A survivor's tale - 1941 bombing of the Princess Alice

Friday 20 April 2018

One of the delights of running this website is that sometimes articles can prompt replies and memories that can add colour and flavour to our understanding of the past.

One such correspondence was provoked by our article on the history of the Princess Alice (see here for details). Reader, John Muskett was in the pub the night of the bombing. We are posting this article on the 77th anniversary of the bomb - 20 April 1941.

This is his story:
I was guided to your web site and was sad to hear that The Princess Alice is no more. 
I was actually in the Princess Alice at the time of the bombing and wanted to show my eldest son something about it.
Princess Alice pub in the 1930's - pre bombing
The Landlord at that time was Mr Albert Smith. His wife, Violet, was my mother's sister. I lived with my maternal grandparents, - as my mother had died a year or so before.  Another aunt lived with us, but our house had been bombed and we were, homeless at that time. We lived, temporarily in the pub for a while, until we were rehoused.
John Muskett - whose memories are retold
 here, at about the time of the bombing in 1941
The cellars of the Princess Alice were very extensive, at least they were as far as a 5 1/2 year old was concerned. One of them rather resembled a hospital ward, being surrounded by beds. My aunt and uncle giving any passing serviceman without somewhere to go, a bed for the night.  I was down there we were when the bombing happened. 
Bomb site, where the pub
once stood - after April 1941
The Head Barman also lived in the pub and had been in the cinema - see photo of bombed Queen's cinema, below - on which the bomb actually dropped, the fall-out from the explosion hit mainly the front of the Alice - opposite.
Queen's Cinema, Romford Road, in the 1930's,
 opposite the Princess Alice and between
 Barclays Bank and what was the Odeon
 Cinema and is now the Minaj-ul-Quran mosque
I remember the head barman being asked how many people he thought may have been in there, by a fireman leaning on a felling axe. 
That was something that must have impressed itself on me as I cannot think why my memory of that particular incident should be so clear after all these years. 
I also remember the next morning when we had to pick our way over all the bricks and rubble to get out and I picked up the top of a soda syphon which I had for a great many years afterwards.
Queen's Cinema, completely destroyed by a
parachute mine on the day the Alice was struck
by what John says was collateral damage.
The death of the man you mentioned (ed: killed while out walking his dog) has always served to remind me just how simple decisions and luck can make a difference to life and death.
He was the dentist who lived next door and came in to us for shelter when there was an air raid (ed: according to the West Ham register of the WW2 civilian dead register, this looks like it would have been Herbert Emile Kaye, aged about 60 of 1 Woodgrange Road). On the night of the bomb, he chose to come just when the bomb exploded, and he was still in the street when he was hit. 
The Sunday Express describing the dramatic
 night of bombing that saw the end of
 the Queen's cinema and destruction of the
 Alice, April 1941
I was told that he was blown through the flaps in the pavement where the beer would have been lowered into the cellar, and was found in the cellar next to the one we were in. How true that was I cannot say. 
 Some years later - I think maybe in the 70's or 80's - there was a report in one of the evening papers that the ghost of the dentist had been seen in the Princess Alice. When I told my aunt, she said he was looking for her, as she had paid a deposit for some new dentures and never had either the dentures or her deposit returned!
There is just one question I would like to ask you if I may.  I know I went to school while I was there, although not for any great time. It was a small school, in possibly a couple of houses in one of the streets close to the pub.
It was certainly within walking distance and run by nuns. Quite why I went there I do not know, as we were not Catholics.  I assume that it is no longer there but would appreciate it if you could confirm that for me.
 (Ed: I'm afraid we cannot help you with an answer to your question, John. It sounds as if the sisters may have been some that stayed in Forest Gate after St Angela's school evacuated to Norfolk.  John seems to think the school may have been in the Earlham Grove/Norwich Road area. Perhaps one of our readers can assist, and post a comment, below?).
I still have a small card inscribed, To dear little John from the Sisters.

 The card from the Sisters to John - 1941
 As you will no doubt have realised,  I am now in my eighties and, like so many older people, I so often think back to the times past. I find myself constantly surprised by the trivial little memories that come to mind. 
I was probably only living at the Princess Alice for about 4 or 5 months and yet one of the things that made a great impression on my mind was a visit to Wanstead Flats where I saw the Fire Brigade practising. I saw the rainbow in the jet from their hose and how it disappeared into the ground when the water was shut off! Why should that have made such an impression?
Prior to being bombed out and going to live at the Princess Alice we went there to see the wonderful new thing called television.  The room was duly darkened and the television set switched on but, to everyone's disappointment, nothing came on. 
Uncle Bert, who was not renowned for his patience, fiddled with all sorts of knobs at the back in vain and finally all attempts were given up.  Later, when the evening papers were delivered, it was discovered that all television broadcasts were discontinued for the duration of the war! The television, having been salvaged from the Princess Alice, was, strangely enough, the set on which I eventually saw my first ever television show when broadcasts began after the war.
I hope that the ramblings of an old man have been of some interest to you and remain,
 Yours faithfully,
John Muskett.

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