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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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London Pomes

Cover-1-525x700London Historians member Victor Keegan has a new anthology of poetry out. Unlike its predecessors, this one focuses entirely on London. Entitled London My London, it comprises 84 poems. They are autobiographical, philisophical, whimsical, sometimes political and often funny. I like the deliberate anachronism in this one.

Lundenwic
We learn of ancient Greece and Rome
But not of history nearer home
If in time travel I had wandered down
To live my life in Lundenwic town
There’d be no one but Saxons there
From Fleet Street to Trafalgar Square. 

I quote this one in full as a neat and typical example that I could transcribe easily! Other topics include the Underground, cigarette cards, Tate Modern, graffiti, Tooting, the Walbrook River, St Mary’s Woolnoth [a favourite!], the Thames estuary, Sir Henry Havelock, and on an on. Oh, and fellow poet Ben Jonson.

Stand-up Poet
Oh, rare Ben Jonson,

As should be known
by every London cabbie,
He lies buried standing up
in Westminster Abbey.

Read what Vic himself has to say about this work here and here.
The anthology costs a mere fiver in paperback or £3.99 Kindle edition both at Amazon.

 

 

 

 

A guest post by LH Member Claudia Elliott. 

REVIEW: Marriages Are Made In Bond Street – True Stories From a 1940s Marriage Bureau by Penrose Halson.

marriagesbondstreetLooking for a husband or wife is no easy task and, in spring 1939, two enterprising chums, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to make it their business. They opened the first match-making agency, situated in a tiny office above a hairdressing salon in Bond Street.

Instead of waiting for Cupid’s arrow to strike at a society ball or in the Lyons Corner House, potential sweethearts could queue up the stairs to the Marriage Bureau, where a secretary would take down their particulars and vet their suitability as partners.

During the inter-war years, social class was still much to the fore, and status was the number one concern. Candidates were graded as ‘Gentish’, ‘Near Lady’ or ‘Much Better Than Some’.

Most were looking for solid, steady partners who could provide a home and security. No requests for ‘partners in crime’ or ‘soulmates who enjoy drinking red wine by a roaring fire’ here.

As it was unusual for young women to be running a business, let alone one of this nature, the two 24-year-old proprietors run up against spluttering moral indignation from various quarters.

War breaks out and with it the pressure to find a bride or groom increased. One memorable passage concerns a disfigured soldier who takes his partially sighted date to The Players Theatre in Albemarle Street for a magical evening of Victorian song and mushroom pie.

Over time, the business of match-making became more socially acceptable and Heather Jenner became a minor celebrity featured in newspapers.

Author and London Historians member Penrose Halson rattles through the tale in an entertainingly droll fashion. She was the owner of Katharine Allen Marriage Bureau, which merged with Heather Jenner’s business in 1986. Heather Jenner’s archive provided the stories for this book.

Quirky gems are to be found in the notes on candidates’ requirements –

“Sensible but not stodgy. Not living in or near Southport.”
“Interested in ballet or opera or both but not the Bloomsbury type that haunts both.”

Men tended to be preoccupied with appearance, often stating a preference for virginal bombshells who were willing to keep house and travel with their husband’s job.

The interviewer’s comments about candidates could be merciless – “Scarecrow, spectre, long thin face and body, glasses. But pleasant.”

The jaunty toodle-pipness and sentimentality is a little overdone in places but in all this book is great fun, as well as a valuable document of social life in the 1940s. And the Marriage Bureau worked – thousands of its clients were wed after their introductions in Bond Street.

The speediest success story comes from the couple who sent the following telegram: “Met at lunch STOP Engaged at dinner STOP Thank you.”

Marriages Are Made In Bond Street – True Stories From a 1940s Marriage Bureau (357pp) by Penrose Halson is published by Macmillan available in both hardback and paperback.


Claudia Elliott
https://claudiaelliott.contently.com/
Twitter: @Claudia_Elliott

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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A guest post by Roger Williams, LH Member.

1. Exterior

Sandycombe Lodge, the country house that JMW Turner built in 1813 in Twickenham behind Marble Hill, is now open to the public for the first time. It had been bought in a run-down state in 1947 by Professor Harold Livermore, an Hispanic scholar, and his wife Ann, who wrote about Spanish music, and they immediately began trying to restore what had been a small wartime factory. On his death in 2010, Professor Leverhulme bequeathed their house to the nation. Now, after a £2.4 million conservation effort, it has been brought back to what is believed to be as near as can be to Turner’s original home. This involved knocking down extensions, removing external white rendering and uncovering the initial decoration, including marbling on the stairway. The house was designed by Turner, but if some of the detailing echoes Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it is because the two were friends and contemporaries, Turner being appointed the Royal Academy’s Professor of Perspective just a year after Soane was made Professor of Architecture.

2.telescope

On first sight it is an unprepossessing, late-Georgian villa, with just two first-floor bedrooms. The larger one is at the back, facing Marble Hill House and the Thames, and although the view is now constricted by subsequent developments, a telescope has been installed (above) through which visitors can spy a re-created picture of the view Turner saw in his day.

3.Kitchen

In the basement is the kitchen and range (above), the domaine of Turner’s ‘Old Dad’ who looked after the house and garden until he was 80. His father had been a barber and wig-maker in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, where Turner was born on St George’s Day, 1775, and had tirelessly promoted and helped his only child. Turner’s mother had died in Bethlem Hospital nine years before Sandycombe Lodge was built, and William Sr continued to help in the running of Turner’s Gallery in Marylebone, hitching lifts into town for the 10-mile journey.

4.Eel pots

Nothing in the house is labelled, and visitors, in limited numbers, are shown around by knowledgeable guides such as Ken Osbourne, pictured here in the kitchen with fishing rod and eel trap. These and the late-Georgian items of furniture, such as the ‘Turkey’ rugs, have been hunted down by Catherine Parry-Wingfield, Chair of the Turner’s House Trust, who has been instrumental in creating the house-museum.

5. Turnerships

Prints on the walls include some from Turner’s teaching manual, the Liber Studorium, from Professor Livermore’s own collection, but there are no original artworks. Turner bequeathed his drawings and paintings to the nation, and these are now in changing displays in Richard Sterling’s 1986 Clore Wing of Tate Britain, while the Royal Academy has his fishing rods and paint boxes. Security issues mean these cannot be loaned, although, Parry-Wingfield is hopeful that this may one day happen.

The Tate also has custody of the model boats Turner owned and used as aids to his paintings. The Trust commissioned variations of two of them from model maker Kevin Thatcher to go on display in the sitting room . Many of these were originally made by French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars.

Turner was a keen fishermen, but the enormous pond he created, apparently almost the size of a football pitch and stocked with fish, has long since disappeared beneath urban housing. He sometimes went fishing with his friend Soane, both self-made men, both at times socially uneasy and irascible. But Turner enjoyed gatherings, too, and a cunning key in the door of a longcase clock in the dining room starts a recording of an account of a picnic enjoyed by Turner and his friends on Ham Common on the opposite side of the river.

Turner was also instrumental in starting the Royal Academy Dining Club’s annual river jaunts which began at Eel Pie House in Twickenham, not far from Sandycombe Lodge in 1818. Five years later Turner proposed they went to the Crown and Sceptre in Greenwich, which was famous for its whitebait dinners. The RA Dining Club’s annual Whitebait Dinner has continued ever since, now taking place during the Summer Exhibition under the enthusiastic eye of the RA’s current CEO, Charles Saumarez Smith, whose recent blog gives a report of this year’s outings and the riverside architecture seen en-route to Greenwich.

For details and opening hours, see http://turnershouse.org


Roger Williams’ latest book is Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries.

 

M

Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

A guest post by Joe Gingell.

In May 1940 the British Government ordered the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and infirm to French Morocco to convert Gibraltar into a fully-fledged fortress, which Hitler was planning to capture.

NPG x166829; Sir Kenelm Everard Lane Creighton by Walter Stoneman

Commodore Creighton. National Portrait Gallery.

Soon after the arrival of the evacuees in French Morocco, France fell. As a result of this and the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran, the Gibraltar evacuees were ordered to leave French Morocco within 24 hours. Coinciding with the expulsion of the Gibraltar evacuees, 15,000 French troops were arriving at Casablanca on British cargo ships from the UK. The French authorities threatened to impound these ships unless they took away the Gibraltarian evacuees. Commodore Creighton (later Rear-Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton) pleaded for the cleaning and replenishment of the ships but the request was refused and evacuees were forced on board by French troops.

The British Government did not want the evacuees to return to Gibraltar. Nonetheless, Commodore Creighton ignored the instructions from the Admiralty and sailed to Gibraltar with all the evacuees. But on arrival these evacuees were not allowed to disembark. Again Commodore Creighton insisted that the ships had to be cleaned and replenished. By then both the Italian and Vichy French air forces were bombing Gibraltar. Eventually alterations were made to the holds of the ships sailing into the Atlantic, with no medical facilities with hardly any life-saving equipment. After six days all provisions were inedible. Babies were born and some elderly people died in the journey. To avoid the menace of German U-boats, the convoy had to circumnavigate the Atlantic taking 16 days to reach England, specifically London.

Commodore Creighton in his book Convoy Commodore said that “if the convoy with Gibraltar evacuees had been attacked, it could have resulted in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.”

The evacuees arrived in London in August 1940, shortly before the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. About 13,000 of them lived in the capital during the war enduring all four years of bombing with some inevitable casualties.

I was one of those children evacuated to London. By 1944 I was already six and have vivid memories of the bombing of our evacuation centre, the Whitelands College in Putney. While in central London, I still remember my mother, my two brothers and I lying on the floor of the room at the York Hotel as a result of the explosion from a flying bomb which killed a Gibraltar evacuee. By end of July 1944 half of the evacuees had been repatriated. The remaining half were to live for four years in camps in Northern Ireland to await their gradual return home. Many of these evacuees had to wait for as long as ten years from the beginning of the war to rejoining their families in Gibraltar.

During the war Gibraltar became extremely vital, particularly, during Operation Torch. Some historians have qualified Gibraltar’s importance to the extent that, without Gibraltar, Britain would have lost the war. In the fortress scenario there was no place for non-combatant civilians who co-operated fully with a forced evacuation. Very little seems to be known about the story of the Gibraltar evacuees in London.


If you wish to read the book and find out the full story you can download it from the Gibraltar National Archives.

 

Evacuees at Dr Barnardo's

Evacuees at Dr. Barnardo’s.

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Evacuees at Wembley.

EVACUEES AT WHITLANDS COLLEGE

Evacuees at Whitland College.