St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

Thursday, 22 October 2020

The Bombing of St Peter's Church 80 Years Ago


Next week marks the 80th anniversary of the bombing of St Peter’s Church in Walworth. For many local people during the Blitz, the crypt had become their regular air raid shelter, a safety haven where several hundred folks would gather every evening to escape enemy bombardment.

On the night of 28/29 October 1940, two 50 kg semi-armour piercing bombs dropped from a German plane, penetrated the roof and then the floor of the church before exploding in the crypt.

The blasts had a devastating effect, and claimed the lives of at least 67 souls, including one entire family wiped out in a moment of time.

To commemorate those who tragically lost their lives, a handful of events are taking place. The first, on Wednesday 28 October at 7:00pm to 8:00pm, is an online Zoom talk conducted by Neil Crossfield for the People's Company.

Neil, who lives close by St Peter’s, will be looking at some of the folks who were deeply affected by the bombing. Neil has carried out extensive research into the lives of a number of the victims, searching wartime records and contacting family members. If you are interested in the history of Walworth this will be something you will not want to miss. Join the Zoom room at:

Meeting ID: 848 4237 3081       Passcode: 336159

The second event is the annual Memorial Service due to be held inside St Peter’s Church on Thursday 29 October at 7:00pm and conducted by the Rev. Alan Wild. Much of what we know about that fateful night comes directly from the detailed memoirs of the Rev. John Markham (pictured below). Markham’s The Church Under Fire is a stirring account of his involvement with civil defence as an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) Post Warden and Bomb Reconnaissance Officer in Walworth. All this whilst carrying out his calling as the Rector of St Peter’s Church in Liverpool Grove.

For the service in the church building government guidelines regarding COVID 19 will be observed, such as physical distancing, the wearing of a face mask, track and trace, one way system and hand sanitisation. Although the service is fully expected to go ahead, because of the constantly changing restrictions, you are advised to check details right up to the last minute.

Selected passages from The Church Under Fire have been made into readings by a number of us, ably recorded by our good friend Julia Honess, who has done so much regarding the oral history of Walworth.. These audio files can be found Here (Part A) and Here.(Part B) * Rather poignantly the readings were done in the crypt of St Peter’s Church where the tragedy actually took place 80 years ago, and where the lives of so many local people were cruelly cut short.

We will remember them.

* Recorded extracts from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944. Read by Steven Davies, Jack McInroy, Neil Crossfield, Father Alan Wild, Nigel Scott-Dickeson. Thanks to Julia Honess, Walworth Society, InSpire at St Peter's and St Peter's Church, Walworth. Please note that slight edits and changes of order have been made for these recordings. The original papers are held at the Imperial War Museum.



Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Walworth's Titanic Pastor

Two images taken from the  BBC clip of John Harper's gravestone

I was kindly sent a link to a BBC Scotland news item from April 2012, the centenary of the Titanic disaster that claimed over 1500 lives.

The news clip recalls John Harper, the very brave pastor from the Walworth Road Baptist Church, who gave up his life jacket in the freezing Atlantic waters so a fellow passenger could be saved. Later, his home church in Glasgow was renamed the Harper Memorial Church in his honour.

Further details of Harper and that fateful night can be found here.

The Walworth Road Baptist Church, where Harper ministered in his final years, stood between Heygate Street and Wansey Street.

Jack McInroy

Grateful thanks to Julia Honess for the link.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Tramp

The late Michael Jackson's illustration of Walworth born Charlie Chaplin is up for grabs on the Ebay auction site. The legendary comedy genius was a massive influence on the eccentric American entertainer. Jackson even covered the song 'Smile' the music of which was written by Chaplin for the Modern Times movie.

During a break in the Jackson's touring schedule, a pre-plastic surgery Michael made a trip to East Street in the London Borough of Southwark, the home of Chaplin's birth. A photo-shoot was arranged with Jacko dressed as the Little Tramp character, and a series of photographs were taken in nearby Freemantle Street just south of the Lane.

The signed (but undated) drawing in graphite and charcoal with a hint of pink crayon, also depicts Chaplin's famous tramp. The starting bid is a mere ten thousand dollars, but it has a 'Buy it now' price of $13,100.00 plus postage costs to the UK of £387.00.

Monday, 25 July 2016

St Peter's Church Football Team 1930/31

This photograph of the St Peter's Church football team has recently surfaced. The boy in the front row is holding a ball dated 1930/31 season.

I can only assume that the man in the dog collar is the Rector of St Peter's - Gilbert Spofforth Reakes - who ministry at the church lasted from 1924 until 1937. At the time of the photo he was 40 years old and was married to Kathleen. They had two children.

We will be fascinated to find out the names of the other men in the photograph, which looks like it was taken in the churchyard.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Keith Baugh introduces Bob Marley to Peckham

If there was a prize in the 1970s for the coolest teacher in South London, it would surely have been presented to Mr Baugh the Art teacher at Peckham Manor School.

Keith Baugh was one cool dude admired by all the pupils from the 1st Year to the Upper 6th. In contrast to the more authoritarian figures at the school, he was arty and trendy, and got on great with everyone. He even kept his guitar in his classroom, one of the art rooms at the Technical Wing, and occasionally played it for the kids. How cool was that! Forty years later, with his shock of white hair and beard, he looks like he could have stepped out of Led Zeppelin or the Who or another classic rock band.

One of Keith's crowning achievements was inviting musicians Bob Marley and Johnny Nash to play an acoustic gig at the school. This was in 1972 when Bob Marley was relatively unknown and Johnny Nash was the big star. The concert, to a couple of hundred lucky souls, may even have been the springboard to Bob Marley's success as one of the twentieth century's most influential and much loved recording artists.

The BBC's The One Show (click on You Tube link above) recently filmed a segment at the old Peckham Manor School site where Marley and Nash played. The school is long gone but the three main buildings in Peckham High Street, Sumner Road and Cator Street all remain.

Keith revisited his old workplace and met up with a couple of former pupils who witnessed the show. One of them was Walworth Road's very own George Dyer - the Threadneedle Man.

I was a 12 year old at Peckham Manor School at the time but I somehow managed to miss the performance. Despite that, having so many West Indian mates, meant reggae was the backdrop to my school days and played a big part in my music listening. We had the Tighten Up LPs constantly on the turntable at home, whilst the sounds of Toots and the Maytalls, Jimmy Cliff and U Roy filled the ether in Peckham and Camberwell.

Mr Baugh always remained in my memory, and it was a great thrill to meet up with him at one of his art and photography exhibitions a couple of years back. Check out his website here.

Jack McInroy, May 2016.

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.