Tragic end to local World War 1 romance (part 1)

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 is with us, and we hope, over the coming months, to record how the war impacted on Forest Gate and some of its residents.

Behind each statistically-laden story of horror there lays the reality of ordinary lives transformed forever, or cut cruelly short. One such graphic account has recently been published by Forest Gate resident, Paul Holloway, There Are No Flowers Here, which we will be retelling over two episodes of this blog.

It is the story of his Forest Gate grandmother, May Larby, and her brief romance over the 1913 - 1915 period with Jack Richardson, the son of the headmaster of Shaftesbury Road Elementary school. It tragically concludes with Jack's death on the battlefields of France. Jack lived at 296 Katherine Road   and May at 28 Lansdown Road. The school and two houses within a quarter of a mile of each other, in Forest Gate.

Jack Richardson c 1914

May kept Jack's letters, many of which are personal, detail the day-to-day reality of life and trace the ever-deepening nature of the relationship. Others, however, record the build up to mobilisation, from the perspective of one bright, ambitious, patriotic young man, the enthusiasm to go into battle. Then later, the grim reality of life in the trenches in this 'war to end all wars', which scarred the memories of a generation.

May kept the letters, as her lasting memory of the man she loved, and her daughter, Elizabeth Holloway, carefully transcribed and prepared for publication almost 80 years later.  Now, unfortunately after Elizabeth's death, her son, Paul has negotiated his way around the pitfalls of self-publishing to produce this touching story.  Details of the book, and how to obtain it are found in the footnote.

This episode of the two-part serialisation traces the emergence of the romance and its impact on these two Forest Gate residents, until he point at which Jack is despatched to France, and his death.

In 1913 John (Jack) Richardson was the 20 year-old son of the headmaster of Shaftesbury Road Elementary school. May Larby was 18, and the daughter of a local police constable. (By the end of the war, Jack's parents had moved to Hampshire).They were both very bright, university students, with a wide range of interest in the arts.

A chance meeting on the Tube, on a train from Upton Park to central London,  developed into a regular rendezvous, and then correspondence, that ended with one fateful letter from a French trench, in 1915.

District Line train of the day - start of the romance

Many years after Jack's death, May wrote a memoir, which, unwittingly, provides an introduction to the collection of letters and provides a context for them.  In this she recalls the chance encounter with Jack in 1913, while she was on her way to a morning session at King's College, London, where they were both students; he studying English and she mathematics.

Such was the success of this meeting that they engineered to meet up regularly, each week, to continue with unfinished conversations on arts, poetry and matters of the moment.  These meetings lead to visits to art galleries, museums and cathedrals where May's appreciation of the arts, history and Christianity was broadened. The couple's relationship blossomed and developed into assignations at each other's Forest Gate houses.

May's house: 28 Lansdown
Road, today

As the spectre of war loomed, in 1914, the pair took the 'Be Prepared' slogan literally; May joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, with a view to taking up nursing, at the front, in the event of hostilities, and Jack joined the University Officer Training Corps.  By the end of July he was camping, and training with his detachment, on Salisbury Plain.

When war broke out, Jack was commissioned in the City of London Regiment, based in Westminster. He trained and waited for despatch to the front. Meanwhile, May graduated (as a 19 year-old) and was awaiting the start of her teacher training course in January 1915.

Jack's first letter is dated July 1913, and is sent from his home at 296 Katherine Road. It, and the next 16, sent over the following year, sent from the same address, record the couple's shared, and growing mutual interest in a wide range of the arts.

From July 1914 the originating address, and the tone of the letters changes. They are from the army training camp, which is "perched on the slope of a hill on the very edge of Salisbury Plain".  At first they are all very mundane, with unexceptional descriptions of local conditions and circumstances: "The regularity of the life, inspections, parades, drills and field operations has the effect of breaking off the flow of ordinary life and it seems literally months since I came here. I have seen no books or papers since Saturday and I have only heard of war and rumours of war".

May Larby aged c 20 years old

Many of the letters, unfortunately are undated, but Jack seems to have been deployed into the 2nd City of London Fusiliers by the start of 1915 and is based in Epsom, he is positive and almost itching for action: "Everything here is splendid and there has been no trouble at all. We see very little of the Colonel and Major Hogan is practically O.C. (officer, commanding). The officers are splendid fellows and I expect a good time".

By February he has a substantive post, as second in command in a company. Some of the grim realities of civilian life, that the war flushed out are beginning to strike him. The poor educational and physical state of many working class men who volunteered was noticed and became a concern for the army's high command, perhaps for the first time - and was something many post-war reforms were designed to address.

Shaftesbury Road Elementary school -
Jack's dad was headmaster here at in 1914

Jack had his own experience of this. Hence in February 1915, he writes: "The other officers are jolly decent fellows and keen - the men are the worst I've seen - some are almost cripples and some, I think, mentally deficient, still I suppose there are enough decent ones to get on with."

In common with most of his comrades, Jack could not wait to get into combat, and so play his part in bringing the conflict to an end. In an undated letter, Jack had bad news, from this perspective, for May "The very worst happened last night. About half past nine, just as I had finished packing, the doctor hauled me up for a medical exam and failed me on account of my heart".

Flats now occupy land on which Jack's Katherine
Road house stood, just around the corner from
the school where his dad was headteacher

A little (unspecified) time later another letter had better news: the Captain assures me that "I shall go abroad right enough so I am considerably bucked ... What a thing it would be aboard a ship ... with a further chance of going to France!"

Then, a number of items of correspondence from Jack, expressing his  frustrations as bureaucracy seems to shuffle him around army units, with no front line action in sight.

By March 1915 (nine months from his original volunteering for duty), Jack is stationed in Epsom and is taking riding lessons, in preparation for an overseas posting. His disappointment at inaction seems to have abated "life here is splendid and I feel absolutely fit."

Jack, with comrades on Salisbury Plain, 1914

An undated letter or two later, comes the message "You will be as surprised as I was to hear that I am likely, as things stand now, to be off to France in a month or less." Then, the note of resignation, based on bitter experience: "Of course everything may and probably will be altered again but the chance is here and things begin to be exciting."

And so it is, by the next letter the message "Here I am safely on board the boat and ready to sail tomorrow  ... The boat is fine and we (as officers) travel 1st class as I myself have a cabin .. Comrade, goodbye and au revoir. My love, good luck and fitness be yours till I come back. Sweetheart, I kiss you farewell."

The story thus far then, is of two local bright young things pursuing an almost two year romance, lubricated by a shared and developing interest in poetry, fine art, literature and history. The backdrop is the distant sound of war approaching.  They both volunteer to do what they feel their duty to be, and Jack spends nine frustrating months, being moved around army camps and barracks awaiting deployment, so that he can see some action. The fate that awaits him will be relayed in the next blog ...

Footnote: There Are No Flowers Here - Collected Letters of Jack Richardson, published by My Fat Fox (, priced £9.29 (inc p&p), from:, here

We are most grateful for Paul for permission to run these extracts and recommend his collection of letters to you - they put local flesh on the bones of some of the raw data that is published about World War 1.


Wanstead Flats saved from post WW2 development plans

Friday, 11 July 2014

Just as the war-time government had found Wanstead Flats useful for their purpose (see here), so those responsible for post-war reconstruction saw great possibilities in using the common to help rebuild the country.

But strong resistance from a local 'Wanstead Flats Defence' committee, and others, helped save the area as the common land, wild life preserve, it is today.
This blog is greatly indebted, yet again, to the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society's efforts for much of its content.  Their 2008 booklet, Homes for Heroes or Space to Breathe (for details see footnote)tells a gripping tale.

Epping Forest, of which the Flats are the southernmost extremity, has a recorded history as a royal hunting ground, and later common grazing area, stretching back to the middle ages.

Donkeys on Wanstead Flats, Whitsun Fair, 1900

The pressure to build houses on it, as part of the rapid suburbanisation and spread of railways from the mid nineteenth century was considerable.  How easy would it have been for the rapidly developing Forest Gate, of the 1870s just to have nudged a little further north, take it over as part of urban sprawl, and thus destroy the Flats forever?

Wanstead Flats fair, 1895

We are beholden to the City of London for its late 19th century intervention.  Following an Act of Parliament it sponsored in 1878, the council took over responsibility for managing the Forest, including the Flats, to preserve what remained of it as: "unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation of the public."

Advert for 1892 Easter
fair at Wanstead Flats

Organised sports and holiday fairs began to appear regularly on the Flats from the end of the nineteenth century.  In the early years of the 20th a model yacht pond was constructed, and a bandstand at the corner of Capel Road, near Angell Pond - which attracted large crowds, particularly on Sundays.

Sketch by 'Pip' "All the fun of the fair,
at Wanstead Flats" 1894
By the 1930s over 100 football clubs were using the Flats regularly, and as we have seen, the area became a Sunday meeting point for local fascists, being situated close to their local Woodford Road headquarters.

Crowds watching boats at model yacht pond, 1908

During World War 2, as shown in the previous blog, the Flats housed a Prisoner of War (PoW) camp and also anti-aircraft batteries.  The area to the north of the Flats, particularly around Aldersbrook Tennis Club, consequently, suffered considerable bomb damage during the conflict.

Bandstand at Wanstead Flats, c1925

By the end of the war, the Flats were in a poor state of repair.  Much of the area had been churned up by military vehicles, or turned into allotments.  East Ham and West Ham councils had been allowed to build pre-fabs on part of the Flats, as temporary accommodation for those bombed from their homes, to the detriment of local wildlife.

Whitsun Fair, 1900

The councils had negotiated with the Corporation of London to build temporary "hutments" on the Flats, as accommodation for the bombed-out, blitz victims.  The conditions were that the accommodation was to be temporary (two years, in the first instant) and constructed of short life materials (asbestos, as it happens!).

Wanstead Flats fair, 1907

In West Ham, alone, 14,000 households had been destroyed by war damage, mainly in the areas surrounding the docks.  This huge loss of housing and pressure on the surviving stock was soon compounded by large numbers of returning members of the forces needing somewhere to live, which in turn provoked the post war baby boom.

Housing and space for accommodation, 'fit for heroes', were major political and social issues  at this time. Unlike today, when there is an obvious housing shortage and crisis, the reconstruction, Labour, government then sought to address it by direct and interventionist action.

With this as a back drop, West Ham, council in 1946 proposed acquiring 163 acres of the Flats (see map), via a Compulsory Purchase Order, for new housing. This was on the land already partially occupied by the 102 pre-fabs that had already been built as temporary accommodation, and it was envisaged would provide housing for 7,400 people.

Map published by Wanstead Flats
Defence Committee, 1946

 Encouraged by this move, Walthamstow council began to develop similar plans and East Ham council sought to build two secondary schools and a technical college on the wedge of land between the City of London cemetery and the Golden Fleece pub.

These development proposals received strong support from the Labour government and NHS founder, Aneurin Bevan, in particular, as they sought to help reconstruct the infrastructure of the country. Referring specifically to the Flats, and the CPO proposals, Bevan declared "I regret very much that we have to do it, but the people of East Ham must have shelter. The Commoners of Epping Forest must surrender to the overwhelming needs of the people of East Ham."

Wanstead Flats prefabs, 1946
A group of Leytonstone residents, mainly from the Aldersbrook area, and lead by school teacher, Stanley Reed, mobilised a strong local campaign against the development proposals, via a petition and local meetings.  Reed, incidentally, was employed by West Ham council, who gave him unpaid leave of absence to assist with his campaigning work against them. Not sure such democratic magnanimity would be extended today.

The conflict of views, locally, led to the establishment of a public inquiry at Stratford Town Hall in 1946, which was to last for four days; to which a petition with 60,000 signatures opposed to the plans and 346 formal objections were put. The opposition was formidable, including from the Corporation of London (City council), Wanstead and Woodford council, The National Playing Fields Association, Ilford Trades Council and the Footpaths Preservation Society.
The inquiry verdict was delivered in April 1947, and rejected the housing proposals.  West Ham council accepted it gracefully and committed itself to help the Corporation of London fulfil its obligations to develop Wanstead Flats "as a public opens space, along modern lines".

By this latter phrase, they wished to develop the facilities there, by building sports facilities, including a gymnasium, running track, golf course and swimming pool, as well as developing an outdoor theatre.
These proposals came to nothing, but the City was stung into action over its generation-long neglect.  It responded by embarking on a major restoration programme, of clearing war-time debris and tree planting on the Flats, to enable local people to continue to find solace in this peaceful haven.

Footnote: Homes for Heroes or Space to Breathe, by Mark Gorman was published by Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society in 2008 and can be obtained from their website.

We thank them for it and recommend it to you.

Prisoners of War on Wanstead Flats

Friday, 4 July 2014

A fascinating booklet, recently published by the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society, records Wanstead Flats' intriguing role as a Prisoner of War (PoW) camp during World War 2. The article that follows is based on the booklet, for details, see footnote.

Wanstead Flats played a number of key, strategic, roles during the Second World War, including housing anti-aircraft batteries and barrage balloons, as well as being an important assembly point, prior to the D-Day invasion of June 1944, whose 70th anniversary has recently been commemorated.

The Flats were also home to a large number of PoWs during the war, initially mainly Italians, and later, mainly German. Although the exact details are sketchy and difficult to determine - certainly from official documents, many of which were, for understandable reasons, classified.

The main location of this PoW camp was within the triangle boarded by Centre Road, Lakehouse Road and Dames Road, now more familiar as the fairground site, near Jubilee Pond (see detail from contemporary RAF aerial photo).

RAF photo of Wanstead Flats, 1944,
with POW camp to the right of the pond

Some older local residents remember Italian PoWs being held there from December 1940, following the Allied North African campaign, during which upto 100,000 Italians were taken prisoner. One local resident, according to the booklet, recalls bus trips to see them on the Flats, early in 1941.

Prisoners were initially housed in Nissen huts (see photograph), while others were held in tents on Tower Hamlets Road, following bomb damage to the area. Another local resident recalled going to the pond at the Flats every Sunday, to feed the prisoners, most of whom were described as being "very cheery and talkative".

Evidence of the Italian PoW presence on the Flats survived until the 1990's in the shape of what had become known as "The Italian Goalpost" (see photograph from here, with thanks).

"Italian goalpost" on Wanstead Flats,
photo taken in 1994

According to The Newham Story, there was also an Italian PoW camp on Whipps Cross Road (see photo), and possibly another on the site of what is now Forest Gate school, in the early years of the war.

VJ party outside PoW camp Nissen huts,
Whipps Cross Road

After the Allied invasion of Europe, in the summer of 1944, many thousands of Germans were captured and held prisoner in hundreds of camps, throughout the UK - including on Wanstead Flats.  Many continued to be held there until 1946.
The Italian prisoners who were still held there began to enjoy greater freedoms from this period.  Italy had surrendered from the war the previous year, although it was a further two years before all of their prisoners were released and repatriated.  They were, in the interim, as a consequence, given more freedoms: to visit local people in their homes and go to church and the cinema etc, unaccompanied.

German prisoners seemed to dominate the camp, numerically, from this time.  The Stratford Express, however, reported hostilities between prisoners of different nationalities breaking out, in 1944. The report also described community singing by the prisoners in the floodlit camp, at night.
The camp was surrounded by a wire fence and patrolled by members of the Home Guard; but security was hardly severe.  No details exist of any escape attempts, successful or otherwise.

The original 60-feet long Nissen huts were unable to cope with the increased demand brought about by the influx of German prisoners, so upwards of 200 bell tests were erected on the Flats to accommodate the increased numbers.
Few official records survive, or are accessible, about the Wanstead Flats camp, which was, in fact a satellite of the larger Camp 30, on Carpenter's Road, Stratford, where more than 1,500 German prisoners were held from 1944.

Nissen huts on Queen's Road,
similar to those used on The Flats

Among the few surviving details is a response from the Minister of War to concerns from local MPs, whom he assured (in 1944) that the facility was a temporary one, which would be closed by the end of the year (it wasn't). There were still at least 10 German prisoners there, as late as July 1946.

There was some attempt at the "political re-education" of prisoners, particularly those assessed has having very pro-Nazi sympathies. Unfortunately no records seem to exist detailing how the prisoners found the conditions and their treatment within the camps.

Many of them were employed, locally, on work to rectify war-related damage, such as clearing up bomb sites, and constructing prefabs for East Enders displaced by the Blitz and later V1 and V2 raids (see future blog for details of this).

Other attempts at occupying/re-educating the camp's inmates included regular trips to Upton Park to watch West Ham play, where an enclosure had been built to accommodate the prisoners (see photograph). Cue lots of jokes about punishment enough, inhumane torture etc...

PoWs being escorted to a football match at Upton Park

The prisoners seemed, for the most part, to have been reasonably well treated by local people and the Stratford Express reported, in 1944, that local girls would go to the site and throw sweets over the wire to them, much to the chagrin of local, jealous, young men.  In a slightly different account, on the Newham Story website, however, one local resident recalled going down to the camp regularly and throwing stones and rocks at it
Unfortunately, we have no details of how and when the camp was decommissioned and the last accommodation removed. There was a post-war follow-up, however, to the human occupation of Wanstead Flats, which we will detail in next week's blog.

Footnote, with grateful thanks to: Behind The Wire: Prisoner of War Camps on Wanstead Flats, pub 2013 by Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society, 85 Forest Drive West, Leytonstone E11 1JZ, priced £3.00, website.

We would very much welcome any recollections or reminisces readers may have about this fascinating episode of our relatively recent history.  Please feel free to comment, below, or e.mail.

The early recorded history of north Forest Gate

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Over the last few weeks we've run a couple of items on the nineteenth century Industrial School, that later became a workhouse then hospital, and is now residential accommodation, on Forest Lane.

Now, a combination of details from a booklet brought to our attention by Gladys Dimson House (the present incarnation of the buildings)resident, and local author, Paul Holloway, and maps from the Newham archives enables us to offer an earlier history of the site before it was built upon in the 1850s, and north Forest Gate, more generally.

The Friends of Forest Gate Hospital, in 1954 published a booklet celebrating the centenary of the building as a public institution - during the course of whose existence it had at least four titles and was controlled by six different public bodies.

The booklet, The History of Forest Gate Hospital, compiled by West Ham's then librarian, ER Gamster,  states:

At the time of the Norman Conquest the skirts of the great Forest of Waltham came down to the northern edge of the Saxon village of Hamme - from which the modern East Ham and West Ham (get their names) ..This proximity of the forest is still preserved to the people in the remnants of Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats.
Map of Hamme, c 1050 - Forest Gate
would be where "Forest" appears, north of
the road, which is the basis of the current A12

Forest Gate takes its name from a gate across the road to the forest (now Woodgrange/Woodford roads), near the Eagle and Child public house. The gate was erected in former times to prevent cattle straying on to the high road. As the locality developed and its original necessity declined in later years, it stood open, but the gate and its attendant cottage were not demolished until 1881.
Eagle and Child, once a pub on border
of Forest Gate, now a pharmacist
and block of flats

Picture of Ye Olde Forreste Gate, c 1860

A West Ham antiquary has traced the mention of a "Forest Gate" back 300 years (360 - today!) to the time of the Commonwealth, but it did not come into use as the place-name of a locality until the first half of the nineteenth century.  The aspect of the neighbourhood at the time of the hospital's first foundation is graphically described by an old West Ham resident - Major Sharp Hume.  he is writing in a Notes and Queries in 1890, in answer to a resident's query regarding the gate, and says:
John Oliver's map, 1696

'I perfectly remember the old five bar gate leading to Wanstead Flats, from which the suburb of Forest Gate takes its name. Not more than thirty years ago (i.e. c1860) the surroundings were perfectly rural, however improbable that may seem today. Approaching the gate from the south (or from the railway station), on the left hand the lane was bordered by a row of labourers' cottages, with a pump in front of them, the houses dating back to the beginning of this century.
1840 map of East London, Forest Gate
is on either side of Eastern Counties Railway

'At the end of this row of cottages, which have now been built out and turned into shops, stood the gatehouse, projecting into the road, and the gate itself spanned the road to a post on the other side. Opposite to these cottages was the park of West Ham House, with a fine row of elms overhanging the lane. The mansion is still standing, but is quite hemmed in by small houses and shops.
'On passing through the gate, on the right was a small brick cottage and a smaller wooden one , and adjoining them, the old Eagle and Child inn, which was approached by a double row of stone steps. This old inn is now transformed into a modern tavern (and now, a pharmacist, and block of flats!).
' Beyond that again was a mansion, standing in its own grounds, at the corner of Chestnut Avenue, and another large house where the lane merged into the flats. On the left hand, after passing through the gate, were fields, bordered by a hedge and elms opposite the inn, and at the fork in the road, opposite Chestnut Avenue, were the fine grounds, splendidly timbered of a very large mansion, running on that side, as far as the Flats.'
The twelve acres of land on which the hospital now stands, originally formed part of the Woodgrange Farm. This area formed the ancient manor of Wood Grange of which separate records go back to the 12th century. Then, as part of the Lordship of Hamme, it was granted by William Montfichet to the newly founded Abbey of Stratford Langthorne, and in whose possession it continued for four centuries, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry V111.
Newham in Tudor times. Source: Newham archives

From that time the manor passed through various hands, but apart from the first Queen Elizabeth's Earl of Leicester and the Jacobean Earl of Totnes, no one of any national note appears to have possessed the property. In the later part of the 18th century it came by marriage into the hands of the Peacock family, and in 1847 was purchased by Samuel Gurney, the local Quaker, banker and philanthropist and brother of Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer.
It is always fascinating to look at old maps, and in this way the development of West Ham can be traced in reasonable detail over the past two centuries. John Roque's Map of London (1741-5) shows the neighbourhood..:

John Roque's map, 1746

Maryland Point, The Eagle and Child, Wood Granges Farm, Stratford Common and two windmills off Romford Road, south of the Pigeons Hotel (now Tesco metro on Romford Road, near the fire station).
"It may be interesting to note that the present Vicarage Lane (a little further into Stratford) is shown as Ass House Lane on the map and this lane was alternatively known as Jackass Lane...
Chapman and Andre's Map (1777) shows similar details, together with a property called "Mousleys" between Maryland Point and the site of the hospital, along Forest Lane, and Stratford House, the seat of the Henniker family in what is now The Grove.

Chapman and Andre map, 1777

Map, 1800 - East and West Ham; Eagle
and Child and Wood Grange marked

One of the most valuable possessions in the local collection of the (Newham Archives) is a survey made of the parish of West Ham in 1821 by James Clayton. ... What we now know as Forest Gate, Upton and old West Ham proper were in the Church Street ward of the parish - the wards then, of course, being of larger extent and greater administrative significance than the present day electoral wards.
Clayton's map, 1821

Key to Clayton's 1821 map
To return ... Samuel Gurney (who is commemorated by the obelisk and fountain in Stratford Broadway) was not only a great private philanthropist, but was also ready to assist local authorities in developing their responsibilities (West Ham has cause to remember him with gratitude and we originally owe West Ham park to the generosity of his family). In 1852 he conveyed the plot of land to the Guardians of the Poor of Whitechapel Union for the sum of £2,640 and the original buildings were erected at a cost of £40,000
Samuel Gurney (1766 - 1856)

For the onward history of the buildings see here.

Upper Cut - May 1967

Saturday, 7 June 2014

May was a bumper month at Woodgrange Road's finest. Continuing our monthly series on the gigs that Woodgrange Road's upper Cut club hosted, 47 years ago - in May 1967

The month kicked off with Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders (6th). Manchester born, Fontana, took his stage name from Elvis Presley's drummer. Early hits for the band included Roadrunner, Love Potion Number 9 and Duke of Earl, but the band they had their biggest hit The Game of Love, just before their Upper Cut gig.

Wayne Fontana, an
early May attraction
Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders

Like many of the bands who played Woodgrange Road almost 50 years ago, Wayne Fontana and his group are still on the scene.  He made his most infamous recent appearance, however, in the dock rather than on the stage, and has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
Terry Reid followed the next Saturday (13th).  Reid is the great nearly man of British Rock, having turned down the singer role in Led Zep, because he was touring, to be replaced by Robert Plant and having almost become the lead of Deep Purple, only to be pipped at the post by Ian Gillan. 

Terry Reid - still good value at under
£20 at the 100 Club, these days

Reid has supported most of the great popular music acts of the last 50 years, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones etc. Like many others of his era, he is still on the road and can be still be seen in some of London's smaller clubs knocking out a great night for under £20!

Bill Wyman, way back when!
Drug free Stones promoter

The Stones never played the Upper Cut, but nearly ...  On 14 May Bill Wyman made an appearance, as the accompanying  publicity stated "To celebrate their latest Columbia disc, a personal appearance by Rolling Stone, Bill Wyman". Admission price? 5/- (25p!).

Bill Wyman,
for five bob!
The record he was promoting would have been Let's Spend the Night Together.  The reason the rest of the band were not present may not be unconnected to the fact that Mick Jagger, Keith Richard and Brian Jones were helping the police with their enquiries following a cannabis raid at Jones' house four days previously. In the confused times, the three were charged, found guilty, sentence to prison, released etc as the establishment got itself into knots over the merging youth culture.

May 19th saw a return of Sounds Incorporated, who had already played the Upper Cut on 20 January.

Another, publicly-caught-up-in-drugs accusations, at precisely this time, was the Scottish, heavily Dylan-influenced Donovan. He appeared at the Upper Cut six days later (the 20th), performing for the "12's - 17's ... absolutely free", as the publicity says.  Surely this wasn't the encouragement of drug use to under aged Forest Gate youngsters?

Hurdy Gurdy man - Donovan,
admission-free, if not drug-free

Donovan had already had a hit with Sunshine Superman and was moving up the charts with Mellow Yellow at the time of his Woodgrange Road gig.  Like many of the troopers who played the Upper Cut, he is still on the music scene and was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers

Donovan supported Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers on his Forest Gate outing. That band's biggest claim to fame was that they opened the bill on the Beatles final European tour, the year before the Woodgrange Road show.  They had a number of minor hits (One Way Love, Gotta Get You Intta My Life etc) and effectively disbanded in the early 1970's.  Bennett, himself, however, has been back on the road over the last few years on 60's package/nostalgia tours.

Donovan for free,
and the Kinks,
for not much more!

In the evening, having been warmed up by the Beatles warm-up band, came The Kinks.  One of the great acts of British popular music over the last half century, with beautiful lyrics that paint such great pictures of many aspects of English life (even Lola??).

The Kinks, one of the finest bands
to emerge from the 60's

These Muswell Hill boys are perhaps as well known for the tempestuous relationship between the Davies brothers, Ray and Dave, as some of their quixotic hits. Time slots of gigs at the Upper Cut were short. There would been barely enough time for the Kinks to have played their hits-to-date on their set before time ran out.  They had already recorded: You Really Got Me, All Day And All of the Night, Set Me Free, Tired of Waiting, See My Friends, Well Respected Man, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon and Dead End Street.

They had just released the quintessentially London track Waterloo Sunset when they appeared in Woodgrange Road. What a pleasure it would have been to have been there!

But the month wasn't done yet! The following weekend (26th) saw the Graham Bond Organisation an early jazz/rock fusion band -and the Troggs. Although Graham Bond was never big, commercially, the band did spawn Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, who were later to constitute two thirds of Cream - who were to play later at the Upper Cut, in 1967.  The Organisation dissolved in 1967, soon after the Upper Cut gig, as a result of an inability to handle drugs misuse and disharmony within the ranks.

Graham Bond Organisation
- short lived, but influential

The Troggs were an altogether different kettle of fish (appearing on the 27th). Lead by Hampshire-born vocalist Reg Presley, who died a little over a year ago, the band had four huge hits - three before the Woodgrange Road gig - which would undoubtedly have had an airing (Wild Thing, With a Girl Like You and I Can't Control Myself) and one after (Love As All Around), which got far greater recognition when covered by Wet, Wet, Wet, and provided the theme tune to Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Wild Things - The Troggs

The Troggs have been cited by many as the godfathers of punk.  Presley used much of the royalties he gained from the Wet, Wet, Wet version of his song to fund his interest in crop circles, alien spacecraft and lost civilisations!

Back catalogue
This is the latest, and penultimate postings on the history of the Upper Cut club, whose fortune we have tried to mirror, on a month by month basis, 47 years on from its short lived existence.

Other posts in the series have been:

Upper Cut (1) - a summary of the emergence of the first six months of the club

Upper Cut (2) - a brief survey of the second, and final half year of the club's existence

Georgie Fame, The Tremeloes and Unit 4 + 2 - (September 1967 at the Upper Cut)

When Stevie Wonder played Forest Gate - (October 1967)

Mouthwatering musical fayre on Woodgrange Road - (November 1967)

Club bills for the Upper Cut's two Decembers - (1966 and 1967)

The Upper Cut beds down - (January 1967)

Essex comes to Forest Gate - (February 1967)

Stax comes to town - (March 1967)

A mixed bunch at the Upper Cut in April (April 1967)

Forest Gate Industrial School Fire - New Year's day 1890

Friday, 30 May 2014

This is the Stratford Express report fire that suffocated 26 pupils at Forest Gate Industrial School on New Year's day 1890.  This was in the pre-tabloid press era, so there was a lack of sensationalism in the reporting, and the account was very detailed.  It is most moving, and well worth the lengthy read involved.

There were no photographs of the fire, or related matters in the newspapers at the time - the technology would not allow it.  This was, however, a massive story, by any standards.  Clippings from other local newspapers that sprinkle the text show the measure, non-hysterical and populist way in which this tragedy was reported locally.

A 1970s photograph of the Forest Gate
Industrial School. A maternity hospital at the time
of the photo, and now a residential development

Among the photographs produced below are those of the memorial to the deceased, which stands in West Ham cemetery, almost behind the site of the school, and the inscription on the base of that memorial.  There is also a reproduction of a memorial card, which would have been produced as a fund raising activity, to support the relatives of the deceased.

Awful calamity at the Forest Gate Schools

26 lives lost

Introduction to Stratford
Express article, from which
this account is taken
- 4 January 1890

The Forest Gate School Buildings, situate in the middle of Forest Lane, will be familiar to all our readers. They are occupied by children belonging to the Whitechapel Union. On Tuesday midnight these were the scene of a fearful calamity - unprecedented in the history of West Ham.
About twenty minutes past twelve o'clock a fire was discovered raging in a building consisting of three floors, measuring 90ft. by 40ft., by Miss Julia Bloomfield. The lower floor is occupied as a sewing room and wardrobe, and the two upper floors as boys' dormitories and in these 84 children were sleeping. Immediately on the discovery of the fire she gave an alarm to the superintendent, Mr. Duncan, who dispatched messengers to the Forest Gate fire station and the hose reel and escape were in attendance at 12.47.

Mr. Duncan, in the meanwhile, got a hydrant to work and succeeded to some extent in subduing the flames. Messages were also sent to the other West Ham fire brigade stations, and three steamers were quickly on the spot. The Forest Gate escape was put up to the dormitory windows, but the heat and smoke were so intense that it was impossible to effect an entrance. On the arrival of Superintendent Smith, Mr. Duncan handed the hose to him, and the steamers then got to work.
Mr. Smith went inside the building with the hose, and eventually succeeded, with the aid of the steamers, in subduing the flames. It was then found that no less than twenty-six children had perished. On Mr. Duncan and Mr. Smith going round the dormitories they found the whole of the doors locked on the outside.
Enquiries made on the spot later in the morning showed that the early accounts of the calamity did not exaggerate its awful particulars, and though nothing positive can be ascertained as to how the fire originated, nearly everybody agrees it must have been due to some defect in the stovepipe of the needle room. That room is warmed by a stove in the middle. The pipe from it goes up about ten feet, and then is taken at right angles through a wooden partition into the wardrobe room, where it enters the chimney. It had been swept the day before, and it is conjectured that some ignited soot must have escaped from a defective place in the pipe, and that falling upon the clothing, it smoldered for hours before breaking out into a fiercer conflagration.
About half-past twelve o'clock a railway guard named James Larter was walking down Forest Lane when he observed one of the chimneys apparently on fire, and seeing that the flames burnt fiercely and threatened to attack the roof, he blew his whistle loudly with the object of attracting the attention of the police. Without waiting to see whether or not his signal was attended to, and having failed to arouse the gate porter, he scaled the garden fence and ran up to the house. He then found that the fire had already been noticed, and that the inmates were aroused, and he joined with them in rescuing the sleeping children from their perilous position in the dormitories above the burning room.


West Ham Guardian - 4 Jan 1890

About the same time that Larter had noticed the fire from the outside Miss Bloomfield, who has the charge of the wardrobe room, and was in her bedroom which adjoins the boys' dormitory on the first floor, was alarmed by a strong smell of smoke. Going downstairs she was startled to find that the partition, which divides the wardrobe room from the needle room, was on fire. She immediately ran back and aroused Miss Terry, who was sleeping near her room, and having obtained possession of her keys, she at once went and alarmed Mr. Duncan, the superintendent.
The officers in charge of the dormitories, who alone, with the exception of the superintendent, had keys which will open the various sleeping rooms and wards, were appraised of their danger, and the work of rescuing the children commenced. In the meantime, however, the fire was making dangerous progress amongst the clothes and stores with which the shelves of the wardrobe room were packed, and already the woodwork and fittings were well alight.
A dense suffocating fire arose from the fire smouldering in the blankets and woollen clothes, and to it most of the fatalities are to be attributed, for out of the 26 children whose deaths it is our melancholy duty to report, 24 were suffocated. Mr. Duncan on being aroused by the alarm of fire seized one of those small portable fire engines called the "Fire Queen," and made the first assault upon the flames. He attempted to ascend a staircase leading to one of the dormitories but was baffled for a time by a dense cloud of smoke which every moment increased in volume.

Introduction to Barking, East Ham and Ilford
Advertiser account of the fire, 4 Jan 1890

By crawling on his hands and knees he reached the door of dormitory No. 9. He shouted to the boys but received no answer, and then overcome by the smoke he fell down the stairs. Quickly recovering himself, however, he again attempted the extinction of the flames. By his directions a hydrant was fixed, and in this way a check was kept on the flames until the arrival of the fire engine. The fire itself was not very extensive and was confined to the building in which it broke out, this an annexe at the back of the school which comprises the wardrobe room and the needle room on the ground floor.
Over these rooms were dormitories with cots for 84 boys; 42 were accommodated on the second floor, and 42 on the floor above. The fire burnt through the ceiling of the first floor, and in this room thirteen of the lads were suffocated by the smoke which came from below; on the next floor 13 are said to have died, asphyxiated by the smoke, but 58 of the lads were safely rescued and lodged in other parts of the building.
The work of rescue was both a dangerous and laborious one. Access can be had to these dormitories by an outside staircase but the door of it was locked. The lock, however, was forced and a large number of the children were safely carried down it, through the blinding smoke. Ladders were procured and some were taken out of the windows in that way. One of the attendants (Mrs. Hills), who was sleeping on the third floor, became much excited, and in her trepidation got out of a small window, and slid to the ground down a water pipe at the imminent hazard of her life. She, however, escaped in safety.
Mrs. Day, another attendant who was sleeping in the same room as Mrs. Hills, jumped from the bedroom window on to the roof of the dining room, a dozen feet below, and in so doing rather seriously injured her ankle. She was assisted down from the roof to the yard below and reached the ground in safety.
During the morning the schools were visited by Mr. H. J. Cook, the chairman of the Committee of Management, and Mr. W. Vallance, the clerk of the Committee. Several members of the Corporation also visited the spot, as well as Mr. Angell, borough engineer.

The following are the names of those children who are known to be suffocated:

Augustus Flowers, aged 10, of 1, Laura Cottages, Millwall ; Theophilus Flowers, aged 9, 1, Laura Cottages, Millwall; John Jones, aged 7,  4, Island Street, Brunswick Road, Poplar; John Taylor, aged 7,  3, Amiel Street, Bromley; Michael Vassum, aged 8, mother in Whitechapel Workhouse; Frederick Smith, aged 9, 50, Church Street, Whitechapel; Edward Kilburn, aged 9, mother inmate in Poplar Workhouse; John Joyce, aged 10, 61, Apperion Road, Bow; Richard Page, aged 7, 45, Vanne Street, Bromley; James Potts, aged 10, 4, Newham Buildings, Pelham Street, Whitechapel; William Hume, aged 9, 52, Railway Street, Bromley ; Frank Chalk, aged 7, of Whitechapel; Herbert Russell, aged 10, mother in Croydon Workhouse; James Rolfe, aged 8,  61, Milton Road, Bow; Thomas North, aged 12, of Poplar Union; Walter Searle, aged 9, an orphan, from Poplar; Charles Biddick, aged 12,  4, Medway Road, Mile End; Frederick Scott, aged 7, 9, Oliver's Court, Bow Road; Henry Sowerbutts, aged 10, mother in Poplar Workhouse; Gilbert Allison, aged 10, 3, Charles Street, Millwall; Thomas Hughes, aged 11, father in Poplar Workhouse; William Dawson, aged 7, mother in Bow Infirmary; Frederick Wigmore, aged 8, mother in Croydon Workhouse; William Sillitoe, aged 9, father in Whitechapel Infirmary; Arthur Pigeon, aged 9, 31, Burdett Road, Bow; Albert Smith, aged 12, 14, Mansfield Road, Millwall.

Memorial obelisk to tragedy victims,
West Ham cemetery -
just behind the site of the school

By noon 14 out of the 26 bodies had been identified by the official of the school, but only the bodies of the brothers Flowers had been identified by their brother William. The dead bodies of the unfortunate boys lay in two rows along the sides of one of the sick wards of the schools. Parents or friends having boys in the home, and naturally apprehensive as to the fate of their offspring were continually arriving, and within the four walls of this impromptu mortuary sorrowful scenes were enacted  men and women scanning with well-nigh unnatural eagerness the faces of the small, cold forms around.

Dedication message at base of memorial obelisk

The children lay wrapped in blankets, with the faces only exposed, and a glance at the features was enough to show that in 25 of the 26 cases death was due purely to suffocation; the expressions upon the faces are in most cases those of children "caught in sleep." One poor bairn lay face on hand, others had the mouth open indicating the sound sleep of childhood, while scarcely upon one of those cold, upturned faces was there a feature distorted by agony. The body which is burned is reduced almost to a cinder, and its identification will be a matter of great difficulty.

Woodcut memorial of the fire

Much assistance was rendered to the school officials by Mr. Thomas Oakley, of 24, Tower Hamlets Street, Mr. W. George Oakley, his son, and Mr. John Malcolm and his son, who live next door. The yards of the house occupied by Messrs. Oakley and Malcolm adjoin the outer wall of the school premises. Young Mr. Oakley's parents had retired, but he was sitting up awaiting the return of his sister from a watch night service. He heard cries of fire, and went into the yard, when he saw smoke proceeding from the schools. He at once aroused his father, and Mr. Malcolm and his son were also called. All four climbed the boundary wall of the school premises, and assisted the yardsmen to remove the boys. The smoke was so thick that they could not see the boys, but they could hear their cries. They helped Mrs. Hill and Mrs. Davy to alight from the roof of the dining hall.

Miss Julia Bloomfield, mistress of the wardrobe room, who was nearly overcome by the smoke, has made the following statement:

I was in bed, though not quite asleep, when I smelt a strange odour. I went downstairs, and then saw flames at the top of the partition between the wardrobe-room and the needle-room. I went back and called Miss Terry. I rang the bell on the staircase, and called up all the other officers. This was about 20 minutes past 12. Miss Terry ran up and got the keys from the officer who kept them, while I rang the bell. Then we both ran downstairs, and unlocked the dining-hall door. She ran to wake the matron, while I ran across the dining-hall and went to Miss Collyer's room. By the time I got back all the officers were aroused.


Mr. Duncan, the superintendent, with the 'Fire Queen' machine on his back, began to play upon the flames. By this time the smoke had become so dense that I was nearly overcome, and had not Miss Terry caught hold of me I must have fallen. How Mr. Duncan remained so long as he did in the smoke I don't know, but he stayed there playing on the flames with the 'Fire Queen' until the arrival of the firemen. Meanwhile the other officers - Mr. Elliott, Mr. Hare and Mr. O'Brien - were getting the boys out, and they rescued all who were saved. Those who lost their lives were apparently suffocated, for only one body appears to have been burnt

Every officer in the building came on the scene within a few moments of the alarm being given. Nothing more could have been done, and the utmost was done to save the boys. We have passed through a dreadful night, and one which we shall never forget so long as we live.

Miss Terry, head sewing mistress, corroborated Miss Bloomfield's statement. She adds that she herself had the presence of mind to place a thick cloak across her mouth, and thus, being not so much affected by the smoke as Miss Bloomfield, was enabled to assist her at the time she needed help. She went through the wardrobe-room with Miss Bloomfield between ten and eleven o'clock to see that all the fires and lights were out, and to lock up.

Memorial card, used as a fund raiser to help
relatives, and pay for memorial obelisk

Miss Bloomfield's room is the first room on the first floor, and as she usually sleeps with her door open, the smoke gained easy access to the room. She had only just retired, and consequently was on the alert in a moment. Miss Terry was unable to give an opinion as to the cause of the fire, but stated that the heating pipe had been swept at five o'clock the previous afternoon, and the sweep had requested that the fire should be lighted in order to see whether it burned all right. This was done with apparently satisfactory results.
The wardrobe-room was fitted up with little square racks, in which the children placed their clothes. The insurance company had insisted upon a large space being left around this pipe, and this was done. While the school authorities had not placed any of the clothes' racks near the pipe, they had never known the pipe to become overheated before, and had no reason to suppose it was overheated on the present occasion.

George Hare, a young fellow, aged 22, who is engaged as yardsman and slept on the top floor on the dormitory, says that he was first awakened at about twenty-five minutes to twelve o'clock by the boys calling out. The gas had been put out at eight o'clock, and he went to bed at half-past nine. When he awoke the top dormitory was full of smoke, and he could hardly see any of the lads. He rushed first to the door leading down to the dining hall, but the smoke on the landing was so dense that he had to turn back. He then rushed to the external staircase, calling to the boys to follow him, and driving some on in front.
As he passed the dormitory beneath he found that also full of dense and pungent smoke. He helped some of the lads out and when he reached the bottom of the stone staircase he found that the outer door had already been forced open from the outside by Mr. Elliott, one of the officials of the receiving ward. Eyre and Elliott afterwards groped their way upstairs, and brought several lads down, and Eyre went up a second time and brought out a boy who stood on a staircase perfectly motionless. He brought him out, and then essayed to return but the smoke was too dense, and suffocating.
Then Mrs. Hill, one of the scullery maids, got out of one of the top floor windows, and went down a water pipe. In the same room was Mrs. Davies, a bread-room maid. She jumped through the window on to an outhouse, and was rescued by the men. This was an extraordinary leap. The distance must have been fully 12 feet, and was in a slanting direction - to the right - from the bedroom window to the roof, where the slates are broken by the force of Mrs. Davies' fall. How she escaped serious injury is a marvel.

The sewing-room and wardrobe-room are completely wrecked by the fire, and in the dormitory immediately above (No. 9 dormitory) the damage done by the flames is also very considerable, but in the top-room (No. 10 dormitory), the damage is comparatively slight. And yet in the topmost dormitory the number of dead was as great, if not greater than in the room below, plainly showing that death was by suffocation.

The number of children now in the institution is nearly 550. The clothing in the wardrobe room was that of the girls with the underclothing of the boys.
At the further end of No. 10 dormitory - the end opposite to that by which access is usually gained - there is a second staircase (we believe, of wood) which is considerably scorched, whilst outside the window another means of escape in case of emergency has been provided. The window had only to be opened and the children could drop onto a lead-covered platform, from which, by easy stages, they might slide down to the ground.

We are informed that the West Ham Cemetery officials have offered ground for the internments.

The fifty-eight lads who were so happily saved are now none the worse for their peril. Their memories of their awakening are, however, confused. Some were aroused by the coughing of a comrade, and jumped out of bed. Many not realising what was happening, and half asleep, returned to the warm bed clothes again, and now lie in blankets on the infirmary floor. Even one of the men is said, when told of the fire, to have answered, "Nonsense; they are only getting the fire ready for the pudding." One or two boys in the lower dormitory jumped out upon the window ledges. Others were dragged out by their brothers or companions.

 One lad told how he heard Elliott (who was the first to enter No. 10) shouting through the smoke, "Come out, boys!" Did he know Elliott's voice? "Certain, 'twas Elliott that was sent to hunt 'em up when they ran away." Jones, a smart boy, heard another boy cough, leaped out of bed and went to look for his little brother. Little brother insisted upon putting on his socks before he left the ward, and fell down on the floor never to rise again. Jones began to choke too, but was hauled out by Elliott into the fresh air.
A small chap now broke in, pointing to a still smaller, a child of seven, who had to be collared before he would escape, and the brothers now stood side by side to tell the story the youngest laughing as he confessed, "He hiked me out by the braces, sir." A shock-headed youth, who kept in the background, was strongly suspected of having rescued a comrade by thrashing him into movement.

Harrison, sturdy, but not big, came out of the smoke dragging an urchin in each hand. "And I heard Jack say he'd go back for Tommy. He said, 'I'm a goin' to give my life up. I am agoin' back,' " was the statement of yet another, who knew by this time that Jack, alas, was amongst those silent ones in the infirmary.

Through the courtesy of the Rev. Deans Cowan, the acting chaplain, a Press representative had the opportunity of seeing the boys who so narrowly escaped. Seated round a fire in one of the wards of the receiving-house were a couple of dozen lads, who stood up to greet their chaplain as he entered.
These boys were all sleeping in the upper ward, the one in which most deaths occurred. Fourteen boys succumbed in the upper ward from suffocation purely, as no flame whatever reached this room, while, strange to say, only 12 deaths occurred in the lower ward, which was nearer the fire, Henry Barbington, a bright-eyed little fellow of 12, told a graphic and intelligent story of his experiences. "The first thing I knew was I woke with the screaming. Mr. Hare, the yardsman, sleeps on our floor, and I heard a lot of the boys calling Mr. Hare. We could not wake him, he was so sound. Then I heard Mrs. Hills knocking at the door with all her might."

For the Forest Gate Times account of Christmas Day in this workhouse institution, see here.  Last week we provided a general history of the buildings of the old industrial school, and other local Poor Law schools of the time.  See here