Walworth Under Fire
The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,
Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.
I suppose that it all started for us in the late summer of 1938, when my reading of the ‘Times’ and my two and half years’ studies, with the Consular Service in mind, made me aware of the impending war. I put up a large notice, about four feet square, on the notice board on the gates of the churchyard – ‘Peace or War?’ it read, and announced 24 hours of continuous prayer in my church, inviting my parishioners to do a stint in this endeavour to prepare for what I feared would come.
I was Rector of St Peter’s, Walworth, a classical-fronted church, designed by Sir John Soane, and built in the 1820s, when Walworth Common, as it was known then, had been recently populated with streets of small terraced houses and larger ones for those who could afford resident servants. A middle-class estate for City workers in those days, by the time I had come as Rector, had become a densely-populated working-class district. 11,000 people in an area half a mile long and one quarter wide. We had more than our fair share of barrow-boys, living in small cottages, with stables attached, in Bronte Street, and serving the East Lane open-air market, a mini-Petticoat Lane. They kept their barrows of fruit and vegetables in their small yards, their fish in tanks under the beds. We had a colony of boxers, centred round Ted Broadribb, the ex-champion, and now a trainer. Don McCorquodale, and Freddie Mills were among those who were often about.
We also were reputed to have a very high proportion of the burglars and other gentlemen known to the police. The sergeant at Carter Street Police Station said to me on one occasion, ‘There are so many thieves in Walworth that they have to thieve off one another. If there is any crime in the Metropolitan area, they call us up first to find out where likely suspects are, and whether we have seen them at Walworth at the time of the crime.’
The Rector before me had all the carpets in the church stolen twice, because he had become rather unpopular with the criminal fraternity for his diatribes in his parish magazine against those who came to be married in church, but never bothered to come there at any other time. The church was very popular for weddings, as its Imposing classical-pillared front, and steps, made a good setting for the wedding photographs.
There was a fair amount of poverty there in those pre-war years. We often had columns of Unemployed Workers, carrying empty coffins, parading into the street leading up to the churchyard gates. This area was a miniature Hyde Park Corner for public orators of many different persuasions: Temperance, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and many more, using the Christian Evidence stand, designed rather like a bookie’s pulpit, which we kept in the entrance lobby of the church. This stand was erected just outside my front-door, at the entrance of the churchyard, so that, from my study window just above, I had a private and unimpeded view of the speakers, and a clearly audible example of their oratory.
They got their audiences from the milling crowds of shoppers, who thronged the Walworth Road, a hundred yards away, where touts for the various speakers could operate with some chance of gathering passers-by. Ringed by this varied assortment of over-crowded and decaying houses, shops and a nearby main-line railway, the centre of the parish had a contrasting cluster of well-built flats, maisonettes and cottages, in tree-lined groves and streets, belonging to the Church Commissioners, the often-berated landlords of the Church of England. They were administered by a kindly band of ladies from an office in the estate, which had been built by the Commissioners in 1908. If I remember rightly, the Walworth Common estate was indeed common land, of which the Commissioners were ground landlord. They leased the land for a peppercorn rent on a 999 year lease, which fell due in 1908. The Commissioners then became owners of the property, which had been built in the course of time on their land. They immediately demolished most of the property, which by that time was very decayed and built flats, maisonettes and cottages, which enabled them to house people of all ages and family size. The result was that the centre of my parish was a kind of village, in which most of the tenants remained for family life, moving up from two-roomed flats to cottages and back to flats in their old age.
The village-like nature of this estate was enhanced by the proximity of the imposing church, in its park-like churchyard, and the nearby church school, founded at the same time as the church, [sic] and flanked on one side by a small recreation ground. This school was a very happy affair, small, but very well equipped, and staffed by a devoted band of teachers, who thought nothing of having four different sets of home-work for some of their pupils. It had such a good name in the area that there was always a waiting list for entry.
Such was the area over which I had been appointed Rector the year before. It was to be my home and my main preoccupation for the next five years, so much so that I very rarely went beyond its boundaries for very long. It became our world. I say ‘our world’, because my wife shared it with me, and for most of the time I had curates; first Bertram Calver, who left to be a chaplain in the R.A.F. and, towards the end, Leonard Trengove, a newly ordained Cornishman from Kelham. I had a dear old church-worker, Deaconess de Saumarez, who was evacuated in the war years. Above all, I had a very wonderful lot of people, the people of St Peter’s, Walworth, who were ‘The Church Under Fire’ in those war years. I write this very insufficient story for them – that they may have some record – perhaps a microcosm of what went on in countless little communities, which, amidst all the tales of great statesmen and gallant military exploits, can so easily be overlooked. I was privileged to share with them their ordeal by fire more closely than most by virtue of my calling. Here, then is their tale and mine.
St Peter's Church and the Old Rectory in Liverpool Grove
As I said earlier, it really all began for us with my Church poster. My wife and I naturally talked about the imminent danger of war. I had read pamphlets about the Civil War in Spain, giving experience there in air-raids. I thought a good deal about the effect of such raids on my little domain, with its densely populated streets, and its proximity to the main railway line from the coast. Eileen, my wife, had trained as a gas-officer with the Red Cross, and knew a great deal more than I about that threat.
The time came when we both decided, as the Munich crisis developed, that we would go to Southwark Town Hall and find out what preparations for war and air-raids were being made for my parish. We were duly ushered into the presence of the young Deputy Town Clerk, who was the Air Raid Precautions Officer for the borough. We explained that we thought that war might break out in ten days’ time and asked him what he was doing about A.R.P. ‘Ah yes,’ he replied. ‘I will put you in touch with the air raid wardens in your area.’ A clerk was duly sent off to obtain the names, returning very shortly with a list, which consisted of a man and his wife, shopkeepers in the Walworth Road, just round the corner from my house, and two girl typists who lived with their parents in Trafalgar Street, which bordered the churchyard on one side. We were not reassured by this list, which seemed slightly inadequate for 11.000 souls. I asked about air-raid shelters; there were none. I asked about gas-masks; they were not assembled, the supplies of parts apparently only just being brought into the borough stores. I offered the basement of the Rectory as a wardens’ Post, and the crypt of the church, which we used as club-rooms and for Guide and Scout meetings, as a Public Shelter. Before we parted, I asked whether it would be in order to recruit wardens by an appeal that coming weekend in church. ‘Yes. That would be a great help.’ was the reply, and a clerk was sent for some enrolment forms for me to use in this recruiting drive. Back came the clerk to announce that they had run out of forms. So, I asked whether I could have some drawn up myself, and that was agreed.
This was the rather disquieting start to my association with Civil Defence, which was to occupy so much of my time and energy for the next five years. However, we were making a start, and not sitting on our backsides, grumbling, that is a temptation, that I have experienced like everyone else. We went home and contacted the wardens, whose name had been given. ‘Have you had any training?’ I asked. ‘Training?’ they said, ‘We haven't yet heard anything from the borough since we enrolled.’ So, we put our heads together. I drew up an enrolment form, which, i thought, asked for the relevant information from prospective A.R.P. workers, and the two girl typists, the Misses Medlar, had them duplicated at their office. We obtained about forty volunteers in church that Sunday. It was a start.
It was not long before they were called upon, for we were all summoned to a special emergency meeting in the Town Hall a short while after, and at the very height of the Munich Crisis. We were told that gas-masks were to be fitted to the whole population on a certain day, at the schools in the area, and we were to carry this out. We were briefly instructed how to do it, and allocated to our various schools. My wife and I found ourselves fitting hundreds of gas masks to a very varied crowd of Walworthians in one of the big London County Council schools, a gloomy, grimy, Victorian barn of a place, graced with the name of Michael Faraday. My chief memory is of a slightly panicky stream of people, and of one old lady who was most concerned with my efforts to pin the tapes of the gas mask round her hair, as it proved to be a wig, which was inclined to slip askew, or even leave her head, as i took the mask off. I had a moment of struggle with her, as she tried to hold on to her wig and I tried to remove the mask.
After they had been fitted, they were put into those anonymous-looking square cardboard boxes, which became part of the uniform of Londoners for the first months of the war, but gradually disappeared from public view, or only remained as receptacles for lunch sandwiches. We duly returned home with our cardboard boxes on this first rather awe-inspiring occasion, visions of vast gas clouds already threatening our horizon. I think that we very soon forgot them, except that we did buy a lot of sticky paper rolls for sealing windows and doors, together with cloth for the blackout of our windows. Only recently, I found a lot of the sticky paper strips in rolls, unused in our case.
The undeniable fears and apprehension of that day, which made me even more aware of the helplessness of the old and the young, and even more determined to see that they had as much protection as we could organise, was followed by the relief of Neville Chamberlain's bit of paper and ‘Peace in our time.’ However, I felt deep down that this was only a respite, which I must use to prepare. Not that I did very much in that winter of 1938-39, except attend a few meetings in the basement parish room of my Rectory, where the Wardens’ Post No.16 was to be provided. Our Area Officer was an ex-dustman of the Southwark Borough Council. He held about two meetings to get the area organised into two groups, to be managed by two Head Wardens, sharing the one Wardens’ Post. At one of these meetings, attended by about eight people, the question of appointing a Head Warden for one of the groups was raised. No one seemed keen to take the job, so the Area Officer asked me. I said that I wou1d be a Temporary, Acting Head Warden, but ‘Shouldn’t I have some training?’ ‘Haven’t you had any?’ I was asked. I was duly summoned a few weeks later in March 1939.
In the meantime, I tried to keep some of the keener volunteers together by holding meetings in the Post, at which I read some of the experiences of those who had taken part in the Spanish Civil War. The Wardens’ Post remained unequipped, as did the Church Crypt shelter.
My wife and I were very busy in the parish, and with the forthcoming birth of our eldest daughter, destined to be born in Apri1 1939. One of the affairs of the parish with which I was quite soon engaged was the preparing of the parents of our school children for mass evacuation in the event of war. The Head Master and I spent a good deal of time in persuading the parents to allow this evacuation. We were rewarded with a very high percentage of acceptances. Slowly and dimly, my parish was becoming aware of the threat of war. However, my impression now is that the possibility of war did not impinge very sharply on our lives in those Spring and Summer months of 1939. We were all too busy with pursuing our daily lives, free of the momentary panic of the Munich Crisis. My daughter, Susan, was born on 25th April 1939, and I had my parish work – teaching several mornings in the school, club, many weddings, which entailed interviews at the rate of three a week, daily church services and getting to know my parish, which I had only taken over in 1937.
Everybody planned summer holidays. We had ours in August, when London parishes were least busy. But half-way through it, I had the strong feeling that war was very near, so we uprooted ourselves from Poole, where we had hired a house and a small yacht, and came back to Walworth. Very soon we were seeing the evacuation of the school, and the mothers and small babies. I think the latter presented the most pitiable sight –a column of women and very young children passing by my door on their way to the coaches to take them to the station, not knowing where they would finally arrive.
At least I did know where my wife and baby were going, as they went off on September 1st to friends at Salisbury. My mother took over my house, a three-storeyed Victorian affair, with the Wardens’ Post in one of the basement rooms. My curate’s landlady disappeared, so that he came to occupy the top storey of the Rectory. Together, we tried to tackle the various problems which soon confronted us.
One was that neither the Wardens’ Post nor the crypt shelter had been provided with any sandbags for their windows, which were just above ground-level. So we organised a band of men, one of whom scrounged 400 orange boxes from a friendly greengrocer, and filled them with soil from the churchyard to give temporary protection. The crypt had been provided with wooden benches, and four Elsan closets, as there was no water or toilet facilities down there. A label went up outside ‘Shelter for 230.’ The recreation ground next to the school was in the process of having a shelter dug in its surface; a trench-type, lined with flimsy concrete slabs, four inches thick at the edges and less than an inch over most of their surface. The entrances were incomplete; builder’s ladder and tools were the only fittings visible. This was labelled ‘Shelter for 200.’ Apart from Anderson shelters in those houses with gardens, there seemed very little else for the crowds of Walworth Road shoppers in my area.
Looking at the faded pencil notes that I made at my wardens’ training class, I see that the pride of place in most of the lectures was given to the types of Poison Gas, and the precaution that we could take. High Explosive came a bad third in the course, with fire-bombs second. For the latter, we were provided with half a dozen stirrup pumps, rather like glorified garden syringes, which proved effective on the bombs, if you found then quick enough. I think that all our ideas about raids were dominated by Poison Gas in those first days.
On Saturday September 2nd, in the midst of our preparations, a very smart young Army officer appeared, with fifty Royal Irish Riflemen in full battle kit, to announce that they had been allocated to the area as an Anti-paratroop force, and ‘Could they come to church the following morning?’ They apologised for the fact that they would have to bring their rifles into church with them. The war seemed distinctly nearer at that moment. I secretly wondered what the young Irish would make of our rather High Church Sung Eucharist at 11am.
Sunday was a bright late-summer day; we had our usual early service and then prepared for our Sung Eucharist. Most of the choir had been evacuated, leaving a few young ladies, one of whom had to be pressed into service at the last moment to play the organ for the first time in her life, as our regular organist had been evacuated with his firm. In due course, we started, with a congregation of a few old ladies and the fifty soldiers, clattering into their pews with their rifles and tin hats. I got into the pulpit for the sermon, started to preach on the Good Samaritan, when the air-raid warning sirens wailed. I looked at the congregation for a second or two, none of us daring to imagine what was about to happen. We had been indoctrinated with the idea that it would all start with massive bombing of London. I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen! I do not know what you will do; you can stay here, go down into the crypt shelter or home, but I must go to the wardens’ post without delay.’ With these words, I dashed into my vestry, tore off my vestments, and in my shirtsleeves, shot into the basement room of my house, to find a covey of fourteen lady telephonist volunteers, hurriedly, and in some panic being fitted with their gas masks by one or two of the men. I seized a tin hat and my wife’s Red Cross army-type respirator, and dashed off into the street to see what was happening at the half-finished shelter in the recreation ground. Already the streets were manned by War Reserve policemen in full gas clothing, consisting of oilskin coats and trousers, rubber boots, helmets and respirators, warning rattles in their hands. When I arrived at the recreation ground, I was confronted by a dense crowd of people from the East Lane street market, which had been at its usual Sunday morning height of activity. Prominent in the front of this crowd were several youths, who had outrun the rest, and, before I could do anything, they piled down the builders’ ladders into the half-finished shelter. I had visions of broken limbs and panic. Angrily, I tore down the Air Raid Shelter notice which the Borough Engineer had displayed. Within minutes, the ‘All Clear’ went, and I returned to the Post to sort things out, still in my shirt sleeves.
That memorable Sunday ended in a situation, which had an element of comedy in contrast to the rather tense morning. There was another Air Raid warning as darkness fell. The wardens by this time very much on their mettle, and encouraged by rather jittery householders, dealt fiercely with anybody who showed a light during that first black-out. Great excitement in the Walworth Road, as people living in one of the flats above a shop had fled away from London, leaving all their lights on and the windows without blinds. No one could get in from the street: I was summoned. How could we attract the attention of one who might be on the premises? My wardens wanted to break in, but I said, ‘Let’s try once more to attract their attention; I’ll get my air-pistol.’ With that I ran to the Rectory, got the pistol and fired a couple of slugs at the top window at the rear of the flat. There were no signs of life, so up swarmed one of my wardens (at such a speed, to the third floor, that I strongly suspected that he was a cat-burglar) and climbed into a window. I followed more slowly, and found myself looking into the window of the kitchen, and a sink full of unwashed dishes. So ended this brief adventure, only to be recalled by the local newspapers with large headlines ‘Rector fires at window.’ This was the beginning of many strange roles that I was to play during the next year or so.
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.