St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

Friday, 23 October 2015

Walworth Under Fire (Part Four)

Walworth Under Fire

The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,

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

A cuddly toy the only comfort for a little boy during the blitz.

Part Four

Continued from Part Three

That first stage of the raids, lasting for 50 or 60 nights at a stretch, was not always fraught with excitement, because the enemy tried to wear people down by sending a few planes over at intervals all night, keeping us in the shelters for 12 hours at a time, with the occasional daylight raid adding to the strain. We might have a warning, but no bombs in our area, but it meant that we had to be awake, even though the bulk of the people in the area could snatch some sleep.

As a result, a number of the wardens began to go off sick, usually with a doctor’s certificate giving ‘nervous debility’ as the diagnosis. This could mean anything from plain ‘wind up’ to a cumulative strain, resulting from snatched meals, little sleep, and working under difficult conditions. Those who had to travel to work in the City or in factories experienced more hazards than we did, working, as I did, near home, with a wife in my case providing meals on demand. This situation was felt most keenly among the Fire fighting parties, especially when they were expected to do turns of duty on business premises. This duty became compulsory after a time, and was a very sore point with those who had volunteered from the early days of the war to be trained to fight fires in their own street. I had to address many meetings of these men, thirsting for the blood of the authorities. The latter were always campaigning for more fire guards in my area. They were particularly impressed by the strength of one of them, which could muster 40 volunteers. I did not disillusion them by revealing that most of them were youths, centred on a cafe, run by a gorilla-like ex-wrestler, whom I suspected of being a fence, and who used his fire-guards for other purposes besides the fighting of fires. The Town Hall provided them with steel helmets, and armbands identifying them as members of a Fire Party. During gunfire, they would patrol in pairs down the Walworth Road. If no one was about, they would heave a brick through a shop window, and dash round the next corner. Another pair would follow, and, if the coast was clear, empty the shop window, and disappear with their loot to the cafe. On several occasions, I chased them off if I saw this happening. I never reported anybody to the police, who during the air raids, except for the occasional War Reserve members of the force, were conspicuously absent from the scene. The policy was that the regular police reported to their Station, when the warning went, and only went out, when incidents called for their presence. My job, both as a parish priest and as a warden would have been impossible, if I had been known to tell tales to the police. I probably owed my immunity from attack to the fact that my attitude was known.

Looting did occur, of course. I tried to prevent it being done by the wardens. I remember refusing to enrol one man, who, early on in the raids, wanted to join our Post. He said ‘I am always first on the scene of any incident. I have a small van, and can be on the spot without delay.’ I made a few discreet inquiries, and found that he was a burglar, that his van was full of tools, and that he made a point of driving all over the borough, particularly to business premises, when they were hit, and diving straight into the ruins to find the safe! His only concern with us was that he wanted the cover of a warden's badge and identity card. These last were very much a part of life by then, and during raids, the War Reserve police were in the habit of stopping anybody on the streets and asking for their card. Besides my ordinary civilian identity card, I had a special one for my Post Warden’s rank, and later on another for my office of Incident Officer, and yet another for my post as Bomb Reconnaissance Officer. But more of this later.

One consequence of the looting was that we found ourselves responsible for the recovery of valuables in bombed buildings. We had to catalogue the possessions of casualties that we might find in the debris, and send them up to the Borough Treasurer's department, where they could be claimed by the owners or their relatives. I always rated this as important, once we had dealt with the safe delivery of casualties to the hospitals, because nothing helped their recovery more than the knowledge that their personal treasures were safe. The usual practice of those who took shelter was to put all their cash, Savings Certificates, items of personal jewellery, and personal papers, such as birth and marriage certificates, in their handbags, which they left under the chair on which they were sitting, or by their side, if they were in bed. As soon as it was daylight, I used to take two of my wardens, and tunnel through mountains of rubble to find these handbags. We dare not leave them even for a few hours, or they would be gone. Two incidents remain in my memory more than most, demonstrating the speed and organisation of the looters.

In one of the heaviest raids on London, April 16th/17th, 1941 at 3:30am, a large bomb hit a block of flats in my area at the corner of Saltwood Grove and Merrow Street, demolishing a three-storey building and partly destroying another. The blast also tore the windows and doors out of two hundred other flats in Saltwood Grove and Merrow Street, making the buildings unsafe, so that we had to evacuate all the inhabitants to Rest Centres. Two of my Fire Guards were killed, others injured as they were on watch in Saltwood Grove. Several people were buried in the debris of the flats. One of them was the elderly caretaker of our church school, Mr Marsh, and his wife. They were sheltering, as were others, under the substantial concrete stairs of his block of flats, where he was found, buried up to his chest in the debris, but comparatively unharmed. At the time of the explosion, he had his hands in the pockets of his rain coat. He could not move them, for they were pinned by the rubble. We got him out together with several others. Whilst this was happening, I was going through the census sheets, which the wardens so hated filling in day after day, showing where people sheltered by day and night, and their number. After much cross-checking, which took several hours, I decided that there were two possible casualties, unaccounted for in the rubble of one of the buildings. By this time it was a warm, sunny morning. One Rescue Party was standing by, in case of emergency: all the other services had left the site. We called, and listened by the heap of bricks and mortar. Then we heard what sounded like the faint mewing of a cat. I told the Rescue squad to dig, and very soon we found two girls, one dead under the remains of a kitchen table where she had sheltered, the other still alive, sitting in the remains of an armchair close by. She was the source of that faint sound, which was all she could make, when she regained consciousness six hours later. Her throat and lungs were choked with the white mortar dust which still remains in my memory as one of the most vivid sensations of all the bombing. It had an acrid, damp sort of smell. She was rushed to hospital, where she recovered quite quickly from a broken arm and severe bruising. I do not think that she knew how close we had been to leaving the site that April morning, before we heard that faint mewing sound.

Saltwood Grove looking towards Merrow Street 
many years before it was bombed. 

However, what I also remember about this incident is that it illustrated the problem of looting. Later that April morning, some of my wardens and I tunneled through the debris. Exhausting work at any time, but very much so after a particularly hectic night, with no sleep. I had made a brief visit home to find the Rectory completely isolated from outside visitors or traffic by a ring of unexploded bombs. We found the handbags and other possessions of the injured, and we also salvaged the contents of Mr Marsh’s flat, or what remained of it. He lived on the top floor. The front had collapsed leaving the kitchen and one other room intact. The staircase had gone. So we borrowed ladders belonging to one my wardens who was a window cleaner and climbed in through the back window of the flat. We then let down on ropes all the furniture and other fittings that we could find. I can picture to this day a tin bath, which we loaded with a complete dinner service, slowly and jerkily descending three floors on two ropes. At any moment I expected to see it tilt or turn over, but happily it did not. We stored all things salved from this flat in the ruins of the crypt, from where Mr and Mrs Marsh were able to recover them when they came out of hospital, and set up house together once more. That made a lot of difference. If we had waited another day, it would have been looted. It may seem that I was exaggerating the risk. But a few days later, a family from one of the blasted flats came to collect their furniture, and found that a piano had been taken from the upstairs flat, and two other relatives came to ask me whether they could enter their old mother's flat in Merrow Street, which had been blasted and made unsafe, and when I took them there, they found that all her trinkets, including her son's First World War medals, were gone. In fact, the very morning of the raid, the Borough Treasurer's men came down to empty the gas and electric meters in the blasted flats, only to find that everyone had been broken open and rifled. That was only six hours after the bomb exploded.

A rather more macabre side to this looting is illustrated by another precaution that I had to take, when we recovered dead bodies. As soon as we found them, I had to put them in an empty room, under the guard of two wardens, until the stretcher party could remove them to the mortuary. Otherwise, their clothing would be rifled, there in the midst of the darkness and dust, and falling bombs. I often said in those days that it was a good thing that I was not armed with a pistol or gun: I would probably have shot those whom I suspected of this kind of activity. It used to make me very angry.

A more comic side to this looting was shown that same night. I arrived at the scene of the explosion within a couple of minutes of hearing it. I quickly found the body of one of my Fire watchers, lying in the rubble. Then I found his wife, shouting and swearing her head off. ‘Some bleeder,’ she cried, ‘has nicked a couple of pounds of bacon I had in my meat safe.’  It transpired that the said meat safe was sitting on top of the rubble of the block, in which she had occupied the top flat.  I do not think that she knew then that her husband’s body lay a few yards away. Later on, the irony, the tragi-comedy of the affair remained with me. Shock can play funny tricks with people. Incidentally, I find that I still have the slips of scrap paper, listing the names and subscriptions of the several hundred people who gave money for the dependents of those fire guards, all local people from the damaged flats, giving sixpennies or a shilling or the occasional half crown, in spite of the fact that many of them were without homes at the time.


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.

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