Why is there no London monument for the Blitz?

‘When I reached the end of Milk Street, I looked out towards Moorfields across an area of devastation so final and complete that the memory of it will always rise in my mind whenever I hear the word Blitz. There is a savagery, a fury and a hideous wickedness about the ruins of London – and of Berlin also – that chills the heart.’

From HV Morton’s ‘In Search of London’

The Blitz began on September 7th, 1940, seventy years ago today, when London was attacked by 300 German bombers. It lasted three months as London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights. Between September 7 and May 11, 1941, 18,800 tonnes of high explosive was dropped on Holborn, the City, Westminster, Shoreditch, Southwark and Stepney. Up to 20,000 Londoners were killed, many thousands were wounded and 3.5 million houses were damaged or destroyed.

And yet, astonishingly, London – a city of a thousand statues – still does not have a single worthwhile monument to the citizens who suffered the Blitz.

The story of the Blitz is a familiar one – see this wonderful propaganda film for an emotional contemporary look at London under attack – and while the ‘Blitz Spirit’ narrative can be trite and over-mythologised, there was undoubtedly some truth to it. Londoners had to deal with the Blitz in part because they had no other choice, but there is evidence that Londoners did more than just survive, they almost relished the battering they received. As  Humphrey Jennings wrote at the time, Londoners were ‘secretly delighted with the privilege of holding up Hitler’, while Phillip Ziegler said in ‘London At War’ that ‘Londoners made a deliberate attempt to seem nonchalant and unafraid’.

Peter Ackroyd suggests that Londoners might have been able to cope because of spiritual kinship with the destruction of the Great Fire, an idea that HV Morton pre-emptively pooh-poohs in his elegiac 1951 classic ‘In Search of London’. ‘The Fire was an accident and it lasted a matter of days. The Blitz was the deliberate attempt of an enemy to subdue a city whose watchword has always been freedom… the effect of these two events upon the population cannot be compared.’

Yet while London has a Monument for the Fire, it still does not properly commemorate those who experienced the Blitz. There’s a small park in Wapping, a couple of minor plaques – one by St Paul’s, near the firefighters monument, and one in St James’s Churchyard on Piccadilly – and dozens of plaques to individual explosions.

But there is no single iconic statue or monument prominently placed and devoted to the citizens of London in the manner of that for, say Animals In War, or any of the numerous monuments for different branches of the armed forces (Bomber Command are the latest).

This was first pointed out to me in 2006  during an interview with Jack Lohman, the Director of the Museum of London, and his museum does now contain a stunning WWII tribute. The Blitz room is a single stark shadowy space, with an unexploded bomb hanging from the ceiling. The walls show still images of the Blitz, while survivors recount their experiences on audio. It’s incredibly moving, but it isn’t enough.

Why doesn’t London pay sufficient tribute to its Blitz Spirit? I asked Jane Furlong, project co-ordinator of the UK National Inventory of War Memorials, and her answer boiled down to one word:  politics.

Furlong told me: ‘As with all memorials, it’s down to whether individual groups or people want to commemorate something. Also, is there a need of it among those who lived to tell the tale? There are lots of service veterans who want to make sure what they did is never forgotten and a memorial is the best way to do that and so they can go away and organise and make sure it happens. It is all down to having that desire, the community needs to take the lead.’

Bomber Command is a ready-made community that can easily mobilise to commemorate their place in history; London’s civilians are not. Of course, that didn’t stop the Animals In War memorial from getting built, but they managed to enlist the high-profile support of patrons such as the Princess Royal, Kate Adie, Vera Lynn and Joanna Lumley. 

If London is to get the Blitz Spirit memorial it deserves – a dignified sculpture in a prominent public place, dedicated to all Londoners who experienced the Blitz – it requires somebody to take the initiative. And that, ironically, would chime against the spirit of the Blitz: one of exaggerated nonchalance at what took place over London in the winter of 1940-1941.

So it seems for now that the sad and powerful room at the Museum of London and an easily overlooked plaque in the shadow of St Paul’s are the best we are going to get. 

But I think that is a great shame and that ordinary working Londoners, as Ken Livingstone might put it, deserve better.

15 responses to “Why is there no London monument for the Blitz?

  1. Pingback: The Blitz, 70 years on « 853

  2. Interesting post, Pete – from my own family I’d reckon the “deliberate attempt to seem nonchalant and unafraid” is pretty close to the mark.

    The Museum of London Blitz gallery is superb, but for outdoor memorials this Thames Barrier Park one (www.newhamstory.com/node/936) does the job rather well, I think. But is bang on your point – it’s for the civilians of East and West Ham, not Londoners in general.

    A good example of the mobilised community getting things done is the proposed Bethnal Green tube disaster memorial (http://www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org) – not too sure about the structure itself, though I see the point.

    Either way, no collective memorial for an event that defined two, even three generations? Odd.

    Where is that Wapping garden, by the way? I don’t live far away, but don’t recall seeing it…

  3. Really enjoyed this post, Pete.

    For me, the whole of London’s cityscape is a monument to the Blitz: the choice (and not so choice) pieces of modernism that emerged from the cleared bomb sites, and the incongruous modern blocks amid the Victorian terraces. I guess this makes the Barbican London’s chief Blitz monument.

    Didn’t know about the Museum of London Blitz room though. And don’t forget the Imp War Mus’s Blitz Experience. Talking of which, the Imp War Mus of the North (Libeskind) is less specifically a monument to the blitz (they bombed the north too) – the sloping floors to unbalance you, the slits mimicking search lights, the fragmented shell of the building, etc.

    I think you should start a campaign.

  4. Thanks for those comments Simon and Jessica.

    The Wapping garden is the Hermitage Wharf Memorial Garden here. http://www.fellwalk.co.uk/thameIK200856x.htm

    Interesting point on the Barbican as a giant memorial – that makes the presence of the Blitz room in the MoL even more appropriate. (Pretty sure there are other general memorials in Liverpool, Bristol and Coventry though I’ve not checked.)

    Interesting too about the suggestion of a campaign – I suggested as much to the Standard but they said it didn’t really interest them. But sing could definitely happen if enough people got behind it.

  5. On the other hand, I’d rather have nothing than a piece of appalling kitsch like the Animals in War memorial. Other recent ones (the Fighter Command one on the Embankment, the Women in War one on Whitehall) aren’t much cop either, in my opinion. Perhaps something best left alone.

  6. Baldassaro, you are right; we are awful at monuments and if the oversized, pompous, land-hungry thing proposed for Green Park is an index, getting worse. Memory of the blitz, even for those of us born after – in my case not that long after – is in, any case, ingrained.

  7. Try visiting Christ Church in Newgate Street not far from St Paul’s station – bombed in December 1940 and never restored. As good a monument as any, I’d say.

  8. I have my own monument to the blitz.
    An old photo of my grandad ,who was a firefighter in london during the war.
    Him and a crowd of his fellow firemen standing around the wing of a downed German plane giving the thumbs up and holding their helmets aloft.

  9. Like your blog Pete.
    I’d bookmarked it a while back when someone linked to it on The Blog ,but I’ve only recently started to check it out. Sorry bout that.
    I’m now delving through your archives!

  10. Pingback: Underground again at Aldwych | The Great Wen

  11. There is a memorial to civilians of the blitz. It is in Wapping. Sorry about that but I am sure Bethnal Greens memorial will be built, as it should be.
    As forgetful as it is,Wapping was also part of the docks which was being bombed , a lot of people died there. We should never forget the fight they,like the rest of the rest of london , the Country , fought for us, all. A memorial is quite close to where they died . A memorial to civilians .
    Bethnal Greens Loss was tragic, and should be remembered with a memorial, as should all communities who lost so many lives then .
    The people in charge have to realise we will not forget them, they gave their lives for us.

    Give Bethnal Green their memorial

  12. I recall an area in London severely damaged in the Blitz, and left unrepaired well into the 1970s as a memorial. I don’t, however, find any indication that it exists today. Does anyone remember it?

  13. Pingback: Wappingness | The Great Wen

  14. Pingback: Survivors in Wapping, 1976 | The Great Wen

  15. Pingback: The legacy of the Blitz | The Great Wen

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