Saturday 31 December 2022

Grenfell Road - a previous tragedy

It is probable that most people around the world will be aware of the tragedy that befell the residents of Grenfell Tower in 2017 but fewer will know the area in which the 1974-built block is located. Grenfell Road, on which the tower stands, is today part of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, a product of the reorganisation of London's local government in 1965. Prior to this date, Grenfell Road had formed part of the Metropolitan Borough of Kensington, a solidly working class area known as Notting Dale and as we can see from the extract from the 1939 A to Z atlas, a warren of smaller roads running to the east of Latimer Road Station, which was then part of the Hammersmith & City Branch of the Metropolitan Line.

The impact area (arrowed) on the 1939 A to Z (author's image)

As Christmas 1944 approached, the war-weary residents of the area, along with all Londoners were hoping for a quiet Christmas and perhaps had begun to have thoughts about the end of the war in Europe being on the distant horizon. Since September 1944, London had been under attack from the latest of Hitler's vengeance weapons, the V-2 rocket but on the evening of 12 December 1944, the residents of Notting Dale were hoping for a peaceful night - there had been no nearby incidents since 6 December, when the "Red Lion" pub in Marylebone had been destroyed by a direct hit but at 22:40, the silence was shattered by an explosion in the area between Treadgold Street, Lancaster Street and Grenfell Road.

As was usual with these weapons, destruction was widespread and not limited to the immediate area of impact. As we can see from the extract reproduced below from the LCC Bomb Survey, many buildings were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable but remarkably, just two people lost their lives in the incident; 61-year-old Edith Bryant of 21 Grenfell Road and 39-year-old Edith Ryell of 9 Grenfell Road. The BC4 report held at the National Archives in Kew informs us that 30 people were seriously injured, with another 20 "lesser injuries". The missile had been fired just minutes earlier from Battery 444 at Scheveningen, in the Netherlands and was one of ten fired by this particular battery on the day and one of twenty two in total fired on that day.

Extract from BC4 Report held at the UK National Archives (HO198/106)

The National Archive file connected with this incident also contains some useful sketch maps and photographs, with which it is possible to compare some of the views with a "then and now" perspective, although such was the level of damage incurred not only as a result of this incident but also due to earlier damage in the Blitz, that when the London County Council began the post-war redevelopment of the area, the local geography of the road network was changed, further compounded by the construction of the Westway in the 1960s and 70s, which submerged many of the roads in the north of the area seen on the 1939 map.

The 1944 map drawn immediately after the incident (HO198/106)

Google Maps view of the comparable area today (author's screen grab)

We can see above some of the changes on the geography by comparing the BC4 map drawn immediately after the incident, with the Google Maps view of the comparable area today. For example, Lancaster Road no longer exists, apart from a short section of it which has now been renamed Whitchurch Road and Grenfell Road today continues north on a new alignment, crossing the site of Lancaster Road, at the end of which lies the ill-fated Grenfell Tower.

Photograph Plot from BC4 Report (HO198/106)

There is also a useful map in the file which references where each of the bomb survey photographs were taken and using this map, it is fairly easy to use Streetview to take a comparable view of the same scene today. In the first comparison shots below, we see image #1, which is the view from Bomore Road, looking towards Grenfell Road, compared with the similar view today.

This is image #1 from 1944 looking from Bomore Road towards Grenfell Road (HO198/106)

The same view taken in 2020 (author's screen grab from Google Streetview)

Whilst in the views below, we see 1944 images #3 and #4 which show Treadgold Street forking off to the right, with Grenfell Road bearing left. The modern image has been incorrectly labelled Barandon Walk by Google Maps, when this is actually a public walkway in the Lancaster West Estate which is out of sight behind the camera operator.

Treadgold Street on the right with surface air raid shelter, with Grenfell Road bearing left (HO198/106)

Comparable view today, with Grenfell Road mis-captioned as Barandon Way (author's screen grab)

Next, we see 1944 photographs #8 and #9, taken from the corner of Treadgold Street looking into Grenfell Road. We can see in the modern comparison view that the Victorian houses in Grenfell Road have been totally demolished and replaced by the Lancaster West Estate.

Photos #8 and #9 looking from Treadgold Street into Grenfell Road (HO198/106)

The comparable view today looking towards the Lancaster West Estate (author's screen grab)

The final view is a montage of photographs #10, #11 and #12, which is impossible to compare with a modern view as the houses in the photograph have been demolished but it does demonstrate the level of blast damage caused to the houses in Grenfell Road.

Images #10, #11 and #12 taken from the rear of Lancaster Street, looking towards Grenfell Road (HO198/106)

This then is Grenfell Road, like many parts of London, an area who's modern geography is framed by events of almost eighty years and ago and which has seen tragedy in war and more recently.

Unpublished Sources:

HO198/106 - Region 5: London Headquarters Forms BC4 12 Dec 1944 to 1 Feb 1945 - UK National Archives, Kew

Web Sources: