St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Walworth Under Fire (Part Eight)

Walworth Under Fire

The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,

Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.

Part Eight - The bombing of St Peter's Church

Continued from Part Seven

On October 28th, 1940, the Air Raid warning sounded at the usual time, about 6pm. The crypt shelter was full, even before the warning. Everybody had their usual settling down period - perhaps a few songs, families talking, eating the food they brought with them before they laid down to get some sleep in their usual places on improvised bedding, deck chairs and even on the bare stone floor. The shelter wardens, mostly members of the congregation, including one of my churchwardens, little Mr Morgan, getting on in years had the usual busy time, fetching drinking water from the tap up to the church vestry, doling out tea from the club bar, made by some of our ladies, and then settling down for a rest themselves, as the night wore on, and our area seemed to be having a quiet time. What bombs were dropped seemed to be aimed at other parts of London by scattered groups of planes, sent over night after night, not only to cause damage, but to wear down the morale and the working ability of the civilian population.

We wardens were on patrol, or in some cases were resting in the crypt, or the post, snatching some food or sleep if possible. My messenger and I, however, had a busy time around midnight helping the police, when we had alerted, to seek out and arrest some intruders in the erstwhile film studio and former Baptist Chapel a few yards from the Rectory. We had heard them at work, looting the belongings of bombed out houses, stored there by the borough. We failed to catch them: all seemed quiet. Jenner and I returned to the Post, and then decided that we would make a circuit of the area, to contact the wardens on patrol, whom we had not been able to see for several hours. As usual, we mounted our blitz bikes, brakeless, lampless, and started off down the street alongside the churchyard.

We heard the explosion of one or two bombs in the distance, and carried out our usual drill - falling off the bikes without stopping. As we hit the ground, five bombs exploded around us, so that we could see the orange flashes; two in the churchyard beyond the church, two others, as it turned out, in the church, and one in the garden of one of the small houses beside us, throwing some of the dirt on us, as we sprawled in the gutter. We got up, and rushed round to the other side of the church, which appeared, in the moonlight, to be undamaged, expecting to find that the houses on the other side of the churchyard had been hit. No signs of damage there. Then I heard a dull, confused murmur from the crypt, and a dusty figure struggled among the sandbags in the doorway at the foot of the steps, leading down to the shelter, crying out ‘Help!’ In a flash I guessed that the orange bursts that I had glimpsed through the windows of the church as I sprawled on the road belonged to bombs which had exploded in the east end of the crypt.  I shouted to the dusty figure, ‘I will get help!’ and ran round the church, into the Post, dashed off a message for the telephonist, giving a rough estimate of 200 casualties, guessed from the probable number in that part of the crypt which appeared to have been hit, and then, leaving the wardens there to start in the crypt, ran round to the school next door, shouted to the R.A.F. Balloon crew, ‘Get your beds ready, and plenty of boiling water, and I will send all casualties round here.’

In a remarkably short time, the Mobile Unit, with a doctor on board, and a complement of nurses, armed with the life-saving morphia so essential in dealing with the shock of major casualties, drove up, and I directed it to the school, where they were able to work on the casualties in full light, and plenty of space. The balloon crew worked like Trojans, helping in the crypt to bring out casualties, and having a boiler full of water on the ready. In a remarkably short time, a steady stream of injured were going through the process of being diagnosed by the doctor, cleaned up and given First Aid. Stretcher Parties arrived, together with Light Rescue teams. As a result of my original message, giving 200 possible casualties, Control made it a major incident, which entitled them to call on Regional help from other boroughs, so that we had ample services on the site within a matter of half an hour at most. We were fortunate that no more bombs fell that night: indeed, we were probably the victims of a lone plane on its way home, dropping its load across the borough. They proved to be 50 kilogramme semi-armour piercing bombs, part of a stick of twelve.

Those early hours of that morning were so hectic that my memories of it are confused. I remember that I was very busy rushing backwards and forwards, from the Post to the school and the church, seeing that the various services were directed and parked. Early on, the Post was invaded by walking casualties, brought out of the crypt, or found staggering about in the churchyard, dazed and covered from head to foot in white dust. I snatched up a couple of First Aid boxes and shoved them into my wife’s hands, as she sat with my daughter in her arms in the kitchen, both in their night-clothes, for it had been a quiet night, and had enabled them to get to sleep, until the crypt was hit. I said ‘I am sending in some light casualties to you: get on with it.’ I dashed off to the churchyard to see what was going on, just in time to find AlfMorgan, my elderly churchwarden, crawling out of one of the windows of the crypt, where the explosion had blown away the protecting sandbags. His foot was badly injured. I got someone to take him along to the school. On one of my visits to the Post, I found an old lady, who lived just round the corner, sitting in one of chairs, where one of the wardens had put her. She was grey with dust from head to foot, and where her skin was exposed it was beginning to peel off. Otherwise, she did not seem to be injured and was fully conscious. In fact, she died later from the effects of blast.

My estimate of casualties was not far out: later we reckoned on 250 seriously hurt, and over 70 killed, with hundreds of lesser casualties, caused mainly by splinters from the wooden partitions, dividing the various parts of the crypt. The blast had torn the matchboarding into countless needle-like splinters, which rifled into people and their belongings. Later on, when we salvaged the hundreds of handbags left in the crypt, we found them filled with minute fragments of wood, which had pierced the leather or cloth of the bags without tearing them noticeably.

The blast in the confined space of the crypt, was greater than it might have been because both bombs exploded on the floor of the crypt, having, in one case gone through the roof and ceiling of the church, then the organ, on through the thick stone floor. Being semi-armour piercing and dropped from a height of perhaps 20,000 feet, they literally bored their way through these successive layers, and in the case of the second one, through a 12 inch beam, literally like a gimlet, without dislodging it from the floor of the gallery which the beam was supporting. The combined blast produced some bizarre results, some of which were studied by Air Ministry experts later on. On that night, one which was perhaps the strangest of all was the injury incurred by one young man, who undoubtedly owed his life to the rapid manner in which he was attended by the First Aid services and the speed with which he was transferred to hospital. When the bombs fell, he was lying asleep on the floor. The blast hurled a wooden kitchen chair through the air, and a slab of stone, likewise projected by the blast, drove the leg of the chair through his hip, where it was firmly embedded. When he was found, his rescuers sensibly left the chair-leg embedded, detached the remains of the chair, and sent him off to hospital. Within three months, he was back at work in his factory.

Another strange case was that of a young woman, who was sitting in a chair by the brick pier supporting one of the arches in the crypt. One of the bombs exploded just the other side of this brick pier, blowing to bits a whole family, six members of which I commended to Almighty God a few days later at a funeral service in a neighbouring church. The young woman, just a few feet from them, was uninjured, except for a burst eardrum.

The heavy brick arches and piers caused many strange effects of similar nature. One of these concerned the injury to Alf Morgan, whom I had found crawling on hands and knees in the churchyard. He had been asleep on the stone floor; the blast ripped past him, missing him entirely, except for one foot which happened to be in its path. This was reduced to a pulp, so that he was in hospital for many weeks.

Another of my shelter wardens, Mrs Curtis, was resting in one of the club arm chairs, when the blast lifted a huge stone slab, forming the ceiling of the crypt and the floor of the church, and shattered it, as it fell. Half of the slab crashed down, its fall broken by the central heating pipes, and pinned her in the armchair. When the wardens found her, she was sitting there, perfectly conscious, comparatively unhurt, unable to move, with rusty water dripping from the pipes onto her head. The Rescue workers managed to free her, and I found her being treated in the school. She was badly bruised on the thighs, but otherwise all right.

Two of my wardens were not so fortunate. They were off-duty in the crypt, when it was hit. One was the 19 year old, rather unfit, only son of a widow. His name was Kenneth Ballard. The other, Arthur Townsend, was an older man, with a wife and family. One of the problems, with which I had to deal with, as we got most of the casualties away to hospital in two hours, was the disposal of the dead. I decided that the considerable risk of panic among the wardens and the local population would be heightened if they had to see rows of dead laid out, waiting for the mortuary vans. I had all the bodies taken straight into the undamaged West End of the church, where they were laid out in rows in one of the aisles. In the morning there were 35 stretchers of the remains waiting for the vans. Their blood stained the stone flags: I was glad that I was able within a week to establish our altar on that very spot, where we offered the sacrifice of our worship and prayer for them and ourselves, and all the world, during the following years.  I shall always remember them.

Those stretchers represented less than half the number of those who died either at the time, or later on in hospital. One of the latter remains particularly in my memory, on account of its tragic irony. It concerned a young coloured girl, one of the communicant members of the congregation, aged about sixteen. She was lying on the floor of the crypt when the bombs hit. A fragment of one tore into her leg, and finally lodged in her groin. Gangrene set in as a result, so that the hospital, despairing of her life, wanted to amputate her leg. She steadfastly refused to allow this, fighting for her life through something like fifteen operations, to triumph after long months, walking again. She was finally evacuated somewhere North. However, she had a small injury from the shrapnel of the bomb to one of her fingers. She was a keen pianist. So she came back to London to have a comparatively minor operation to straighten the finger. She died under the anaesthetic.  Having visited her during the fight that she made in hospital, and seen her courage and indestructible spirit, I grieved greatly for her. I hope I have the privilege of meeting her in the hereafter.

One Italian family was wiped out in the crypt shelter, where they had taken the week’s takings of their business. We had the job of counting bags of coins and bundles of pound notes, some of which were shredded to thin strips by the blast. One sixpence had been melted by the heat of the explosion and formed itself into a sharp silver spike which protruded from the handbag like a needle.

Dawn and the ‘All Clear’ wailing of the sirens found us very weary, particularly, my wardens, many of whom had plunged into the work of extracting the injured from the tangle of debris and darkness of the crypt. I was luckier in that I had been too busy directing the whole operation to have much close contact with the dead and injured. Inevitably, those who had been down amongst it all were suffering from shock, as were the whole neighbourhood, when they came out of their shelters, checked up on their friends and relatives, many of whom were in the crypt. There was a shocked feeling about, heightened by the belief that many had cherished that the crypt was a safe shelter - an illusion which I had never shared.

By this time, the Control had sent down a senior officer to take over my job, so that, for the first time after three or four hours, I was able to look into the Rectory kitchen to see how Eileen and our baby daughter were getting on. My last view of the latter had been of her sitting in her little chair in her night clothes in the Wardens’ Post, watched over by one of the telephonists. The milling crowd of wardens, entering and leaving, hardly noticed the small figure. Tears were not far away.

I found her and her mother in the kitchen, which was a scene of desolation. The floor was covered with bits of blood-stained cotton wool and rags. Eileen had treated more than twenty casualties single-handed. One of them was an elderly, rather bald man, with a scalp wound. He had wandered round the large kitchen table, brushing his bleeding scalp on the baby's washing, which was hanging from a line covered with his blood. Susan was on Eileen’s lap. I swept up all the mess that I could and took it into our small backyard. I cannot remember having any breakfast. What I do remember is the instinctive determination to get some sleep, for I knew that we were likely to have another long night of alert and bombs. My wardens were more shattered than I was: the parish was near panic. I felt that I must be fit to deal with what might come. ‘I'm going to bed.’ I said to Eileen, who asked ‘What shall I do if anybody cones down to see you? ‘ ‘Tell them I am sleeping, and must not be disturbed.’

 I think that I went out like a light, and slept, fully clothed in my A.R.P. overall and gumboots, on the camp bed in the scullery. I was oblivious to all the comings and goings in the Post next door. Apparently, my Bishop came: Admiral Evans, the Regional Commissioner, likewise. Eileen kept them firmly at bay. When I awoke about lunch time, things were quieter. I was able to deal with some of the aftermath, such as seeing that the dead were removed from the church.

A few hours later, the warning went, and the usual night raid began. The wardens were very jittery. It was not long before we were dealing with another problem - an unexploded bomb in Bronti Place, the inhabitants of which had to be evacuated there and then. It was a long night, but luckily for our area, one without further casualties. I was glad that I had got some sleep, when I did, as I had to hold things together very much that night. The following days were busy, for we had hundreds of inquiries about the casualties. I gave Bertram Calver, my curate, the task of checking up on their whereabouts, for they were treated at various hospitals, and then transferred to the evacuated sections of the larger units, such as St. Thomas’ and Guy’s. One of them was at Brookwood in a very large and gloomy Mental Hospital building. Another was housed in Some Army huts. I could not afford much time to visit them, as the journey was often long and complicated. A more lugubrious task for Bertram was that of checking queries that arose concerning the bodies of the dead. One in particular produced a particularly thorny problem. Someone identified a body as that of his mother, and had her buried. Later on, the family of the lady in question refused to accept the body labelled with her name, and eventually it was indeed proved that she had been claimed by the wrong family and had already been buried under another name. It was decided that the body should be exhumed and reburied under her real name. The Town Hall officials were about to go through the difficult and lengthy process of getting a Home Office exhumation order, when Calver reported it to me. As she had been buried in consecrated ground, I rang up the Bishop's Legal adviser, who affirmed that we did not need a Home Office order, the Bishop being able to authorise the exhumation and reburial. This was done quickly, and I took the funeral. The original coffin was encased in another larger one for this second burial - the only time I have seen this done.

It was extremely difficult, also, to establish the exact identity and number of those who were killed in the crypt, as we kept no records of those who sheltered there. The coroner in some cases wanted proof of the fact that certain people, known to have sheltered in the crypt on most nights, were actually there on the night of the bombing. After months, it was decided that the crypt would have to be cleared completely of all the debris, which would have to be sifted carefully for any evidence of identity. Rescue teams were sent down, to work in masks for two hour shifts, over a period of six weeks. I had to go down with them for quite a lot of the time, as being the person most likely to know the significance of any find. It was a gruesome business, as the blast had literally lifted the whole church slightly, causing the brickwork to part a fraction, with the result that fragments of clothing and human flesh were caught between the bricks. I remember taking an Air Force officer from the Air Ministry down there for an inspection of the damage. After a few minutes, I noticed that he was very silent and looking a trifle green. He said ‘I am sorry: I must get out of here.’ I had got so used to the smell that I was unaffected. Nevertheless, I was glad when the crypt was cleared, and I cannot say that I went down there more than was necessary. For one thing, it was open to the four winds by that time, and all the cats in the neighbourhood, many of them having lost their homes, infested the place with their fleas.

We could not use the church for several weeks after the bombing. We had our services, many of them funerals, in St. Mark’s, in East Lane, which was placed at our disposal by Wellington College Mission. However, my curate and I got to work on the problem of making a temporary church in St Peter’s, which had a wide aisle at the west end, running across the church, and the floor of which had not been affected by the blast. The main force of the bombs had damaged the nave and choir, but left the aisles and the chancel intact. One bomb, as I have already described, had gone through the organ, and heaved it so violently from below that the pipes were thrown in all directions, giving it a very drunken appearance. The plaster statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, only recently installed near the organ and pulpit, was smashed, only the face of our Lady being recognizable. Yet, the plaster crucifix, just above the pulpit, and within three feet of the statue, was untouched. In the choir, we had a Bechstein Grand piano. This too had been thrown into the air, and broke one of its legs, when it came to rest. The second bomb had gone through the floor immediately in front of the Lady Chapel Altar, and some of the blast from it took out the whole of the adjacent window, and smashed the stone top of the altar, without disturbing the cobwebs on the chains of a hanging sanctuary lamp nearby. The High Altar was completely undisturbed. Pews in the body of the church were lying higgledy-piggledy. Most of the windows seemed to be undamaged, but white cracks showed in the plaster ceiling, where the roof had been jerked up by the explosions.

Calver and I managed to put the High Altar on rollers and manoeuvre it across the chancel and down the aisles, to place it under one of the windows on the South side, so that it faced across the church in the west end aisle. With help we moved some of the smaller pews and chairs to furnish this aisle, which made a temporary church for our use. I obtained the services of a local builder, who took up the boarding floor under the damaged pews in the nave, and used it to make a partition from the west end gallery to the church floor, thus closing our improvised church off from the damaged nave. We papered these boards inside, so that it was draught-proof. We moved the font from its position in the central aisle, to the end of the temporary church, and the grand piano likewise. Two Tortoise, army-type, coke stoves, each end, provided the heating. In this fashion, we were fully operational within six weeks of the bombing, and this was the home of our congregation until the end of the war. We were much more fortunate than the majority of the churches in the neighbourhood, which were either blown to pieces or burnt. St Peter’s escaped burning by a very small margin. We had clouds of incendiary bombs all round us: I used to sweep up the unexploded ones by the dozen. Only two fell on the church, which had the largest roof in the area. One landed on top of the cupboard in my vestry. One of the wardens passing at that moment saw it through the unblacked -out window, dashed in and put it out. The other we discovered lying on the rafters of the aisle roof, burnt out, without having set fire to the woodwork all round. St Peter’s was one of the few churches which did not have any organised fire-party to care for it, for we were all heavily engaged in the wardens' service. And yet, because we were so engaged, and allowed the wardens to use the crypt, we were saved. Likewise, I never had time to look after the Rectory during raids, unless I happened to be on the spot, when fire bombs were coming down. And yet, at the end of my time there, in 1944, the only damage sustained by the Rectory, were two window panes, and a broken front door lock. We had some extraordinary escapes. I counted about eleven High Explosive bombs which fell within a radius of 50 yards, and the building next door to the Rectory, a china store, full of packing cases and straw, was burnt out. One wall of the Rectory touched this building, so that we got very hot, when the fire was at its height. The wardens in the Post had to spray it with stirrup-pumps to prevent it catching fire. Incidentally, the only fire watcher in the china store at the time was an old and very deaf night watchman, whom we had to rescue from the building before he could do anything. I wonder whether he even heard the air raid warning, let alone the quite gentle 'plop' that incendiaries made when they hit.

The wardens and fire guards were kept busy, when we had incendiary raids, which were usually the overture to the more intensive bombing. The Germans tried to light up fires, which helped them to pinpoint targets for the high explosive bombs. It was therefore important to extinguish the fires, if we wanted to avoid the rest of their attentions. On one particularly busy night, I counted 95 small fires in my Post area alone. I think this was December 29th, 1940 when the City burnt. We had a good many small explosive bombs, because the Germans knew the Fire Brigade's plans for relaying water from the river and the canals by means of relays of fire pumps, every 200 yards. The H.E. bombs were intended to knock these out. In those days, we were pitifully short of water supplies for fire-fighting. There were a few 500 gallon tanks in the streets, but they were emptied by a fire-pump in a very short time.

We had no major fires in my area, except that which destroyed the War Records, which I have already described. But we had only stirrup pumps, and a few small axes to deal with the fires once they started. I remember being called to a house, which was hit be several incendiaries, one of which had lodged under the floor of the front bedroom. I had nothing to break through the floor, except a 141b sledge-hammer, which one of the fire guards produced. With this I managed to bash a hole in the solid pitch-pine floor, and get a stirrup pump into it. The most serious fires were caused by the occasional oil-bomb – quite a large affair, containing oil round an explosive core. I remember one of these failed to ignite during a day raid in my area, and made a horrible mess of the houses and the street with its cargo of sticky black oil.

Another unusual device was the land mine – parachute mines weighing about a ton, designed to be used against shipping by being dropped into the water, where a time fuse or a pressure fuse set it off. The Germans started using them on London. At first, we did not know what they were: we reported to Control that there were a lot of explosions in the air, which damaged roofs and sent chimney pots flying. After a short delay, we got the message ‘The enemy is using parachute mines.’ This was the first time we had heard of their existence. On that particular night, we soon knew what they were like, because one fell in Penrose Street, just a few hundred yards from the border of our area. There was a tremendous crash, and the air was thick with dust and debris. It leveled the houses for about a quarter of a mile around, but miraculously killed very few. They produced a great deal of blast, but those who were in shelters usually escaped injury. 

The names of those who died in the crypt in the early hours of 
29 October 1940 are commemorated at St Peter's Church.

The above content is from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
This 50 page memoir written in the 1970s and entitled 'The Church Under Fire', concerns Rev. Markham’s involvement with Civil Defence when he was Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, SE17, prior to and during the Second World War, with descriptions of his work organising rudimentary Civil Defence for his parish at the time of the Munich Crisis, September 1938, preparing for the evacuation of local children and converting the crypt of his church for use as an air-raid shelter in early 1939, his appointment as ARP Post Warden in early 1940 and his responsibilities for training ARP wardens and Fireguard parties under his control, the evacuation of the church school, the effects of the Blitz, with references to conditions in public shelters and looting, his work as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer, and final promotion to District Warden before moving to another parish outside London in 1944.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Walworth Under Fire (Part Seven)

Walworth Under Fire

The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,

Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.

The Women's Voluntary Service 
provide a mobile canteen during the blitz

Part Seven

Continued from Part Six

As a District Warden, I had to spend much more time out of the parish, visiting the post areas around us. At first, I shared the whole borough with two other District Wardens. Then one was called up for the Army, and the two of us who remained divided the borough between us, my section being the area south of the Elephant and Castle. It meant that I had nine Post Areas, about 200 full-time personnel, possibly 400 wardens and several thousand fire guards to deal with. My office staff, besides the Bakers, included two Head Fire Guards, one an ex-lecturer, the other, Mrs Phillips, the wife of one of my brother clergy, the Wellington College Missioner. Both of them were keen and skilled. The five of us therefore covered the District. It was interesting work in addition to being an Incident Officer and a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer. Later on I became an Incident Officer Instructor, lecturing to those who aspired to be Incident Control Officers.

Their task was to be on call from Control to be posted to the major occurrences to take charge, and relieve the burdens of the local wardens. It meant that I had to do a turn of duty on occasions at the main Control Centre in the Town Hall, although this was infrequent in my case.

Although parish life was greatly reduced by the raids and their aftermath, I still had to deal with the day-to-day needs of those who came to the Rectory for help. Bertram Calver was a great help but he finally volunteered as chaplain in the Royal Air Force, so that, for a time, I was single- handed. I did not feel that I could exert much pressure on anyone to start as curate under me in the peculiar conditions prevailing, and my time used up too much in Civil Defence. At the same time, the Civil Defence authorities were desperately short of trained responsible people, as the various armed forces called up more and more of them.

I think that the cumulative strain eventually caused me to have a bout of septicaemia, which the doctor at first thought might be paratyphoid. This was just before Christmas, and Leonard Trengove had just arrived, being ordained deacon on St Thomas’ Day, December 21st, preparatory to becoming my assistant. I had jibbed a little at the idea of having a newly ordained deacon for his first curacy under me, but the Bishop and his training college, The Sacred Society Mission of Kelham, thought that he should come. Poor Leonard!? He arrived to find me in bed, a bombed parish and its church. Our little temporary church was heated to stoke ourselves. Luckily, by two coke-burning Tortoise stoves, which we had from the days of my youth, I had known about the Kelham Fathers, as they were called, some of whom had visited my father’s parishes. One of them, Father Southam, knew Leonard Trengove. So I telegraphed a request to Kelham that, if possible, they should send Father Southam to take over for me. He duly arrived and joined Leonard Trengove in mastering the idiosyncrasies of the stoves, and the ways of our church over Christmas. I lay in bed, listening to the distant obliging of the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I was six weeks getting better. It was certainly a baptism of fire for a new deacon, but fortunately undisturbed by air raids.

Leonard Trengove was a black-haired Celt from Cornwall, descended from tin-miners, and trained during six years by Kelham. He had a first class brain, which he used to good effect even in that bombed parish, among other things that taking his Bachelor of Divinity exams at London University. I was sorry I had no more than a year or so with him, before I was called to take very different sort. He was ordained priest not long before I departed, and he in turn became ill, just before the ordination day. Eileen had to take a taxi with him to the cathedral, straight from his bed of sickness, and bring him back to put him to bed once more.

This was in 1943. By that time, our second daughter, Judy, had been born, like her sister, at home in the Rectory, on July 8th, 1942. In spite everything, we had a family life in our own home, denied to so many of my parishioners, whose children were either in the Forces or evacuated all over the country. Many of my colleagues in the surrounding parishes were living in miserable conditions, their vicarages damaged, their families dispersed. I remember the Bishop, when we entertained him in the Rectory, remarking on the fact that ours seemed to be a normal family household, as if it was a refreshing oasis in the desert of the diocese. I am certainly aware of how much I owed to my wife and family. I do not think that I would have lasted as long as I did without them. So many of my wardens faded out through lack of home amenities.

But I was destined to move out. That is another tale.

After all the years that have passed since the war, memories inevitably become polarised by those events, which left the deepest impression. The first raids during the autumn of 1940 therefore, have illuminated the picture I paint with the strongest colours. The years that followed seem to have left less positive traces. But before I end the story of them, I will pull out a few snapshots from the album of my mind. They may add gentler shading to the more violent scenes recorded so far.

After the bombing of the crypt shelter, Admiral Evans, the Regional Commissioner, who had visited us when I was asleep, never seemed to forget me. He organised, with the help of important friends, special shows in London theatres to which he invited different groups of those people who were involved in the bombing. I often received an invitation to these, although they might be intended for groups to which I did not belong. For instance, I attended a special matinee of a West End show, given for all the office cleaners of the City. About 4000 charladies made up the audience, with a few VIPs such as the King of Norway, Prince Olaf and Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, who sat in the stalls, one of which I was allotted. All around us, in the pit, the circles and the gallery, sat tier upon tier of cheerful, noisy London ladies, who were as entertaining as the cast of the show. You could not have found a livelier audience.

On another occasion, I attended a special matinee when Tommy Trinder was the compere, and the audience included a group of Chelsea Pensioners.

In this way, Admiral Evans paid tribute to some of those who were spending long hours in the service of the community. The office cleaners, for example, used to spend their nights in shelters, and then travel up to the City while the roads were still obstructed with craters and debris, often finding themselves having to deal, not only with the dirt of the previous day, but with broken glass and with fallen plaster.

Among the many different services, I think that the Women's Voluntary Service drivers deserve a special mention. Every night during the raids, they drove down to my Post Area, for instance, as they did for all the others, carrying urns of tea and soup, to be distributed in the public shelters. My messenger Jenner used to tell me how he met these girls in their vans at the edge of our area to guide them round the various shelters. This often had to be done, while incendiary bombs were falling around them. He remembered many times seeing incendiary bombs bounce off the bonnet of the van.
The Salvation Army also provided this service on occasions, but we mainly had the W.V.S., who also provided much appreciated mobile canteens for the personnel working on a big incident. I do not know if any of those young women received medals, but I certainly think they deserved them. So also did my messenger, Ted Jenner, who ran constant risks, always turned up smiling, and only finished when he went into the R.A.F.

I salute also a band of young girl messengers, attached to Post 14 in my District. They moved around among the bombs as bravely as any of the men, although they were in their ‘teens’.

Somebody also, whom I admired very much, was the local Police Surgeon. He was an older man, but never failed to turn out to help the wounded, when we asked for his aid. This was in contrast to the two young doctors, husband and wife, who had a local practice, and had been supplied by us with some gas clothing and equipment with a view to their help, when bombing started. They were never available, when we knocked on their door, and one day disappeared completely from their home, leaving their 4000 or so panel patients to be cared for by doctors in neighbouring practices.

Such changes of heart produced some curious political aerobatics. The Borough of Southwark was dominated by the Labour vote, part of which came from those who were nearer Moscow than London in their allegiance. As long as the Soviet Union was neutral or in alliance with Hitler, they were opposed to everything suggested by the National Government. This led to the poor state of preparedness, when War broke out, of Civil Defence in our area. Even after the war started, I found certain of my wardens holding little meetings among their colleagues, whom they tried to stir up to make trouble with the authorities responsible for Civil Defence. When I discovered this, I was in no doubt that they were embarking on a campaign of sabotage. I did not encourage their membership of my Post, and they soon disappeared from the scene.

A very different attitude was adopted by our crypto-Communist friends, when Soviet Russia became our allies. Then, they quickly organised a British-Soviet Unity Committee in aid of their Russian comrades. They asked the Mayor to be the President of the Committee, but he, being a Roman Catholic, refused the invitation. Then they asked me. I thought ‘They tried to infiltrate our organisations I will do the same to them.’ So I became the President of the Southwark British Soviet Unity Committee. I am afraid that I did this with my tongue in my cheek. I had great sympathy for their Socialist feelings: working in the depressed area of Kennington and Walworth for eight years or so made me sympathise with anyone who was struggling to improve the lot of the poor. But I had made a point of reading the most informed and independent studies of Soviet Russia that I could obtain. These had led me to believe that the Communist State would progress as long as there was the stimulus of new discoveries by the free world, that it would so discourage independence of thought that, in the long run, if the Communist system prevailed through the world, stagnation would set in.
I have always been convinced that individual and regional ideas should be encouraged and preserved, and that the centralising tendency of the State tends to smother them. One of the great strengths of the Civil Defence was its voluntary basis. It was amply demonstrated to me in my work with the Wardens’ service. Later on, I was to experience the same sort of thing in the Lifeboat Service. 

Because I was a volunteer, unpaid, I was free to do and say things which ought to be done and said, on behalf of my full-time, paid staff. I think that the Senior, full-time, staff also appreciated this fact and were correspondingly grateful and helpful. I certainly had very good co-operation from the officers of the Civil Defence in my borough, notably from Mr E.J. Prew, the Chief Warden and Mr Willmore, the chief training officer.

But what of my parish? I think that it is very likely that many of the congregation did not fully appreciate the necessity for the civil defence work that I did. They naturally expected more attention from their Rector than they received during the war years. Inevitably, my curate and I could not do all the civil defence work that we did without neglecting many duties as parish priests, which, in normal times, we would have carried out. But we both knew that love of our flock meant not only caring for their souls, but for their physical needs as well. In this, we were following the example of many devoted parish priests in Walworth for many years before our time. We simply could not say our prayers, while vital material needs of our parishioners were unsatisfied. It had been forced upon in the chaos of the first weeks of the war, that our parish needed the leadership in Civil Defence that we alone were free to give.

Nevertheless, when the time came for me to leave the parish, one thing was crystal clear in my mind. I must, once relieved of the long hours of duty in Civil Defence, put my priestly duties, my prayers, and spiritual discipline, in the first place. To have time and opportunity to celebrate the Holy Communion regularly every day, and say Morning and Evening Prayer, without too much interruption, was rather like suddenly finding an oasis in the desert.

Of course, after the first Blitz of 1940-41, we had long spells without air raid warnings. Church and family life, in Walworth even, became more normal. Thumbing through old diaries of that time, one is surprised to notice the church activities that revived and carried on. And yet, there was always the threat of further bombing; you never knew from moment to moment what might happen. I found myself involved in a lot of organisation, perfecting those sections of my district, which had gaps in their arrangements, many of which were caused by the bombing. Towards the end of my time, in 1943, we were being prepared for possible mass, incendiary raids, by large-scale exercises with the fire Brigade, involving Group mobilisation of the services. Although I was supposed to be briefed with all the secret information about German weapons, likely to be used on us, there was never a whisper of the possibility of flying bombs or rockets, the V1’s and V2’s, as they were called. They arrived unannounced on London, as far as wardens were concerned, after I had left the parish, in the spring of 1944. During those large scale exercises, I did not realise that they were secretly preparing us for a concentrated attack from something much more explosive than fire-raids.

If I had known what was going to happen, I might have listened more sympathetically to the appeals by the Town Hall authorities for me to stay, when I did warn them early in 1944 that I was being asked to take charge of a parish in a defence area in Norfolk. This was Caister-on-Sea, the most easterly coast of the British Isles. I replied to their appeal by saying, ‘What are you worrying about? It is all over bar the shouting.’ I mistakenly imagined that the Second Front, heralded at that time as imminent, would make it even more unlikely than ever before that London would be raided. I take my hat off to the tight security that surrounded the possibility of flying bombs and rockets. Certainly, the nerve of many people left in London would have been severely strained, if they had heard rumours of what the Home Office knew might happen.

One result of the flying bombs, as far as I was concerned, was that I received some sarcastic letters from my erstwhile, colleagues after I had moved to Norfolk. The flying bombs did a great deal of structural damage to many of the streets in my area, which still survived the earlier raids. The blocks of flats, which replaced them, make it difficult to trace their outline, thirty years or so later.

An added sting to my colleagues’ jibes came when I received the British Empire Medal in the Birthday Honours, a year later, probably on their recommendation.

In oilskins he is just another working member of the famous Caister-on Sea, Norfolk, life-boat crew. But underneath his sea coat is the clerical collar of the parish priest. The Rev. John Gabriel Markham, Rector of Caister, always answers the call when the 'Jose Neville' puts to sea on a mercy mission. The Rector goes through launching drill here with the Coxwain and Chief Mechanic, Jack "Skipper" Woodhouse. Back from a recent all-night vigil helping a fishing-boat in distress, the Rector stepped off the life-boat just in time to take an early service. 1959.

The above content is from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
This 50 page memoir written in the 1970s and entitled 'The Church Under Fire', concerns Rev. Markham’s involvement with Civil Defence when he was Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, SE17, prior to and during the Second World War, with descriptions of his work organising rudimentary Civil Defence for his parish at the time of the Munich Crisis, September 1938, preparing for the evacuation of local children and converting the crypt of his church for use as an air-raid shelter in early 1939, his appointment as ARP Post Warden in early 1940 and his responsibilities for training ARP wardens and Fireguard parties under his control, the evacuation of the church school, the effects of the Blitz, with references to conditions in public shelters and looting, his work as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer, and final promotion to District Warden before moving to another parish outside London in 1944.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Walworth Under Fire (Part Six)

Walworth Under Fire

The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,

Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.

An ARP class trying on protective clothing

Part Six

Continued from Part Five

I had fear, and thank God I did, for it made me take whatever precautions I could, without neglecting the work that I had to do. I had so many narrow shaves, which added to my surprise, at the end of it all, that I was alive. Several of these were the result of the job that I took on after the first blitz, when the Bomb Disposal Units were unable to cope with all the calls to investigate possible unexploded missiles. It was decided to train two Police Inspectors and one Air Raid Warden out of each Police Division in the Metropolitan area. I was chosen to be trained in this way, and went for a special course at London Regional Headquarters in the Kensington Museums. On my particular course, there were about a dozen Police Inspectors, many of them young bloods with Hendon Police College training, who boasted that, naturally the police always came out top in the examination at the end of the course. The only other warden, and myself were the butts of their chaff.

I had not taken an examination of any sort for 10 years, but secretly I determined that I would do my best to beat the police. Therefore, I studied hard, and really learnt the mass of facts about every type of missile, German and English, with which we had to be familiar, and which we had to memorise. Impossible to refer to books for the various characteristics and dimensions in the darkness. It was a nice boost to my morale, both as a warden and a parson, that I did come top in the final examination.
Before that happened, the course involved some ground exercises in bombed buildings, in the dark mostly. We had to creep about those sites, observed by unseen Royal Engineer officers, and discover various planted bombs or other missiles and report about them, without theoretically blowing ourselves up. On some occasions a voice would call out of the shadows, as one of us crowded above the missile, saying, ‘Thank you, Mr So and So. You have just blown, yourself up.’ That would be the end of that exercise. We inspected sites, which illustrated the kind of damage that various types of bombs might cause.

As a result of this training, I was involved in a number of incidents connected with unexploded bombs, and many more that were suspected, but turned out to be due to something else. One I remember, reported to us by an old lady as having made a hole in her back garden, proved to be a hole dug by her cat.

Others were incidents, which were generally accepted as ‘having gone off’, but which, after careful investigation by myself and the Bomb Disposal Squad, proved to be large unexploded bombs with delayed action fuses. I found the work fascinating, and being comparatively young, took over nearly always from the other Bomb Reconnaissance Officer in my area, who was an older Police Inspector, looking forward to his retirement, and not anxious to risk his neck, unless it was absolutely necessary. I suppose it was my reading of detective stories, and boyhood ambitions to be a second Sherlock Holmes, that spurred me on, for the investigations that I undertook involved the following up of tiny clues and some inspired guesswork. Two cases only, I will record.

The first concerned a bomb which was supposed to have gone off in the middle of one of the small side streets in my Post Area on the night of April 16-17, 1941. It had been a heavy raid, and I did not know about this particular bomb until, the day after. I was puzzled by what I saw. There was a deep crater in the road, where the bomb was supposed to have burst. It had fractured the electricity, gas and water mains. And yet, the pavements nearby were little disturbed, the small houses some 15 feet away on either side had a few broken windows, but no structural damage. One of the people living in the houses said to me ‘Oh. Yes. It went off all right. We heard it and here is a piece of the bomb.’ What he offered me, I recognized to be a piece of what was called ‘the kopf ring’, a triangular sectioned ring of steel, which encircled the heavier bombs to retard their penetration in the ground, and allow them to explode nearer the surface. I accordingly got into touch with the Borough Engineer’s department, who said that they had inspected the incident, as their mains were broken, and definitely decided that the bomb had exploded, and were sending their gangs down to repair the mains. I was not at all satisfied with their verdict, but work began on the mains: I had other things to do. From time to time I visited the site to see how they were getting on. They mended the electric and gas mains and finally a crew was sent to dig deeper to repair the sewer. This time, I watched them. I said to the ganger, ‘Watch out for fragments of the bomb, because I do not think it has gone off.’ They laughed, and carried on. Suddenly, they turned up a large piece of alloy, coloured blue, which was in fact, the tail fin of a big bomb. They were out of that trench like greased lightning. I telephoned the Borough Engineer, and down came the Bomb Disposal Squad. It was not long before they exposed the rear end of a bomb, weighing a ton. In the meantime, we had evacuated the people from the adjacent houses, and the street was cordoned off.  Most of the people had been living happily in houses close to the bomb for the past weeks.  They watched a trifle apprehensively, as the Bomb Disposal Squad dealt with the fuses, the most delicate and dangerous part of the operation. Officially, the drill was that one of the squad unscrews the fuse in the crater, while another stands above, in case he needs help. Everybody else should retire behind the barriers, sealing off the area. The Bomb Squad Captain and I dutifully did as we were supposed to do, and watched proceedings from a safe distance, but, as usual, several of the squad lounged round the crater. A certain nonchalance is perhaps excusable after dealing with the hundreds of bombs, with which, by this time in the war, most of them had become familiar. However, the captain, one of the most experienced, agreed with me that we should not take unnecessary risks. Unfortunately, quite a number of men were killed unnecessarily, because they ignored the safety drills.

The fuses made safe, the squad brought up a mobile crane, and hoisted the bomb out of the hole in the road, like some offending tooth. A great gasp ‘Ooo, look at that.’ went up from the watching crowds behind the rope barriers. For ‘Hermann’, named after the portly Goering by the bomb loaders in his Air Force, was as large and fat as a pillar box, and that without his tail, which had broken off in pieces on impact. If he had exploded, there would not have been much of the street left, and a crater 20 feet deep and 30 feet across would have opened up. I saw the result of such explosions in a square of old Victorian, four storey houses, in Surrey Square, in the next area to ours, when I went along to see how some colleagues of mine, the Vicar and curate of All Saints’, Surrey Square, were faring after a heavy raid. I found that the whole square was filled with craters, large enough to take a bus, and every one of the houses, reduced to piles of rubble. I was therefore thankful that our ‘Hermann’ was now safely on the Bomb Disposal Unit’s lorry.

The second incident involving an unexploded bomb also illustrated the same fact that confused so many of us in the early days. This is the unexpectedly violent damage caused by the entry of a bomb, dropped from a great height even if it does not explode on contact. Like I have just described, many cases occurred because our knowledge of the behaviour of bombs on impact was insufficient. There were thousands of missiles lying in the ruins of London, written off when they fell as small, exploded bombs or anti-aircraft shells.

One of these unexploded missiles was the unwitting cause of a gigantic operation to re-examine every reported incident since the beginning of the blitz involving, in the case of our borough alone, over 4000 occurrences. As a consequence I was launched on a very intensive detective search, which I found fascinating.

The incident that sparked off this search happened when there was no raid in progress, one Sunday evening, when I was sitting in our dining room in the Rectory with Eileen. It was a sunny day: we had had no raids lately. People were enjoying the Sunday break, many of them thronging to the Trocadero cinema, which was still intact, near the Elephant and Castle, a mile or so from us.
Suddenly, there was an almighty crump. The ground shook. I leapt up and craned my head out of the window, in time to see a great column of smoke and debris ascend into the air somewhere in the direction of the Elephant and Castle. I think this must have been late 1942, when I was a District Warden and an Incident Officer, covering the southern half of the borough, as far as the Elephant & Castle. I therefore rang up the Control to see what had happened. They said that a large explosion had occurred near the Trocadero, but knew nothing more. I got on my bike, and cycled up to see what I could do. By this time, services of every kind were converging on the scene, without being called out, in particular the Fire Service from the big station near the Elephant & Castle. When I arrived, they were swarming all over an enormous pile of rubble, about thirty feet high, which was all that remained of a block of flats. There was naturally a lot of confusion, but eventually the casualties were identified and dealt with. Miraculously, only a few were in the flats at the time: there was only a handful in the street, passing by, when the explosion covered them with flying rubble, and, in one case blew one of them up in the air and tossed him on top of the houses on the other side of the street. He was found, injured but alive. It was miraculous, because, had the bomb gone off a little later, the people in the cinema would have been coming out, and thronging the street.

After it was all over, investigations by the Royal Engineers revealed that the explosion was that of a ‘G’ type mine, weighing about a ton. This kind of mine was not a parachute mine, but had fins like a bomb. It had been designed to be dropped into shallow waters, and lie at the bottom. It had very sensitive fuses, detonated in various ways. This particular one had been dropped two years before, had hit a block of flats, severely damaging them as it went through the building and buried itself in the foundations. It was written off at the time as an exploded bomb, and the block was demolished and the site cleared. People were able to live in the next-door flats for two years without any suspicion that they were literally sitting on a time-bomb.

When it did explode on that Sunday evening, it did far more than shake the surrounding area. It caused a major revolution in the ideas that the experts had held with regard to German fuses. These were armed before they left the planes by means of an electrical charge. The fuses were detonated by this charge, when the bombs hit, or when a delayed action mechanism triggered the charge. It had always been thought that the electrically charged fuses would be harmless after approximately three months, by which time the electrical power would, they assumed, have evaporated. As a result of this theory, many unexploded bombs in awkward situations, which had lain there for more than three months, were on a very low priority for removal.

After this ‘G’ type mine had gone off, having lain there for over two years, the whole theory had to be abandoned.  Hence the re-appraisal of all the incidents recorded since  the start of the blitz, and the thorough investigation of the sites of any which might be doubtful. The one that I particularly remember in this affair was one that had been  reported at the time of its arrival as an exploded anti-aircraft shell. It had fallen, so it was reported, on a small house in a row of semi-detached dwellings, badly damaging the top back bedroom, and the kitchen below. I went along to see it, and was lucky to find that it had not been cleared up, and the house was empty. The next door houses, however, had been occupied throughout the previous two years. I was immediately suspicious, when I found the rain-pipes on the wall of the damaged back rooms were untouched, and still hanging tightly to the wall. Furthermore, the garden wall, separating the house from the next door back yard, and constructed of old bricks and mortar, four inches thick, was intact, although it was separated from the room in which the shell was supposed to have gone off by a mere two feet. I looked over the wall into the yard next door, watched from their back door by the people who lived there a few feet away. I noticed that the stone slabs of the yard were raised a few inches in a sort of hillock.

‘That bomb definitely went off, guv’nor,’ the man next door said to me, ‘I've got a piece of the bomb to prove it.’ ‘Can I have a look at it?’ I asked. He went indoors and appeared with a metal ring of dull green steel. I thought to myself, ‘This looks very like the carrying ring of a German bomb, so we are probably not dealing with the supposed anti-aircraft shell.’ To make sure, before I alarmed anybody, I rang up the Bomb Disposal Captain, and described the shape and size of the ring. ‘That definitely sounds like the carrying ring of a 500lb bomb. I'll come down straightaway.’ It was not long before he and some of his squad came to the house, saw what I had seen, and decided on the evacuation of that street and several others nearby. They dug down in the yard of the occupied house, where I had seen that suspicious hump, and found the fins of the bomb, they followed further clues and eventually ran the bomb to earth four feet under the kitchen floor of the man who had given me the ring. The bomb had apparently come down through the house, which suffered the damage, entered the ground and jinked sideways under the garden wall and the back yard to its final resting place. It proved to have a delayed action fuse, which failed to function because the bomb was damaged in its penetration of the building and its foundations. It was lucky for the family living above it, for they later told me that they had danced ‘Knees up, Mother Brown’ at many parties on their kitchen floor, a mere four feet from the unsuspected death-trap.

I sympathised with them, for I too had been within a few feet of a very dangerous, unexploded mine, without knowing it was there at the time. We had a heavy raid. We were luckily not badly damaged in our area. So after the ‘All Clear’, when it was first light, I wandered across the border of my Post Area to see how my neighbours, the Reverend Thompson and his wife had fared.

As I crossed the boundary, I noticed that the streets were completely deserted. Not a living soul in sight. When I arrived at my friends’ Vicarage, I discovered that a bomb had fallen between it and the adjacent church, damaging both pretty severely. I wandered round the ruins, to make sure that nobody was about, and then returned through the eerily silent streets to my own Rectory. There I found Father Thompson and his wife, plus Father Curwen and his dog, from All Saints’, Surrey Square, on our doorstep, asking whether they could take refuge with us, because they could not get near their house from which they had been evacuated by the police. A parachute mine, they explained, was hanging just over their garden wall, waiting to be defused by the Royal Navy, who were the experts to deal with it. I was rather shattered to discover that I had walked in their garden a few minutes before, within a few feet of the unseen mine. The drill, you must understand, that had been drummed into me, was that even pedestrians must be kept away from an unexploded mine for a distance of 400 yards. They have a very sensitive trembler trigger mechanism, designed to be set off by vibrations from passing ships. They were consequently very tricky objects for the Navy Mine Disposal Unit.

Father Curwen, the Vicar of All Saints’, Surrey Square, and his curate, not to mention his dog, had a prolonged ordeal during the raids. As I have already mentioned, Surrey Square had received more than its fair share of heavy bombs. I think that this was due to the fact that one of the largest railway marshalling yards, the Bricklayers’ Arms, lay just across the Old Kent Road from Surrey Square. Time after time, salvoes of heavy bombs, probably destined for the Bricklayers’ Arms, fell short, demolishing first the church, and then the Vicarage, both of which were in the centre of the square, together with the Church Hall. When the Vicarage was hit, Father Curwen was shaving in the bathroom upstairs, his curate on his way out by the back door to the church. When the bomb hit the front of the Vicarage, Father Curwen opened the bathroom door, to find nothing except the ruins of the front rooms. The curate was blown by the blast out of the backdoor. Neither of them was hurt, and the dog survived. They then took refuge in the Hall, which doubled up as their Vicarage and a temporary church. Finally, another raid damaged the hall, so that they had to retreat to live with the Thompsons at St Stephens, from which they were chased once more by the unexploded mine.
One of my nicest memories was preaching at a later date at a High Mass celebrated by Father Curwen and his brother clergy, with a full choir, in the roofless, bare ruins of All Saints’ church. Miraculously, the organ, on the North side of the roofless chancel, had survived and was played for the service.

In connection with the bombing of his parish, I remember the strange noise that the large bombs made as they travelled over my area. At the time, I was busy with an incident in my own area, where a bomb had fallen In Boyson Road, blowing up the water and electric mains, and causing the collapse of an adjacent newsagents. As we struggled to get through the debris to the people whom I knew were buried, those heavy bombs sent us flat on our faces in the road with their awe-inspiring, rumbling, rushing, somewhat reminiscent of an express train, a sort of wobbling roar. They seemed to be so near, that we were surprised when nothing happened, and then got on with the job in hand. It was pitch dark: I was very worried because I stumbled on the end of a severed electric main, rearing like some serpent about five feet into the air from the crater. There was water running from the main everywhere, flooding the cellar of the public house apposite, and causing a marvellous firework display of shorting electricity in a junction box in the pavement, where the cover had been smashed. Men were dashing about, shouting, in the dark. I was afraid that someone would touch the electric cable and be killed. I noticed that someone had sent for the Fire Service to pump out the pub cellar, before the beer was spoilt.

The newsagent’s shop, with its living quarters in two storeys above, was just a heap of rubble which had fallen so neatly into the cellar, that the debris scarcely formed a pile higher than a man at pavement level. I knew the people who lived there. One was a young man, an ardent member of the Pacifist movement, the other his sister. They had taken over the shop recently. He had been to see me, and was due to serve in my church for one of my early morning services next day.
The Rescue squad, my wardens and I worked all that night to find them. We tunneled down through tightly packed debris, which included thousands of cigarettes, the allocation for that month having been delivered that morning. Eventually, we found first the sister, dead, and then the brother, still warm, probably suffocated by the dust. We felt defeated.

These tunneling jobs were strange affairs, so chancy in their outcome. One night, I was summoned to a small house, which had been demolished by a bomb. We managed to crawl under the collapsed bedroom floor, held up precariously on one side by the tottering wall. There, by the light of our torches, we found a man, still sitting in a kitchen chair at a table, his head and body bowed down to the table top by the weight of the flooring, which had crushed him, injuring his head. He was grey with mortar dust, but conscious. We got the rescue party, who sawed off the legs of the chair, and so released him to be whisked off to hospital. In the meantime, we found his daughter lying dead in the debris a few feet away. To look at the scene in the light of the following morning, it was difficult to imagine that anyone could have survived under the pile of rubble and wood, which was all that remained of the house. While we were looking, a young man appeared, who wanted to dig through the debris into the place where his front room had been. ‘My old mum,’ he explained, ‘is terribly anxious about her valuables which she kept in a tin box under her bed in the downstairs front room. She always shelters in the trench shelter in the play-ground, and has nowhere to go. It will help a lot if I can get hold of that tin box.’ I replied that we could not let him dig in the ruins, but I and one of my wardens would do it for him. So there we were digging downwards through the pile, so that it would not be unduly disturbed and bury us. It turned out that the top room of the house formed a flat, in which a young married couple had taken great pride in furnishing the front room with the latest fashion in shiny furniture, including a piano, marble surround to the fire-place, patterned rugs, etc. - the sort of articles that the big hire purchase stores in the Walworth Road displayed in their windows before the blitz blew them out. We dug through the lot, hauling the piano from the debris, piece by piece. I can still see the iron frame, cart-wheeling down the heap of rubble, its strings twanging protestingly, as it crashed to rest. We cut a hole through the pile carpet, so that one of my wardens could squeeze under the old lady’s bed below, and find the tin box which contained her few treasures. It was, hot, dirty work, after a long noisy night, but always felt that these little salvage efforts were worthwhile. It is hard to realise that it was these small things that made such a difference to the morale of so many people. I suppose the secret of it lies in the fact that we showed that someone cared about the loss of their homes. It was important that there should be some visible link with that home, as they took refuge in the bare, amorphous surroundings of the schools, which acted as Rest Centres for the bombed out.

We tried to do something also for those who eventually found alternative lodging, when their time in the Rest Centres came to an end. One case I remember particularly, because out of the tragedy of one home, another family was given a new start. I was given the complete contents of one of the flats, formerly occupied by an old retired shoe maker and his wife. The Council had arranged for the old couple to be evacuated. Old people, with no families to look after them were being encouraged to take advantage of this scheme. Unfortunately, this particular old couple, in their eighties, probably married for 60 years, were evacuated to different hospitals or old peoples’ homes somewhere in the north, in different towns, so that they did not see one another. They quickly pined and deteriorated. They both died. Their flat in my parish was left intact by the bombing. Their only relative, an elderly man living out of London, offered me the contents of the flat. My wardens helped me to move them to the crypt, which was empty after the bombing. We borrowed a cart and horse from one of the barrow boys, and within a few weeks were able to supply another bombed out family with all the necessaries for setting up home – complete sets of crockery, bed linen and furniture. The only article I did not give them was the old shoemaker’s set of tools, which I used from time to time for many years after.

Such are some of the vivid pictures that come to the surface of one’s mind after all these years. But life during those first months of the bombing was not all death and destruction. It is true that many days in the blitz of 1940 were dominated by the warnings, and the bombs. We ate and slept when we could, but warden duty took a lot of the time. I remember being so fed up with the understandable grumbling of the full-time wardens at the long hours of duty, and the disturbed off duty periods, that I worked out the hours of duty that I did for that particular week, and it shocked me when it came to 118 – and I was officially a part-time, unpaid voluntary Post Warden. The unpaid voluntary wardens, in fact, did more than their fair share of duty. On top of it, they had to get to work to earn their living. I had my parish duties. We tried to keep the daily services going, although they were often impossible, if incidents occurred, which kept me on duty in daylight hours. I tried to get some sleep after breakfast. I can remember falling asleep, with my fork full of a rasher of fried bacon, half way to my mouth. We rarely got a bath. Yet family life, church life, went on. We printed the Church Magazine ourselves on one of those old, flat, hand-rolled, duplicators. Eileen did the rolling of the 200 or so copies, a page at a time. She cooked, she looked after Susan, and fed myself and the curate. She shopped, sometimes cycling up as far as the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street for the groceries. Susan sometimes went to stay with her grandparents in Tulse Hill. Otherwise, we very rarely left the area during the weeks of the first blitz. We slept and ate in the basement of the Rectory most of the time.

Then the raids became less frequent. We returned to sleep upstairs. If there was a raid, the Post was alerted by two telephoned signals – Yellow warning (raiders in the offing) and Purple (raid imminent). When they had been received, one of the wardens would clump up two flights of stairs to our bedroom and shine a torch on us in bed, with the words ‘Yellow (or Purple) warning, sir.’ I would dress and hurry down. Eileen would take shelter with the child in the basement.
And then we actually had a holiday. In the summer of 1941, when the last big raids on London ended with that of May 10th, we were offered a fortnight’s holiday by the diocese, offered by the Vicar of All Saints’ Church, Southbourne, to a clergyman’s family in the bombed areas. We had a marvellous time there.

Parish life revived. I had confirmation candidates to prepare: many weddings, and some baptisms. I signed thousands of forms for my parishioners, mostly for the special milk and orange juice allocation for people with young children. Calver, my curate, and I dismantled the organ in the church, stacking the pipes which seemed to be usable, hundreds of them, down in the crypt, where I got Mr Maunder, the organ builder to come and label them, with a view to the rebuilding after the war.

St Peter's Church in 1954

I did more training for the Civil Defence, and we received brand new uniforms to replace the rather tattered overalls. They consisted of blue battle dress, with, yellow badges, and a blue mackintosh, and police type boots. Finally, I found myself promoted to District Warden, responsible for the oversight of several Post Areas. One of my deputies became Post Warden, and I had to find a new office. I managed to get hold of an empty shop at the corner of our street and the Walworth Road, a mere 50 yards from the Rectory. The Town Hall told me to buy the furniture that was needed, so Eileen and I explored the second-hand office equipment dealers in Holborn. We ended up with a couple of desks, a table and some chairs, plus a filing cabinet which looked very smart in the spacious front showroom of the shop. The large spare space of linoleum became a demonstration area for lectures and exercises, for I could draw plans of streets on the lino in chalk. There was a large cellar under the shop. We arranged a telephone plug, so that, during the raids, we could take the office telephone down there. Edith Rush, one of our choir members, who now played the piano for our church services, volunteered to be our telephonist at nights. We also organised a trailer pump crew, trained by the Fire Brigade to manhandle one of the smaller pumps, really intended to be drawn by a car. This crew became very keen, dragging their pump for half a mile to fires. They made our cellar their headquarters. Eventually, Edith Rush married one of the crew.

My office staff consisted of Mrs Baker, the wife of Councillor Baker, who had been a Post Warden of one of the Posts in the district, and now became my Deputy. They were a marvellous couple, always willing and cheerful. Mr Baker, one of the Southwark Borough Labour Party councillors, proved invaluable to me in dealing with the large meetings of Fire Guards, thirsting for the blood of the authorities over the question of compulsory fire watching on business premises. I would give a reasoned exposition of the matter, which did not cut any ice at all with the angry men. Baker would then get up and address them for half an hour or so, saying a great deal, of which I could not make any connected or logical sense whatsoever. Time after time, I watched the eyes and faces of his listeners. I saw them glaze over, as if they were being slowly anaesthetised. When he stopped, there would be an outburst of clapping, and they voted for our proposals. I consciously used this power of oratory for my own ends but was inwardly chilled by a demonstration of the kind of spell-binding that Hitler had exercised in Germany.


The above content is from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
This 50 page memoir written in the 1970s and entitled 'The Church Under Fire', concerns Rev. Markham’s involvement with Civil Defence when he was Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, SE17, prior to and during the Second World War, with descriptions of his work organising rudimentary Civil Defence for his parish at the time of the Munich Crisis, September 1938, preparing for the evacuation of local children and converting the crypt of his church for use as an air-raid shelter in early 1939, his appointment as ARP Post Warden in early 1940 and his responsibilities for training ARP wardens and Fireguard parties under his control, the evacuation of the church school, the effects of the Blitz, with references to conditions in public shelters and looting, his work as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer, and final promotion to District Warden before moving to another parish outside London in 1944.

Walworth Under Fire (Part Five)

Walworth Under Fire

The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,

Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.

Bronti Place Jubilee party 1935 (Photo: Steve Gray)

Part Five

Continued from Part Four

How it all comes back to me in the mists of time, as I write about it. The rising and falling banshee wail of the sirens, twisting your stomach with its message of the symphony of guns and searchlights and bombs. The chatter of the wardens in the Post, as they reported and left for patrol, the dense tobacco smoke in the semi-basement post as we prepared for the first salvoes of the anti-aircraft batteries, most of which were sited in the larger parks. The nearest to our area were those carried on a train which shuttled back and forth on the line which ran parallel to our area, about 100 yards away. In the early days of the bombing, the Bofors ‘Bang-bang-bang’ was a reassuring answer to the menace of the ‘burr-burr’ drone of unseen aircraft. Then to these light guns were added, first naval multiple ‘pom-pom’, a quick-firing ten barreled affair, which made an ear-splitting, tearing sound, and projected a salvo of tracer shells. I remember particularly standing on one occasion, just outside the Rectory, when a group of parachute flares floated just above the church tower, bathing it and everything around in brilliant white light, so that we felt exposed and naked to the enemy planes droning above. The multiple pom-poms on the railway, and the other guns all opened up in a fury of sound, tracer slipping through the air in In red streaks, as they shot at the flares, and dispersed them. For a couple of minutes it was the finest firework display I had ever seen. But this was small compared to the barrage of the later years of the war on London, when the parks were filled with a new weapon – the multiple rocket launcher, manned by Home Guards, who merely had to load the rockets onto a tray, press a button and off they went, many at a time to form a fixed box pattern of explosions all over the London skies. The combined blast of their launching and their detonation in the air produced an earth shaking thunder and roar, like many express trains in a tunnel. The whole sky would light up to the horizon.  We in the wardens’ service did not like this weapon, in spite of its power against the enemy, because of the shrapnel that they produced. We had plenty of it from the older-type anti-aircraft shells: it fell all around in the heavier barrages, and we swept it up in shovel loads the next day.  But I was never hit, and it made no more noise than a falling pebble.

The ‘Z’ rockets, on the other hand, rained on us a great deal more lethal hardware, because, in addition to the metal of the actual shell head of the rocket, containing the explosive, there was a three foot tube of steel, containing the rocket fuel, which theoretically should be blown to piece when the war-head exploded, but often came dawn as a jagged, partly ripped tube, three inches in diameter. Coming down from a great height, they made a sound very similar to that of a bomb, a whistling ‘whoosh’ and a thump as they hit the ground, or a crash as they met the harder road or the roof of a building. By the time that they were being used, I had become a District Warden, covering half the borough, and one of few wardens in the whole borough trained as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer by the Bomb Disposal squads. I was continually being called on to investigate what the locals declared were unexploded bombs in their backyards or their lofts. Too often they proved to be the remains of rockets. At one time, I remember dozens of these steel tubes standing in my office, after the wardens or I had retrieved them. They certainly added to the clatter and the nerve-twisting of those who were on patrol in those nights.

However, I was thankful that I never had to deal with yet another device that our ‘boffins’ had conceived out of their almost Heath Robinson minds. As a bomb-reconnaissance officer, I had to be trained to deal with every known German and British device that I might find. The strangest of these was undoubtedly the ‘Free-floating balloon barrage.’ This consisted of small, gas-filled balloons, attached by thousands of feet of piano-wire to a circular wooden platform, about 18 inches across. This platform had a sort of Mills Bomb type of device sitting in the middle, with its detonating trigger held in the safe position by a piece of string, to which was attached a slow-burning cord fuse, fastened in a sort of serpentine pattern to the surface of the platform. To this cord-fuse were attached at intervals other strings, which hung down below the edge of the platform, with little bags of sand at their ends. More piano wire hung below all this, ending in a small parachute. As hundreds of these contraptions were launched from the ground, the slow fuse would be lit, the balloon would rise to a certain height; as the gas slowly escaped, the slow burning fuse would release a small sandbag from the platform, allowing the balloon to rise again to its operational height, trailing its thousands of feet of piano wire below it. The theory was that enemy planes would catch the piano wire on their wings, drag the platform onto it, as the other ends would act as anchors to the wire, with the drag of the balloon at one end, and the small parachute at the other end. The plane would then have its wing blown off by the bomb by means of a contact fuse. If the bomb had not thus been detonated by the time the balloon had lost its lift, the theory was that the slow-burning fuse would release the safety lever and explode the bomb before it reached the houses or the ground below.

Various factors caused this device to be used rarely, I believe. One was that a change of wind could set the whole barrage of many hundreds of balloons drifting in the wrong direction, over London’s built up areas rather than the open country beyond. On one particular night a large part of one borough was covered with piano wire and little wooden platforms. Some of the bombs had failed to blow themselves up, because rain had interfered with the slow-burning fuses.

Barrage balloons over Buckingham Palace

We were summoned to conference about the matter, to prepare for a repeat of the problem. It was with a certain wry sense of the ridiculous that I learnt there that my role in such an event would be to trace the wire carefully through the street, until I found the unexploded bomb. Having cut the wire a few yards from the bomb (from the shelter of some convenient corner, in case this cutting should set the bomb off) the next step was to tie some hundred feet of string to it, and from that safer distance to drag it carefully along the street to some open space, where it could be left to be detonated by the Bomb Squad. It is putting it mildly, when I say that I was not enamoured of the whole idea. I was very thankful that I was never called upon for that particular exercise.

In other similar briefings, we were told about butterfly bombs, another very nasty little device, of the Germans, this time. They were quite small, about the size of a tea caddy or a ginger jar, but not so tasty in their contents, which consisted of about 4lbs of High Explosive in a cast-iron casing, which fragmented into lethal shrapnel. They were classed as anti-personnel bombs, and were designed originally for use against military targets. The Germans had been using them on certain civilian targets – notably, I believe, on Grimsby, which they plastered with the things, immobilising the whole area for several days, because many of them failed to explode, and became deadly booby traps in all sorts of unlikely places. This was the result of their ingenious design, which gave them the name ‘Butterfly Bomb.’ Hinged to the inner casing of cast iron was an outer skin of steel in four sections, which opened out like wings on release from the 50 Kg. containers in which they were dropped from the plane. These wings acted as a kind of parachute, so that the bombs fluttered down comparatively slowly, while the four wings rotated on a screw thread, and could be detonated by a jerk or a bump. The mechanism which detonated them was very tricky and wayward; some had been known to be shot at by members of the Bomb Disposal from behind a safe sandbag wall, and not gone off, only to explode in their faces as they jarred the ground by their approach.

They could land in trees, ceilings, lofts, hedges, soft ground, which they did not penetrate because their four wings prevented them, so that they lay like some obscene dull green bird among the weeds or grass of a garden.

It can be imagined that I did not look forward to looking for such objects, or stumbling upon them in the dark. Luckily for me, I never did. The only probable specimen that graced my Post Area landed on the small cottage of one of my wardens, Mr Fiveash, who lived with his wife and a large family of children in Bronti Place, where he kept his horse and cart, to ply who the trade of a Street Market fruit seller. He was a nice, rustic ruddy featured man, who would have seemed much more at home on some farm. His horse lived in a stable at the back of his little house, down a short garden path. When the small bomb landed on the roof of the cottage, it blew the roof off and the four walls outwards. This cottage (for that was what it had been in the days when Walworth Common was open fields) was a wooden framed building, of brick filling in the frame. His wife and family sheltered in a large cupboard under the stairs. When my wardens arrived at the scene, they told me, to their utter astonishment, they found the frame building standing, the bedroom floor intact, and the whole tribe of Fiveashes emerging from the cupboard, unharmed. The only trapped member of the family turned out to be the horse, because his stable door was jammed with the brickwork of the house, and the way out was blocked with solid sections of the walls. With Mr Fiveash, as soon as it was light, having sashed the brickwork up with sledge hammers, we cleared a way for his horse, and off he went to Covent Garden to earn his daily bread.

Dear old Bronti Place! It had its fair share of bombing. Now there is nothing of it but a name and a very modern block of flats. Gone are the two rows of cottage-type houses, separated from one another by yards and gardens - a sort of backwater among the London crowd of shops and taller buildings. Most of its inhabitants were engaged in the trade connected with the adjacent street market of East Lane. A couple of my wardens came from there.

One of the myths of the blitz was started in Bronti Place. I was called to an incident there one night, when a bomb had landed in one of the yards between two houses. No one was hurt, but the chimney pots were leaning drunkenly just above the pavement. One of the wardens and I got hold of a ladder, climbed onto the roof, where we discovered the front wheels and shafts of a cart, and its load of pears and apples, weighing the roof down. We lowered the loosened chimney pots down, and placed them in a row on the pavement for the time being. Some weeks later I happened to be in the Wardens’ Post when Mr Moore, who lived in Bronti Place, but had not been on duty there the night the bomb fell, was regaling the wardens on duty with the story of how a bomb had fallen in Bronti Place, and the blast had lifted the chimney pots and deposited them neatly in a row, upright, on the pavement. I suspected that this tale had been one of his chief contributions to the many legends of the raids doing the rounds of the local pubs. It was one myth that I had to discount.

One by one, the little houses in that street were rendered uninhabitable. During one of the daylight raids I happened to be inspecting a shelter in another part of my area, in Westmoreland Road, where a small street market was in full swing. In daylight raids, the warning often went only a few seconds before the bombs fell. In this instance, there was a crash a little way off, as I flattened myself on the pavement. I remember looking up being rather amazed to find the street, which a moment before had been crowded with shoppers and barrow-boys, selling their wares, completely deserted. They must have dived remarkably quickly into the basement areas of the adjacent houses. I also saw a column of debris and dust from a bomb in the general direction of the Rectory and the church. I ran towards them, thickening clouds of dust rolling towards me, scattered bricks and debris littering the road. No signs of damage to the Rectory or the church, as I ran further towards Bronti Place. There was damage to the roofs of the houses I passed. When I arrived at the corner of Bronti Place, there was a large crater, lined with brick rubble and bits of wood, all that remained of two houses, which had received a direct hit. It was mid-morning and fortunately the people who lived there were out shopping, and the street was likewise deserted.

Bomb damage, Farrell Court, Elephant & Castle.

In that same raid, there was another bomb, which fell in the Walworth Road, where shopping crowds and omnibuses were busy. It fell at a bus stop, just as the bus moved off, and blew up a brewer’s dray, unloading outside a public house. The horse was killed instantly, but the driver, who was sitting on his cart, was hurled up on to the roof of the pub, where he was found little injured. The bomb penetrated very deeply into the road, and blew up all the main telephone cables. A section of one cable, about two or three inches thick, cased in lead, was hurled high in the air and fell through the roof of a shop on the other side of the road, from which it was retrieved by one of my wardens, and brought to the Post for my inspection. It was fortunate that it had not hit anyone, for it weighed quite a lot. It looked rather like the gnarled branch of some grey tree, from which the ends of hundreds of multi-coloured wires protruded.

I found these short daylight raids very worrying, because of the crowds in the streets. If there was time, they used to rush madly into the nearest shelters, including the crypt. It was rather hazardous to be in their path, for it was a stampede of hundreds. Often the crypt had standing room only, which meant that there were probably 900 there, luckily only for half an hour or so.

Another hazard I did not relish was that of the large plate glass windows in the shops of the Walworth Road. Blast could suck them out into hundreds of lethal fragments. I always tried to go across my area by side streets to avoid passing along the main road. The astonishing fact is that, during the years 1940-44, I was out in the raids a great deal of the time, never took shelter, and yet never was hit by shrapnel or debris. I suppose that I was safe, because I was not a sitting target.

It seemed tragic to me when some of my people were driven by fear to go to almost any length to flee the bombs. One couple aged about forty, with no children, because they said that they could not afford them, were always down in the crypt in good time every night, their pockets full of their savings, which, during the daylight, they took with them on feverish hunts in the countryside in the hope of finding a safe refuge.

They had a little house just round the corner from the Rectory, backing onto the churchyard. In the rear garden was a very good Anderson shelter, one of those curved, corrugated steel affairs, half buried in the ground, one of the safest shelters one could have. They never used it. They did no duty as wardens or fire fighters. To find a safe house elsewhere was their obsession. When the crypt was hit, they were down there, but they and their money were blown completely to pieces, that the only identification we could find after weeks of sifting the debris was a torn sick certificate with the husband's name on it, which enabled the coroner to identify their death. At the end of the war, their house and the Anderson shelter still stood, undamaged.

Similarly, another couple fled from the district to Somerset. Bombs fell near them, so they moved again to Newton Abbot on the edge of Dartmoor, only to be killed by the only raid on that town. If we allow it, fear no often, drives us into danger. 


The above content is from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
This 50 page memoir written in the 1970s and entitled 'The Church Under Fire', concerns Rev. Markham’s involvement with Civil Defence when he was Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, SE17, prior to and during the Second World War, with descriptions of his work organising rudimentary Civil Defence for his parish at the time of the Munich Crisis, September 1938, preparing for the evacuation of local children and converting the crypt of his church for use as an air-raid shelter in early 1939, his appointment as ARP Post Warden in early 1940 and his responsibilities for training ARP wardens and Fireguard parties under his control, the evacuation of the church school, the effects of the Blitz, with references to conditions in public shelters and looting, his work as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer, and final promotion to District Warden before moving to another parish outside London in 1944.