Tag Archives: Nightingale Grove

Literary Lewisham – Henry Williamson & the Zeppelin Attack on Hither Green

During the research I undertook for the post on the Hither Green Zeppelin attack, it emerged that there had been a fictionalised account of the events in a novel by Henry Williamson, best known for Tarka the Otter, “the Golden Virgin”. 

The link, according to the Henry Williamson Society was that one of the characters in the book ‘Lily Cornford’ was based around ‘Lily Milgate,’ the Milgates were one of the two families decimated in the attack.  There seems to have been some confusion about the name though, the Milgate’s daughter who was killed in the attack was Edith Mabel Milgate who according to 1911 census data was around 17 at the time of her death. While there appears to be no evidence of a Lily Milgate, both the father Samuel, and the oldest son, Percy, both had ‘Lilly’ as their middle name – presumably a family tradition.

As was covered in the article on the Hither Green attack, the Milgate’s lost four children and the father in the raid.  They were a family decimated by the war, as they had already had two deaths before the raid. Eldest son Percy lost his life as a Royal Navy Reservist on 14 July 1915 (aged around 22); and his younger brother John who was in the London Regiment had died too – on 1 October 1916 (aged around 21).

The Golden Virgin (1957) was the sixth novel in Henry Williamson’s partially autobiographical fifteen-volume ‘A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’ which followed the life of Phillip Maddison from the late Victorian period to WW2. It is set in 1916 and the central part of the book covers the Battle of the Somme, where the ‘hero’ in injured early on.

There are two ‘Golden Virgins’ – the first a religious statue on a church roof in Albert (around 25 km from Amiens) which partially toppled during the fighting.

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Source – Wikimedia Commons

The second was ‘Lily Cornford’, Williamson describes her as being delectable and having

large blue glistening eyes and loose smiling mouth, tall white neck and golden hair coiled under straw hat with a spray of forget-me-knots circling its dark blue crown.

Williamson depicts her as having had a tragic life – raped when she was fourteen years old by an unpleasant plain clothes detective,who in the novel, is on the look-out for deserters and spies, and seems to consider the ‘signed off’ Philip Maddison to fall into the first category.

Towards the end of the novel, Phillip and his friend Desmond go up onto the Hill (presumably Hillyfields) to watch for Zeppelins as there had been a warning of a raid.  As they argue, and later make-up, about Lily, the Zeppelin appears, a bomb is dropped and the airship shot down.  They rush to the scene, which would have been at least a mile and a half away, and find Lily, her mother and others dead.

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The destroyed houses in Glenview Road, now Nightingale Grove – source Wikipedia Commons

There was a degree of artistic licence in the re-telling in that the Zeppelin was never seen nor heard, the Zeppelin was not shot down in London (it met its demise in south eastern France)  and it was ‘Lily’s’ father rather than mother who died, and the real life Williamson was nowhere near the incident at the time.

There is no evidence that Henry Williamson knew Edith Milgate, although the Henry Williamson Society suggest that one of his friends, Terence Tetley, may have done.  The reality is probably that Williamson wanted to include a story that he would have undoubtedly known about both through local connections and the national coverage that the bombing received.

As for Williamson he was an author with strong local connections – he was born in 1895 at 66 Braxfield Road, Brockley before moving to 11 (now 21) Eastern Road on the edge of Hillyfields – which remained his home until 1921.  He attended Colfe’s School (which was then on Lewisham Hill) when it was a Grammar School and joined the London Rifle Brigade as a ‘territorial’ in early 1914. He was mobilised on 5 August, the day after war broke out.  He is best known for ‘Tarka the Otter’.  He was a fascist for a while – a member of the British Union of Fascists, supportive of Hitler and detained for a short period early in WW2.  While he claimed to have ‘abandoned’ politics after WW2, his sympathies appear to remain – the final book in the series ‘A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’, sees Maddison questioning the moral and legal validity of the Nuremberg Trials.  He died in 1977 as his best known work was being filmed.

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The Zeppelin Attack on Hither Green

Zeppelin attacks had been expected since the beginning of the war with blackouts reminiscent of the Blitz 35 years later in place almost from the declaration of war. Initially, London wasn’t a target for Zeppelin strikes because the Kaiser didn’t want to put members of his family that were part of the British royalty at risk, but this was relaxed in April 1915, to allow for attacks on dockyards. The first attack in London was in May 1915 in Stoke Newington, with the final one on the night of 19 -20 October 1917 with, in total, around 200 deaths in the capital. It is that final raid that this post will focus on as the final bomb fell in Hither Green.

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Source Wikipedia

Over those two and a half years the Zeppelins had evolved to evade the improving air defence systems on the ground and aircraft attacks on them, much of this involved flying at higher levels of dodge attacks.

London wasn’t even the target for the ‘Silent Raid’ of the 19th and 20th October; the 13 Zeppelins were heading for Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. They were a new variant of Zeppelin able to fly at 20,000 feet – above the range of fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns. However, on that night they were hindered by gale force winds from the north at that altitude and were forced to turn back. The L45 that was responsible for the raid was heading for Sheffield but turned back and dropped 22 bombs in Northamptonshire before drifting south.

Navigation was a real problem for the Zeppelins and in an interview with one of the crew of the L45, Karl Schuz, the problems on that flight were described

We saw some lights – afterwards darkness. We tried to get wireless bearings from Germany but we couldn’t obtain them. Now it was a searchlight, two searchlights – I counted twenty! And that we guessed it must be London. But no shot, we were unseen, and we could see the Thames. Now, running before the wind with a full speed, and we must drop our bombs. We dropped the large bombs, they were 600 pounders, and I heard later on bombs – great bombs – fell on the Piccadilly Circus.

The reasons for Zeppelin L45 escaping the searchlights was fog, it was an extremely misty night and had been so for several nights.

The Piccadilly Circus bomb killed seven, mainly people waiting for buses, and severely damaged the Swan and Edgar store (at the junction with Regents Street). Another bomb was dropped on the corner of Albany and Calmington Roads (now on the edge of the Aylesbury Estate) in Southwark demolishing three houses, a fishmonger and a Doctor’s Surgery killing 10 people and injuring a further 24.

The highest number of casualties of the night though was in Glenview Road in Hither Green where three houses were destroyed and several others seriously damaged in the raid, as the Wikipedia photograph below shows.

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The homes in Glenview Road were three bedroom terrace houses, probably dating from around 1895 – some of a large number of homes developed in when Hither Green belatedly became a station. By current standards at least, two of them were seriously overcrowded.

There were fifteen deaths, ten of which were children and seven of these were all members of the same family – the Kingstons. The Kingstons had moved to Glenview Road sometime after 1911 as at the time of the census they were living nearby at 17 Leahurst Road.

They were a family that had moved around a lot – whilst the father, Patrick, was born in Deptford, he had moved to County Tipperary where he had married Mary and they had at least three children in Ireland. They then returned to Deptford in 1902, moving on to Greenwich (1904) and Woolwich (1907) before coming to Lewisham. By 1914 there were 10 children in the family, but Patrick was killed in the Lee sewer tragedy on 15 July 1914 – drowned when attempting to clear a blocked drain a few streets away in Eastdown Park.

Another family was decimated too – the Milgates, they had seven children and had lived in Glenview Road since 1895. The father and four children were killed as a result of the attack.

The burials of fourteen of the victims were on 24 October 1917 and it was reported that Mrs Kingston attended “with her only surviving daughter, Joyce, and her little boy … [she] was carried in the arms of a man to the graveside”.

The burial of Samuel Milgate, a joiner and carpenter, was later as he initially survived but died a few days later in hospital.

There were memorials put up to the victims next to the low service personnel one at the ‘Lewisham side’ of Ladywell and Brockley Cemetery however, these seem to have fallen over and the details of those who died have become eroded. There is a campaign by the Friends of the cemetery to have the memorial replaced.

News about the detail of the bombings was limited in London with no information given about the locations, and there was concern expressed in several newspapers about the lack of warning and the silence of the raids which contributed to the number of casualties. There was also a lot of anger about the raid – the Coroner at the inquest for Samuel Milgate belligerently called for reprisals.

The houses have been replaced, in what is now Nightingale Grove, although those there now look as though they were built in the 1970s, so whether the site was derelict until then or there was WW2 damage in the same spot is unclear – although there is no evidence of this from either blitz maps or V-1 and V-2 reports.

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As for the Zeppelin that carried out the bombing – the raid was its last flight as it drifted considerably off course in the wind and was then chased by French aircraft across Lyon and Dijon before being brought down at Sisteron, near Gap in south eastern France and its crew taken prisoner. There is a French site about this particular Zeppelin with photos of both the crashed airship and its captured crew, which includes the press cutting below. It was the last Zeppelin attack on London.

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