Monday 18 April 2016

Richard Hannaway, Bill Watson and the unknown Baby - a story of The London Blitz

The Daily Mirror headline from 9th September 1940 (Kay Evison)

One of the more gratifying aspects of writing this blog is receiving feedback from around the globe and learning about hitherto unknown or forgotten aspects of the Blitz and the Second World War from relatives of the people involved. In the past, I have heard from readers in the USA, Australia, South Africa and Canada, as well of course, from closer to home here in the United Kingdom.

The latest correspondence came via our Facebook page and was from Kay Evison in New Zealand and read as follows:

"Hi there I am new to this group and I am doing some research on my grandfather who was an ARP hero during the Blitz.

I now know my grandfather lived in 34 Pigott Street, Limehouse, for about 5 year from 1936 until 1940 and was an Air Raid Warden. His name was William Watson (which wasn't his real name) and he was in his 40's when she first met him. My grandmother would have been about 19 at
the time she first met him, ironically he deserted her before she had her baby in 1935 (my father, he was adopted by his grandmother in Bristol.) My grandmother then went on to work as a short hand typist at the Lewisham NAAFI to help support her family. I have for some time now been trying to find out more about my grandfather as this was the biggest family secret ever and anyone who knew anything has now passed on. I would like to find out his nationality and date of birth to further my research, I couldn't find him on the 1939 register although I found details of him on the Electoral rolls. (I have located the relatives of the boy Richard Hannaway in the story and the attached newspaper clipping has been passed onto his relatives (he died in 2012) and hope to hear more from them. His family lived in 33 Pigott Street.

I would love to hear from anyone who recognises which street the birth occurred in as I would love to find the child of the lady in the cutting but she was only recorded as Mrs R Foster. Her husband was also an ARP Warden."

The newspaper cutting from the Daily Mirror is reproduced above, courtesy of Kay and the story makes remarkable reading. Given the date of the cutting, 9th September 1940, one can easily surmise that the incident took place on the night of 'Black Saturday' 7th September 1940 - the first night of the London Blitz, when the East End bore the brunt of the bombing which killed 448 Londoners and left large areas of East and Southeast London in ruins.

Rose (we are not certain of her first name) Foster was heavily pregnant and in bed when the raid started. She was waiting for an ambulance to take her to hospital but the raid developed and she found herself stranded in bed about to give birth. One of the puzzles from this story is exactly where was she located? 

The location of the horse trough circled - Pigott Street runs to top right of the map (Mick Lemmerman)

There is someone by the name of R Foster mentioned on the Electoral Register but she was located a tidy distance away in Milward Street, close to the London Hospital. We know that Richard Hannaway, the little boy mentioned in the article, lived at 33 Pigott Street, opposite Bill Watson at number 34 and was bringing water from a nearby horse trough in order to wash the baby.

The location of the horse trough was located courtesy of a brilliant piece of local detective work by another follower of the blog, the author  and Isle of Dogs historian Mick Lemmerman, two of whose books on the Blitz have been reviewed here in October 2015 and February of this year. Mick worked out the location of the horse trough as being in the middle of Commercial Road at the junction with West India Dock Road as he recognized the public loos seen in the photograph!

From that piece of deduction, we now know that young Richard had run to the end of Pigott Street to the horse trough in Commercial Road; a relatively short distance but considering the fact that bombs would have been falling and shrapnel flying through the air, this was an incredibly brave act for anyone under fire, let alone a thirteen year old boy.

The extract from the Daily Mirror tells us that despite "never having done anything like this before" Bill brought the baby girl safely into the world and that she and her mother were both doing fine.

The article also mentions a bomb falling about eighty yards from the house which actually blew off the roof. A check of the LCC Bomb Map for Pigott Street reveals that it suffered from what looks like at least one direct hit and that several properties were destroyed as well as more that were seriously damaged. Amongst those properties seriously damaged was Richard Hannaway's house at number 33 (immediately to the right of the church in Pigott Street) as was Bill Watson's house directly opposite. Could it be that Rose Foster was visiting or living with Richard's parents when she went into labour?

The Bomb Damage Map for Pigott Street (Author's image)

It sort of adds up - perhaps Richard Hannaway was sent out by his Mum to get water to boil for the soon to be born baby and encountered his neighbour 'Uncle Bill' Watson and enlisted his help. Sadly, Richard passed away in 2012 and so far, Kay has been unable to trace the family of Rose Foster or to ascertain whether the baby is still alive, which given that she would now be 75, is quite possible.

Kay is also anxious to learn more about her Grandfather Bill Watson, who appears to have had something of a mysterious past. As can be seen from Kay's original communication, William Watson wasn't his real name and his nationality was also something of a mystery, although he was obviously an accepted part of his local community, being known as 'Uncle Bill' to all the local children.

Hopefully, one of our many readers around the world can throw some more light on this puzzle - it would be wonderful if a member of the Foster family could read this, or perhaps someone who knew or was related to Bill Watson. The power of the internet is remarkable, so we live in hope!

I am indebted to Kay Evison for contacting me and also to Mick Lemmerman for his local knowledge and insights into the area's social history.