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).

“Nearly as old as the Fire” (Arthur Mumby, 1868)

3 - Newgate Market on Christmas Eve in 1845 (from the Illustrated London News)

On this day in 1868, Arthur Mumby wrote evokingly in his diary:

“ … I rambled through the old-fashioned streets about Cripplegate; attracted first by the fine massive antique tower of [St Giles] Cripplegate church … .  In the quiet of a Saturday afternoon, when offices are closed and busy men departed, the world of modern life disappears for a moment, and these old 17th & 18th century streets and alleys, these deserted old churches, bring back something of the interest and delight with which one rambles through a medieval street abroad.  Far better it is to ramble here, at such a time, than in some bustling suburb, mean, newfangled, fashionable or vulgar.  I went, probably for the last time, through the mazes of old Newgate market: long low alleys, …  walled on both sides with butchers’ shops nearly as old as the Fire: open sheds, with massy beams and rafters and blocks, browned and polished by age and friction.  Many of the alleys were …  dark, for the butchers had moved to the new Market at Smithfield: but two or three were lighted up & busy with buyers and sellers – long rude vistas of meat and men”.

1 - What was left of Cripplegate after the bombing of the Second World War

Sadly, the area was substantially razed to the ground during the incendiary bombing of the Second World War.  However, the subsequently restored church of St Giles still stands, at the heart of the Barbican complex.

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)

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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.