Remembering Civilian Dead on 15th September

Earlier this year there were references from Islanders about how “we never talk about all the civilians who died in the Blitz”. One family lost several members in the disaster at Bullivant’s Wharf and were distressed to find no memorial on the site, which is hard to identify in any case. Others were distressed about the way in which mass graves in Tower Hamlets Cemetery have apparently been neglected over the years. In response to this, Island History joined forces with Neighbours in Poplar to organise an event at which the civilians who died in the Blitz can be remembered and the memories shared.

This event took place in St. Matthias Community Centre on September 15th, in the late afternoon. Between 40 and 50 people attended, coming from the local area as well as from Essex, Kent and Surrey. Sister Christine Frost, of Neighbours in Poplar, welcomed the visitors and Father Tom Pyke, of Christ Church on the Island, led the gathering in a short prayer in memory of dear ones lost during the Blitz.

Tea was served, with sandwiches and cakes. Many stories were told. Alice of Aberfeldy Street, related how as a child of 12 she dragged home a dead sheep when the butcher’s shop was bombed, feeding her family for weeks; Daniel, now 94, told how his worst memory was, as a boy of 15, hearing the horses screaming in burning stables – and how he managed to lead some of them to safety.

Those who had lost close family members in the Blitz were comforted by sharing their memories and sorrows with others who had similar experiences.

A special issue of Island History News, with memories of the Blitz in both the Isle of Dogs and Poplar, came out on the 5th September in time for the anniversary of the start of the Blitz on 7th/8th September 1940.

Searching for Bullivant’s

On March 19th 1941, over one hundred people had taken shelter in Bullivant’s Wharf, a large communal shelter at ground level by the Isle of Dogs riverfront off Westferry Road. That night, the shelter took a direct hit. Forty-four people were killed and 60 were injured. This was the Island’s biggest wartime disaster – bigger even than the incident which killed so many members of the auxilary services at Cubitt Town School in September 1940.

Among the dead were Keith Woods’ Grandmother Minnie, who was 48, and his Aunt Doris, who was 19. His Grandfather Albert Woods was badly injured, but survived. Keith’s father, also Albert, and his two uncles, John and Donald, were not in the shelter.

For reasons which remain mysterious, Keith’s father and uncles, who were young men in their twenties at the time, lost contact with their father after the war. He remarried – a lady who had lost her husband and daughter in the same bombing raid. Keith did not meet his own Grandfather until he was 17.

With so many dead and injured, it is no surprise that stories of Bullivant’s Wharf often come up in memories of the Island at war. As an official Public Shelter, it was considered safe and was well used. George Thurgar said: “Bullivant’s were the wire rope manufacturers on the waterfront. People used to go there in the evening and it got to be quite a social event, they had a woman in the next street who was a piano teacher, she used to play the piano, they used to have sing-songs. At about six o’clock at night, people used to pack their bags and troop off to Bullivants.”

Joyce Jacobs was ready to go: “We had our blankets and our kettle and all the things you took up there and we were going out the front door when it was really banging overhead. The guns and the planes and the bombs. So he said, “Hang on a minute” because you could get hit with shrapnel, running through it. Good job we did. We’d have been up there as well. Soon after, someone came running down the street. “Bullivant’s been hit. All the people in the shelter…” And they were bringing out the dead. And a woman drove the ambulance backwards and forwards through that, taking all the injured up to Poplar Hospital.”

According to Joyce, the high death toll was due to particular circumstances: “A 56 bus, which was pretty full, pulled in there and emptied out all the people. The raid was so bad, the driver wouldn’t go on, so he pulled in there so everybody could get in the shelter.”

Because whole families sheltered together and stayed together in the shelter, some were almost wiped out. This happened to the Corroyers. Their son Charles, who was in the forces at the time, remembered: “My parents were killed, along with my sister Lilian and young Mary, with my mother’s two sisters and her brother. Some kind and patriotic neighbours found seven union flags to cover the coffin. My sister Margaret survived.”

Margaret Corroyer recalled her ordeal: “My memory of that night was of regaining consciousness and being pinned down, unable to move whilst a choking stream of dust filled my mouth and nose. I recall the journey to Poplar Hospital and afterwards thought I must have imagined a person on the stretcher above, but have since been told it was so. A horrific experience to lay there and feel something sticky dripping from above.

Thanks to the ARP I was rescued fairly intact. I know I was glad to see that ARP tin hat, even though I argued with him. He telling me he had difficulty freeing my arm and me saying it was not my arm anyway! I remember him saying “It’s the same coat”, the first intimation I had that I had lost the use of that particular limb. I remember the kindness of Dr. Lindsay at Poplar Hospital.

I still wonder how I made my way home when released the following morning. I must have looked a mess, with hardboard stuck in my hair, friction burns and cuts on my face, wounds in my leg where nails had gone in, and an arm in a sling. Yet I only remember one person giving me a second glance!”

To return to the story of Keith Woods , whose Grandfather was injured in Bullivant’s Wharf and then separated from his sons.

Determined to get to know his Grandfather, Keith eventually visited him in St. Leonard’s Road, Poplar:

“I’m pleased to say we got along very well. He took me drinking in his old haunts on the Island. We played darts and always had roast pork for Sunday lunch and mussels for tea. I asked him many questions about our family history. My visiting him brought about a re-union with my Dad and his brothers. They were all at Grandad’s funeral.”

But Keith was not satisfied. His Grandmother and Aunt had died in Bullivant’s and the incident had separated his Grandfather and his Father for many years. He wanted to see this place which had meant so much to his family. But where exactly was Bullivant’s Wharf?

Although he had seen a mention of a memorial plaque, hours of searching the riverside revealed nothing. From studying old maps Keith thinks Bullivant’s was on the riverside close to where the estate agent Alan Selby now stands in Westferry Road. He says:

“All this happened a long time ago. Most people who lived through it are no longer with us. But I am hoping there are others like myself, in the next generation, who would support me in asking that a plaque be erected in the area that was once Bullivant’s, in recognition of the victims.’

The First Night of the Blitz on the Island

The Reverend Arthur Holmes was the curate at St. Cuthbert’s Church, on the corner of Cahir Street, in 1940. His wife Margaret later recalled the first night of the Blitz in a letter to a friend:

“Last Saturday evening at 6pm Arthur was out visiting (the warning had gone an hour ago) and I was watching from our front door for any signs of activity when I saw a formation of planes coming over, they were mostly huge black ones with four engines, I had never seen any of this kind before and they were much lower than usual. Our guns battered them but they kept beautiful formation until they seemed to be overhead, when they spread out fanwise and then came a long whistle and a crash. Then another and another. By this time I had grabbed Dodger (the dog) and was under the stairs. When the nearest bang came, the din was terrific and the dishes on the dresser and the doors and windows rattled like anything.

Arthur came rushing in. He had been on the roof of the church, watching the planes when the bombing started, but he soon shifted, he said the church swayed like anything. He had seen the nearest bomb fall 100 yards away on a paint wharf. It had hit a container of ammonia and the fumes made us think it was gas and everyone put their gas mask on – our first experience of them. Arthur was rushing around asking where his gas mask was and I showed it to him on his back. Then he went out to help. We could see fires had started all round.

Ours was a good one. Oil poured in a river down the street and there were great clouds of black smoke. The Germans’ idea was to light the place up with fires to guide them in the night raids to follow. But our fire was put out before dark. Arthur came back with a message to go along to St. Mildred’s (a ladies’ settlement) to help the people from a block of flats which was bombed to bits just over the bridge. They were safe, having been in shelters, but homeless. I got to St. Mildred’s having explained my mission to several soldiers and being passed over an oily plank, over an oily river, by several oily air-raid wardens. We fed the people on biscuits by candlelight – all else had failed. When the next siren sounded at 8pm, Arthur arrived and we went home.

From then on we had neither water, gas nor electricity. We had a cold supper while the bombs and guns were going strong – but not too near. Then we retired to our bed under the stairs. It was an awful night, we didn’t think of sleeping. Arthur was in and out a lot, after a near crash he would go and see if anyone needed help. He had left his bike in the hall under the church and left the downstairs door unlocked in case anyone should need shelter. But during the night, he brought the bike back to the house, though it was thick with oil from the fire. It was awful lying under that stair, listening to bombs near and far and wondering when one would come for us! We soon got to know the whistle and crash of the high explosive, the long whistle and awful shaking but no crash of the delayed-action bombs.

Then at 3.15 am we thought ours had come. The crack was terrific. The front door burst open, broken glass crashed on the pavement, and dust and stones rained everywhere. We looked out and could see nothing but dust, so we waited. I went through to Dodger who was in his chair in the scullery. The back door had burst open too, but Dodger just shook himself and wagged his tail. The dust settled and we looked out. The street was carpeted thick with dust, bricks and glass. Arthur ran round the corner and met Firemaster Ayre who said: Was anyone in the Church? No, why? said Arthur. Has it gone? Yes. Oh dear, said Arthur, Unemployed!

Just then there was another crash and they lay down in the gutter but it was a bit away. I was still under the stairs. Arthur was away a while, helping the people from the houses next to the church, which had come down with it – six houses. The folk had been in Anderson shelters behind and were okay.

Later I went round with Arthur to look at the church. What a sight! A crater I think about 15 feet deep took up the width of the road. It was floodlit by a 12-inch gas main burning nicely and water was pouring in from the water main. All round the crater was spread half the church; the altar end was left standing and you could look up to the altar (the church at St. Cuthbert’s was on the first floor). Westwood’s engineering firm across the road was partly down and great lumps of road and church had crashed on their machinery. Windows were broken and ceilings down for hundred of yards along the street, where pieces of church had flown about. The big flats next to us had doors blown off and all the windows out. The pub at the corner had all the ceilings down and all glass out, yet the landlord was serving beer at 5 in the morning!

(St.Cutherbert’s Church was never rebuilt after the war. The site of the church is now part of Harbinger School playground in Westferry Road).

The above extract is taken from The Island at War, Memories of War-Time Life on the Isle of Dogs, East London, now out of print.

The First Night of the Blitz in Poplar

Bill Adams lived at 35 Leyland House on the Will Crookes Estate, just by Poplar Park. He remembered the first night of the raids:

Saturday 7th September 1940 was a nice summer’s day. The siren went off about 4.30 p.m.My mate Jimmy Samson, my brother Jim and myself, were playing in the square, that is,the tarmac area between the blocks of flats: Leyland House, Devitt House, Migham House and Willis House. Jimmy Samson and myself both had air rifles to which we had attached makeshift slings and carved the letters LDV* on the butts. We used to patrol up on the top floor balconies on the look-out for Germans. (I should mention that I had just turned 11).

Anyway, as usual, no-one took much notice of the siren, when suddenly our attention was taken by the drone of aircraft. Looking up, we were amazed to see, coming over from the High Street way, large formations of planes, some big, some smaller. It looked like a parade. Suddenly my Dad shouted from the balcony of our first floor flat, “Come up here, you two!”. Running upstairs,we found our mum and dad and my grandmother, all leaning out of the open window looking up at the aircraft, which were still flying in formation. There seemed to be hundreds of them.

I saw vapour trails in the sky, over to the left and the parade seemed to break up. Then all hell broke loose. Guns opened up, bombs started to fall. We ran for shelter. Ours was in the ground floor flat below ours, it had been shored up with stout wooden beams and was sandbagged back and front; the windows were boarded up. We reached the ground floor and needed to go into the square to get to the shelter. Two Air Raid Wardens were crouched against the wall leading to the rubbish chute. Hold on, one said, Wait for a lull then run for it. The two wardens stood in front of us to shield us. Sitting on the stairs, I could see through his legs. Devitt House, opposite – the whole building seemed to be dancing. The flash of exploding bombs was reflected in the windows, the Zing! and Crunch! of shrapnel was everywhere. The worst was the screaming of the bombs on their way down; it seemed unending until the thump of the explosion; then it started again and again, as more bombs fell. After what seemed forever, we made a run for it and reached the shelter.

The All Clear sounded about 6 o’clock. My Mum and Dad decided to take us to see if my other Gran was okay. She lived in Alberta House. The sight that met us was of dust and smoke. All the docks appeared to be on fire. A barrage balloon, still tethered to its mooring wire, was on fire and was hovering over the burning warehouses, doing a sort of dance. We coud see firemen on top of their long ladders, playing their hoses into the flames. Debris and shrapnel was everywhere. There were ambulances, fire engines and police vehicles with their clanging bells. Outside Discovery House, along the High Street, was a huge mountain of sandbags. An Air Raid Warden ushered us past, saying Come along quickly, it’s an unexploded fire bomb. The dock entrance in Preston’s Road near the Marshall Keate pub had a large canvas reservoir full of water, with dozens of hose pipes crossing the road and firemen running about.

We turned the corner into Duthie Street. The block of tenement flats, all with Canadian names, was on the right. It was just growing dusk. Someone opened the front door of a flat, letting out a stream of light. A man shouted, Put that light out! This seemed absurd to me. The whole place was lit up with fires.

Alberta House had not been hit. We hadn’t been long with my Gran when the warning went, so we had to stay in their shelter in the ground floor flat. Everyone had their bedding on the floor, some tried to sleep but the noise was intense. The men kept going to the front door to report back what was happening. Some chased about putting sandbags on incendiary bombs. Suddenly they were calling, Come and look at this! I ran to the door. Opposite the flats was Green’s Dry Dock. In the dock was a battleship undergoing repairs, I think it was HMS Kelly. The cause of the excitement was the sailors, who had been in the Brunswick Arms, were firing the ship’s ack-ack guns at the German planes.

We returned home in the morning. Everywhere was rubble and broken glass. In the High Street near Wade Place was a huge bomb crater in the road. There was rope round it, but us kids had to get over it and stand on the edge. We had a soapbox cart and we travelled the streets around our flats harvesting the shrapnel. My greatest find was what I think was the nose cap of an ack-ack shell.

The following Saturday, after a week of nights like that, men came round with a lorry, shouting, Anyone going to the hopfields. My Aunt Rose had booked us up to go to Cheeseman’s Farm in Kent. Of course, when we got to the hopfields, we found ourselves directly under the dogfights. Us kids used to lie in a hollow in the fields where the huts were, and look up at the battles. We didn’t appreciate the danger or that people were dying. to us it was just exciting.

(Bill’s home was destroyed while they were away. They stayed in the hopfiels until they were taken in by a family in Pensnet.)

This story was first published in Island History News Special Issue, September 7th/8th 2013

One Night in September 1940

On the night of the 17th to 18th September 1940, the Blitz had been going on for 10 days and nights. The wail of the air-raid warning, the tense anticipation, the ominous drone of the planes, the thuds, explosions, roars of falling bombs, the shattered masonry, the dust, heat and flames, the cries of the wounded, the struggle to rescue and repair – all this had become, not familiar, how could it? – but part of a nightly routine, a nightmare experience constantly renewed.

And the Auxiliary Fire Service personnel had been in the thick of it. Violet Pengelly and Joan Bartlett were Island women in the AFS. When they went on duty on the 17th September, they knew what the night might hold, not only for them but for their families at home in their shelters. But there was no question of not going on duty, or of not remaining at their posts, even when taking a break, not for them nor for the hundreds of people all over London who were facing the same prospect of sleepless nights and anxious hours spent helping and protecting others.

Cubitt Town School in Saunders Ness Road had been newly built in the 1930s and the spacious, airey building was, in many ways, ideal for a Civil Defence base. It had kitchens, offices, teaching rooms and open spaces for drilling and for storing vehicles. Civil Defence was largely the responsibility of the local Council and after the children were evacuated in 1939 the School had become home to an Air Raid Warning Post, a Stretcher Party, and a Mobile Unit. The Ambulance and Fire Services also had units based there. The School often housed large numbers of personnel, either actually on duty or taking a break between shifts, recovering from action or waiting to be called out. Fireman A. F. Sharpe recalled in his memoirs that the Hall of the School had been specially strengthened with iron girders and that this was where they waited, fully rigged, for a call.

The bombers came in the darkness of the black-out. Violet and Joan had gone up to the first floor rest-room. Others were on duty or resting. As the raid began, the centre of the building took a direct hit. A fireman stationed in Millwall Fire Station recalled later that the explosion had literally flung a girder out of the building across the road into the warehouses opposite. Fireman Sharpe, who was on duty inside the School, recorded his memory of a dull thud and a bright flash, the crash of falling masonry and a desperate rush for the exits, then a roll-call and the missing girls, of trying to climb the staircase to the women’s rest-room, but it was ready to come down at any moment and the centre of the school had been flattened. “Are you there?” he called. There was no response.

At their home in Gaverick Street, Victor, Violet’s little brother, was six years old. All he could remember of the incident in later life was his impression that his lovely sister was “missing – not coming home”. Eventually, the rescue workers penetrated the solid mass of rubble that had been the School. The remains of the dead were discovered and identified. On the 10th October 1940 they were buried together in a local authority grave.

As well as Violet and Joan, 14 members of the Stretcher Party died that night. All the members of the Mobile Unit died – a nurse, a doctor, two First Aid workers and a driver. Four of the eight ambulance drivers died. The one Warden on duty was killed.

Sub_Station_1939

After the war, the school was rebuilt and later, it became home to St. Luke’s School. On December 8th, 2008, a Service of Remembrance was held in the School, and a plaque was unveiled, bearing the names of all those who died on the night of 17th/18th September 1940.

Those who died: Pictured on the left with AFS colleagues are Joan Bartlett (on the right) and Violet Pengelly (next to Joan). The others who lost their lives were:

Auxiliary Ambulance Drivers: Mark Breslau, Cyril Eugene Jacobs, Reuben Norman, James Samuel Spratt, Tomas John Steward, Victor Ronald Tidder.

Stretcher Bearers: Jack Bauer, Charles Arthur Clutterbuck, Horace William Field, Cyril John Hawthorn, Arthur James Jones, Albert Edward Littlewort, William Albert Mears, William Charles Miles, David Arthur Morton-Holmes, Ernest John Purdey, Edward Henry Snook, Charles William Patrick Staff, Cyril Swerner.

Mobile First Aid Unit: Mary Bridget Cooke, Nurse; Lilian Gladys Hawkridge, Nurse; Dr. Leonard Moss; Florence Tyler, Nurse.

Air Raid Warden: Frederick Hall.

This story was published in the Island History News, Nos. 51 and 49, in 2008. The names of the dead were researched by Stephanie Maltman, on behalf of Firemen Remembered.


In the Trenches World War One

Albert Conn grew up in Cuba Street on the Isle of Dogs. When he was 17 he volunteered for the Army and ended up in the Devon Regiment. Whilst training in Devon, he met his future wife, but before they were married, Albert saw active service in some of the notorious battlefields of the First World War. Here is his account of one episode:

Ypres 1916: Fred was a decent sort of bloke. He was much older than me, old enough to be my father. I never knew anything about his folks, whether he was married or single. I don’t think he got much mail from home. I got a fair amount. mostly from my girl in Devonport. Every now and again there was a parcel with some Woodbines and a cake. I used to share with Fred, sort of mucking-in pals, we were. I remember I had a rubber pillow from her on one occasion, the sort of thing you blow up and rest your head on at night, we finished up playing football with it in a French farmhouse. One time there was a tin of Harrison’s Pomade, it was a kind of Vaseline but smelt terrible, it was supposed to kill the lice but I think they thrived on it. I had the biggest and fattest lice in the company.

Fred joined us from the base after we got cut up badly at Mametz. He had previously served with the Gloucesters. He still wore his old cap badge. He was Number Four on our gun, I was Number Three. Our job was to cart the ammo about. One day we were resting near Amiens when Fred suggested we should have our photos taken. We went into a house where a Frenchman with an old-fashioned tripod camera underneath a big black cloth took our pictures. A few days afterwards we marched back to the Somme. We were occupying an old German trench when we got orders to move out that night.

We were checking weapons and ammo when the mail came up. I had a box of fags, proper posh ones they were, called High Life, gold-tipped too. I shared them with Fred just as darkness was settling in. It was a bad night, rain coming down in sheets. In the distance the sky was flickering with flares and gun fire, we could hear the thudding of the bombardment. We struggled along with these panniards slung around our shoulders, rifle, ammo and spade as well as the rest of the fighting order. I always reckoned a bloke was half dead before he even reached the enemy. Our officer seemed to lose his way several times. Once we found ourselves in Trones Wood. They must have had a hell of a bust-up there. The trees were just stumps sticking out of the ground and the place stank of the dead.

Well, we got on eventually and found the rest of the lads in an old communication trench near Guillemont. This village had been taken and retaken several times. For some unknown reason the Germans were loath to part with it. By the sound of the bombardment I shouldn’t think there was anything left of it.

There was a steady stream of wounded making their way towards the dressing station and we asked one or two what it was like in front of the village. They said the bombardment was terrible, so you can bet we didn’t feel too happy. It was still raining so I tried to get a bit of a kip before dawn, in those days I could sleep on a clothes line. I pulled my waterproof cape over my head and settled down in the mud. I was jolted out of my sleep by a sharp blow on the inside of my right knee. I thought somebody must have kicked me. Half asleep, I felt my leg and my hand came away wet and sticky.

I thought to myself, Blimey, I’ve got a Blighty one. It was deep and about a couple of inches long. Fred tied a field bandage to it. He then helped me down the trench and out onto the road. The first dressing station was down a mile of steps and the officer refused to dress my wound because I did not belong to his Division. We found another one further down the road and here I shook hands with Fred. He wished me luck and said that should I reach Blighty would I contact his people in Bristol. I promised to do so, but strangely enough, he never gave me his address. Another strange thing was that I did end up in Bristol, at Beaufort War Hospital.

I wrote to Fred to get his address. The answer came back to say that Fred and the remainder of the gun crew had been killed that morning. I was the only survivor.

(From Volume I ,A Brief History of the Isle of Dogs, Chapter 14, One Soldier’s War.)