Category Archives: War

Secret London: the mystery of London’s World War II railings

I recently received this email:

‘Stumbled across your blog recently and wondered if you’d be interested in doing a bit of digging to find out what happened to London’s railings.

During WWII there was a national scrap drive especially active in London where a lot of railings were grubbed up and sent off to be scrapped. I have never been able to find out what really happened with this pre-emptive move to destroy London before the Luftwaffe but it seems that program was more of a public relations exercise rather than of any practical use and the railings were dumped.
I have heard tell of them being dumped in the Thames and being used as ballast for ships leaving the Port of London. It is said that seaport buildings in Guyana and Nigeria still sport rather nice Georgian railings.’
And that was it. In truth, I know little about London railings (image below from Knowledge Of London). I’d also heard the story that were used for scrap metal in the war, and was also aware that in Harleyford Street, SE11, some ARP stretchers used during the war to ferry casualties away from bombsites had been turned into railings (you can see a glimpse of them in Patrick Keiller’s London and they also feature in Peter Ashley’s excellent More London Peculiars).
So I turned to my dog-eared copy of London Street Furniture, which wasn’t much help. ‘Doubtless, railings have their devotees,’ I read. ‘The authors may be nerds, but this is one items of street furniture that even they cannot get excited about.’
Oh.
The section continues: ‘When we were children we heard all about the drive to uproot railings to produce scrap iron to assist the war effort in the early 1940s. We suspect that railings were seized and removed more keenly from working-class districts than from the fronts of the houses of people who had wealth and social and political clout.
Removing railings in WW2 (Imperial War Museum)
I’m not sure this is true, as I have read that railings were removed from many garden squares, making them suddenly accessible to the public (indeed, that is what is happening in the image above).
That the railings were removed is beyond doubt. Here is a typical quote from somebody who had their railings removed during the war, taken from the BBC’s People’s War site.
They took away our railings. Men came and cut the ornamental railing from the copings on the little walls outside of the houses, along the whole length of the road, they were taken away to be melted down to make weapons.
But did they really get melted down? A quick scour of the internet produces this interesting nugget from a WWII forum. It is a letter from 1984 to the Evening Standard and says in full:
I was interested in your item about the railings which are to be replaced in Ennismore Gardens. The tragedy is that so many of London’s railings were pulled down in order to support Britain’s war effort, bearing in mind that they never became the guns and tanks they were intended for.
In fact I believe that many hundreds of tons of scrap iron and ornamental railings were sent to the bottom in the Thames Estuary because Britain was unable to process this ironwork into weapons of war.
Christopher Long Earl’s Court Square, Earl’s Court,
London SW5.
The forum correspondent goes on to add: ‘This information came from dockers in Canning Town in 1978 who had worked during the war on ‘lighters’ that were towed down the Thames estuary to dump vast quantities of scrap metal and decorative ironwork. They claimed that so much was dumped at certain spots in the estuary that ships passing the area needed pilots to guide them because their compasses were so strongly affected by the quantity of iron on the sea-bed.’
A great story, but is it true? If anybody can say for sure, please do let us know.
UPDATE: The fine Johnny L, a noted nerd and jazz lover, points us towards this documentary by Jonathan Meades about Victorian houses.

Meades begins talking about railings after 4min 40secs. At 5min 30 secs he reports:

There aren’t many railings left now in London. This is because in 1940 there were ripped up as part of the war effort. It may have been a morale booster, but it was impractical – the stuff was never melted down and was thrown into the Thames rather unceremoniously off Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. The stuff’s still there.’

London bricks

‘The bricks – laid Flemish bond, headers and stretchers alternating – were all old London stock bricks, but of many kinds and colours: rust red, beige, grey, brown, nearly black. Here and there were yellow ones – malm bricks made with an admixture of clay and chalk. The cumulative effect was pleasing – the variety gave texture, interest and warmth to the surface of the wall. The eye approved the range of colour, the uneven look, the way in which each brick differed from its neighbour and yet was in subtle harmony. But, more that that, to look at it was to see the way in which this wall arose from the ashes of many buildings. Studying it, Matthew saw in his mind’s eye warehouses and churches, factories and shops, terrace houses like this one, blasted to the ground perhaps on some furnace night of 1940. He thought of how the city lifts again and again from its own decay, thrusting up from its own detritus, from the sediment of brick dust, rubble, wood splinters, rusted iron, potsherds, coins and bones. He thought of himself, living briefly on top of this pile, inheriting its physical variety and, above all, the clamour of its references. The thought sustained him, in some curious way, as he sat at his desk in the flat which was not yet a home, or as he moved through days and through the city, from Finsbury to Docklands to Covent Garden to Lincoln’s Inn.

Penelope Lively in ‘City Of The Mind’ (1991, Andre Deutsch).

Secret London: swastikas

One of the great London rumours is that somewhere inside the Royal Society’s building on Carlton House Terrace sits a giant swastika.  This is not because these esteemed scientists and thinkers are secretly Hitler-worshipping fascists, but because their home at Nos 6-9 was the location of the German Embassy (at Nos 8-9) during the pre-war Nazi era.

Carlton House Terrace was designed by John Nash between 1827-1832 to occupy a site previously taken by Carlton House. No 9 almost immediately became the seat of the Prussian Legation, which slowly evolved into the German Embassy. In the spirit of the time, it soon expanded to occupy the house next door at No 8.

In 1936, Joachim von Ribbentrop moved in, replacing the late Ambassador Leopold von Hoesch (whose dog’s gravestone can be seen under a tree near the Duke of York steps). Von Ribbentrop demanded a complete renovation of the property, and the Nazi’s top architect, Albert Speer, was called in to do the job. Exactly what he did remains something of a mystery, but the German Embassy website claims:

‘Only the fact that the Nash Terrace was a listed building saved the facades from being included in Ribbentrop’s plan to establish a model of the Third Reich architecture in the centre of the British capital. The renovation was exhaustive, money was no object.’

It is hard to discern exactly what alterations Speer made, but one diplomat wrote that the showy renovation of No 8 and 9 Carlton House Terrace had produced a style and furniture less suitable for an embassy and more comparable to that of German luxury liners of the time like the “Bremen”.  A contemporary set of photographs are lodged at the Library of Congress. The only one currently viewable is of the very modern-looking kitchen.

This decent phot0-set shows the building now, including Speer’s striking staircase, said to be constructed by marble supplied by Mussolini.

Albert Speer designed this

Among Speer’s embellishments was said to be the inclusion of a swastika mosaic on the floor of one of the public rooms. After the war, rather than remove the offending article, the swastika was said to have been simply covered with a carpet. (And this website claims there are still visible ‘border designs of swastikas on the floor of one public room’, which seems unlikely.)

Is it true?

Well, I’ve never seen a photo to substantiate the claim and people I know who have been inside the Royal Society are also none the wiser. However, I did once receive an email at Time Out from a builder who claimed to have renovated the building in the 1990s and seen a huge swastika under one carpet. Where, presumably, it still remains. Von Ribbentrop also had a house built for him in Pinner, which was said to have swastikas carved into the staircase.

If you do have a hankering to see a swastika in London, you should head for India House, where this plaque can be seen on the wall.

It represents the swastika when it was still an intriguing sign from the east, before it was appropriated by Hitler. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the swastika was a popular symbol in the west, often used as a good luck charm and adopted by groups as varied as the Boy Scouts and the Druids. My copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories still has a prominent swastika featured in one illustration and the British Museum is full of the things.

Indeed, so popular was the swastika, it was even used to liven up the decor at Hounslow Bus Garage. Click on that last link and zoom in and you’ll see the border of pretty little swastikas that featured in the staff canteen. These swiftly disappeared as the truth about Hitler became impossible to ignore.

 

Waxworks at war

The other day I headed to London Bridge to investigate Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience, a peculiar attraction on Tooley Street next to the London Dungeon that opened in 1992.

This strange place attempts to recreate the experience of wartime London feels rather like a private collection of eccentric memorabilia that has been thrown together in a space under a railway arch. There are no shiny monitors and well-lit cases; some of the labels are handwritten.

I quite liked it, although not at the £13 it would have cost if Laura at About London hadn’t got me in for free.

It begins with a film screened in a mocked-up air raid shelter, features various displays about life in London during the war (evacuation, fashion, rationing, entertainment, land girls), has a real Anderson Shelter to sit in and ends with a gloriously dramatic and gruesome life-size reconstruction of a bombed pub, complete with smoke and severed limbs.

What I liked best, were the waxworks. You don’t get many waxworks in museums these days but there are loads at the Britain At War Experience and they are mostly terrible. Unfortunately, I only managed to photograph a couple, missing out on the frightening one of a small child asleep in an air-raid shelter, looking like a little corpse, and also a brilliant Winston Churchill with a head the size of Gibraltar (this may in fact be physically accurate).

But here are the ones I got.

This one is quite normal. It’s a man using a switchboard. It shows what they can do with waxworks when they put their mind to it.

But then they get progressively weirder. This woman with a massive nose is demonstrating wartime fashion, although I think she is actually a man who dresses like a woman to avoid war service and because he likes the freedom it offers him.

This woman is a fire warden with a bad back. 

At the end, in the bombed pub, this woman can be seen bravely selling tea even though she has clearly suffered terrible burns and should be taken to the nearest hospital. This could be to demonstrate the implacability of London spirit during the Blitz, or it could be because they ran out of artificial hair.

So there you go, if you like weird wartime waxworks and have thirteen quid to spare, get down to Tooley Street before they all come alive and take over the London Bridge Quarter.

How a shoe can teach the Holocaust

It starts with a shoe. An old shoe, scuffed, brown and small. It’s old and battered, and has been carefully re-stitched at the back where the seam has come apart. A classroom of Year Nine schoolchildren are asked what they can tell from the shoe just by looking at it. They agree it once belonged to a boy and that it’s been repaired a few times – perhaps by a family too poor to buy a replacement – but at some point was lost or thrown away.

Then the teacher tells them where the shoe was found, in Poland, outside a village called Oswiecim, and that it probably belonged to a boy from Hungary, who would have arrived there on a train with his parents nearly 60 years ago. After getting off the train, he would have been told to remove his shoes while he went to take a shower from which he would never re-emerge. Oswiecim is the place that we now call Auschwitz.

The Holocaust is a daunting topic for schools. Pupils can be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the genocide, and troubled by the complex emotions it can raise. For their part, teachers can struggle to define the Holocaust correctly, or explain why it happened and what made it so uniquely horrific.

Which is where the shoe comes in. ‘There are lots of issues when teaching emotional subjects like the Holocaust,’ says Paul Salmons, who created the Holocaust Education Development Programme (HEDP), a course prepared by the Institute of Education to help secondary school teachers. ’It has the potential to raise profound questions and move children very emotionally. This course tries to balance an emotional engagement with a cognitive reflective approach.’

The story of the shoe, explains Salmons, ‘isn’t just intended to get an emotional reaction, it is to raise questions in response to the children’s emotional encounter.’ So after the children are told about the shoe, they are encouraged to ask questions. What happened to the boy’s parents? Why did they allow him to die? Why was he killed at all? From here, a discussion about the Holocaust and its repercussions can begin, with teachers using material taken from the HEDP website. It is a fascinating and intuitive way to introduce the subject, immediately bringing something huge and monstrous down to a level that a child can comprehend.

The course was developed in response to research conducted by the IOE in 2006. This showed that while the Holocaust was widely taught in schools – it has been on the National Curriculum since 1991 – there were many areas where knowledge was lacking. The research also revealed that 77.5 per cent of teachers wanted professional guidance, finding it difficult to convey the enormity of the genocide without inundating children with brutal images.

‘It is important children learn about the Holocaust because of its significance in world history, but it’s equally important not to traumatise them,’ says Salmons. ‘We have a history of human atrocity that’s also a history of forgetting and until the Second World War, nobody tried to analyse man’s capacity for self-annihilation. So we see the Holocaust as pivotal in understanding certain things about human nature and important for children’s social and political education and historical literacy.’

The Jewish Museum

This is done without using images of heaped corpses or film of mass executions. On the first day of the course at London’s Jewish Museum, tutor Kay Andrew tells the 15 teachers that this is ‘not about threatening or graphic images. Traumatic images can be seen as leading material.’

Peter Sullivan, a history teacher at Forest Gate Community School in East London, concurs. ‘These images can actually lead to arguments about holocaust denial – kids will say that they were staged or are of prisoners-of-war who died of natural causes – so we try to use more specific material to avoid pointless arguments.’

Is Holocaust denial really a problem in secondary schools? ‘You do get some of the Muslim kids, not so much in denial, but arguing that they deserved it because of the way they treated Palestinians. A percentage cannot differentiate between Jewish and Israeli and don’t have the life experience to put it into the proper context. It’s not just the Muslim kids, just up the road is Barking and Dagenham where the BNP are active, and when Nick Griffin says “I can’t deny the holocaust because it is illegal to do so” you know exactly what he’s saying. We have to combat that.’

Salmons says ‘The issue is more Holocaust diminishing or trivialisation,’ he says. ‘The way it can be used to suit different agendas or to promote a cause.’ He cites the example of the invasion of Iraq, when ‘there was a tendency to equate Saddam Hussein with Hitler in a fairly unreflective way perhaps designed to mobilise people behind a policy, which should have been argued on the merits of whether it was right or not, not by appropriating something powerful from the past. If young people are aware of what really happened, then they are better equipped to make that judgment for themselves.’

Leon Greenman

The course puts the Holocaust into context. On the first of two days, Andrews covers a number of different topics that have little to do with genocide itself. Teachers look at the diversity of pre-war Jewish life to ensure teachers don’t present the 6 million as a faceless monolith, and are asked to consider different forms of resistance and resilience to escape notions of the Jews as passive victims. The story of Leon Greenman, a British-born Jewish man who lived in Holland and whose family was killed in Auschwitz, runs throughout the course. ‘Leon was taking about his experiences from the very beginning,’ says Andrews. ‘We have archive of him talking to the BBC in 1945. He remained active in anti-fascist politics and received an OBE from the Queen, so you can explore the influence of the Holocaust through the life of this one man.’

The course does not neglect the other Nazi crimes, including the persecution of Jehovah Witnesses, Communists, homosexuals, the disabled and the Roma. Salmons explains, ‘We take an academic definition of what the Holocaust was – that it was the genocide of European Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators – but you have to look at other victims. They are part of the broader context and a lot of these crimes overlapped, but if you lump them together and call them the ‘Holocaust’ it ceases to have much meaning, because the differences are as important as the similarities. With the genocide of the Roma-Sinti, there is a parallel to the Holocaust but one that has its own name – the Porajmos – and it needs to be studied with its own significance.’

The course is part-funded by the Pears Foundation, a philanthropic venture who have recently invested £1.5 million in the UK’s first Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck and donated funds to London’s Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust library.

Improved understanding of the Holocaust in schools could help combat increasing anti-Semitism, but Salmons says it isn’t as simple as that. ‘We don’t cover contemporary anti-Semitism, but do try to understand the historical and ideological anti-Semitism of the leading Nazis. But we also explore how you didn’t have to be anti-Semitic to be complicit in genocide, you just had to benefit from it. Many Germans bought the goods of Jewish neighbours in auction, which means they give tacit approval. We hope that young people aren’t racist, but they can still be unwittingly complicit in all sorts of injustices without having any personal or ideological prejudices.’

Pussyfoot Johnson and the London mob

My review of Ink And The Bottle, an exhibition about cartoons and alcohol, appears in the Independent.

One of the cartoons at the gallery is based on the story of William ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson, an American who was active in the temperance movement and came to London on Nov 13, 1919 to give a talk.

Johnson was leader of the Anti-Saloon League and after success in America, he headed to the Old World to spread the anti-drinking word. He argued, ‘There is more bootlegging and more moonshining in Europe than in the whole United States.’

He may have been right. This temperance movement map from 1886 attempted to show the scale of the problem by depicting all of London’s pubs in its ‘Modern Plague of London’ map.

Modern Plague, London

Pussyfoot earned his nickname for his habit of amending laws by stealth, and this did not go down well with the London mob. As one anti-temperance advocate told the New York Times, ‘You know how the majority of Englishmen look upon prohibition and Mr Johnson’s activities? The thought of not being able to have the well-known pint of bitter fills them with horror. The war was terrible enough but it was something that happened before. There have always been wars. Taking away the drinks is attacking the divine rights of the Britisher. I can tell you they don’t like it!’

They certainly didn’t, and decided to do something about it. While Johnson was speaking at Essex Hall, he was captured by medical students from nearby King’s College who dragged him out the buildin, poured a bottle of beer over his head and marched him around the West End chanting ribald songs. It was noted that the police ‘seemed lacking in sympathy with the missionary’.

Johnson was hauled hatless on a stretcher around Regent’s Street, Leicester Square and Oxford Street while the students chanted ‘What won the war? Rum!’ and ‘We’ve got Pussyfoot meow, send him back to America’.

Such larks, what fun and games! 

And so what if Johnson lost his right eye in the incident? The lesson was learnt. Not many people have tried to take the Britisher’s beer away from him since.

Secret London: the Russian tank of Bermondsey

That there is an authentic Russian tank parked in a patch of wasteland on a side street off the Old Kent Road is one of those things that is so brilliant it should be mentioned on the news at least once every day. (I felt much the same way about Gordon Brown’s glass eye.  A Prime Minister with a glass eye! How cool was that! What a wasted opportunity.)

The tank is a T34 Russian tank that was possibly used against the Czechs in the Prague Spring uprising of 1968. It arrived in London in 1995 when it was used for the filming of Richard III. The tank was then purchased by Londoner Russell Gray as a sort of giant and very expensive pun after Southwark refused him planning permission to build houses on the site. Gray instead applied for permission to put a tank on the site. They thought he meant water tank, but he didn’t. The tank’s gun is trained on the council office.

How much truth there is to that story is surely irrelevant. It feels right. And when it comes down to it, all that matters is that there is a bloody great Russian tank on the streets of South London and people don’t seem to realise quite how incredible this actually is.

Being brave in SE8: Extraordinary Heroes at the Imperial War Museum

Have you ever heard of Geoffrey Keyes and Operation Flipper?

I hadn’t until this week, when I learnt that Keyes was a Second World War commando who led a team 400km behind enemy lines in North Africa in a bid to assassinate Erwin Rommel. The group evaded guards around the perimeter fence and got inside the house used as the German HQ, but as they entered a ground-floor room Keyes was shot and killed. Rommel wasn’t even in the house at the time.

Keyes was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross and his story is ripe for a film, but this is the first I’d heard of it.

The new Extraordinary Heroes gallery at the Imperial War Museum is full of such remarkable tales, 243 in all, each tied to either a Victoria or George Cross. 164 of these medals belong to Michael Ashcroft, the Tory party donor, who has also forked out £5m for a new gallery to house them – the first permanent gallery at the museum for a decade. Well, I guess it beats paying tax.

The gallery is a great example of how with a bit of thought a museum can make a lot out of a little. The exhibits – the medals – are not much to look at, and the VC itself is almost parodically tasteful, a modest thing of dull brass (it’s made of gun metal) with a sober ribbon the colour of dried blood. There are numerous medals on display here, and the VC is always the least conspicuous of the lot.

But the curators have done wonders with this unpromising material, emphasising the extraordinary stories behind each medal with frugal but compelling text and embellishing some of the tales with props such as the diving suit worn by James Magennis when placing mines on a target in 1945 or a portrait of recent VC awardee Johnson Beharry taken by Don McCullin.

Johnson Beharry VC by Don McCullin, 2010 - Imperial War Museum

 There’s wit here as well such as a stuffed white rabbit to represent the codename of spy Forest Yeo-Thomas or the surprisingly effective touch-screen version of some of the stories told in Victor comic style. The IWM uses these informal touches confidently, never lapsing into poor taste and aware that excessive sobriety can be just as offputting.

While the bravery of these men and women is moving, the circumstances are often maddening. Many medals were awarded during the carnage of Gallipoli, and there was something about the story of Alfred Wilkinson, a Private who was awarded a VC for delivering a message during the First World War after four previous messengers had died, that somehow summed up all that is most horrific and pointless about that conflict.

Some medals were awarded in peacetime. An 11-year-old girl was given a George Cross in Canada in 1916 for fighting off a cougarm, while Harry Wilson was awarded a GC in 1924 for saving the lives of his colleagues in a flooded colliery.

And, bringing it all back home, a George Cross was awarded for bravery in South London after unarmed PC Tony Gledhill chased a car filled with armed robbers from Creekside Street, Deptford into Rotherhithe. Gledhill’s car was shot at around 15 times by the robbers before he confronted them on foot and eventually subdued the men, securing the conviction of four criminals, including John McVicar.

There’s always a London connection if you look hard enough.

Underground again at Aldwych

 

Transport for London allowed Aldwych station one of its periodic reopenings this weekend, with 1940-themed tours of the station and platform to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Blitz.

The tours – which are completely sold out so don’t even try – were arranged to complement the Under Attack exhibition at the London Transport Museum, as explained by museum director Sam Mullins in this BBC clip.

As a part-time moleman who has never been inside Aldwych, I was down there like a greedy ferret in a goldmine. Aldwych, a pointless spur on the Piccadilly Line, closed in 1994 and its history can be read at the wonderful Subterranea Britannica or Abandoned Stations. Ian Visits and Diamond Geezer also have posts about the station.

I’ve wanted to get inside it for ever such a time.

The tours begin in the neat but spartan ticket office, which is decorated with a number of wartime posters giving instruction about shelters and the blackout. You are greeted by an actor playing an Air Raid Precautions officer, whose monologue is interrupted by the forbidding wail of an air raid shelter. You meet three more such actors in the course of the tour, the best being the 1940s housewife who sits in the train down on the platform and can be quite saucy if you ask the right sort of questions.

The chance to poke around the station and listen to actors recreating 1940s stereotypes is all well and good, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the 1938 train that has been brought out of retirement for the occasion.

 

I’m no train nerd, but this one is a beauty, as I’m sure better photographers than I will record this weekend.

The other highlight is this cracking little souvenir book about Aldwych and the Blitz that is given to everybody who goes on the tour.

The tour ends with a deafening reconstruction of an aerial bombardment, with impressive sound and light, before the all-clear sounds and allows you to climb the steps back to the surface (no lifts or escalators, so prepare for a walk).

A recreation of the ‘Blitz experience’ is an almost impossible thing to pull off for obvious reason and this is neatly done in the circumstances, although it might have been nice to have bunks on the platform to give more of a flavour of what it was like to cower down there for a night.

Interest in the tours have been so great – an estimated 3,000 people will take part this weekend – that the London Transport Museum believe public tours of Aldwych will be reintroduced on an irregular basis in the future.

So that’s one ambition sated, only for another to take its place. Earlier this week I was talking to a curator at the LTM, who told me of his recent tour round Down Street, another abandoned station with wartime connections. It is, he told me, in ‘fabulous condition’. Anybody interested?

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.