of the Civil Defence network, had been originally regarded by many members of the public during the 'Phoney War' period as a waste of space but with the onset of the Blitz, were now viewed as heroes by those same fickle members of the public. Bill was an intelligent man, widely read and whose inspiration for keeping a diary was Samuel Pepys, whose own journal he had borrowed from his local library. He was also a keen amateur self taught artist as well as an amateur photographer. 

This latter hobby also helps to illustrate this collection of Bill's diaries, as he took many photographs of the bomb damaged local area. This activity was strictly illegal in wartime and was punishable by up to three years in prison. It was ironic therefore, that his photos were developed by a friend who served in the Metropolitan Police!

Bill's Heavy Rescue Squad, like similar teams across the country, were trained to deal with bomb incidents where damage was serious enough to warrant using heavy lifting and excavating equipment in order to reach victims who were trapped in the debris. Like Bill, many of the Squad members were experienced in peacetime as civil engineers, carpenters and bricklayers as well as from other areas of the construction industry, where their knowledge was particularly valuable in understanding the layout and construction of buildings in order to work out the safest and quickest ways to reach trapped people. Like many others in the Civil Defence service, Bill's squad was based at a school vacated by the wartime evacuation of school children. Bill Regan's Squad was based at the former Millwall Central School in Janet Street on the Isle of Dogs.

The diary starts on 7th September 1940, 'Black Saturday' and the first day of the Blitz on London. The first 'rescue' for Bill's squad turned out to be in his own words 'a non-survivor' - an elderly man who was found still sitting in his armchair but totally embedded in rubble. Bill tells us in great detail about the work his squad undertook on that day and night as well as providing fascinating insights into the other events on the Island, such as the Anti Aircraft gun site in the area we now know as Mudchute (the remnants of which can still be seen incidentally). The Squad's subsequent rescues that day proved to be more successful, with people being evacuated alive from buried Anderson Shelters and into Rest Centres, although as Bill remarks in the diary, such was the noise "You would have to be stone deaf to rest in any kind of centre."

As well as accounts of the action during and after air raids, Bill's diary also tells of the more mundane facets of life in wartime London, such as the rare moments of leisure and time spent with his beloved wife Vi, as well as some more stressful and personal times in their relationship. There are also moments of humour such as the foul-mouthed (or beaked) parrot, discovered in a bombed out house on the Island. According to Bill, "It was well educated, and after preening itself, it gave a most wonderful recital of obscene language I have ever heard." You will have to buy the book to find out exactly what the parrot said!

Being a Greenwich boy, I was also interested to read many references to my own locality, including the damage to Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which although repaired, can still be seen to this day. Bill mentions the damage in his diary as well as the fact that during the period that the tunnel was closed, "Rowing boats from Greenwich are ferrying people across at 2 shillings (10p in today's money) a time." This seems quite a steep fee for the time and was presumably an unofficial arrangement by local opportunists.

Wartime damage repairs to Greenwich Foot Tunnel still apparent today (author's photo)

Arguably the saddest part of the diary also shows that despite becoming hardened to the worst that the Blitz could throw at him, Bill Regan's humanity remained intact in the aftermath of the bombing of Saunders Ness School, in use by the Auxiliary Fire Service and which was largely destroyed on the night of 18th September 1940 with great loss of life. It soon became clear that the majority of the work for Bill's Squad would be recovery of victims, rather than rescue and he writes with great tenderness of how he personally insisted on removing the bodies of two young AFS Firewomen who had been recovered some time after the actual incident. These two girls were quite unmarked, looking to all effects as if they were sleeping and Bill's account of how he gently removed the two girls is extremely moving. Bill later learned that the two girls were named Joan Bartlett, aged 18 and Violet Pengelly, aged 19. They had the same Christian names as his own daughters (as well as his wife, Vi) and this fact moved Bill to tears.

Memorial Plaque at Millwall Fire Station to Joan Bartlett and Violet Pengelly (author's photo)

From the violence of the First Blitz, Bill Regan's diary goes on to cover life on the Island during the relatively quiet years of 1942 and 1943 before covering the Little Blitz and the V-1 campaign of 1944. The diaries end rather abruptly in mid-August 1944 without covering the remaining part of the V-1 campaign and omitting the V-2 Rocket incidents and VE Day completely, so perhaps this is the portion of the diary that Bill had already disposed of when his daughter Ann discovered it.

Despite this minor disappointment, Ann Regan-Atherton, together with Mick Lemmerman and Con Maloney have produced a fascinating and invaluable record of life in wartime London and I highly recommend it to you. The book runs to 200 pages and is priced at a very reasonable £10.95, with all proceeds from sales being donated to the Friends of Island History Trust, which is a charitable trust run by local people who wish to preserve and record the local history of the Isle of Dogs.

Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs: Bill Regan's Second World War Diaries - Ann Regan-Atherton, editors Mick Lemmerman and Con Maloney - CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. ISBN 9781519610867