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

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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.

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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.  It was subsequently established that some  70,000 camp inmates died, or were  killed, here over the course of the war, 14,000 of them in the days and weeks after the liberation.   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 [this number includes 10,000 dead].  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.  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)

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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.

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

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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.

 

Plumstead

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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.

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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.

 

Deptford

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

Deptford  was first recorded in 1293 as Depeford, meaning deep ford (across the River Ravensbourne, a tributary of the Thames).

The ford, and the trackway leading to and from it, had almost certainly been in existence in the pre-Roman period, and became incorporated into Watling Street in the Roman.

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By Medieval times, a small village had sprung up here, on what had by then become part of the pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury, and it was  referred to in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, written in 1400.  The Battle of Deptford Bridge was fought here in 1497.

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In later post-Medieval times, the former village  grew into a sizeable town, with strong and lasting links to the Royal Navy, and to maritime trade (including the iniquitous slave trade).  One of the Royal Naval Dockyards was built here in 1513, Trinity House in 1514 (the first master being Captain Thomas Spert of the “Mary Rose”), and the East India Company Yard in 1607.

In 1549, a mock naval battle was staged here for the entertainment of Edward VI; in 1581, Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake here aboard his ship the “Golden Hind(e)”, recently returned from its successful circumnavigation of the globe; and in 1698 the Russian Czar Peter the Great stayed in John Evelyn’s house here in order to study the shipyards.

The area’s comparative prosperity began to decline in the eighteenth century, after the seventeenth-century rebuilding of Chatham Dockyard, which was more accessible to ocean-going shipping, being situated in the Thames estuary, some twenty-five miles further downriver.

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The decline continued into the nineteenth century, as evidenced by William Booth’s “Poverty Maps”, and was accelerated by the bombing of the Blitz of the Second World War in the twentieth, but is now in the process of being reversed by regeneration.

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Deptford was historically part of the county of Kent, but since 1965 has been officially part of Greater London.

Church of St Nicholas

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The church of St Nicholas was originally built at least as long ago as the twelfth century, and subsequently rebuilt in the fourteenth or fifteenth century and again, partly through the benefaction of the East India Company,  in the late seventeenth,  around 1697, only to be badly damaged in the Blitz of the twentieth.  The fourteenth- or fifteenth- century tower still stands.

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The poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe – he of the “mighty line” – is buried in the churchyard, having been murdered in a  nearby tavern in 1593.  There are also a number of surviving post-Medieval memorials in the interior, including those to Sir Richard Browne of Sayers Court (d. 1604), who was John Evelyn’s father-in-law, and to other members of both Browne’s and Evelyn’s families; and to Jonas Shish (d. 1680) and his sons  Michael (d. 1685) and John (d. 1686), all of them Master Shipwrights.  And a late seventeenth-century carved wooden panel of “Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones” that has been attributed to Grinling Gibbons, who is known to have once lived and worked nearby.

Nicholas is the patron saint not only of children but also of mariners and fishermen (and of those wrongly condemned).

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.

 

Hall Place, Bexley

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

Hall Place in Bexley in Kent was originally built in stone – salvaged from Lesnes Abbey – in 1537 by  Sir John Champneys, a successful member of the Skinners’ Company and sometime Lord Mayor of the City of London (it was probably built on the site of earlier, thirteenth- and fourteenth- houses respectively owned by the de Aula and Shelley families).    It was subsequently extended in brick in 1649-66 by Sir Robert Austen, who had bought  it from Sir John Champneys grand-son Richard in 1649.  In the eighteenth century the property entered  the possession of Sir Francis Dashwood (*); and in the nineteenth that of his  grand-son, Maitland.  For much of the  nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was rented out to a series of tenants.  During the Second World War it was occupied  by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, who worked there on decoding intercepted messages sent by the German army and air force.  At this time, radio aerial wires were strung over the roof-tops, and the Tudor Kitchen and Great Hall were converted into “set rooms” filled  with banks of receivers.

Hall Place presently houses Bexley Museum and Galleries, and is open to the public (although a charge is payable for access to the – substantially surviving Tudor and Stuart – interior).

(*) Otherwise known as “Hell-Fire Francis”!