Archaeology and oral history of Wanstead Flats in WW2

Thursday 11 September 2014

Our recent features on the Wanstead Flats' Prisoners of War (POW) Camp, and the post war development plans for the Flats provoked a considerable amount of interest (see here and here).

Building on that, and some careful archaeology by the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society and oral history interviews by Eastside Community Heritage (see footnotes for details of both), we've tried to piece together a fuller picture of World War 2, on the Flats.

Outline map of Flats, indicating locations
of features mentioned in this blog. (Note: we now
understand that the gun emplacement - nos 4 and 5
 - were not by roadside, but about 200 meters
in from the road)
The open space of  the Flats provided convenient muster points for troops during the war. One contributor to the oral history project recalled that there was a:
Transit army camp (on the Flats, soldiers would) stay there over for a couple of days while they were waiting for transport out of the docks. They would then parade through the High Street, down to the docks, get on boats and then off. It was something you went up to quite often. You hear the band playing in the distance and you ran up to High Street North and there was this long column led by the band, with trucks and marching soldiers and everything
Another remembered that the troops: " threw their money around to kids in the street (as they) went off to fight."

Bernard Ball, who was born in Thorpe Road in 1935, had many memories of Wanstead Flats during WW2. These populate much of  this blog.  Rem
embering the general situation in the area at the time he recalled:
They had a searchlight in places and ... places for anti-aircraft guns and a barrage balloon. That was also used for training people to do parachute jumps at later times.
Reiterating the muster point, referred to above, he told ECH:  
Troops that were gonna be used to go over to France for D Day were gonna be encamped on Wanstead Flats. They had built barbed wire right round the Flats, and there was the usual, like, machine gun posts. ..
The following sections refer to specific activities that took place in different places on the Flats during the war and the key to the map indicates their locations

Location 1: Allotments and Prisoners of War Camp

Our recent blog featured the Prisoners of War Camp that was located between Lakehouse and Centre Roads, towards the end of the Second World War. Bernard Ball put a little flesh on the bones of that story, when he spoke of the area's previous war-time function, as allotments for food production. He says: 
Before they had the Prisoners of War Camps they did allow people to have allotments on parts of Wanstead Flats. I can remember my father had an allotment half-way up Lakehouse Road on the right hand side. Of course, once they took it over for camps they were all gone. (note: we now understand that the allotments continued to be used, after the POW camp was built)
At a later stage that was used as a camp for German prisoners of war and ... one of the things that I do remember is how forgiving the people of the area were, considering that the people in West Ham had been bombed terribly ... they threw over cigarettes and things for the Germans, which is great really that people can be that forgiving
I can remember them putting up patrol towers and that on the corners .. but I can never remember them building any actual structures to keep them in. I can only remember them being in tents.
Dig for victory, put into practice
on the Flats during WW2
Daphne Farrow, another contributor to the ECH project spoke of the POWs:
We would see them . A lot of them were inoffensive ordinary people. I nursed prisoners of war. 'Cause I was a nurse during the war, so I nursed some of the soldiers, our wounded soldiers and I nursed some of the wounded prisoners of war. So, I always found them alright.
Locations 2 and 3: Barrage Balloons

About a hundred meters in from the car park (2) on Centre Road, in the long grass to the left, are four tethers for WW2 barrage balloons (3) (see photo). These were anchor points for the huge sausage-shaped silver fabric airships, each with three fins, one on each side and one below. They were used to try to deter low flying enemy aircraft from getting too close to ground targets in East London, both to stop local bombing and to ensure that the aircraft stayed within the scope and range of radar.

Barrage balloon tethers,
still standing on the Flats
The balloons were hoisted into the air, to a height of about 2,000 feet by cables, from the anchor points shown.  The intention was also to make German planes fly higher, and so become better targets for the anti-aircraft weapons and machine gunners that operated elsewhere on the Flats (see sections 4,5 and 8, below).

Barrage balloons, of kind flown above
Wanstead Flats, to keep enemy aircraft
within sight of radar and of anti aircraft guns
The balloons were often crewed  by members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the war, although we do not know whether this was the case, locally. Bernard Ball, recalled them:
They had barrage balloons as a deterrent, not that it was a deterrent .. you knew the German planes would fly into them, but they would also be used for training ... we just assumed they were either pilots or paratroops.
They had a little basket underneath .. they could not take too many people up  ... only two or three.
These balloons survived the war, and were used for parachute training in the years immediately after its conclusion

Locations 4 and 5: Gun crew station, decontamination unit, Anti-Aircraft (Ack-Ack) site

There is a cluster of WW2-related facilities in and around the petrol station and City of London playing fields stores and houses on Aldersbrook Road, facing Herongate Road.
Ack-Ack guns, of kind deployed on Wanstead
Flats, as anti-aircraft deployment in WW2
Behind the service station there is a long brick wall, some of which dates back to the 18th century, when it was possibly part of the old Aldersbrook Farm. A short distance away there is a cluster of trees, known as Long Wood, within which can be seen the foundations of some unidentified WW2 buildings.
One contributor to the oral history project recalled that after the war
Everything was cleared away, there are one or two concrete bases where the buildings stood on. The only building I can recall being there was what was used, later on, as changing rooms when they started to develop it into sports pitches.
Through the trees to the right is a white painted wooden hut (see photo).  This was used by gun crews during the war (see below for details) and is now used as a maintenance store by City of London playing fields staff.

Gun crew station, now Playing Fields' staff storage depot
To the front of this shed, behind a metal fence, was a decontamination building (see photo), which was to be used in the event of a German gas attack. Victims were to be stripped, showered and offered new clothing by Red Cross workers.  We have no indication of how frequently this facility was used during the war.

Decontamination unit, now used by City of London staff
Near here, in front of what are now City of London playing fields' staff housing, and opposite Herongate Road, was an anti-aircraft gun station. This was demolished after the war , although it is difficult to make out any features, remains, or outlines of foundations of the old building today, as the photo indicates.

This site was an ideal location for anti-aircraft, or 'Ack-Ack', as the term was transmitted by signallers, and stuck as slang, for the guns. From here enemy aircraft could be seen clearly and shot at, over the Flats. If downed, the planes would not be likely not crash into and destroy houses and kill civilians.

These stations were frequently staffed by women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) during World War 2, although we do not know whether this was the case on the Flats.

Location of other WW2 buildings, off Aldersbrook 
Road - no traces remain of them
It is interesting to note that by the time the mid 50's street map was published (see below) no trace remained or was indicated of the WW2 structures, although the former Aldersbrook Farm was still marked.

1950's street map, showing location
of prefabs and bandstand, but not
of other WW2 buildings on Aldersbrook 
Road (near the marked farm)
Location 6: Prefabs

As we have mentioned in previous blogs, (here), prefabs were erected on the Flats, by  East Ham council, on land facing the Golden Fleece. They were built, often with German prisoner labour, towards the end of the war, to house bombed out East Enders (see photo).  They were mainly removed in 1957.

Their exact location is indicated on the street map extract (above).  Interesting to note that all the prefab streets were called "gardens", testifying to the allure these homes had as residences for people bombed out of more densely and less open space areas in the East End.

Prefabs on Wanstead Flats, built in
1943/44 and demolished 1957
They were very popular with local people, as a number of contributors to the ECH oral history project testified.

One contributor, describing their location, said: 
Then from the bend in Capel Road up to the pub, the Golden Fleece, was prefabs. And then from Chestnut Avenue and Cranmer Road, up to more or less Lorne Road there was a section of prefabs.  Some were like little palaces, they were absolutely beautiful.  ... They had an indoor toilet and  two bedrooms and a lounge come kitchen.  For some reason I think the first ones were a little bit damp, but then they sort of improved on them, and they were really nice.  They were easy to clean. 
They were all on the ground floor. They had a garden around them .. they had a side. People could do their washing, hang it o the line. If they had a bike, they could put it round the side. They were better than the slums of the East End. 
Another contributor said:
Think about it. Each individual family had their own. They didn't need to share an upstairs, downstairs with a Mr Brown, Mr Smith. So, consequently, Mr Jones had his own little Shangri-La. That's the only way you could explain it, and they were very, very popular. Not only that, but here they were getting fresh air.

Bernard Ball described their popularity:
I know people were very upset about them demolishing the prefabs, because people actually liked them a lot. In fact, when they re-housed people from the prefabs into what shall we say proper housing, other people squatted in them almost straight away and it took them ages to get rid of the pre-fabs, because people wouldn't move out of 'em.
Location 7: Allotments

'Dig for Victory' became a rallying cry for self-sufficiency during the Second World War, and the government encouraged the development of allotments on 'unused' ground, wherever possible, to compensate for lost food imports.

Wanstead Flats became an ideal location. As mentioned above, some of the area that was later to be developed into the POW camp on the Lakeside Road area was, early in the war, allocated to allotments.

So, too, was much of the area on the Capel Road side of the Flats.  As one contributor to the Eastside project recalled:
The allotments started roughly at Lorne Road to Tilney Road (on the Flats) and round on the bend in Capel Road before you came to the pre-fabs. There were four sections of allotments ... for people to grow their own food on.

Location 8: Pillbox site ?

Look closely at the bridle path, facing Latimer Road, about 10 metres in from Capel Road. Here there is a semi circle of brick and stone slabs (see photo).

Traces of possible Pill Box foundations on the Flats

There is real controversy as to what these may be.

It is possible that this was the site of a pill box, as it would have provided machine gunners a good vantage point for firing at enemy aircraft as they flew ahead. As with the Ack-Ack location, further north, this site would have given gunners a good view of approaching aircraft, safe in the knowledge that any planes hit would have been unlikely to have inflicted much civilian damage or death and injury.

Pill Box of kind likely to have been located on the Flats
28,000 pillboxes were constructed in WW2, nationwide, and the photo below is of a typical one, whose contour shape is similar to that of the brick and stone remnants at this point on the Flats.

However, a probably more realistic, if less dramatic, explanation is that the bricks were not the base of a pill box, but possibly something to do with some of the prefabs, which also stretched down to this end of the Flats.  They could even have been the remnants of an old garden wall. There is no trace of a Pill Box on the 1944 airphoto of the Flats, so it is extremely unlikely that there could have been one here, at all.

Location 9: Bandstand wood storage point

Towards the Centre Road end of Capel Road, there is a circle of trees which marks the site of the old bandstand, built in the late 19th century (see photo, and street map extract for location). This was a popular venue for open air concerts, pre-war. The enthusiasm did not survive the war, consequently the bandstand was demolished in 1957, at the same time as the prefabs (see above).

In the distance, the bandstand - demolished
in 1957, used in WW2 as wood storage point
During the war, however, the bandstand itself, was used as a collection and storage point for wood salvaged from bombed out houses.  It was used by local people as firewood, to help repair or rebuild houses and by children to make rafts, for sailing on the nearby Jubilee pond.

Daphne Farrow, reminiscing to the ECH project spoke of the bandstand:
There was a big railing, with a gate around it. .. During the war they piled it with all the wood that they took from the houses that got blown down.
And so concludes a rather rapid look at WW2 on Wanstead Flats, as seen through the eyes of witnesses and archaeologists.  We'd be delighted to hear any other, similar, or related accounts, for the Forest Gate area, in general.

Footnote 1. We are very much indebted to Eastside Community Heritage
(details here) for permission to use extracts of some of the interviews they undertook for the Wanstead Flats project in 2008, and to Leyton and Leytonstone Historical society (details here)for some of the pioneering work on the archaeology of Wanstead Flats.

Footnote 2. We are very much indebted to a vigilant member of the Leyton and Leytonstone History Society, Wanstead Flats sub group for contacting us as soon as the original blog was posted, with some corrections and updates.  We are happy to have incorporated these into the posting, above - as our hope is to be as comprehensive and accurate as possible. These principally concern the Pill Box controversy (location 8), and a more accurate photo of an Ack-Ack gun of the kind deployed on the Flats.


  1. A fascinating look at wanstead flats during ww2. The prefabs set on the flats look idyllic . No wonder they were popular. Have learnt so.much interesting stuff about the area since reading your excellent blogs. Many thanks.

  2. I grew up in forest gate Cranmer rd, and played over the flats as a child,
    I remember some of the prefabs up towards the Golden Fleece, where my parents took me and the family to once a week, but they never mentioned
    how the flats were used in ww2. So today reading this was an eye opener for me. Does anyone have a photo of cranmer road in the 50s and 60s, has my granparents house was sold late 60s and ended up being knocked down to enlarge Godwin rd school.

  3. I was born in 1946 and lived in Dames road 46 - 56 then Hesketh 56- 70. Wanstead flats was my adventure playground I really appreciate this article and the work that went into it.

  4. I was born in 1962 at Forest Gate Hospital. My family lived on Woodford Rd. opposite the flats. I remember the pond, the old police call box and the cows that used to cross the main road over to where the funfare used to come. We played on Wanstead flats and used to walk over to the sandhills. I never knew the history, it is amazing to learn about the past. Well done!
    Diane from Canada

  5. My dad was born and bred in Forest Gate in 1916. I am still finding little details in old family papers.and tracking his childhood from Forest Gate to 1 Railway Cottages and onwards to schools in Leytonstone then work and joining the Specials and forward into the Royal Marine Commandos during the war He met my mother in Leytonstone in 1946. I can still1 remember standing outside The Green Man pub as a small child clutching crisps and orange juice!��

  6. I remember my Dad having an allotment on the flats 1950 to 1956 and getting water for the veg from a bomb hole. There where iron fence posts about 4 ft high which I was told where part of the WW2 POW camp. Nuts and Bolts could be salvaged from a military building. Forest Gate Secondary Modern School boys used the flats as playing field, you just changed in the open air!
    There was a pond for model boats and a big drinking water fountain with a chained iron cup

  7. I grew up in Forest Gate you always had the fair ground on one side of the flats during the bank holidays on the opposite side was the proper flats I remember swimming in one of the ponds, watching football on Sundays also watching the parachute jumping from the balloons.
    Born in 1939 I remember a little about the guns and barrage balloons.
    We used to go to a pub on Sundays and sit in the pub garden which was near the flats I do not remember the name of it before going to the pub we had been working on the near by allotment

  8. My father was born in forestgate in 1907,his grandparents had a newsagents on Wanstead high sreet,Circa 1901/20.I am researching my family history,and would be interested to find any information on the area.His grandparents name was Morris.His grandfather died at no 7 The Pavement,in 1910.

  9. I was born 1963
    And played around the Golden Fleece
    Can anyone tell me , what the buildings was on the triangle green next to manor park station and City of London cemetery?

    1. the building on the flats at the triangle was a cold war bunker for East ham council. All councils had to have one. Surface buildings demolished in late 1990s. Underground is still there but flooded.see

    2. As a child we lived on Wanstead flats in a n ex Italian prisoner of war camp we lived there until 1954,I remember the esso garage giving away periscopes for the coronation, I started school at aldersbrook school in the summer we would swim in a lake known as the shoulder of mutton.

  10. Lived in Tylney Rd as a child. The flats have a in my herat

  11. I also lived in Tylney Road and played on the Flats. I remember walking right across the flats with my parents to get access to Wanstead Park. Maybe we were neighbours?


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