Tag Archives: HV Morton

The legacy of the Blitz

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the way modern London is still shaped by the bomb damage of the Blitz. This was a subject I immersed myself for several weeks and the first draft of my article is very different to the version that was published. I thought it might be interesting to reproduce the original article on The Great Wen. 

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When travel writer HV Morton surveyed London in 1951’s In Search of London, it was still scarred by war. The Blitz had started on 7 September 1940 and more than a decade later, London was a “city of jagged ruins, of hob grates perched in the sunlight in shattered walls, of cellars draped with willow-herb and Canadian fleabane.” As Morton wandered sadly round Cripplegate – an area now covered by the Barbican – he looked “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. Thousands of buildings have been burnt and blasted to the cellars. Here and there the side of a building rises gauntly from the rubble, a detached gateway stands by itself in the undergrowth, the towers of a few churches, or a spire, lift themselves mournfully, like tombstones in a forgotten cemetery…. How can anyone reconstruct a town from its cellars?”

The scale of this destruction can be gleaned from the bombsight.org website, which uses information from the National Archives to pinpoint every individual bomb strike, and The Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945, created by the London County Council and now published as a book, which show colour-coded bomb damage on a building-by-building basis. The maps were originally created for financial reasons, but post-war planning was always an issue. “The heart of it was insurance and compensation,” says Laurence Ward, the book’s editor and senior archivist at the London Metropolitan Archive. “But they had one eye on post-war reconstruction and the maps were essential tools for rebuilding London. They give a bird’s eye view of the damage and use a colour scheme that makes it easy to see areas that needed to be cleared.”

By cross-referencing Bomb Damage Maps with the A-Z and www.bombsight.org, London’s post-war evolution can be explored, with modern parks, offices and housing estates replacing black blocks of destruction. As Ward explains, “The maps help areas make sense, they show why the streets look like they do.” We look at six examples that show some of the ways the Blitz shaped contemporary London, and how that process is still continuing today.

Mayday Gardens, SE3

Alan Lee Williams was 10 when his home in Mayday Gardens, near Blackheath, was hit by a parachute mine. “It was meant for the Thames, but damaged 27 houses and took our roof off,” he recalls, now 84 and reflecting on a life that included a period as Labour MP for Hornchurch. Williams’ house was repaired but several houses – marked black for “total destruction” on the bomb maps – remained derelict throughout the war. “They became places for children to play,” says Williams. “They built a big water tank on them for the fire engines, and sometimes we’d swim in it.”

Visit Mayday Gardens now and you’d have no idea anything had happened here. Unlike other streets, where former bomb sites can be identified by the post-war housing blocks that interrupt Victorian terraces, the destroyed houses in Mayday Gardens were rebuilt exactly as before. “They look as if they have been there all the time and I’m sure most people living there have no idea what happened,” says Williams. Indeed, when a local resident – who declined to be named – was asked if they knew of the street’s history, they admitted it came as news to them. “There was no consistency with the reconstruction,” says Ward. “These have pretty good plots and they probably decided it would be easier to rebuild a couple of houses then build a low-rise block.” One issue would have been the material available, with bricks remaining in short supply until the 1950s despite the LCC’s ability to salvage 140 million from damaged houses. The reconstruction of these middle-class homes, though, comes as stark contrast to the way many working-class districts were treated.

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Co-Op, Brook House, Shooters Hill, SE18

A short walk from Mayday Gardens on the corner of Shooters Hill and Corelli Road is an ugly squat building housing a supermarket. This was the site of the Brook Hotel pub, which was hit by a V2 rocket in November 1944.

Alan Williams, then 14, was one of the first on the scene. “I was on a tram on Shooters Hill, when I heard an explosion and ran down the road just in time to see a No 89 bus explode,” he says. “The pub had been hit by the missile and the bus was passing and caught fire.”

Williams was pressed into service. “The fire officer called for silence so we could listen for people calling for help and we heard somebody,” he says. “The firemen were too big to go down, so they lowered me. I found a body still breathing and helped them pull it back up. We got to the top and the gas blew up beneath us – I never got out of a bombsite so quickly.”

He’d rescued a girl who had been playing with the publican’s daughter. “She lived in the same road as me, and her father was a high-ranking policeman,” says Williams. “He came to see us – my mother thought I’d been in trouble again!” In the carnage, 29 died but the pub was rebuilt immediately. “The pub was a lovely old building,” says Williams. “It was close to where soldiers were billeted so they rebuilt it before the end of the war.” Williams passes such bombsites frequently. “I still live in the area and I bow my head as I go past,” he says. “I can still see that 89 bus exploding. I always thought it was strange that there was never an explanation of what happened to these places. I thought they should have put up plaques. It’s always a puzzle why it didn’t happen, maybe they just wanted to forget.”

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Christ Church, Newgate

There are some memorials, if you know what to look for. Churches played an important role before and after the Blitz. Bombed churches were used as propaganda – a famous wartime photograph shows St Paul’s sheathed in smoke – and London’s churches took a pounding: 624 of 701 churches were damaged, of which 91 were destroyed. Many City churches were damaged by the fire bombs of 29 December 1940, which levelled entire streets.

Almost immediately, a debate began about what to be done with the most badly damaged churches. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyen argued in 1941 that “where there is no congregation I would leave the spaces occupied by destroyed churches as open”, partly as a memorial. In 1944, a letter in The Times presciently articulated this principle: “The time will come – much sooner than most of us to-day can visualize – when no trace of death from the air will be left in the streets of rebuilt London. At such a time the story of the Blitz may begin to seem unreal not only to visiting tourists but to a new generation of Londoners. It is the purpose of war memorials to remind posterity of the reality of the sacrifices upon which its apparent security has been built. These church ruins, we suggest, would do this with realism and gravity”.

The creation of these memorial-ruins was rooted in realism – with attendances in decline, churches simply weren’t always needed. The medieval church of Christ Church, Newgate had been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1687 after the Great Fire and then razed again in the inferno of December 1940. It has been left in its ruined state in memory of the Blitz, but in bastardised form.

In 1981, neo-Georgian offices were added in imitation of the 1760 vestry – these currently house a dentist. Two walls to the east were removed in 1974 in a road-widening scheme, while the tower – with a steeple that Ian Nairn considered one of Wren’s finest – was transformed into a 12-storey private home in 2006. Merrill Lynch’s office squeezes against the wall of the church and the fact these gardens act as a memorial to the Blitz probably goes unnoticed by local workers – it’s all far too tidy for one thing. A short-lived campaign was launched in 2013 to turn this into a more thoughtful memorial to the sacrifice of Londoners, of which there are few. Christ Church at least fared better than another memorial-ruin: St Mary Aldermanbury was sold to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri to act as a memorial to Winston Churchill. London still awaits a fitting tribute.

Old Market Square, Columbia Road, E2

A complex network of priorities faced London’s post-war rebuilders, many of whom had been agitating to reconstruct London since before the war. This bore curious fruit in Columbia Road in Bethnal Green, now the location of a flower market and genteel Victorian terraces but then considered a slum. On the first day of the Blitz, a bomb hit a shelter beneath Columbia Market, killing 38. “Columbia Market was a 19th century development founded by Angela Burdett-Coutts to regenerate the area and improve quality of life,” explains Ward.” The buildings were damaged during the war and subsequently demolished – but, it seems, they could have been repaired – the map notes that the main blocks suffered only general blast damage.”

Burdett-Coutts was a philanthropist and friend of Charles Dickens, and Columbia Market was a combination of market and social housing constructed in a dramatic neo-Gothic style that marked one of the first flowerings of Victorian social housing. The ambitious scheme was deemed a “splendid failure” by The Times in 1936 and after the war was being used for storage. Although salvageable and unquestionably important, it was demolished in 1960 and replaced by Ravenscourt Park and a modern tower block, named Old Market Square in a half-hearted nod to what was lost. This new estate is typical of the buildings that were thrown up after the war to solve the problem of slum housing. A campaign is ongoing to get a plaque erected in memory of those that died.

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In the haste to rebuild London, many important buildings were demolished, inadvertently spawning the modern heritage industry. “The idea of heritage and listing buildings only really started after the war, when things were demolished so rapidly we don’t know exactly what was demolished and what was valuable,” says Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham School of the Built Environment, who has written on post-war reconstruction. “It was launched as a problematic and ad hoc system that allowed councils to designate conservation areas. After development stopped with the 1970s oil crisis, conservation almost took over and we now have 10,000 conservation areas and half a million listed buildings. Some think we conserve too much.” The only remaining trace of Columbia Market is a section of railing outside a nursery. “It’s a fascinating building that most have cost a fortune and completely dominated the road,” says Ward. “Now you’d never know it existed.”

Palestra, Blackfriars Bridge Road, SE1

This 1990s office block sits atop a site with a fascinating jumbled history. In 1783, the Surrey Chapel was built amid fields by Georgian preacher Rowland Hill, who chose a circular – or octagonal – form as this meant there were no corners where the devil could hide. By 1910, it was being used as a warehouse when boxer Dick Burge decided to turn it into a boxing venue. The Ring was a success but was hit by a bomb on 25th October 1940 and then again in March 1941. According to the Bomb Damage Maps the spot was also later hit by a V1 flying bomb. Damage from one of these strikes can still be seen a few yards away under a railway bridge.

Like many bombsites, The Ring wasn’t replaced until the 1960s. “Some materials required for building were rationed until 1954,” says Larkham. “Every bomb-damaged city was arguing with the government for their allocation of steel and you might have a site and a plan but you might not be able to do anything with it. Britain was selling steel to Australia because the economy was more important than rebuilding.” Eventually Richard Seifert’s gaunt Orbit House was raised on the site. Seifert, one of the UK’s most prolific post-war architects, loved to give his buildings space-age names, and this one also had a circular nod to The Ring. It housed records for the India Office.

But Orbit House’s time was fleeting. In the 1990s it was replaced by Will Alsop’s gargantuan glass Palestra, which is used by TfL. Peter Rees, the City’s former head of planning, once told me that modern office buildings have a life of around 30 years – something that has more to do with the changing requirements of office life than architectural trends – and that’s how long Orbit House lasted. But with his new building, Alsop paid reference to both of Palestra’s forefathers: like Orbit House, it is raised above the road on a pedestal, while its name comes from the Greek word for a wrestling ring. What’s interesting, though, is that as with much of London’s post-war offices – include huge swathes of the City – this site is already on its second generation of development. Larkham questions if that is sustainable. “One of the worst products in terms of sustainability is concrete,” he says. “The fact we can put these building up and then pull them back – is that really the best solution? We need to design for more flexible longer-term planning.”

Elephant Park, SE17

You won’t find Sayer Street on a map but you can hunt it down in photographs. One on the IWM website shows a family sitting at a dinner table outside the Blitzed shell of Sayer Street School eating egg and bacon supplied by American aid.

Another shows Sayer Street before the Blitz, when it consisted of five-storey tenements in one of London’s poorest areas around Elephant & Castle. Elephant was badly hit by bombs, and Sayer Street is riddled with damage on the Bomb Damage Maps. Before the war, the street contained a fishmongers, cat meat dealer, grocer, saddler, bookbinder; after the war, it was the location of a car park, one of the most popular post-war uses for bombsites. The NPC car park empire began with the purchase of a £200 bomb site on Red Lion Square.

In his memoir The Likes Of Us, Michael Collins writes how in the 1960s he explored Elephant’s remaining bombsites, “on which relics of former homes hovered, exposed broken fireplaces and floral or barley corn wallpaper that had witness births, deaths, Christmases, parties, tears, arguments, laughter and sex.” Sayer Street survived this half-life into the 1960s, when it was chewed up by the Heygate Estate. The Heygate was originally conceived as one of three gigantic housing estates that would stretch from Elephant to Peckham, linked by walkways and ramps for two miles. “It was said the planners decided which streets would be erased in the back of a taxi as they were driven around the neighbourhood,” writes Collins, who was forced from his childhood home. One of those to disappear was Sayer Street.

As Larkham explains, “some of the plans were incredibly radical, sweeping away neighbourhoods irrespective of damage and replacing them with high-rise towers nobody wanted to live in.” These were fuelled by idealism, but as early as 1945, the planner CB Purdom had warned of the dangers in How Shall We Rebuild London?, explicitly rejecting Le Corbusier and “the megalomaniac proposals of those who regard the metropolis as a hive of near termites speeding their existence upon escalators or in tubes.” Such pleas were ignored and towers went up on bomb sites all over London. Some were successful like the Barbican, but most were bleak, poorly built and badly maintained.

The Heygate was rarely popular but it housed many of London’s poorest and now it too is gone, having lasted 37 meagre years. Southwark sold it to Land Lease, a private developer and demolition began in 2011. Former residents have been shipped miles from London, displaced even more brutally than those who once lived on Sayer Street. In its place will come Elephant Park, a residential village of towers and plazas, where a three-bed apartment costs £2.5m. “It says a lot about where London is heading, how it is become more like Paris with those areas of social housing being pushed further out,” says Ward. The ripples from London’s post-war redevelopment continue to be felt, and from Blitzed streets and lost bombsites, another London arises. How long will this one last?

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Three new London books: then, now, forever

I’ve been immersed in a trio of complementary London books in recent weeks, each of which adds further depth to any understanding of the city’s built environment.

London: Architecture Building And Social Change is a very useful, glossy overview looking at how London’s architecture has developed – or not – with the city’s needs. Sometimes the architecture has led to social change; sometimes social change has led to new architecture. Author Paul Knox focuses on 27 districts – largely central, which is understandable but slightly annoying – exploring how landowners and developers combined to give them their character, before looking at a dozen key buildings in closer detail. There’s rich detail here, as well as nice pictures and helpful maps. I was particularly grateful for being introduced to the word “super-gentrification” to describe London’s current toxic situation. Knox is particularly good at emphasising the city’s sense of scale – how it has repeatedly rejected density in favour of a more humanising style of urban living in the form of terraces or mansion blocks – and showing how this is once more under attack. The overall feel is a little like seeing London through a microscope: first the overview, then closing in on a specific area, then seeing how all this maps on to a single building. It’s also a terrific reference book.

If Knox’s angle is how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’, Tom Bolton is more interested in what ‘now’ obscures of ‘then’. Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighborhoods hunts the streets for traces of London districts that have been eradicated by time, developers, fire and bombs. Bolton embraces the history, delving into archives to restore to life forgotten quarters such as Ratcliff, Cripplegate, Wellclose, Clare Market and, particularly fascinating, the strange lost towns of Old St Pancras. There’s much incidental overlap with Knox, but Bolton fills in some of the gaps, bringing us the stories of the people who lived in these lost towns rather than simply telling us who owned the land and what was built on it. Brilliantly researched and breezily written, the only drawback is a lack of maps, which would have really helped the reader pin the past on to the present. Instead, as with Bolton’s previous book with Strange Attractor, SF Said adds suitably spooky imagery.

Finally, the reprint of Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London is a must for any Londonphile. Filling a space between Bolton’s largely historic musings and Knox’s contemporary report, Nairn looked at London at a very specific point in time, the mid 1960s, as the post-war redevelopment of the city was really getting underway. In this way, it makes a nice companion to HV Morton’s In Search of London, roving, individualistic, romantic and revealing. Nairn conceived it as “record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham”, and his idiosyncratic eye meant he was able to celebrate vernacular masterpieces like the Granada in Tooting (“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this”) while waspishly dismissing some of Wren’s lesser works. Vivid and memorable, it’s like a three-dimensional A-Z. If you don’t already own it, snap one up.

Stoney Jack and the Cheapside Hoard

The Cheapside Hoard is one of the great treasures of the Museum Of London. A vast collection of Tudor jewellery, it was found by two workmen in the cellar of a house on Cheapside in 1912 and eventually made its way into the museum’s collection.

The story is a fascinating one, outlined in HV Morton‘s seminal London history ‘In Search Of London’.

Morton, a journalist and insatiable London enthusiast with the knack of knowing not so much the right people as the really interesting ones, begins by describing GF Lawrence, ‘or Stoney Jack as he was known by every navvy who worked in the City’.

Stoney Jack was an asthmatic antiques dealer with a shop on West Hill, Wandsworth. He also had a job as Inspector of Acquisitions at what was then called the London Museum, based in Lancaster House, St James’s.

Since the 1970s, every building site in the UK must by law be visited by a team of archaeologists to ensure no great treasures are missed, but in Lawrence’s time there was no such requirement. Lawrence’s job then was ‘to haunt every demolition site in the City and make friends with the navvies, so that they would bring to him anything that had been found during excavation’.

Morton writes that there was a lot of building work taking place at this time and Lawrence knew it may be the last chance to find any antiquities that might still be hidden in the soil. In his not entirely public-spirited determination to ensure nothing crucial was lost, workmen received rudimentary archaeological training during ‘mysterious transactions behind hoardings and in the tap rooms of City public-houses’.

In this way, Lawrence was able to purchase items from ‘a procession of navvies with mysterious objects wrapped in spotted handkerchiefs’ and flog them on to the London Museum, earning himself a tidy profit. Anything the museum didn’t buy, went into his shop. And even if the navvies brought him something worthless, he always gave them enough cash to buy a pint of beer. In this way, he built up much of the Roman and Medieval collection that is now in the Museum of London.

Morton continues:

I cannot count the times I have been present when navvies have appeared and passed their treasures across the counter with a husky, “Any good to yer, guv’nor?” I have seen handkerchiefs unknotted to reveal Roman pins, mirrors, coins, leather, pottery and every kind of object that can lie concealed in old and storied soil.

I was with him one day when two navvies handed over a heavy mass of clay found beneath a building in Cheapside. It was like an iron football, and they said there was a lot more of it. Sticking in the clay were bright gleams of gold. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery. That was how the famous hoard of Tudor jewellery, the Cheapside Hoard, was discovered.’

Morton recalls that for this great find, now worth millions, Stoney Jack received a thousand pounds. For their part, the navvies were rewarded with ‘something like a hundred pounds each, and I was told that these man disappeared, and were not seen again for months!’

My London Library: No 5 – Night Haunts

  • Title Night Haunts by Sukhdev Sandhu (Verso, 2006)
  • Cost Free
  • Bought from Sent by publisher
  • Genre Contemporary non-fiction; flaneur

At a time when London writing has been dominated by pop historians and psychogeographers, it’s worth noting that the best two London books of recent years are very different beasts.  One of these is Night Haunts, a thoughtful study of the modern London night, commissioned by Artangel, written by Sukhdev Sandhu, and modelled on a similar book by the great London writer, HV Morton. (Sandhu gives a talk about Night Haunts this Friday at Birkbeck.)

Night Haunts first emerged as a beautiful website before appearing in short but sweet printed form. The conceit was simple. As the sub-title explained, it was ‘a journey through the London night’ in which Sandhu explored and observed London’s nocturnal operations, spending evenings with cleaners, pilots, flushers, bargers, fox-hunters, cabbies, exorcists and graffiti artists.

What emerged was an elegant and perceptive portrait of what happens in London while we are asleep, with Sandhu’s own hands-on experience giving it a resonance far greater than the whimsical dilettantism encouraged by the self-indulgent psychogeography movement. 

  • Best bit There’s a marvellous scene early on which sets the tone. Sandhu is on a night-time police helicopter flight over London and writes evocatively of the sleeping city from the air, a passage which concludes with the wonderfully implausible line ‘One pilot describes Croydon as “an oasis of high-rise buildings, sitting there like downtown Dallas”.’
  • Verdict The best book of its kind for decades.

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.

What is London?

‘I walked back up the East India Road and caught a bus back to London. But then what, I asked myself, is London? To me, London is one thing; but to the inhabitants of Bermondsey, Wapping, Stepney and Poplar it is quite another. There are hundreds of London, all of them equally real to those who live in them.’

HV Morton, ‘In Search of London’, 1951.