A survivor's account of the 1944 Dames Road disaster

Monday, 12 October 2020

It had been my intention, two years ago, to stop posting new articles on this site, for reasons explained in the previous post. However, I have just been given access to an account of the 1944 Dames Road disaster, already covered here, by a 91 year old man who lost his mother and two sisters in the bomb blast, which is so moving and poignant that it deserves serious attention on this blog.

This site still attracts 20,000 visitors per month and is close to having had a total of one million hits, so I am confident the article will attract some of the attention it deserves.

It is a long read, but I feel will be worth every moment you can devote to it. It is with considerable humility that I express my thanks to Bill Blackman for sharing his words, memories and photos with us, and to his daughter, Sue, for enabling the story to be told here.

 

           91 year-old, Bill Blackman, today. Below is his story of the horror

                      XXXXXXXX

Background

A V1 bomb struck a passing trolley bus on Dames Road on 27 July 1944, killing an unknown number of people. Our article here, for the first time, was able to identify 34 of them. It showed that among the dead were Gladys Blackman, 39, of Billet Road, Walthamstow and her daughters Jean, 10, and Wendy, aged 4. Gladys' husband, William, was abroad, on active service with the RAF.

  

Site of explosion today on Dames Road - Holly Tree in distance

As well as her daughters, Gladys had two sons, Donald, who was with her on the bus and appears to have been the explosion's only survivor, and William (Bill), who was fifteen and at work, so unable to be part of the visit to his grandma's.

  

Mother Gladys Blackman - one of three family members killed

As will become clear, the number of deaths, in fact, probably exceeded 70; the true number was not disclosed at the time on grounds of national security, during the war, as the previous article explained. What we do know is that Cyril Demarne, who later became West Ham's Chief Fire Officer, described the incident as: "the most horrific thing I have ever witnessed."

Correspondence with the Blackman family explained that Gladys was in the habit of taking her children to Manor Park each Friday afternoon to visit their grandmother. They were returning home on the trolley bus, on the afternoon of 27 July, passing through Forest Gate, when it was hit by the missile in Dames Road.

What follows is Bill's account of how, after returning home from work on the fateful day, he discovered the extent of the tragedy and its impact on his life, and those of surviving family members. It is taken from a memoir he wrote for his family called: What a lucky sod I am ...

As will become apparent, he worked at a company called Wrighton, near the family home, close to the Crooked Billet roundabout. Bill describes life there, in another extract from his writings, at the end of this article. Immediately prior to this is a short section, describing the fate of his brother, Donald.

What follows is Bill's account, in his own words. He was 15 at the time of these events.

Bill hears the bomb blast

It was the 27th July 1944 around about an hour before knocking off time at Wrighton's. I was in the stores collecting parts for the next day's work schedule which us lads did every evening, when we heard, the by then, famliar sound of a doodlebug quite near and then the stuttering sound of the engine before it suddenly shut off and what seemed unexplained silence before the terrifying explosion. "That was a close one", somebody said, as we ran for the rear entrance of the factory building into the parking area for the firm's lorries. This was a very open area, with the North Circular Road running alongside, so we could see for miles around, unrestricted by buildings.

As we stood in a group, looking at the huge black mushroom of smoke and debris rising in the sky, there was the usual talk of how close it was to us. I remember the elder of the group suggesting it could be Leyton or Wanstead. As I stood watching the plume of smoke rising ever higher in the sky, as I had done on so many occasions over the past months, somehow this was different. People's chatter around me became just murmurings for a time. I seemed to be in a world of my own and in a different place. I have never been able to explain these feelings on that awful day. All I knew, in that instant, was that all was not right and that something dreadful had happened.

  

A V1 bomb, of the kind that caused the blast

Arriving home and hearing his brother is hurt

Arriving home from work that day, being a Friday, I knew I would find nobody in, because Mum used to vist her Mum, my Nan, every week, so as always, I used to help out by laying the table ready for a meal, by which time Mum, my sisters and my brother would be at home. But this Friday things were not going right, they were late and already I felt uneasy from my earlier experience. I started to look at the clock every few minutes until ages after the time they would normally be home.

Then, glancing out from the window for the umpteenth time, my legs nearly gave way as I saw a policeman coming to the front door. I know that although I was only 15 years old that this was about to be bad news. "Hello, son", he said, trying his best to be calm and assured as possible, "is your Mum or Dad about?"

By this time my mouth had completely dried up, as I explained that Dad was serving abroad in the RAF and that Mum was visting my Nan. A sudden change appeared on his face as he was trying to work out his next move. Then he was just saying: "hang on a minute", as he left me standing there with the front door open and he made his way next door, to Mr and Mrs Western.

After what seemed like ages, the policeman returned accompanied by little Mr Western trotting along to keep up. "Can we come in?" the policeman said, "I have a message for Mum when she gets home." By the time all three of us were seated in the front room, the policeman leaned across, and touching my hand he was saying something like: "Tell your Mum that your brother has been hurt in an explosion and has been taken to St Mary's hospital in Hackney." Although by this time my mind was in a whirl, I can remember blurting out, "But they were all together."

I'm sure Mr Western had realised at this point the situation, because Mum and Mrs Western were great friends, so Mrs Westen would have known Mum's weekly routine. The policeman and Mr Western left me sitting there for a while, they disappeared into another room. I could just about hear them having a hurried conversation. Next thing, I remember Mr Western was taken to the police station in search of some up-to-date information about my Mum and sisters.

Confirmation his mother and sisters have been killed

It semed to me hours before Mr Western returned home. I knew in an instant by the look on his face that my life as I had known it had ended. Mr Western, for some reason known only to him, threw me a packet of Senior Service cigarettes into my lap, and said: "Have one of those, lad". While holding on to my shoulders, he tried his best, I know, to explain that both Mum and sisters Jean and Wendy had perished by the blast from a passing V1 flying bomb that hit the houses next to the trolley bus they were travelling on, in Dames Road, Wanstead.

  

Sister, Wendy, aged four killed in explosion

It's so hard to describe how one feels or copes with such shocking news, except I can remember my brain seemed to shut down momentarily. Looking around me, Mr Western was still talking to me, Mrs Western had burst into tears, but I could hear no sound, just see Mr Western's lips moving. Is this something the brain does, to act like a safety valve against shocking news and events? I don't know, but I seemed to be this strange trance-like state for some time before suddenly everything came to life and I realised what had just happened to me.

Alone in the world

At just 15 years, I was alone in the world. Dad was abroad in the RAF, thousands of miles away. But I did not cry, I just couldn't. I just remember a lump in my throat so big I thought I would choke.

By this time, Mrs Western, bless her, had rallied herself and asked if I had eaten at all that evening. I don't think I could have eaten anyway. I do remember Mr Western made me light up a cigarette. Being the first time, I just spluttered and nearly choked myself. By this time it was quite late and I just wanted to sleep. I remember a discussion about sleeping arrangements, in which for one night it was suggested, I sleep with their son Dennis - the same Dennis that I used to sit next to at school. I'm sure he wasn't keen and I was adamant that I wanted to sleep in my own bed, next door.

I know I worried poor old Mrs Western, because of the air raids at night. She used to say that she did not mind as long as I used the air raid shelter to sleep in, but I preferred my comfy bed indoors, and although being on my own all night, I somehow felt more secure in my own bed, and just went next door at meal times.

Wonderful neighbours

There is no doubt, and I have to admit it, that during those first few days after my loss I was only thinking about me and what I was going to do, and did not give a thought to how this was affeceting my lovely neighbours. The Westerns, without a single thought for their own way of life, just took me in, fed me and made sure I had all I needed, even buying me a suit for the upcoming funeral; which I must add, was the first suit I ever had.

ALL I hoped was that when Dad returned from abroad they were rewarded with some kind of recompense. All I know is that I will be eternally grateful to them for all their love. I can remember having about a month off work. How this came about, and who did all the arrangements for me and for the funeral, I will never know. Not having Dad around, it must have been some of my relatives, but I suspect the Westerns were involved with that also.

Home alone

Not going to work and not venturing out much at all was probably not a good thing, I don't know, all still seems such a blur. Dad took several weeks before arriving home, so I sat around on my own, most of the day, going through the routine of going next door at meal times and then coming back indoors afterwards. Mrs Western had three daughters-in-law staying with her at the time, while their husbands were at war. Their constant chat at the meal table somehow got on my nerves, and I was glad to get back to being on my own. I know you would think I wanted to be with company, but I felt more at ease in my own space. 'Comfortably numb' springs to mind.

  

Sister, Jean, aged ten, killed in the explosion

So many questions

After these sad times some people have, even in recent times, posed the question: "How did you feel and how did you get through this terrible time? What do you think about the Germans?" My answer is: "In life, there are times when you get knocked back, so you either stay down or get up, and just get on with living." To the latter question: "People don't make wars, bloody governments do."

The only time I fell into the: "Why me?" situation was during the early days, when I would stand watching from the window facing the main road, seeing buses going by, full of people, to and froing to work, people scurrying by, going about their everyday business along the pavements. And I remember thinking, just watching people getting on with life: "How is this happening? Don't you know what's just happened in my world?" Perhaps I was just being shown that life does go on.

Telling the family

The next few days were taken up travelling around London in a bid to contact relatives, to inform them about our sad loss. I must have been accompanied by an adult. I can remember Uncle Charles being around, he was Dad's brother. But I think again it was mainly Mr Western. I know my first visit was to my Nan in Manor Park, who was my Mum's mother, and where Mum had been before being killed on the way home.

What was unusual about this visit was than whenever we all used to visit Nan we nearly always found her in bed with some ailment or other. Sometimes she would claim to be too ill to see us, by calling from the bedroom window. But on this day, as we stood knocking on the door and calling out, a neighbour informed us that at this time of day, about 11 am, she would be up the pub, at the end of her street. It was the first time I had ever entered a public house, and being so young and a stranger, I felt a hundred eyes on me as I looked around for Nan.

We probably spotted one another at the same time. On seeing me there on my own, she knew it was bad news I had. All she kept saying was: "I told her not to get on that bus". I left her being comforted by all in the pub. I know some of them reached out for me, but I just wanted to get out of there, and home.

I learned sometime after that Nan did walk to the bus stop with Mum and my sisters and brother that day, with her jug in which to fetch her stout at the same pub, on her way back home. Nan told me that when the bus pulled up, being rush hour, it was full and only standing room. Nan told Mum not to get on, but to wait for the next one. Nan said Mum replied: "I need to get home, Bill will be home from work", and that having a little one in her arms, somebody would give her a seat. Nan always insisted it was just fate, and never did stop saying it.

I can only think that Uncle Charles informed all the Blackmans. the only other family member I remember being the bearer of bad news to was my Aunt Doll, who was Mum's sister. Aunt Doll lived in Bethnal Green in a large block of smelly old flats. Having no air-raid shelters, people in those parts of London used the underground station platforms as shelter from the start of the Blitz. Every night at dusk hundreds of people would gather up their blankets and precious belongings and head for the underground, to bed down for the night in any space they could find on the platform.

A white line had been drawn about a yard from the platform edge. This narrow walkway was for the passengers to board and alight from the trains which still kept running til the early hours. How Mums with babies and young children were ever able to get any rest at all in that situation is entirely beyond thinking about.

I eventually spied Aunt Doll among the sea of faces, and although Mr Western was still with me, it became my lot to once again break the sad news. After the familiar cuddles and tears, I left Aunt Doll and my cousin Pat being comforted by scores of people on the platform.

  

"Official figures" and the Walthamstow Guardian underestimating the toll, seven weeks after the incident

Identifying the corpses

The next duty we had to undertake before the actual burial was that awful visit to the mortuary, for the formal identification. I remember, beside the lovely Mr Western there was Grandad Bunn and my Uncle Charles, Dad's brother. When we all arrived, there was some discussion in an outer office as to who was going to do the identification. All seems rather a blur to look back, as to what took place. It seems that Grandad Bunn had already declined and then suddenly Uncle Charles said something like: "I can't be doing this", and left the room.

This left Mr Western and me, alone, with, I believe, a woman official, who was explaining that because Mr Western was not a relative, he could not officiate, and because at 15, I was under-age, and could not do it. She left the room to seek advice from someone senior to her. After some time, the woman returned and said we would both be allowed to view, provided that I was aware and felt able to provide the necessary identification. I believe if it had not been for the war situation, I would never have been allowed to do this; but as in many cases, things went by the board.

Suddenly and quickly I was ushered into the room were Mum and my sisters were laid. A very quick flash of the sheet and Mum's face appeared. First time I had seen a dead person. Although there were a few facial wounds, she looked serene and as I always recognised her - by her beautiful black wavy hair. For reasons best known to the authorities, to identify both my sisters, I was just shown several items of clothing, and asked if these were my sisters' and whether the wore them on the day of the incident. I somehow felt let down by all this strange procedure, but suddenly we were told it was all over, and that we could go.

More unwelcome news

It was a blessing to be out there and walking into the garden, outside the mortuary. I took a deep breath and looked around for the others. It seemed that "Dada pop", as we called him had already gone home, and I spied Uncle Charles, sitting on a bench, feeling sorry for himself.

Walking away from that sad place towards the bus stop and home, Uncle Charles suddenly exclaimed to me: "Of course, you know that Dada pop Bunn is not your real Grandad." Why he thought I needed to know at this moment of time, I shall never understand. I guess because we were all quiet and in our own little world, he thought he would break the silence, and start a conversation. Anyway, this bit of family history just went over my head at the time and I never thought or even remembered it until recently, when members of the family began some research into the family tree.

A few days later, Mr Western and I visited the hospital in Hackney to see my little brother Donald, who incidentally was the only survivor from the bus of 70 passengers. Donald was only six years old and looked so very tiny laying there, his head and face completely swathed in bandages, with just his eyes, like two black holes, visible. Donald didn't wake and hardly moved at all during our first visit. He may well have been in some sort of coma. Mr Western was called aside by a doctor and was most probably given an update on all the issues confronting my poor little brother. I was told nothing and never asked.

The funerals

Came the day I was dreading, the funeral. Very hard to describe, all a bit of a dream-like experience. I remember bathing and getting dressed in my new black suit the Westerns had bought me. One of the Westerns knocked, asking if I was ready, so that we could all go together. Watching and waiting for the hearse to arrive, I can remember being totally bemused and amazed by the amount of wreaths and flowers that neighbours were leaving, piled up in our gateway and on the pavement outside.

People had started to gather ouside along the pavements, until it seemed the whole street had turned out. The question I had asked earlier: "Don't they know what has happened in my world?" had surely been answered. It seemed that at that moment, the whole world knew and I truly felt supported for the rest of the day.

  

A photo of Wendy (4), Jean (10) and Donald (6) taken two weeks before the explosion to be sent to their father, in the RAF

Suddenly, the funeral cars appeared outside. The time had come for those few steps to the car. It seemed ages waiting, whilst all the lovely flowers were placed on the coffins in the cars. Maybe a strange thought to have, but I remember thinking what beautiful coffins they were. Mum's was a lovely varnished brown one, and my sisters' were pure white, which I thought very special.

Time to go. As I walked to the car I really did feel love and support from the people around. A little wailing, some called out, some reached out to touch; I really did feel that they cared. As we drove along, I sat betwen Mr and Mrs Western, I could not believe how many had turned out to watch us go by. Many of the men doffing their caps, as they used to, in those days.

A very long journey to the cemetery at Manor Park. My relatives had made their own way, but I don't think there were many in attendance. Remembering the burial, I did notice that Mum was placed in first and Wendy and Jean were placed on top. I'm really pleased they were together, like that.

Living on auto-pilot

It is true to say that I tried to forget what had happened to me, and for probably several weeks I just survived on auto-pilot, just following a daily routine as near normal as possible. I think I had a month off work, so I just hung around indoors in our own house during the day, except at meal times. Then Mrs Western would knock on the wall, or call over the garden to tell me my meal was ready.

What guardian angels Mr and Mrs Western were. I remember nearly every evening, after supper, Mrs Western would plead with me to stay with them overnight, but I still insisted on sleeping on my own. At least I now slept in our air-raid shelter, which pleased Mrs Western, especially as the Germans had launched their last desperate attempt to win the war. Besides the V1s, they now had their latest weapon, the V2, which has a rocket that carried an enormous amount of explosive, at great speed.

This beast was silent after passing over our coast and travelling so fast it could not be seen until it hit its target. So, there was no warning given before an attack, and no way of stopping it. All we knew about it is, if one was near you, there was an almighty explosion. Thank God our boys were now advancing through France and Belgium and were able to destroy the launch sites of those terrible weapons, as they marched onto Germany and victory.

  

Bill, aged 15, in a photo taken two weeks before he explosion, to be sent to his Dad

Return to work

Dad had still not arrived back in England from abroad and several weeks had passed with no communication from him, or anyone, as to his whereabaouts, which was another worry. At last I returned to work and life was steadily getting back to something like normal. Except, the management at work decided to give me what they called a light job, which turned out to be in a small office, at the entrance to the factory, all on my own.  

The job entailed answering the phone and putting callers through to the right department, and giving vistors a chair, while they waited for someone to come down from the offices, to take them to the factory. I did think it was a strange job to give me. Goodness knows what callers thought when they heard a 15 year-old on the end of the telephone, but I guess the management thought I would be harassessed too much in the factory by well-wishers, especially as the staff were mainly women during the war.

I did, in fact, have a lot of workers call in the office, especially in lunch breaks to enquire if I was ok, now. I got used to this after a while and thought it was nice of them to care. So, all in all, it was a nice easy little job, and I admit I did feel a bit self-imporant, especially when I rang either one of the bosses to tell them that Mr So and So was on the line for them, only to be told to say they were not available, or not on site today. Not having a phone at home, the job was a bit special.

Dad arrives home

Came the day at last - Dad was about to arrive home. I had not seen him for probably three years. It was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I stood by the window waiting. We had a funny little custom at home.  If we were expecting company to turn up, like family or friends, we would watch for the trolley bus to go by the window and then wait for 3-4 minutes. If they had not arrived at the gate by then, we knew we had to wait for another bus to go by, and so on. God knows how many buses I waited to go past while I stood watching and waiting.

After what seemed like ages, one of the Westerns came in from the front garden and said; "There's a man in uniform coming up the road." I ran to the gate and stood watching as this tiny little man, weighed down by so many kit bags and stuff came towards me. His gait quickened slightly as he saw me. We grabbed each other and hugged and cried for some time together before I realised that Uncle Charles was there also. They had travelled up from Southampton together.

Poor War Office communications brings a pleasant surprise for Dad

The rest of that day was taken up by so much talk. There was so much to catch up on, so many questions to be asked. I did subsequently learn that the delay in Dad arriving back home was due to bad War Office communications about what had happened to his family, between his commanders abroad and those in this country. He was given to understand that his whole family had perished, and so - he assumed - had the house.

He was given an open-ended compassioante leave pass, to travel home and sort out his affairs. There were no travel arrangements made during WW2 to get servicemen home, as there are today. It was down to him as to how he could best make the journey from the middle of the desert. It must have seemed like mission impossible; no wonder it took him several weeks to accomplish. It must have been unimaginably traumatic for him to be told by Uncle Charles, when he arrived in Southampton, that his two sons were still alive and that his home was in tact. 

 

Future West Ham Chief Fire Officer, Cyril Demarne: "The most horiffic thing I have ever witnessed"

Insensitive people

Life once again was a good deal bearable. Dad and I had a great deal to talk about and I'm sure we helped one another overcome our sad loss. as soon as possible, we both visited St Mary's hospital to see how my brother Donald was progressing. Doctors warned Dad of the possible outcome of Donald's wounds, such as potential brain damage, blindness in one eye or deafness due to the effects of the blast. But, they could not make an assessment until the dressing had been removed and the healing time had elaspsed. Although the doctors were doing their utmost with care and dedication, it did seem to me that people in authority could be insensitive, compared to others, like Mr and Mrs Western and workmates. 

Another instance I remember was a visit I made to transport headquarters in Baker Street, to collect belongings of Mum's found in the debris, such as her handbag. After they were handed over, the chap in charge led us to a large window and I remember distinctly him saying; "Look down there, I cannot believe that anybody could survive in that", and there - down in the yard, about three floors below - was all that was left of the trolley-bus, that our family and all those others were killed in, on that fateful day. All that was identifiable were the chasis and the wheels. Needless to say, we both needed to get out of there.

The local vicar decided to call on us at home, to offer condolences and prayers for our loss. It would have been great if he had stopped there. But for some reason, best known to himself, he went on to explain the reason for the explosion: "We are all here to perform a task and when we have achieved it ..." This was as far as he got before Dad jumped in and said "Are you teling me that a three year-old little child had completed her task, and that it was finished?" His voice getting louder and and more stressed, he continued: "I think you had better leave."

 A new normality established

After a short while at home, Dad received a letter from the War Office, informing him of a posting to RAF Hornchurch, just a few miles from us, which was great. I never did know what his duties were at Hornchurch, but because he was a lone parent, he was allowed home every evening; so in fact, it became a nine-til-five job in uniform. He even used to cycle to Hornchurch every day.

Life was beginning to return to somewhere near normal. We shared some of the housework and got to see one another every day. Mrs Western still fussed around us, making sure we had everything, such as shopping and food, and now and then would bake a cake for us. What a dear person she was. Dad and I could not thank the Westerns enough and we all remained great friends for many years.

Dad and I used to visit the hospital as much as possible, to see Donald, who by now was making steady progress. Bandages and dressings had been removed so we could see the damage to his little face. He looked like a tiny little old man lying there, because his hair had been shaven, to allow access to his head wounds. But miracles do happen. None of the awful things the doctors told us could happen transpired, and the only damage left was on his memory and the awful scars on his body. Until even recent times, very tiny pieces of metal would surface on his forehead.

  

Walthamstow Independent, underestimating the toll

We were raided each day by V1 and V2 rockets, so much so that the authorities decided to evacuate the hospital - from mid-London - to safer parts, in the north of England. Donald finished up in Sunderland, which meant a day's travelling by train and a stop over night in a hotel, returning the next day. This could only be done at weekends, because of work, and must have been an expensive affair for Dad. So, hospital visits became fewer. After about 18 months, the British Red Cross arranged for Donald to convalese in Switzerland.

The war ends, and it's new jobs

Dad was demobbed from the RAF when the war ended and found work at the local waterworks in Ferry Lane Tottenham. Unfortunately, my job at Wrighton's was on the line after the war work contract ended, and the firm started making furniture again. I believe, because of what happened to me during the war, as an act of good faith, they found me a job in the stores. But, it wasn't to last, and I was finally laid off. Fortunately, work was easy to find and I soon found a job at Holmes Brothers Furniture, Leyton.

   

All there is to remember the deceased by. The bodies were originally put into a mass grave, but were later moved to another plot in the City of London cemetery, Manor Park. Later the bodies were exhumed and put into another plot, as the first plot of land was required to erect a block of flats. Bill had a small plaque (above) made for his mother and two sisters. 

This is the end of the main extract from Bill's memoir, but he has offered more details on two aspects of it, firstly the fate of his brother, Donald and secondly a small piece about Wrighton's, his employers.

Donald  

Donald was the only survivor of the 70 trolleybus passengers. Bill feels the only reason he survived was because he was found straight away by a passing market trader who was on his way home from market, with his barrow. He heard Donald crying before any ambulance arrived, and picked him up and ran with him, on his barrow, to Whipps Cross hospital (about 1 mile away). It was his prompt action that Bill feels saved Donald's life. 

The trader's swift action caused confusion among those who responded to, and have told the story of, the explosion, which probably explains why he is not mentioned as having survived or been separated from the rest of his family. It probably also accounts for the fact the the policeman who called on Bill did not appreciate the family connection.

By a strange coincidence, Bill later found out that his neighbour, Mr Western, knew the market trader, who told the story and helped Bill understand how Donald had become separated from the rest of the family, and, in fact, survived the incident.

Wrighton's

Wrighton Furniture was in Billet Road, near the Crooked Billet roundabout, Walthamstow, and made bedroom furniture.  Bill takes up the story, and his employment there in another part of his memoir.

 

         World War 11 workforce at Wrighton's. Bill Blackman is in the front row

"By 1943 Wrighton Furniture had stopped making furniture and had moved to war work, as it was called. We were working on the production of a fighter bomber, 'Mosquito', assembling the fuselage and wings. It was famous as the only war plane made almost entirely from wood. It was, therefore, very light, compared to the other planes, so could fly much faster than other British, or German bombers.

Wrighton's was chosen to assemble the planes because its employees were used to working with wood and could use familiar tools. The fuselage, on which I worked, consisted of spruce bulkheads and ribs, or mainframe, covered with an inner plywood skin. There was then an interior of half inch thick balsa wood, followed by an outer plywood skin. The fuselage was about 28ft long and was assembled in two halves, right and left, which were brought together and bolted by lads climbing inside.

Each gang consisted of eight men or women and two juniors, of whom I was one. There were about twelve of these gangs working at one time on the shop floor. The whole process had to be completed in one shift. If there was a stoppage or an air-raid, you were expected to work overtime to finish. The interior balsa wood was stuck to the plywood, inner and outer skins, with a quick-drying adhesive. If you happened to be in the process when an air-raid warning went, then hard luck.

You were exected to stay put and finish the job. The procedure, in this case, was if the enemy aircraft were directly overhead a claxon was sounded by an air-raid warden on the roof. You had to lie face down on the floor, covering your head with your arms. Such fun!!"


The last post

Friday, 7 December 2018



It has been:
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But it is time to call it a day. This is the last post of the E7-NowAndThen blog.

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I will continue to make any necessary amendments to existing articles, and answer the many incoming emails this blog provokes, as swiftly and fully as possible.

As I mentioned in the last annual review, I have sought to extend the range of media and outlets through which the contents of the blog have been communicated over the last twelve months.  This has been successfully achieved via film, an exhibition, features in the specialist and local press, and local guided walks and talks. Subject to other commitments, I will be happy to continue in this direction, should there be a call for it. I can be contacted via the contact box at the top right hand side of this page.  I will respond to all requests.

As I indicated at the start of this article, I have enjoyed the last five and a half years enormously: I have made lots of new contacts, some of whom I now regard as good friends. I have been to many strange places and archives and dug around in odd bits of the web in pursuit of material.  All of which has been a delight.

It is now time for a change. To put it as succinctly as possible, outside of my family, on the checker board of life, my principal interest counter has moved from E7 to K9.



My wife and I will be spending much more of our time together, with the two lovelies, above, in the parks and open spaces of Forest Gate and area - and further afield. If you see us, say "hello", you will get a very friendly welcome and appreciative wag of the tail from at least two of us!

Elizabeth Fry (1780 - 1845) and Forest Gate

Thursday, 29 November 2018


Elizabeth Fry is one of Britain's most famous historical figures (of either gender).  Her Forest Gate significance is probably that her life donutted the district, with firm connections to: East Ham, Green Street, West Ham, Barking, Dagenham, Stratford, Plaistow, Hackney and Wanstead!


Elizabeth Fry - 1780 - 1845
She was born in Norfolk on 21 May 1780, as Elizabeth (better known as Betsy) Gurney. Her father was a banker and her mother was from the Barclays family, behind the eponymous bank. She was, by six years, Samuel Gurney's (see here)older brother, and when their mother died in Elizabeth's twelfth year, she took on a major responsibility for bringing up her younger siblings, including Sam. She was, like her family, a Quaker, but unlike most of them, took her religion seriously.

She spent her childhood years in Earlham Hall in Norfolk, after which the Forest Gate Grove is named.  That building now houses the law faculty of East Anglia University.

Aged 20, Betsy met Joseph Fry, also a Quaker and a tea merchant, who was a member of the chocolate manufacturing family. The couple married and moved to Brick Lane in Whitechapel - close to Fry's work place. They soon moved to St Mildred's Court, opposite Mansion House in the City and became hosts and hostesses to much of the City of London's considerable Quaker society - a duty Elizabeth hated.

Joseph's father died in 1808 and left the Fry estate - Plashet House, with servants and a cattle farm - in East Ham and Green Street, to him. The Frys upped sticks and moved. Their St Mildred's Court house has long gone but on its site is a City of London blue plaque, recording "Mrs Elizabeth Fry, 1780 --1845, prison reformer, lived here 1800 - 1809." (for details of the other, many, memorials to Betsy - see the end of this article).


Joseph Fry - Elizabeth's
husband, in 1824
Elizabeth, meanwhile, was busy producing her 11 children, who in turn provided her with 25 grandchildren. She would have been the first, however, to accept that a life of domestic bliss was not for her. In 1811 she became a Minister of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). She soon set up a girls boarding school in a large house, opposite her own in Plashet, with accommodation for 70 girls.


The Frys home in Plashet,
before hard times descended
Two years later, a French Friend, Stephen Grellett, was visiting  Newgate prison (on the site of what is now The Old Bailey)and witnessed, inside:

a sight and smell so dreadful ... above everything it is the plight of the women and babies, women lying in layers, the babies on the ground, all but naked, and dying in the cold - a population rendered diseased, brutish and depraved (that sends Grellett)out onto the street, chocking for breath.

Grellett rushed with his story to Elizabeth Fry, and she took up the cudgels.

She found, for herself, that the women's sections of prisons were over-crowded with women and children, who were forced to do their own washing and cooking and sleep on straw.


Elizabeth Fry, entering a women's cell at
Newgate. The overcrowding she encountered is
indicated by the cell, on the left of the photo
Her response was to get clothing in to female prisoners, establish education classes and sewing groups there and provide bibles. She set about bullying prison authorities to introduce humane, sanitary conditions for women, many of whom were held there without trial or on trivial, or no, charges.

In 1817 she founded the Association for the Reformation of Female Prisoners in Newgate, and four years later the London Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners.

She was in her element, in the early years of the nineteenth century, and applied what would be regarded two centuries later as slick PR campaigns to draw attention to her and the female prisoners' causes. She called upon the resources of her well-connected friends to highlight prison conditions. 

She insisted on entering Newgate unaccompanied, and thereby gained both the trust of the female prisoners and great public attention for here "fortitude and bravery".


Visiting prison cells,
unaccompanied by prison staff
She campaigned against women being manacled in chains, against the public exhibition of female prisoners, against transport ships, solitary confinement and above all, capital punishment.


She would attract wealthy visitors (left of sketch) 
and supporters, to watch her read to female
prisoners at Newgate - good for fund raising
In 1818 she gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on conditions in British prisons - and so became the first woman to present evidence to the British Parliament. Not the only "first" to her name.


Above - Newgate Prison, in 1902, shortly
before its demolition.  Below, the statue of
Betsy that stands in the Old Bailey, built
on the site of the prison.
For relaxation, in 1824, the family took a lease on two fishing cottages at Dagenham Breach (pretty much on where Ford's factory is today) and spent subsequent summer holidays there. Elizabeth's daughter, and East Ham historian, Katharine wrote:

It is difficult to convey the sort of enjoyment Dagenham afforded us ... there was fishing, boating, driving and riding inland by day, and when night closed in over the wild marsh scenery the cries of water birds, the rustling of the great beds of reeds, the strange sounds from the shipping on the river gave the place an indescribable charm.


Dagenham Breach in 19th century

The charm was not to last, however. In 1829 Joseph Fry's business hit financial difficulties and the family were forced to sell the Plashet estate in order to survive. Family connections stepped in, to save the day. Elizabeth's younger brother, Samuel, himself a successful banker, was beginning to build himself a substantial property portfolio in the Forest Gate area.


The Upton estate, at the time of the Frys residence
He owned Ham House and its grounds - what was later to become West Ham Park. Within the grounds was Upton Lane House, which is said to have been constructed earlier in the century from the barn and buildings of an earlier house. He lent it to his sister and brother-in-law.


Upton Lane House - later
became the Cedars, see below

This later became known as Cedar House, with its distinctive yellow bricks and central pediment and classical porch. It was located on what is now Portway.

After the Frys/Gurneys moved on, the building became the headquarters of the Territorial Army, until its demolition in 1960.  The current building  on the site bears a plaque, commemorating Betsy's stay there.

Samuel was indebted to the Frys - Betsy had helped bring him up, after their mother had died, and Joseph had nurtured his career, when he first moved to London, in search of work. Samuel showed his gratitude, by loaning it out to the Fry family, until Elizabeth's death in 1845. Katharine was to remark that: "from the grounds there was a fine view across the river to Greenwich Park."

Elizabeth always referred to the house as "Upton".

The wolves, having been kept from the door, Elizabeth was able to resume her philanthropic works.

She worked with other Quakers, including her brother-in-law, Thomas Fowell Buxton, to fight against the slave trade. She founded a Night Shelter for the homeless in 1819 and, in one of her last acts,  a Refuge for Prostitutes, in Hackney, in 1844.

She campaigned vigorously against prisoner transportation, and visited 106 prison ships and over 12,000 convicts. Her campaign resulted in the abolition of prison ships, in 1837.

In 1840, she opened a training school for nurses and inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry's nurses on her famous Crimean War mission in 1856.

Elizabeth Fry was no shrinking violet. She revelled in the public attention she attracted. Queen Victoria was an admirer and patron, and they met on a number of occasions.

Betsy sought, and gained, international recognition for her works, touring French prisons in 1839 and Danish prisons two years later.

Victoria was not the only royalty drawn to Betsy. In 1842 she entertained Frederick William 1V of Prussia, at "Upton", after she had given him a tour of Newgate Prison, following his interest in her reform work there. The visit caused all kinds of upsets in diplomatic circles, because many state protocols were ignored.


Above - King of Prussia pub
Prussia. Below Stratford pub named
after him, whose name was changed to
King Edward V11 on out-break of WW1

The king's visit to West Ham was commemorated by naming a pub on Stratford Broadway the King of Prussia  - a name rapidly changed to the King Edward V11, with the onset of war, in 1914.

Elizabeth Fry died in Ramsgate, aged 65 - on 12 October 1845, three years after the king's visit to Upton. She was initially buried in the Friends burial ground, in Barking, but as that closed, and the one at Wanstead Friend's House, in Bush Wood, was refurbed in 1968, she was moved there and remains.

Her legacy is huge - and at a time when, rightly, there are complaints about the lack of statuary etc to women in this country, Elizabeth and her supporters can have few complaints.

She became the first female non-royal to appear on a British banknote, when she adorned the £5 note, from 2001 - 2016. There are plaques commemorating her on the site of her birth, death and original burial ground, in Barking - as well as those in St Mildred's Court and site of Cedar House, referred to, above.  

There is a statue of her in the Old Bailey - the site of the old Newgate Prison, demolished in 1902 - with which she is most associated, and memorials to her at Kensall Green cemetery, Wormwood Scrubs, All Saints Church, Cambridge and the Home Office in Marsham Street.


St Stephen's, Upton Park - now demolished,
following WW2 bomb damage - St Stephen's
Parade on Green St sits on the site. Church
dedicated to Elizabeth Fry
More locally, there is a bust of her in East Ham library and St Stephen's church - finally demolished after bomb damage in 1954 - off Green Street, was dedicated to her. Katherine Road is a misspelled (should be Katharine)is named after one of her daughters and the broken drinking fountain on the corner of Capel Road and Woodford Road, is dedicated to one of her sons, Joseph, who ran the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain Association (see here).

Clearly, no small Fry!

Footnote
We are grateful to Derk Pelly's Upton Connection - 1732-1916, a story of families, for use of some of the line drawings of houses in this article.

John Fothergill (1712-1780): Quaker, physician, philanthropist and botanist

Monday, 19 November 2018


John Fothergill was one of the earliest prominent Quakers to make Forest Gate both his home and a place of national significance.

He was born in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, in 1712, and, after an apprenticeship as an apothecary, studied medicine in Edinburgh.

After graduating, he moved to London and practised at St Thomas', on the south bank. He worked with the poor, often without pay, and at times subsidised wholesome food for his patients.

Ham House, as Fothergill renamed Rooke Hall
 - its grounds were to become West Ham
Park just over a century after Fothergill acquired it
He was a doctor in advance of his time, successfully treating what is now known as diphtheria, tuberculosis, migraine and influenza and introducing innovative methods to cure sore throats. He was a strong advocate of immunisation as a means of preventing smallpox, many years before it became accepted medical practice.

His reputation grew rapidly and he began to attract many of the rich and famous as his patients; among them, John Wesley, founder of Methodism and novelist Fanny Burney. As Fothergill himself put it: "I climbed on the backs of the poor to the pockets of the rich."

Such became his fame, that Fothergill had his portrait painted by Hogarth (see below).

Fothergill, by Hogarth
By 1774 he had the largest physician's practice in London, was said to work up to 20 hours a day and was reputed to earn the truly phenomenal sum of £5,000 per year (£700,000 in today's terms).

His medical fame and fortune provided him with an income to pursue his other - wide-ranging - interests, with notable effect.

Fothergill's first purchase of note came when he was fifty, and it was to become the foundation of his formidable non-medical reputation.

He bought Rooke Hall in 1762. This was a small estate of 30 acres that had belonged to the Rooke family for a century, from 1566. It then passed through the hands of Sir Robert Smyth and his descendants until it was purchased by Admiral Elliott. It was from Elliott that Fothergill purchased the property.

Fothergill extended and developed the house and grounds considerably - doubling its footprint to 60 acres. He renamed it Ham House. On his death it was sold, enlarged yet again, and soon became the property of the Gurneys (see here) and later West Ham Park.

It was, however, what Fothergill did with the property that made his stay there so significant. He was a keen botanist. He laid the enlarged lands out as flower gardens, surrounded by shrubberies, with a wilderness beyond. A watercourse ran through the land and the banks were planted with exotic shrubs.

Gilbert Stuart's portrait of John Fothergill (1712 - 1780)
Cartographers, Chapman and Andre, writing in 1777, described the grounds thus:

A winding canal, in the figure of a crescent, divided the garden into two ... occasionally opening on ... rare, exotic shrubs ... A glass door from the house gave an entrance into a suite of hot ... and green houses, nearly 260 feet in extent, containing upwards of 3,400 distinct species of exotics ... and in the open grounds ... nearly 3,000 distinct species of plants and shrubs.

Five years later, Sir Joseph Banks - botanist, president of the Royal Society for 41 years and advisor to George 111 on the establishment of Kew Gardens - said of the estate:

In my opinion no other garden in Europe, royal or of a subject, had so many scarce and valuable plants. It was second only to Kew in attracting visitors from overseas.

Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait
of Sir Joseph Banks

He was able to stock his greenhouses and garden with unusual plants by paying plant hunters and sailors to bring back specimens of botanic interest from their voyages in the Americas, Far East and Africa.

Such was his influence on botanists of the day, he had species of plants named after him - for example Fothergill's Geranium and Fothergill's Lily.

Fothergill.  Although devoted to his botanic collection, was too busy with his medicine, which funded it, to devote much time to cultivating it.

He was rarely at Ham House, but paid 15 gardeners to tend his impressive collection. He was not just a collector, but a recorder and cataloguer of his stock A very detailed catalogue of it survives in the British Library (see below).

Above - the opening plate of the
catalogue of Fothergill's collection.
Below, the first page of the
detailed description of each plant


He also employed four artists, full-time, to make drawings, in vellum of each plant in full bloom. Below is a rare, surviving, black and white print of one of the Fothergill collection. 

Cortex Winteranus - one of the
thousands of drawings of Fothergill's
collection, painted on velum
The 18th century was the golden age of botanical drawings, and Fothergill engaged some of the finest artists to help him capture the images, including George Ehret (1708 - 1770) and John Miller (1715 - 1792). Below are surviving examples of their work, in full colour.










As for the Fothergill collection; it was sold on his death, along with his house and plant collection. Bizarrely, the prints were bought by Catherine the Great of Russia (1729 - 1796) - see photo, below. She was a keen horticulturalist and had had medical encounters with Dr Fothergill, so was well aware of him and his works.


Catherine The Great (1729 - 1796)
 bought Fothergill's botanical prints
and took them to Russia

The collection of 2,000 prints are now believed to be housed in the Komarov Botanical Institute, St Petersburg, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

They have never been shown in public and attempts to view them have been thwarted. It would be a fine gesture if the Corporation of London and St Petersburg's municipal authority could jointly mount an exhibition of this magnificent and historic collection.


The Komarov Botanical Institute,
St Petersburg - present home
to the Fothergill collection
As with the other Quaker polymath dignitaries who have lived in Upton over the years, Fothergill had a wide range of interesting pursuits. In addition to his innovative medical practice and - literally and metaphorically - ground-breaking botanical work, he played a full part in civic society.

He, for example, advocated the proper registration of births and deaths, sixty years before the national register was established and promoted the use of public baths, as a health measure a century before they became popular.

He was subsequently elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquities in 1753, and the Royal Society, a decade later.

The front plate on the first volume
of Fothergill's collected works
Like a fellow future Quaker resident of Ham House, Samuel Gurney, he was an active prison reformer. Just as Gurney had supported his sister, Elizabeth Fry, in the cause, so, a generation earlier Fothergill provided support to John Howard - after whom today's prison reform pressure group is named. Fothergill worked with Howard to try to get programmes of employment for ex-prisoners in order to facilitate their rehabilitation - quite a novel idea at the time.

Again, just as Gurney had become active in public affairs (education, campaigning against capital punishment, slavery etc), so too - in the previous century - had Fothergill. He was the founder of Ackworth public school, in Pontefract, Yorkshire. It was co-educational from its foundation and offered free education to poor Quaker children.  It survives today as one of only eight Quaker schools in Britain. 

Indeed one of the school's four houses remains named after him.

Ackworth school, today
Fothergill had close associations with pre-independence America,  and worked, to no avail, with Benjamin Franklin trying to prevent the succession of the American colonies in 1776, having been elected a member of the American Philosophical Society six years previously.

An illustration Fothergill sent to
Philadelphia, to help illustrate
a lecture on anatomy there.
On Fothergill's death, in 1780, the house and gardens were sold up and the plant stock dispersed. The garden and greenhouses, however, together with many of the trees survived Fothergill's tenure in the property.

The greenhouse function has continued until the present day. For almost a century and a half the Corporation has used them as a nursery, producing plants and shrubs for prestigious Mansion House events.

Until now, that is ... the Corporation has recently decided to "out-source" the function and bring to an end almost two and a half centuries of botanical pride and excellence to a small corner of Forest Gate. The Park Management Committee and Corporation of London are currently considering alternative uses for the space occupied by the now redundant green houses and nursery.

And so another bit of Upton's great history (like the Old Spotted Dog pub and Clapton FC) is facing extinction from those with cash signs in their eyes and minimal regard for local heritage.

Fothergill is still remembered in West Ham Park today, as a flower bed and rockery, named in his honour, survive - see extract from park map, below.




Footnote
Thanks to the Friends of West Ham Park, whose recent exhibition on Fothergill, in the park, has provided assistance with the contents of this article. Views in the article are should not be taken as theirs.