Sunday 21 November 2021

Honouring our wartime firefighters

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.