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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

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Sopwith Camel, Hawker Hurricane, Hawker Hunter, Sea Harrier.

As a small contribution to #RAF100, I’d like to remember in particular a man who – while never in the RAF himself – did build tens of thousands of their warplanes. Boy, did he build them. That man was Sir Thomas Sopwith (1888 – 1989). Remembered mainly for the aeroplane that bore his name – the Camel – Sopwith also gave us many other famous fighter planes, including the Hurricane, the Hawker Hunter and, believe it or not, he was also involved in the Sea Harrier, some 60 years after World War One. In other words, he was building aircraft from barely ten years after the Wright brothers up to a model which is still in use by the US Marines today, over a century of in-service fighter planes. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that Sopwith himself lived to be 101.

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Thomas Sopwith c1911

Thomas Sopwith, a Londoner, was born in Kensington in 1888. Although his father died in a shooting accident when Sopwith was a boy, he left the family well-off. In his twenties, young Tom enthusiastically embraced the pursuits of adventurers of his standing: ballooning, motor racing, ocean yachting and flying. He was the 31st British pilot to gain his licence. He was also fiercely competitive, competing in and winning speed and endurance competitions. By 1914 he was building aircraft from a small factory in Kingston in addition to running his flying school since 1912. By the end of the war the Sopwith Aviation Company had manufactured 18,000 warplanes in dozens of variants, but most famously the Camel, nemesis of Baron von Richthofen.

He subsequently in the early 1920s started a new company with his Australian collaborator and test pilot, the appropriately named Harry Hawker. Unfortunately Hawker died soon afterwards in a flying accident but Sopwith took the company forward from its HQ at Brooklands, designing the Hurricane unprompted and before the government realised the looming need for such a fighter. Until 1963, under Sopwith’s leadership, 26,800 aircraft of fifty-two different types flowed from the production lines of Hawkers and its associated companies.

Sopwith remained on the board of the Hawker Siddeley Group until 1988. Knighted in 1953, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s biggest regret was failing to win the America’s Cup in 1934. What a life!


Thomas Sopwith on Wikipedia.
Thomas Sopwith Documentary (1984) on YouTube (30 mins: marvellous!).

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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

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London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

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Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

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South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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How Westminster’s secret hackers helped bring America into the First World War.

A guest post by London Historians Member Mark Lubienski.

Old Admiralty from Horse Guards Parade

Have you ever walked along Whitehall, or across Horse Guards Parade, and glanced up at the Grade I listed Old Admiralty Building? Perhaps you’ve pondered the Empire-changing events that were planned in its dimly lit and smoke filled rooms? You may know that it was once the office of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, or you may even be an admirer of the Robert Adam screen that was added to the Whitehall entrance in 1788. But you probably don’t know that it was at the centre of a dramatic chain of events that triggered America’s entry into the First World War. Those events began with a secret telegram sent from Berlin to Mexico City via Stockholm and Washington DC.

By January 1917 the First World War was in its third winter and had seen bloodshed on an unimaginable scale, but it was also at a stalemate. Despite calls from politicians in Britain and at home, and in the face of attacks on America domestically and at sea, US President Woodrow Wilson had steadfastly maintained his country’s neutrality. The sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in May 1915 by a German U-Boat, with a loss of 1,198 lives including 128 US citizens, almost drew America into the conflict. But Wilson remained neutral despite acts of espionage and sabotage by German agents on the US mainland that included blowing up munitions trains, firebombing factories, and stirring up Mexican aggression towards America. The pressure on Wilson was increasing, but what would it take to finally bring the United States into the war?

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Reginald “Blinker” Hall.

Back in London, in a dusty corner of the Old Admiralty Building, the Royal Navy had set up the top secret Room 40; its own intercept and code-breaking outfit. Its name really did come from its room number, and it was located on the first floor a few doors along from Churchill’s office, overlooking a shady inner courtyard. The spymaster in charge of Room 40 was Capt. Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall – he had a persistent and rather unnerving facial twitch – a man who was cunning, ruthless and rather fond of intrigue. Hall had built up a brilliant code-breaking team drawn from academia and through his own social connections, generally preferring recruits with backgrounds in modern and ancient languages. One of Hall’s first hires was Nigel de Grey, a Balloon Corps veteran fluent in German and French. Another was Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, an eccentric Cambridge classical scholar and hieroglyphologist. Knox soon had a bathtub installed in his office in the Old Admiralty Building, and he would spend hours lying in the hot water mulling over code-breaking problems, steadfastly refusing to allow anyone else to borrow it. His office cum bathroom was just around the corner from Room 40, and looked out over Whitehall from where you can still see its window today.

In the early hours of Wednesday 17th January 1917, prospects for the Allied powers changed dramatically. An intercepted telegram was handed to de Grey and Knox who had been manning the night watch in Room 40, and they quickly realized that it was in the newest and highest-level German diplomatic code called 7500. The telegram was tackled with the greatest urgency and within a few hours it had been partially decoded; it was from the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, and was destined for Mexico via Count Johann von Bernsdorff, the German Ambassador to the US. It was dynamite; an invitation to Mexico to join the war on the side of Germany were America to enter the war following Germany’s imminent resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Mexico, a country that made America both nervous and paranoid, would be rewarded with the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return for attacking America with arms and resources to be provided by Germany. Today it sounds far-fetched, but in 1917 it was a genuine and serious proposal.

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de Grey and Knox.

De Grey immediately grasped the incendiary nature of the telegram’s content, and he ran as fast as he could to ‘Blinker’ Hall’s office with the partial decrypt, breathlessly exclaiming “Do you want to bring America into the war, Sir?” “Yes, my boy. Why?” exclaimed Hall. “I’ve got a telegram here that will bring them in if you give it to them.” Hall couldn’t remember a time when he had been so excited, but the telegram was only of importance if it could be used.

Persuaded of the telegram’s authenticity and understanding its explosive implications, Hall now had to tread carefully. If the contents of the telegram became public, the Germans would immediately realise that diplomatic code 7500 had been broken. Just as significantly, the Americans would realise that the British had been tapping into their diplomatic cables as the telegram had passed through a US diplomatic channel in Stockholm en route to Washington DC. Hall couldn’t allow either eventuality to happen and so he kept quiet, hoping that America would enter the war anyway. But America did not; so Hall, a master of deception and disinformation, acted cleverly and decisively.

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Hall realised that an amended version of the telegram in an older lower-level code, called 13040 and which Room 40 had previously broken, would need to be forwarded by von Bernsdorff in Washington DC to the German ambassador in Mexico City. If this version could somehow be obtained and made public, the Germans would assume that the cyber-theft had happened in Mexico. Hall contacted a British agent down in Mexico City who infiltrated the local telegraph office and had the telegram stolen. Hall now had what he needed, and it was the Mexican version that he handed to the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, who in turn presented it to the US Ambassador in London on 23rd February 1917. Just a day later, President Woodrow Wilson had the Zimmerman Telegram in his hands, exclaiming “Good Lord! Good Lord!”. When Wilson published the telegram a few days later, the American newspapers and public were appalled and called for action against Germany. Any remaining doubts about the authenticity of the telegram were removed in early March when Zimmerman himself admitted that the telegram was real, and it proved to be the catalyst that finally brought America into the First World War on 6th April 1917.

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And what became of our cryptographic heroes Nigel de Grey and ‘Dilly’ Knox? Both went on to play distinguished roles in Britain’s code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, where today an exhibition remembering the work of Room 40 and the First World War code-breakers includes, as its central exhibit, a bathtub.

*****

Mark Lubienski is a Westminster Guide from the Class of 2014. He is also a co-founder of London War Walks and gives occasional talks on the secret world of intelligence and espionage.

 

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This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from June 2017. 
by Rob Smith. 

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Police News Illustrated 24th April 1880

January this year marked the hundredth anniversary of the explosion at the Brunner Mond factory in Silvertown, one of London’s most devastating disasters. The explosion at the plant, where TNT was being made for the British war effort, killed 73 people and injured more than 500, flattening nearby homes and factories. The explosion led to a rethink about locating dangerous manufacturing plants close to residential areas; a memorial to the explosion has recently been relocated in a new housing development on the site. The disaster has become an important part of East London history. However, the 1917 Silvertown Explosion reprised another event from 1880 at a factory just next door. Unfortunately, industrial accidents in this part of London were depressingly common.

The 1880 explosion took place at a creosote plant owned by Burt, Boulton and Haywood. The company had been set up by two railway engineers H P Burt and S B Boulton with the idea of producing a chemical preservative that could make railway sleepers last longer. Coal Tar creosote had been patented in 1838 by London-based inventor John Bethell. Burt and Boulton set up their works in what was at that time known as Lands End – the strip of industries set up between the Thames and the Plaistow Marshes. This was a desolate location at the time, served by a railway built by George Parker Bidder to connect Kent with the City of London via a passenger ferry at Woolwich – a railway known as “Bidder’s Folly” so unlikely did it seem to succeed. Bidder had the last laugh though, when investors were looking to build the vast Royal Victoria Dock, they had to take him on as a partner as his railway owned the land in the area. When the dock opened in 1855 Burt and Boulton’s factory was in a prime location – able to bring in timber by ship and with the raw materials for making creosote being brought by rail as the by products of London’s many gas works. Soon the plant was busy creosoting tens of thousands of railway sleepers for India’s growing railway network. This unglamorous factory played a small but vital part in making rule of the British Empire possible.

The area now known as Silvertown grew up as housing for workers at Samuel Silver’s rubber and gutta percha works, where the coating which made Transatlantic telegraph cables possible was made. By 1880 the area was home to a sizeable population with a school and a rather fetching church built by S S Teulon. Dangerous industries were no longer on an isolated part of the Thames but in the midst of workers housing

Monday 12th April 1880 had started as an ordinary day at Burt, Boulton and Hayward, with the workforce of three or four hundred boys producing barrels of creosote, as well as by-products like insecticides and sulphuric acid, which went on to become fertilizer. The factory, at a location called Prince Regent’s Wharf, was constructed around a yard which at its centre had a group of four stills containing 2500 gallons of tar each. Two workers oversaw the stills which were heated to separate naptha and creosote from the coal tar. At around 2pm a worker in the yard saw a blue flame erupt from a manhole at the top of the still. A man attempted to pour sand on the flame and shortly afterwards another worker called Benjamin Price attempted to use a portable fire appliance on the blaze. Before Price could do anything, a huge explosion ripped through the still, and the lid went flying into the air, despite weighing several tons. Witnesses say the men on the lid of the still were blown high in the air, and that the still lid rose up like a hot air balloon. Workers in the yard ran in panic as they were showered by burning tar, falling bricks and twisted metal. Two men panicked and ran to hide in a building filled with sulphuric acid fumes, dying instantly. Another still had cracked in the blast and there were fears that it would explode too, while a 50-tonne water tank was knocked over causing more destruction. Barrels of creosote caught fire, setting fire to adjacent buildings. The blast had also damaged ships in the neighbouring Royal Victoria Dock. Terrified horses bolted through the streets of Silvertown

Twenty-five fire engines raced to the scene. It was to their credit that the blaze was brought under control in three hours but not without further problems. A horse pulling the Leyton fire engine panicked and crashed into a lamppost – injuring the crew and killing the horse. The next day the grim task of identifying the dead began. The explosion had been so huge it was uncertain of the death toll. Body parts were put on display at the nearby Graving Dock Tavern while family members filed past in the hope of identifying some of them. One man was identified by his wife recognising his whiskers. In all, eleven men were found to have died in the blast. The sad funeral took place on the Sunday, the victims’ families all agreed that the funerals should be held together and a grim but stately procession of 250 people from the local community followed the eleven hearses that had been paid for by the factory owner.

An inquiry into the accident began shortly afterwards. It was found that the “worm” part of the still that allowed pressure to be released had become blocked. This was quite common in the factory the inquiry was told, but this time the worker in charge had not noticed. A verdict of Accidental death was given in the inquiry, which was over in a day. This infuriated some people, including the press. It was like having a kettle being boiled with the spout blocked and the lid bolted down, claimed the London Evening Standard – any schoolboy could see that this was dangerous. A simple safety valve could have prevented the accident. Why had there not been stricter regulations on the plant, under the 1875 Explosives Act? The factory owners said that it did not apply as tar was not explosive. Eventually the factory was rebuilt and creosote produced there until the 1960’s. There is no memorial to the explosion, but the site is now occupied by the rather lovely Thames Barrier Park.

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Thames Barrier Park – on the site of the 1880 explosion at Burt, Boulton and Hayward.

This was far from the end of the industrial accidents in Silvertown. In 1886, fire broke out at a guano storage works; in 1887, a huge fire starts in an oil storage facility; in 1897, a worker at the Silver factory was killed in an explosion; and in 1899 the Keiller jam factory was destroyed in a gas explosion. The Brunner Mond explosion needs to be seen in that context: the largest incident but not an unusual one.

London’s industry during the Victorian period made a huge impact on the world, something it rarely gets credit for. However, with every great innovation there are dangers and learning to minimise the risks in industrial production was an important breakthrough in itself. We often talk of “health and safety gone mad” but the Silvertown Explosion is an example of what life was like for workers without the protection of health and safety rules.


Rob Smith
Rob Smith is a guide with Footprints of London. You can find out more about his industrial-related walks at their website.

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Most of us have heard about the City church which was rebuilt in America, but not many have actually visited. A guest post from the USA by LH Member Penny Jennings. 

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It is unknown when St Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury was first built but there is reference to the church in 1181. After the great fire of 1666 it was ruined, Christopher Wren commissioned its reconstruction. He utilised the Gothic building of 1437 and ensured that the structure would preserve the English Renaissance style. It stood in London for the following three centuries until it was gutted during the London Blitz in 1940.

Dr Robert LD Davidson had a vision that what remained of the church, which had now lay as a charred shell for 20 years, could be dismantled and relocated in the USA. After negotiation and the raising of funds to finance the project in 1962, the 7,000 stones were carefully disassembled and transported as ballast. After arriving in Virginia USA they were then loaded on railroad cars for their journey to Fulton, Missouri. The stonemasons and waiting builders reconstructed the jigsaw of stones to the original design and dimensions. They faithfully adhered to the vision of Christopher Wren. Finally in 1969 the church of St Mary, Aldermanbury was reconsecrated; 10,000 people attended it was described as “Fulton’s finest hour”. Winston Churchill’s daughter, Lady Mary Soames, described Missouri as “very lovely” it reminded her as she said “ of our Cotswold region in England with its lovely rolling green hills”. The church is located at the Winston Churchill Memorial, Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, USA.


Today, there is a memorial garden in the City of London where this church once stood. More on St Mary Aldermanbury. 

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A guest post by LH Member Suzie Grogan. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from November 2013.

Before 1914, the idea that war could be waged in the air was beyond the imagination of most British people. The creative minds of authors such as H G Wells had foreseen the destructive possibilities of air power, but in Britain those leading the country into war were still pursuing a strategy that focused solely on the soil of foreign parts. The violation of British airspace and the realisation that both combatants and civilians were vulnerable to attack was to shake national certainties and individual security, leaving both traumatised beyond the Armistice and into the years up to the Second World War. From the early Zeppelin raids of 1914 to the end of the war in 1918, the British population was literally terrorised from the air.

By the end of 1916 the German Air Force accepted that the Zeppelin airships used in the air raids launched from 1914 to 1916 had caused more wonder than panic, even though lives had been lost and the towns and cities attacked were shaken. So in the spring of 1917 a new approach was adopted. The ‘England Squadron’ was formed with a key aim: to destroy the morale of the British people. The development of the Gotha IV heavy bomber allowed German pilots of fly at higher altitudes than British fighter planes while their huge payload offered the opportunity to wreak much greater devastation than the airships.

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In Germany, the morning of 13th June 1917 dawned bright and clear and the crews of twenty-two Gotha aircraft were ordered to take off and fly the routes allocated to them. The target was London and the raid that day was to prove one of the most cataclysmic of the First War.

A few of the original formation of planes dropped away as technical problems – always a challenge for pilots and crew – forced them to turn back. Pushing onwards, Squadron Commander Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg signalled the turn to the south-west; a diversionary party wheeled away to attack the Kent coast and seventeen Gothas were left to set course for London.

Coming in over the burgeoning north London suburbs, Brandenburg took the formation southwards towards the City. By now, those looking into the clear skies over the capital would have experienced the first unwelcome thrill of fear and not a little curiosity. Britain’s civilians were still, at this point, largely unprotected and few warnings were given of the approach of the planes, which were able to fly in unchallenged by British forces. People would stare up in wonder as the engines became audible. Many spoke of their ‘awe’ at the spectacle of the planes in formation, perhaps confusing their nationality until the bombs began to fall. Observers described the planes variously as ‘insects’ ‘snowflakes’ ‘swanlike’ or as ‘little silver birds’; all phrases that belied the havoc and destruction shortly to be wreaked in the roads around them.

Anti-aircraft guns were heard pumping a constant barrage of shells towards the formation, but were only able to cloud the air and momentarily distract the pilots who dodged the hail of explosives leaving them to fall to earth causing damage, injury and death by ‘friendly fire’.

The first bombs were unleashed from the huge planes over East Ham, killing four and wounding thirteen. Then Stratford and Stoke Newington were targets, the only warnings a policeman’s whistle and a cry of ‘take cover!’ Houses, schools, shops and factories were hit, as were the Royal Albert Docks. Flames engulfed buildings before rescues could be effected and the screams and cries of the dying and their loved ones mingled with the death throes of the many horses caught in the blast.

A key target that day was Liverpool Street Station, which the bombers reached at 11.40am. In just two minutes seventy-two bombs were dropped, most in the streets surrounding the station itself which received a direct hit by just three. However, accounts liken the scene as the Gothas passed overhead to a ‘battlefield’. Buildings collapsed; a terrified population scattered in every direction to seek shelter; horses lay dead in numbers, many atop their drivers; shrapnel decapitated some and mortally wounded others who couldn’t find safety. Where customers had been a minute before buying provisions, shops were reduced to rubble and glass with their owners and errand boys among the dead. A caretaker’s wife was beheaded as she worked in the attic of a nearby house. A bus received a direct hit, which shot over the head of the driver, travelling through the floor and bursting beneath the conductor, blowing him to pieces while throwing passengers forward, injuring and killing many. The driver, in his dazed state thought he had run someone over; only a girl of about nine survived; she was found sitting on the remains of the floor crying. The lower parts of both her legs were missing.

As the planes disappeared, Londoners were left to assess and clear the wreckage while tending the injured and dying. Ambulances and Red Cross vehicles took away the casualties. The poet Siegfried Sassoon stood on Liverpool Street Station concourse that day, and seeing an old man wheeled away dead on a porter’s barrow, women covered in blood, and occupied train carriages literally flattened to the tracks, he wrote in his ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’:
“In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organised retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky…’

Bombs continued to fall as the Gothas headed towards Bermondsey, killing three on the roof of Pink’s Jam Factory. In Southwark the British and Benington Tea Co. lost three members of staff and saw others seriously injured as the basement strongroom, in which many had sought shelter, collapsed, burying staff in the rubble.

But the greatest outcry was reserved for the next atrocity. The Gothas regrouped and headed east for the Thames where they released their remaining bombs over the densely populated and poverty stricken Poplar and the East India Dock Road. Here stood the Upper North Street School.

Of the six hundred pupils on the roll, most were from poor families, struggling to feed and clothe their children properly. Just before lunch, a fifty kilogram bomb struck the roof of the school. Sixteen children were killed instantly, two died later from their injuries and thirty were seriously injured. All but two were aged five or under. Teachers heroically got children out of the building; panicked mothers searched for their young ones. It was a scene that shocked the nation.

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A week later, one of the biggest funerals in London was held for those that died that day and in June 1919 a memorial was unveiled in Poplar Recreation Ground, bearing the names of the eighteen pupils that were killed on that first daylight air-raid on London.

Squadron Commander Brandenburg had led his Gotha crews over the British Isles for just ninety minutes, dropping four tons of bombs, killing one hundred and sixty two men, women and children and injuring four hundred and thirty two more. British aircraft had tried but failed to shoot down any of the German planes and would struggle to find a way to oppose them even to the day the Armistice was signed.


Suzie Grogan’s new book Death Disease and Dissection: The working life of a surgeon-apothecary 1750-1850 was published by Pen and Sword Books in October 2017.

Her web site.

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DSC08984b200With grievous museum losses in recent times – notably the London Fire Brigade museum in Southwark and the Artillery Museum (“Firepower”) in Woolwich – it’s always welcome news when a brand new one opens its doors. Friday 28th July saw the much-anticipated foundation of The Postal Museum in Phoenix Place, WC1, virtually on the doorstep of Royal Mail’s massive Mount Pleasant London hub.

An official postal service was first founded by Henry VIII in the early Sixteenth Century more effectively to manage intelligence throughout his domain, hence the Royal Mail. Of course it wasn’t for the great unwashed and indeed unlettered wider populace. A universal postal service didn’t properly kick in until 1840 and onwards with the introduction of the Penny Post. If fact, until that time, most letters and parcels were financed by the recipient rather than the sender. This gave rise to coded symbols and marks being put on the outer surfaces of folded letters (envelopes are a relatively modern invention).

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The post nonetheless was already big business long before Rowland Hill and his stamps, Anthony Trollope and his post boxes.

The Postal Museum takes us through all the developments and innovations of the mail down the past half millennium, but most importantly the people who kept the system going, focusing mainly, as one would expect, on the humble postie who in times gone by had quite spectacular uniforms. He and 1,500 of his colleagues volunteered and perished in WW1, bands of brothers in the Post Office Rifles, a unit founded in 1860 at the same time as the Artists Rifles at at time when Britain was thought to be in grave danger (it wasn’t). Their absence gave rise for the first time to women posties.

There is a straightforward historical narrative with certain things – like wartime – to zoom in on depending on your interest. For me it’s the coaching era, the pure logistics. There were quite remarkable timetables, precision and scheduling in the pre-railway age. I didn’t know that in the mid-20th Century the Royal Mail had its own Frank Pick. Just as Pick did with London Transport, Sir Stephen Tallents (Londoner, Harrow, Balliol – what’s not to like?) beefed up and standardised the Royal Mail’s corporate image, its design, its message, how it presented itself to the world. He used many of the same artists that Pick did, notably Max Gill, unsung brother of Eric.

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Sir Stephen Tallents

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Poster by Max Gill. Fans of “Wonderground” will recognise it!

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Although a typographer in his own right, Max used brother Eric’s Gill Sans for this logo. Indulge me!

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The Postal Museum is excellent. A hugely diverse combination of the obvious and the obscure. Wonderful ephemera, of course. It doesn’t patronise children, a mistake of many museums nowadays, I feel. I have seen the wider collection at Debden and Mount Pleasant so have an idea what choices have been made what to put in and to leave out. The curators have done a really good job: congratulations to them.

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Mail Rail.
There’s more good news. Mail Rail is the Postal Museum’s sister attraction which will open early September. It was the Royal Mail’s own underground railway which ran from Paddington to Liverpool Street from 1927 although existing on a smaller scale since the 1870s, another brianchild of Rowland Hill. It was mothballed in 2003 and has been reawakened for the public to ride on, with another superb exhibition alongside. A marvellous thing when you consider that these conveyances carried no humans at all, not even drivers.

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