The Dames Road disaster - 27 July 1944

Wednesday 6 September 2017

We have written before about the Doodlebug bombing of Dames Road in July 1944, here and here.

The local Labour Party held an event outside the Holly Tree on 27 July this year, to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the bombing and to remember the dead (see photo, below).

The Labour party 73rd anniversary commemoration
 event (photo: courtesy of Newham Recorder)
Our earlier reports expressed a frustration in getting accurate numbers of those killed and injured by the bomb. We are now able to bring fuller details of the carnage, including the names and addresses of 34 killed at the time and to usefully speculate on what could have happened on the day. 

We are grateful to local resident, Shirley Hartley and the Waltham Forest archives at Vestry House and, in particular, the assistance of archivist Jo Parker, for much of what follows.

Our previous coverage relied on the report from the Stratford Express from the week following the hit (below) - which only identified four dead - and the West Ham borough post war list of the WW11 civilian dead - which only identified a different four.  We knew, however, that  these were serious underestimations of the carnage the bomb brought.

Stratford Express 4 August 1944
The Stratford Express reproduction may be difficult to read.  The relevant sections says:
When a number of dwellings were damaged close to a public house (ed note: Holly Tree) and the edge of open land (ed note: Wanstead Flats); early on Thursday evening last, listening apparatus was employed by members of the rescue parties with a view to finding how many victims were trapped. It was a demanding voice, heard through a loud speaker demanding: "Quiet, please, everyone" which brought a strange silence on the scene. A moment before there had been all the noise inseparable from the aftermath of any "incident"; but the voice that came out the loud speaker altered that. 
Men perched precariously on debris were listening for sounds which would indicate the presence of survivors. The hush was a weird one, but it told the listeners all that they wanted to know, and in a minute came the voice again. This time it said "Thank you, carry on" and the resources were soon rapidly in progress. A passing vehicle (ed: the trolley bus) was wrecked by the blast and there was loss of life amongst those travelling on it. The dead included William Winter, Dennis Barfield, Thomas Driscoll and Reginald Hillman.
This account is dramatic, suggesting that far more than four were killed.

A V1 rocket of the kind that struck Dames 
Road. See footnote for details.
A confirmation of its serious nature and scale came from the biography of Cyril Demarne, who later became West Ham's Chief Fire Officer (see footnote for details). He said:
A particularly nasty, gory, situation confronted us, following a V1 explosion in Dames Road, Forest Gate. A trolley bus, crammed with home going workers had caught the full blast and the whole area was a sickening sight. Dismembered bodies littered the roadway; others were splattered over the brickwork of the houses across the way and the wreckage of the trolley bus was simply too ghastly to describe.
The roof and upper deck, together with the passengers, were blasted away. Standing passengers on the lower deck were also  flung against the fronts of houses on the other side of the road. The lower deck seated passengers were all dead. Although many of the victims had been decapitated, they were still sitting down, as if waiting to have their fares collected.
Demarne described the Dames Road bomb as "the most horrific thing I ever witnessed." Given the position he rose to in the Fire Service, and the number of incidents he must have witnessed in a long and distinguished career, that is some testimony to the horror of the event.

Cyril Demarne, who attended the Dames
 Road attack, who described it as "The most
 horrific thing I ever witnessed. Cyril rose
 to become West Ham's fire chief after the war.
So, eight civilian deaths was clearly a serious underestimation of the scale of the horror.

There was almost no, recognisable, national press coverage of the Dames Road disaster in the days that followed, other than in a rather strange item in the Belfast Newsletter of 1 August, which in a round-up of Flying bombs over Southern England, including the London area, stated:
At least eight persons were killed and 10 injured when a bomb fell in a residential area. Italian prisoners helped fire-fighters in the rescue work.
Given the proximity of Dames Road to the Italian Prisoner of War camp on Wanstead Flats (see here), this oblique reference almost certainly describes the incident. There was no reference to the precise location in the account, as there rarely was in contemporary press reports, as censorship was in force and details that could have been deemed to be useful to the enemy were omitted from press reports.

Rescue crew assisting with the aftermath
 of a V1 bomb, elsewhere in London
The explanation is that the bomb actually landed in what was then Leyton, just the other side of the borough boundary on Dames Road. Local resident, Shirley Hartley pointed us in the direction of a Leytonstone paper of the time that offered a more accurate assessment of the carnage inflicted. 

This account, however, in the Leytonstone Independent was dated 15 September 1944 - 7 weeks after the event (see below). 

Leytonstone Independent
 15 September 1944
The relevant section read: 
34 killed in trolleybus
Leyton's most disastrous incident which took a heavy toll in lives was when a bomb crashed in Dames Road near the corner of Pevensey Road, Leytonstone.
A trolleybus laden with home coming workers and shoppers was wrecked. The top of the bus was blown away and seats inside the lower deck twisted and mangled. Rescue workers recovered 34 bodies, among them the driver. Others died in hospital.
Another trolleybus was involved. Military Civil Defence and NFS (ed: National Fire Service) personnel worked together clearing away debris. Within two hours, other buses were passing through.
Details of major war incidents were collated centrally, by the government information service, and released to the press some while afterward the events, again as part of the censorship and enemy frustration process. This report was the first mention in the Leytonstone press of the incident - 7 weeks after its occurrence.

The Walthamstow Guardian of the same week, presumably using the same Government Information Service briefing,  also covered the incident - see cutting below, but provided different numbers.  

Walthamstow Guardian, 15 September 1944
The relevant section of the report reads:
At Dames Road, when a bomb fell within a few yards of a trolleybus, 41 people were killed and 24 taken to hospital.
And, that was it - for probably the area's worst bombing incident of World War 11 - 24 words!

But, still no agreed numbers of killed or injured, and certainly 34 or more.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was given the job, by the government, of drawing up details of the country's civilian war dead, and publishing it, borough by borough, at the end of the war.

We used the West Ham list in our previous account of the bomb, and could only identify four people (Gladys Blackman (aged 39), Wendy Blackman (aged 4), Abraham Ince (aged 76) and Edith Tilley (aged 41) killed in Dames Road on the day of the bomb.

Four, different, people, were identified by the Stratford Express on 4 August (Denis Barfield, Thomas Driscoll, Reginald Harold Hillman and William James Winter). Neither the Leytonstone nor the Walthamstow papers' news reports named anybody.

The Leyton Civilian War dead register, however, identified 28 deaths caused by the bomb.  We provide an aggregated list of the 34 names we have been able to discover from these three sources, below. This, incidentally, is the number of dead identified by the Leytonstone Independent (see above).

Piecing together the story

According to local people, the bomb fell pretty close to the bus stop, on Dames Road, just the northern side of the Pevensey Road junction, and as can be shown in the photo, just inside what is, today, Waltham Forest. 

It fell approximately where 127, Dames Road - now called Dames Road House - is located. Clearly all the houses surrounding this spot are post war, and built on the bomb site. New houses were built very soon after the war, and at least one local resident moved into her house in 1949, and has been there since!

Site of the V1 attack on Dames Road, today
As the accounts tell, the bomb fell in the early evening, as people were returning from work and the buses were busy.

Within minutes the war-time rescue services were at the site and at least some of their members may have been killed, in the rescue of the bomb victims, either cutting them out from the trolleybus or digging people out of the demolished houses.

Italian Prisoners of War from the near-by camp on Wanstead Flats were also soon on the scene bailing out victims of their own country's allies' bombings.

Within two hours the majority of the dead were dug and moved out and upto 40 injured were transported to Whipps Cross hospital.

The death toll was minimally 34, as reported by the Leytonstone Independent and verified by the details below. But may have risen to 41, as reported by the Walthamstow Guardian - or more.

The injury list is almost impossible to calculated, 73 years on, but press reports suggest that it was at least a further 24.  So -upwards of 65 victims in this one night of horror on Dames Road, in July 1944.

The work of the rescue services was so efficient that Dames Road was cleared enough to allow a continuation of bus services along its length. 

A quite remarkable story and feat!

Among the dead were four people whose houses probably took a direct hit, Dorothy and June Jarvis of 124 Dames Road and Reuben and Leah Newhouse of 117 Dames Road - see list below for full details. 

There were seven other people killed who had lived in the immediate vicinity - presumably either waiting at the bus stop, waiting to alight, or just going about their daily business: Florence White, 109 Pevensey Road, Sarah Wightman, 68 Huddlestone Road, Alan John  Neale, 61 Huddlestone Road, William Alfred Barton 69, Huddlestone Road, Herbert Smith, 107 Vansittart Road, Mary Mclaughlin 173 Dames Road and Frederick Ernest Wright, 211 Dames Road.

Four of those killed could well have been rescue workers, judging by the descriptions in the Civilian Dead lists (George Neal, an air raid warden, Reginald Hillman and air raid ambulance driver, Horace Presland from the Heavy Rescue Service and Bertie Sabine from the Home Guard).

So, of the 34 identified dead, 11 were from the immediate vicinity of the where the bomb dropped, four could well have been rescue workers, one was the driver (we do not know his name) and the other 18 were probably passengers, returning from work.

One family appears in both the Leyton and West Ham books - it is not clear why. The Blackman family lost three people - the most from any one family, as far as it is possible to see. Mother Gladys and daughter Wendy appear in the West Ham book, and daughter Jean in the Leyton book.

Of the four dead mentioned by the Stratford Express, only two, Thomas Driscoll and Dennis Barfield appear in one of the lists of civilian dead.

The identified dead from the Dames Road disaster

Cover of the CWGC publication listing
 West Ham's  WW11 civilian dead
Margaret Ball, aged 24 of 48 Albert Road, Silvertown. Daughter of Eugene and Elizabeth Hilda Gray of the same address and wife of L'Cpl Arthur John Ball, Royal Armoured Corps.

Dennis Barfield - no further details, but mentioned in Stratford Express Report - see above.

John Alfred Barnicoat, aged 39. Son of Mrs Barnicoat, 14 Clacton Road, Walthamstow.

William Alfred Barton, aged 36, of 69 Huddlestone Road, Forest Gate. Son of Mr WA Barton of 132 Sebert Road, Forest Gate.

William Albert Bell, aged 17. Son of Mr and Mrs WWF Bell of 183 Harrow Road, Leytonstone. Died in Whipps Cross Hospital of wounds suffered at Dames Road.

Gladys Blackman, aged 39, of 323 Billet Rd, Walthamstow. wife of AC1 William Blackman, RAF. Gladys, unlike her daughter, Jean, appears in the West Ham list and not the Leyton one.

Jean Edith Blackman, aged 10 of 323 Billet Rd, Walthamstow. Daughter of AC1 William Blackman, RAF, and of Gladys Blackman. Unlike her mother, Gladys, above, and her sister Wendy, below, Jean appeared in the Leyton list and not the West Ham one. The Leyton list mentions this.

Wendy Blackman (aged 4), of 323 Billet Rd, Walthamstow. Daughter of AC1 William Blackman, RAF and of Gladys Blackman. Wendy, unlike her sister, Jean, appears in the West Ham list and not the Leyton one.

Alan Bunt, aged 15. Son of Winifred M Bunt of 24 Kingsdown Road, Leytonstone and the late John Payne Bunt.

Dennis Butfield, aged 17. Son of Mr and Mrs CJ Butfield of 31 Pretoria Avenue, Walthamstow.

Ernest Edward Harry Chapman, aged 37. Son of Mr and Mrs Chapman of 76 Lynmouth Rd, husband of Laura Chapman of 91 Harrington Road, Walthamstow.

Thomas Driscoll - no further details, but mentioned in Stratford Express Report - see above.

William Albert Heard, aged 40, of 28 Tavistock Road, Forest Gate. Husband of May Lavinia Heard.

Reginald Harold Hillman, aged 37, ARP, Ambulance Driver. Son of the late Mr and Mrs SA Hillman; husband of EL Hillman of 79 South Esk Road, Forest Gate. (also mentioned in Stratford Express report - see below).

Abraham Ince, aged 76. Appears in West Ham but not on Leyton list.

Harry James Jackson, aged 43. Son of William Jackson of 124 Westfield Road, Caversham, Reading; husband of Anne Jackson of 20 Well Street, Hackney.

Evelyn Dorothy Jarvis, aged 14 of 124 Dames Road. Daughter of Mr and Mrs Robert H Jarvis, at 124 Dames Road.

June Irene Jarvis, aged 17, of 124 Dames Road. Daughter of Mr and Mrs Robert H Jarvis, at 124 Dames Road.

Mary Agnes Mclaughlin, aged 18, of 173 Dames Road. Daughter of Andrew and Agnes Mclaughlin.

George Stanley Thomas Neal, aged 51, ARP, of 47 South Esk Road, Forest Gate. Son of the late Mrs Hillman (formerly Neal) and the late I Neal.

Alan John Neale, aged 14. Son of Henry Nicholas and Lily E Neale, of 61 Huddlestone Road, Forest Gate.

Leah Rachel Newhouse, aged 51, of 117 Dames Road. Daughter of the late S and F Harris; wife of Maurice Newhouse, at 117 Dames Road.

Reuben Newhouse, aged 29, of 117 Dames Road. Son of Maurice and of Leah Rachel Newhouse, at 117 Dames Road.

William Henry Penfold, aged 63. Husband of Caroline Penfold of 67 Malvern Road, Leytonstone.

Horace Victor Presland, aged 27; Heavy Rescue Service. Son of Ernest and Elizabeth Presland of 79 Chester Road, Seven Kings; husband of Elizabeth Presland of 9 Manby Road.

Bertie William Sabine, aged 50, Home Guard, of 162 Chandos Road, West Ham.

Herbert Smith, aged 55. Husband of Mrs Smith of 107 Vansittart Road, Forest Gate.

Frederick Henry Stevens, aged 40. Husband of EM Stevens of 15a Priory Place, Well Street, Hackney.

Muriel Bertha Tampion, aged 15. Daughter of Mr and Mrs John Edward Tampion of 62 Cheney's Road, Leytonstone.

Edith Tilley, aged 41. Appears in West Ham but not on Leyton list.

Florence White, aged 40 of 109 Pevensey Road. Daughter of Joseph White. Died in Pevensey Road.

Sarah Wightman, aged 47, wife of Ernest Wightman of 68 Huddlestone Road, Forest Gate.

William James Winter, aged 48. Husband of Florence May Winter of 43 Dongola Road, Plaistow. (also mentioned in Stratford Express report - see below).

Frederick Ernest Wright, aged 32. Son of Frederick Edwin and Lillian Alice Wright of 211 Dames Road.

Footnotes. 1. The V! - flying bomb (Vergultungswaff) was also know a a buzz bomb or doodlebug. It was first launched in London in June 1944, in response to the Allied invasion of the European mainland. They were directed mainly at south-east England.  The last one was launched in October 1944, when the Allies captured their last launching pad in Europe.

2. Cyril Demarne's book is entitled The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale and was published by Newham Parent's Centre in 1980. 

Copies may still be available from the Newham Bookshop.


  1. I grew up in Pevensey Road after the war and my mother often used to refer to the time when the trolleybus was hit by a doodlebug. The immediate aftermath of the explosion must have been too horrible to imagine. It's a pity that there isn't a permanent memorial in Dames Road to commemorate the tragedy.

  2. annette Blackman9 July 2018 at 21:37

    Hi my father in law was 6 when this happened and only surviour. It was his mum and 2 sisters that were killed.

    1. Hi, I'm Wendy's partner, it was Wendy's grandma and aunts that died in this. Wendy is Bill Blackmans daughter, it was Bills mum and sisters who died 😢

    2. Hi, I'm Don's (Bill's brother) son Stephen. This was a tragic and horrible event that dad rarely speaks of. I cannot imagine what he went through after surviving this awful event nor can I ever hope to understand how uncle Bill and grandad managed in the weeks and months that followed

  3. The Germans continued using the V1s by dropping them from Heinkel bombers out at sea.One crashed on a farm,half-a-mile from where I'm writing,in December 1944, killing 3 people.

  4. My father was killed on that bus. I was only one year old. Nearly 80 years later I feel very sad. Forest Gate is/was a special place to live.... apparently!


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