As part of the 80th anniversary of World War 2 breaking out, Running Past has been looking at some of the preparations for war on the ‘Home Front.’ So far, this has included Lewisham children being evacuated to Kent then Surrey and the variety of shelters used to one of the key elements try to keep the civilian population safe during air raids. We return now to the Civil Defence services set up to try to keep the civilian population that remained in London and other urban centres as safe as possible from the air attacks that were expected soon after war broke out. This post looks in particular the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) service.
Like the building of shelters, the roots go back to the interwar period. The ARP Department of the Home Office was set up in 1935 (1), although appeals for volunteers were not made until 1937 – the approach was based on studying the impact of fascist bombing of Republican areas of Spain and the measures that were employed on the ground there (2). A second appeal for volunteers was made in March 1938 (3).
In the months before war broke out, it was agreed to pay full time ARP personnel £3 per week, although only £2 for women, with recruitment posters stressing the desire for ‘responsible men.’ Later in the year payments for some part time personnel were agreed (4).
Some of the early work that ARP wardens had to contend with was enforcing the blackout that was introduced on 1 September 1939 and lasted until April 1945 (5). Shop windows were darkened from 6:00 pm as were houses – requiring heavy curtains or blankets to ensure that no light escaped. Streets in almost darkness were dangerous with a large increase in injuries – 20% of the population reported as having suffered blackout related injuries in the first 4 months that they were in operation.
Road deaths increased around 40% when compared with pre-war fatalities. Regular readers will recall that a few years earlier Lewisham streets were noted as being some of the most dangerous in London.
Their control centre was in the basement of the old Town Hall in Catford (above) and, after January 1940, was funded through the rates, a predecessor of Council Tax (6). Every bombing, incendiary and related incident was phoned through to the ARP control centre who effectively acted as an emergency call centre. They would find out about injuries, deaths, those trapped or missing, any fires that couldn’t be controlled locally (7) and look to send emergency services to assist. On nights where there was heavy bombardment or large numbers of incendiary devices dropped these were not always available, as we saw with the fire that destroyed the original Church of the Good Shepherd in Lee, below.
Below is one small part of the Lewisham ARP log for the period between Christmas and New Year in 1940, while there had been a lull on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, hundreds of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped over the next few days, many around Lee. We’ll explore these attacks in much more detail in later posts.
At the level below the control centre, Individual wardens were based at schools and some purpose built concrete ‘pillboxes’ (8) around the community. They each served a population of 2 to 3,000, typically with a complement of six wardens, mainly part time (9).
One of the ARP posts in Lee was at what was then Hedgley Street School, pictured above (it was later Northbrook and currently Trinity Lewisham School) on the corner of Taunton Road. Running Past has covered the Noble family, who started the war at 49 Lampmead Road, a number of times before, including in relation to 1920’s play and the ‘Sunday Constitutional.’ Several of the family members worked for the ARP – Phyllis was briefly a warden with a navy battledress and steel helmet with a large white ‘W’ on the front (10). Her brother Joe and a cousin, who also lived at 49 Lampmead Road, worked as messengers based at the School – while in theory there were telephone links to Catford, cycle and motor cycle based messengers were used too in case lines came down.
The school was hit while Phyllis’ younger brother, Joe, was working there and partially destroyed. He was to be the only one injured – a bruised ankle from a falling fireplace (11). The ARP post presumably moved to an undamaged part of the evacuated school.
On the ground, the local ARP wardens would deal with whatever was needed, this ranged from providing first aid to those injured in incidents, directing people to shelters and help in getting the dead and injured out of bombed premises, this was both for hits on houses as well as the larger scale destruction of incidents like the attack on Sandhurst Road School in early 1943.
In front of St Stephens Church in Lewisham is a tall metal post with what looks like a pair of speakers attached to the top. It is easy to miss, particularly when the adjacent trees alongside the Quaggy are in leaf. It seems to be Lewisham’s last remaining air raid warning siren – one of around 25 around the then Boroughs of Deptford and Lewisham (12).
Once the warning sounded ARP wardens ensured that residents took cover in one of the air raid shelters; they sounded on over 1200 occasions during the war. Other locations seem to have included a former police station on Catford Hill, Catford Police Station on Bromley Road and Sandhurst Road School. The survival of the Lewisham one probably relates to its location next to the Quaggy and has a residual use as a flood warning siren.
The chilling sound of the air raid warning siren and, at the end, the all clear sound is on the YouTube video.
Finally, it is worth remembering that many ARP wardens lost their lives during the war; across London around 300 perished (13). Those that died serving their community in Lewisham included (14):
- Albert Brown (64) of 1 Eliot Hill was Injured at 14 Montpelier Vale on 8 March 1945 in the aftermath of the V-2 attack on Blackheath and died later the same day at Lewisham Hospital (pictured below);
- Henry Cottell (52) was a Senior Air Raid Warden of 41 Manor Lane Terrace was injured at Lee High Road on 29/12/1940 and died same day at Lewisham Hospital;
- Barbara Fleming (16) of 20 Farmfield Road in Bellingham was injured on 16/04/1941 at Warden’s Post, Ashgrove Road; died same day at Lewisham Hospital;
- Douglas Hardisty (44) ; of 70 Vancouver Road in Forest Hill who was a Captain in the Home Guard as well as being an ARP Warden was Injured 21 March 1944, at corner of Vancouver Road and Kilmorie Road; he died at Lewisham Hospital;
- Kenneth Smith (33) of 251 Burnt Ash Hill was injured at Methodist Chapel, Burnt Ash Hill on 13/10/1940 and died same day at Lewisham Hospital; and
- Marjorie Wickens (19) of 7 Taunton Road died at the Albion Way Shelter on 11 September 1940.
- Mike Brown (1999) Put That Light Out! Britain’s Civil Defence Services at War 1939-45 -Stroud, Sutton Publishing p2
- ibid p3
- ibid p5
- ibid p7
- Lewis Blake (1995) How We Went To War – Deptford & Lewisham 1939 – 1945 p12
- ibid p28
- ibid p28
- ibid p27
- ibid p27
- Phyllis Willmott (1988) Coming Of Age in Wartime – London, Peter Owen, p42
- ibid p45
- Blake, op cit, p41
- ibid p29
- These are based on records from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
- The recruitment poster comes from the collection of the Imperial War Museum and is used on a Non-Commercial Licence.;
- The photograph of Hedgley Street School & the ruins of the Good Shepherd come from a booklet produced by Church of the Good Shepherd, Lee in 1956, p16 and it used with the church’s permission;
- The picture of Sandhurst Road School is via The Newsshopper;
- The postcard of the Town Hall is from eBay in March 2016;
- The ARP Log is part of the collection of Lewisham Archives, it is used with their consent and remains their copyright;
- The photograph of Blackheath is of an unknown source, although given its age is probably a government one and would thus be out of copyright; and
- The ARP helmet is via Wikipedia and is on a Creative Commons.