Category Archives: World War 2

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 Liberation of Belsen

On April 15th, 1945, shortly before the end of the Second World War, the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen was liberated by the advancing British Army.  A total of 70,000 of the camp’s inmates were subsequently discovered to have died, or to have been killed, here over the course of the war.  Most of the dead were Jews from all over occupied Europe, including, famously,  the diarist Anne Frank, and her sister Margot, from Amsterdam in the Netherlands.  Note, though, that many  Russian Prisoners-Of-War also died  in Belsen (which had been  used as a P.O.W. camp until 1943).

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On  April 21st, 1945, a team from the Friends [Quakers] Relief Service arrived to help clear the camp, to comfort the many dying inmates, and to care as best they could for the surviving ones.

My uncle, Eryl Hall Williams, was among them.  In his 1993 book,  “A Page Of History In Relief”, he wrote of the conditions encountered in the camp, in part as follows:

“All figures are unreliable, but the camp appears to have contained some 60,000 people in the worst possible conditions of overcrowding, starvation, squalor and disease.  The Army had been at work for 6 days before the Red Cross teams arrived.  All the soldiers working in Camp 1 were volunteers.  So moved were they by the frightful condition of the internees that they had given  up their month’s ration of sweets and cigarettes on their behalf, and a neighbouring unit also gave up their blankets.

The camp consisted of about a square mile of army huts, divided into three blocks, the Men’s Lager, the Women’s Lager, and outside the inner wire, the S.S. quarters.  Conditions in the Camp were not too bad until January 1945, it seems, when there was a vast influx of internees [arriving at the end of “death marches”] from camps further east.  But when the British arrived, internees were packed at about 600 per large army hut, without running water or working sanitation.  They had had nothing to eat for a week: before that for two months they had had 1 pint of swede soup each per day; before that for four months 2 pints of swede soup and a piece of bread each per day.  They were dying at the rate of 600 per day of starvation and disease [14,000 of the camp’s inmates were to die in the days and weeks immediately after the liberation].    Typhus was endemic.

The impression of the first to enter was of an enormous horde of people reduced to the animal level.  Cannibalism was said to have been witnessed by a Major of the R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps] and is referred to in some detail in Dr. Fritz Leo’s account.  In some of the huts, the sights, smells and sounds were beyond endurance.  Everywhere was the vast concourse of scarecrow people, bodies incredibly emaciated, and faces stamped with a single expression of despair”.


Holland House (Holland Park)


What is now known as Holland House was originally built in the Jacobean style in 1605, for the diplomat Sir Walter Cope  (it was originally  known as Cope Castle).   It was extended between 1625-35 by the by-then owner, Cope’s son-in-law, Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, who gave it is present name.  Rich was executed in 1649, for his Royalist activities during the Civil War, whereafter the house was temporarily appropriated by the Parliamentarians – despite, according to legend, still being haunted by Holland’s ghost, carrying his severed head under his arm!  By the eighteenth century, the house had come to be owned by the  Fox family, and became a fashionable meeting-place and celebrated salon.  It was substantially destroyed by incendiary bombing on September 27th, 1940, with essentially only the east wing still surviving intact.

The Roman London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras)

The Roman London Mithraeum (Temple of Mithras) was originally built in the early third century, circa 220-40, and abandoned in the fourth, when Christianity came to replace paganism throughout the Roman Empire, the remains only coming to light again during rebuilding after the Blitz.

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The temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street in 1962.



It has recently been reconstructed again – inside a specially designed  space in the Bloomberg Building – on Walbrook.


Some of the finds from the recent archaeological dig on and around the temple site may be viewed in the Bloomberg Space.

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Other finds, from the original post-war dig, including a marble bust  of Mithras in his distinctive Phrygian cap, may be viewed in the Roman gallery in the Museum of London.

Mithras and Mithraism

Mithras, sometimes referred to as the “pagan Christ”,  was originally a Persian god, from the Zoroastrian pantheon, believed to be an assistant of the powers of good in their struggle against those of evil, who served to slay a bull created by evil, from the blood of which all life sprang  (*).  He   eventually came to be identified with the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus, and to epitomise purity, honesty, and moral and physical courage (whence, presumably, his supposed popularity with Roman soldiers).

Mithraism, the practice and mystery cult of Mithras  worship, as by then distinct from Zoroastrianism,  came to Rome in around the first century BCE, and spread throughout much of the Roman Empire by the first century AD, becoming most widespread in the third. It was practised in specially dedicated temples or “Mithraea” (sing., “Mithraeum”), many of which were underground (because Mithras slew the  bull underground, in a cave).

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(*) Carved reliefs of the bull-slaying – or “tauroctony” – are  characteristic  features of Mithraean iconography

St Alphage London Wall

Another in the  series on City of London buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666, and that still survive to this day …

The church of St Alphage London Wall was originally built a little to the north of its present location sometime before 1108, and moved to its present location, on the site of the dissolved priory church of Elsing Spital, in 1536.  It was undamaged in the Great Fire,  although it was  substantially rebuilt in the eighteenth century, and further restored in the early twentieth.   It then fell into disrepair, and indeed was partially demolished, following the merger of the parish with that of St Mary Aldermanbury in 1924, and was substantially destroyed during the Blitz, with only a partial shell surviving to this day.




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

Plumstead  was first recorded in and Anglo-Saxon charter of King Edgar of c. 960 as Plumstede, meaning, in  Old English, a place where plum trees grow (the charter can still be seen in the British Museum).   However, the area was evidently first settled in earlier antiquity, there being pre-Roman  burial mounds on Shooters Hill and on Winns Common, and Roman burials on Wickham Lane.  A  Roman road –  Watling Street – essentially defines the southern edge of the area.

By the time of the Domesday Book of 1086, the settlement comprised two manors, one owned by the Abbot of St Augustine in Canterbury, in accordance with Edgar’s earlier charter, and the other by the Bishop of Bayeux (*).  It prospered in the Medieval period and into the post-Medieval, with good livings to be made from fishing in the river, rearing sheep on the adjoining low-lying marshy ground, and growing fruit in orchards on the rich alluvial soil.

The population began to grow rapidly  in the nineteenth century, and exploded after the arrival of the railway in 1849 (in 1801, it was 1166; and in 1861, 24502).  Much of Plumstead  is now built up, especially along the riverfront.

Church of St Nicholas

The church of St Nicholas was originally built in the tenth century, on a spur of chalky high ground rising from the  clayey marsh.  It was subsequently rebuilt in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, and in the sixteenth, in 1552, was recorded as owning three bells and a silver chalice weighing nine ounces,  as well as a Bible with paraphrases of Erasmus.  It was repaired in the late seventeenth century, in 1662, and extended in 1664, when the tower was added, at the expense of the wealthy local farmer John Gossage.


The  church  had fallen into disrepair by the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the roof open to the sky, and trees growing in the aisles.  It was restored in the 1860s, and further extended to accommodate a larger congregation in 1905, only to be badly damaged by an explosion at the Royal Arsenal in 1907.  It was then restored again and re-opened in 1908, only to be badly damaged again by a V2 bomb in the dying months of the Second World War, in 1945.

The surviving south aisle of the church dates to the twelfth century, the transept to the thirteenth, the north aisle to the fifteenth, and the tower to the late seventeenth, to 1664.

One former vicar, the – evidently not very – Reverend William Morice, a Cavalier, was removed from his office in the church during the Civil War, in 1647, the case against him arguing that “he is a swearer and a drunkard, has drunk Prince Rupert’s  health in an alehouse with malignants on a fast day, has kissed the mistress of the house and has neglected to read the ordinances of parliament”.  A less controversial later incumbent was the Rev. Baden Powell, father of Robert, the founder of the scouting movement.

(*) Note, though, that there are records of only  one manor house – now demolished –  close to the church of St Nicholas at the eastern end of the long high street.