Category Archives: Wartime London

The second Great Fire of London

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On this day in 1940, an air raid by the German Luftwaffe led  to the so-called “Second Great Fire of London”. Tens of thousands of incendiary bombs were dropped, and the small individual fires that they set off soon coalesced into a great conflagration that threatened the entire city centre.  Around 200 people were killed, and damage to property was on a then unprecedented scale.  The area around St Paul’s was essentially razed to the ground, although the cathedral  itself miraculously survived essentially intact, thanks to the heroic actions of the firefighters of the St Paul’s Watch, who put out no fewer than twenty-eight individual incendiary-bomb fires inside the building.   Ten other  Wren churches were struck by bombs, namely, Christ Church Newgate Street, St Alban Wood Street, St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, St Anne & St Agnes, St Augustine-by-St-Paul’s, St Lawrence Jewry, St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary-le-Bow, St Stephen Coleman Street and St Vedast-alias-Foster.

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Of these, Christ Church Newgate Street and St Alban Wood Street were substantially destroyed, with only their towers  remaining intact.

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And St Mary Aldermanbury and St Stephen Coleman Street were essentially completely destroyed.

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Remarkably, St Mary Aldermanbury was rebuilt, out of salvaged material, and according to Wren’s original design, in Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, in 1966 (as a memorial to Winston Churchill, who had made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech there in 1946).

Bentley Priory and the Battle of Britain

Bentley Priory

With  Battle of Britain Day being marked today, I thought that readers might be interested in learning a little about the history of Bentley Priory in Stanmore, which now houses the recently-opened RAF Battle of Britain Museum.

The – Augustinian – priory was founded by Ranulf de Glanville in 1170, and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1546, thereafter passing into private ownership.

The original building was taken down, and the present one, designed by Sir John Soane,  put up in 1777.

The present building was variously owned and occupied by the Marquis of Abercorn, the Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen, the dowager Queen Adelaide (widow of William IV) and Sir John Kelk in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, before being converted to a hotel in the late nineteenth and a girls’ school in the early twentieth, and finally being bought by the RAF in 1926.

Dowding's office, Bentley Priory

In 1940, it served  as the head-quarters from which the Battle of Britain was directed, by Air Chief Marshall Sir (later Lord) Hugh “Stuffy” Dowding, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command (memorably portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the 1969 film “The Battle of Britain”).

The History and Psychogeography of Blackfriars

Psychogeography was defined by its founder, the Frenchman Guy Debord, as “the study of the … effects of the geographical environment … on the emotions … of individuals”.

It can also be taken to be an exploration, often literally, on foot, of what it is about a place that evokes a sense of place.

In Blackfriars, that is history: inescapable; and inextricable from that of London as a whole.  History, or, as Peter Ackroyd put it, “chronological resonance”, or “time … moved or swayed by some unknown source of power”.

For it is here that London may be said to have begun, nearly two thousand years, or a hundred generations, ago.  Here, at the lowest point on the Thames at which it was fordable and bridgeable.  Here, on the comparatively high, dry and defensible ground around Ludgate Hill (and, a little to the east, Cornhill).  Here,  where the Romans  founded Londinium, on  the damp maritime frontier of their vast continental empire, with easy access to the sea, and the overseas dominions, and yet at the same time close to the hinterland and heart of England.

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Here, on the “lost” Thames tributary of the Fleet, where all those centuries ago a Roman barge sank with its fifty-ton cargo of Kentish building stone still aboard.  Here is why London is where it is.

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Blackfriars first came to be fully developed  in the Medieval period, when the first and later second Baynard’s Castles, and, in between, the  King’s Wardrobe,  were built here …

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… and when a fashion victim lost his winkle-picker shoe, or “poulaine”, here (that can now be seen in the Museum of London).   The first Baynard’s Castle was demolished after its Constable was found to have been complicit in a baronial conspiracy against King John in the early thirteenth century …

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… and the land was given over to allow construction in 1278  of the Blackfriars Priory, one of the largest and most important monastic houses in the country.   In 1322,  a  large number – possibly  hundreds – of needy poor people were reportedly crushed to death in a rush to beg alms  at the priory gates.

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Remarkably, given its later history, precious fragments of the stonework fabric of the priory still survive, and can still be seen and touched.

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Nothing remains, though, at least above  modern ground level, of the Parliament Hall, where, in 1529,  Henry VIII appeared before the Legatine Court to petition for the  annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so as to enable him to marry Anne Boleyn.   The ultimate failure of the negotiations was to have far-reaching consequences for the church, and indeed for the entire country, of England, not the least of which was the Dissolution of the Monasteries, including that of the Blackfriars, which took place in 1538.

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After the dissolution of the Blackfriars, at the beginning of what we now consider to be the post-Medieval period, its properties and lands were made use of as the King saw fit.

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The priory church came to be owned by his Master of the Revels, Thomas Cawarden, and part of it used as his Office.

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A little later, in 1576, the Great Hall came to be adapted for use as the first Blackfriars Theatre; and, in 1600, the Parliament Hall, the scene of the aforementioned earlier real-life high drama, the second Blackfriars Theatre.  The second Theatre came to be owned by Shakespeare’s company, by then known as the “King’s Men”, in 1609, after the incumbent troupe of child-actors gave grave offence to the King, James I, during one of the performances they put on there in 1608.    Shakespeare evidently wrote some of his later plays, including “A Winter’s Tale”, “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest”, specifically for performance in the indoor arena of the “Second Blackfriars”, incorporating noticeably lengthier musical interludes, presumably designed to  keep the audience amused while the wicks on the lighting-candles were   trimmed midway through the performance.

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In 1613, according to the surviving Deed of Conveyance,  he bought for then princely sum of £140 a  “dwelling house or Tenement … within the Precinct, circuit and compasse of the late black Fryers London … ; part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate …”, presumably as an investment.  What may once have been part of the cellar is preserved in what is now the public house known as the  “Cockpit”.

Essentially the entirety of Blackfriars, and indeed the greater part  of the City of London, was then burned down during the Great Fire of 1666 (the theatre by then already  having been closed down during the Civil War of 1642-51).

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The friendless church  of St Ann was never rebuilt, and the parish was united with that of St Andrew.

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Most of what was rebuilt was burned down again during the Blitz of the Second World War, much of it during the so-called “Second Great Fire of London” on the night of 29th/30th December, 1940.

To walk in Blackfriars is to walk in history.  More than anything, it is to walk  in the footsteps of Medieval monks and lay persons; and   to inhabit, however briefly,  their spiritual as well as their physical world.

 

Woolwich

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Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …

Woolwich was first recorded in 918 as Uuluuich, from the Old English wull, meaning wool, and wic, probably in this context referring to a riverside trading settlement (note, though, that there is also evidence of habitation here  in the earlier – late seventh- or early eighth- century – Anglo-Saxon, Roman and even prehistoric periods).  From the tenth century to the twelfth, it was ruled by the Abbots of St Peter’s Abbey in Ghent, who were given it by Alfred the Great’s daughter Aelfryth.  Woolwich remained a comparatively small rural settlement throughout the remainder of the Medieval period, but burgeoned into an important naval and military base and industrial town in the post-Medieval. Its fortunes began to decline in the twentieth century, after the naval and military bases ceased operations, although it has been undergoing something of  a regeneration in recent years.  Nominally part of Kent throughout much of its history, it is now part of the London Borough of Greenwich.

Woolwich Dockyard

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Woolwich Dockyard was originally founded here by Henry VIII in 1512, and remained operational  for nearly four centuries, during which time a  number of historically important ships were built here, including the “Henry Grace a Dieu” or “Great Harry” (in 1514), the “Prince Royal” (in 1610),  the “Sovereign of the Seas” (in 1637), the “Royal Charles” (in 1655), the “Dolphin” (in 1756), and the “Beagle” (in 1820).  It  was finally decommissioned  in 1869.  The oldest surviving building is the Dockyard Office, dating to 1783-4 (which it is now known as the Clock House).  Some associated structures also survive, both in Woolwich and in  the Woolwich Dockyard Estate in North Woolwich (i.e., on the north bank of the Thames).

Woolwich Arsenal

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Woolwich Arsenal was originally founded here in 1671, and remained operational for nearly three centuries (i.e., throughout  the most important period of the growth of the British Empire, and both World Wars).  It was finally decommissioned in 1967.   The oldest surviving buildings are the Royal Brass Foundry, dating to 1716-17, and the Beresford Gate, the entrance to the Gun Machining Factory, dating to 1717-20.

The football club now known as the Arsenal was originally founded here – as   Dial Square – in 1886.  It changed its name in 1904, and relocated north of the river to Highbury in 1913.

Church of St Mary Magdalene

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The church of St Mary Magdalene was built in 1727-39, on or near  the site of an earlier   church, as one of the “fifty new churches” commissioned by Act of Parliament in 1711.  The interior contains a stained-glass window commemorating the seven hundred souls lost in the sinking of the paddle steamer “Princess Alice” in a collision at Tripcock Point in nearby Thamesmead in 1878.

The London Blitz, and the London County Council Bomb Damage Maps

The London Blitz

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This year marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the German bombing of London, colloquially known as the Blitz.  What may be thought of as the first phase, involving attacks by night-bombers dropping high explosive and incendiary devices,  lasted more-or-less non-stop from September, 1940 until May, 1941.  Following this was something of a lull in the intensity of bombing that lasted for around three years.  The second phase of intense bombing, involving attacks by V1 pilotless aircraft or flying bombs (“doodlebugs”) and supersonic V2 rockets, lasted from June, 1944, just after D-Day, until March, 1945, just before the end of the war.  (The V1 attacks lasted from June, 1944 until August, 1944, when Allied troops captured the fixed launch sites in the Low Countries; and the V2 attacks from September, 1944 until March, 1945, when they finally forced the mobile launchers out of range of London).

Readers interested in finding out more about this dark but fascinating chapter of London’s history could do a deal worse than book themselves onto  one of the many excellent Blitz-themed walks organised by our friends at Blitzwalkers (http://www.blitzwalkers.co.uk).

The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps

By the end of the war in Europe in May, 1945, nearly 30000 Londoners had been killed in air raids, 50000 sufficiently seriously injured as to require hospitalisation, and 90000 less seriously  injured.  And 120000 buildings in the capital had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair (ten times as many as during the Great Fire of 1666), 290000 seriously damaged but reparable, and 1400000 less seriously damaged.

In the aftermath, the London County Council undertook a detailed survey of the bomb damage in the capital, essentially to assist in the planning of the post-war reconstruction.

bomb-damage-mapThe result was a series of maps showing buildings colour-coded according to the severity of the bomb damage they had sustained, from yellow, orange and red for damaged but reparable, through magenta for damaged beyond repair, to  black for totally destroyed.  The maps are as poignant as they are beautiful, none more so than that of the area around St Paul’s, which provides a stark illustration of just how many buildings were lost there (mercifully, the cathedral itself was saved essentially intact: some would say due to divine intervention; others, due to the heroism of the St Paul’s Watch).

The original maps are housed in the London Metropolitan Archives.

51sb65VRbLL._SX361_BO1,204,203,200_Now, one of the Principal Archivists there, Laurence Ward, had written a book featuring high-quality reproductions of the bomb damage maps, contextualised by equally high-quality contemporary photographs and an admirably  clear and readable introductory text.  He has done a great service.  His book is an essential although at times heart-breaking read, and should be on the shelves of every lover of London and its long and chequered history.