Category Archives: World War 2

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”!

A Beautiful Mind

We’re just back from a trip to the cinema to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” – deeply affecting and highly recommended!
Turing was a brilliant but eccentric, and troubled, mathematician, cryptanalyst, logician, philosopher and pioneer computer scientist, now widely regarded by those in the know as one of the more important and influential figures of the twentieth century.  To the general public, he is perhaps best  known not so much for his work on artificial intelligence and information technology as for that on military intelligence and code-breaking   during the Second World War, at  Bletchley Park.  He and his  equally oddball fellow academics at Bletchley Park (“Station X”) enjoyed the unlikely but more-or-less unqualified support of Churchill,  who clearly understood more than most the vital significance of the intelligence they generated  (“Ultra”).  (At the same time, though, remarking, rather archly, that although he knew he had asked for no stone to be left unturned in putting together the team, he had not expected to be taken quite so literally).  It has been estimated that the work of the team at “Station X” may have cut short the war by up to two to three years, and saved countless thousands of lives.  Perhaps the team’s most notable successes were the breaking  of the German Navy’s “Enigma” code, using  a prototype computer called a “Bombe”, which was a decisive factor in the victory in the Battle of the Atlantic; and the breaking of the German Army High Command’s “Lorenz” code, using the first fully programmable computer “Colossus” (actually designed by the essentially entirely  unsung Bill  Tutte and Tommy Flowers).
Statue of Turing at Bletchley Park
Sadly, after the war, Turing was persecuted over his homosexuality to such an extent that he eventually took his own life, eating a poisoned apple, in 1954.  This is  ironic in that Turing’s  research  on “artificial intelligence” almost certainly came  about, by way of his musings on “the nature of spirit”, as a  result of his  reaction to the tragic  death of the fellow schoolboy he  loved.
Note.  On a related note, readers may be interested to know that there are memorial plaques to Turing in Maida Vale, on the house in which he was born in 1912, and in Richmond, on the house in which he lived from 1945-47.  Also that much of the hardware used at Bletchley Park was manufactured at the former Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill.

Blitz Requiem

26th September 2013 – I’ve just got back from the premiere of David Goode’s Blitz Requiem, performed by the  Bach Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under David Hill, in St Paul’s (it’s interior lit by a thousand candles).
A moving evocation of those darkest of days, when the building itself was a beacon of hope.

A Beautiful Mind

Continuing yesterday’s Second  World War theme, today I took time out to go to the “Codebreaker: Alan Turing’s life and legacy” exhibition at the Science Museum in South Kensington (which runs until October 21st 2013).
Turing was a brilliant but eccentric, and troubled, mathematician, cryptanalyst, logician, philosopher and pioneer computer scientist, now widely regarded by those in the know as one of the more important and influential figures of the twentieth century.  To the general public, he is perhaps best  known not so much for his work on artificial intelligence and information technology as for that on military intelligence and code-breaking during the Second World War, at  Bletchley Park.  He and his  equally oddball fellow academics at Bletchley Park (“Station X”) enjoyed the unlikely but more-or-less unqualified support of Churchill,  who clearly understood more than most the vital significance of the intelligence they generated  (“Ultra”).  (At the same time, though, remarking, rather archly, that although he knew he had asked for no stone to be left unturned in putting together the team, he had not expected to be taken quite so literally).  It has been estimated that the work of the team at “Station X” may have cut short the war by up to two to three years, and saved countless thousands of lives.  Perhaps the team’s most notable successes were the breaking  of the German Navy’s “Enigma” code, using  a prototype computer called a “Bombe”, which was a decisive factor in the victory in the Battle of the Atlantic; and the breaking of the German Army High Command’s “Lorenz” code, using the first fully programmable computer “Colossus” (actually designed by the essentially entirely  unsung Bill  Tutte and Tommy Flowers).
Statue of Turing at Bletchley Park
Sadly, after the war, Turing was persecuted over his homosexuality to such an extent that he eventually took his own life, eating a poisoned apple, in 1954.  This is  ironic in that  Turing’s  research  on “artificial intelligence” almost certainly came  about, by way of his musings on “the nature of spirit”, as a  result of his  reaction to the tragic  death of the fellow schoolboy he  loved.
Note.  On a related note, readers may be interested to know that there are memorial plaques to Turing in Maida Vale, on the house in which he was born in 1912, and in Richmond, on the house in which he lived from 1945-47.  Also that much of the hardware used at Bletchley Park was manufactured at the former Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill.