Walworth Under Fire
The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,
Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.
Continued from Part Two
Life went on fairly normally at the Rectory. We slept peacefully upstairs in our beds; our meals were regular and my diary of the period shows that church life carried on, with our usual daily services, clubs in the crypt, and Sunday School for the many children who had returned from evacuation. These children, for the most part, had to be re-evacuated before the air-raids in London began.
For us, the air raids started on a brilliant, sunny day, with distant rumbling of anti-aircraft guns, sited well outside the suburbs in those days. We watched the barrage balloons rising to their highest extent, like silver fish in the blue sea of the sky. Above them, appeared the misty trails of fighters chasing one another. These were soon followed by the straighter traces of bombers, the crash of bombs, falling well away from us, as we watched from the roof of the flats, just across the road from the Rectory. To us at that moment, it was a novel and exciting show, theatrical, unreal. We saw great gushes of flame appear in a long line in the direction of the docks, and on a hill, crowned with some buildings, in the direction of Lewisham. The air was filled with the hum of engines, but not a gun shot. We felt a bit defenceless.
The sirens wailed again that evening, sending everyone hurrying into the shelters. The crypt filled up for the first time, and was soon sheltering twice the number for which it was designed, and from then on held anything between 600 and 900. This put a severe strain on air and the other resources. We of the wardens’ were busy, although I cannot now remember if we had to deal with any bombs that first night, but we soon had to do so during the nights that followed. The worst feature of those first raids was the continual drone of enemy aircraft, with not a sign of gunfire, accentuating the occasional crash of bombs, preceded by their eerie descending whistle and ‘whoosh.’ People were beginning to grumble at our apparent lack of defence. Those sheltering in the crypt were luckier than some in one respect: the young club members entertained them with music, and the canteen was a boon.
For my part, I brought down a bed for my wife and Susan into the scullery shelter, where Eileen read thrillers to take her mind off the raid. As the raids continued, beginning usually about 6 p.m. and often lasting until 6 a.m., we found it necessary to have our evening meal about 5 p.m. The tension made eating anything substantial at that hour uninviting, so that we settled for large mugs of Bournvita and powdered glucose, which kept me going on duty until breakfast. We did have some rations issued by the Town Hall. The Government authorised the payment of a small sum, 1/6 a night, I think, which the Borough of Southwark insisted on converting into rations of bread and cheese, Oxo cubes and a small amount of tea, for which we had to indent every day on behalf of the wardens who had signed on for a night’s duty. Very few of them felt like eating bread and cheese in the middle of the night, or drinking cups of salty Oxo, which gave then a thirst. As a result, we accumulated leaves of stale broad, lumps of mouse-trap cheese, and thousands of Oxo cubes. The tea was always quickly consumed. I remember that I was able to dispose of all this accumulation in two ways: the bread and cheese was used to feed my Deputy Post Warden’s hens, which he kept on a piece of church land just across the street, while the Oxo cubes I exchanged for tea, which my Shelter Warden in the playground trench shelter [in Faraday Gardens] had collected over a period, and was pleased to swap me for 5000 Oxo cubes. The rations became stranger as time went on when we received bags of sweets and lettuce leaves. Eventually, the Town Hall was forced to pay the cash allowance. However, for most of the fire raids, my messenger Jenner was occupied for part of his duty in the task of delivering cans of hot tea and slices of bread and cheese to the various patrols, which I would not encourage to come to the Post themselves, except to report for duty and in the event of any emergency. The part-timers were able to snatch some sleep on occasions in the spells of off-patrol, either at home or in the Crypt, which was warm and provided a few armchairs and the canteen.
I hardly ever went down into the crypt shelter during raids, unless I was needed for some problem. When I did so, I had to tread delicately between the bodies of the shelterers, lying like sardines on a variety of beds, mattresses, blankets or old carpets, which they brought down with them. Some sat in deck-chairs, some lay on the narrow wooden benches, provided by the borough. The stench from overflowing Eisan closets and unwashed humanity was so great that we had to buy gallons of Pine Fluid, the odour of which I cannot abide to this day, 35 years later. The shelter wardens had a whip round among their flock to buy electric fans, which did stir the foetid air a trifle, giving an illusion of freshness. I suppose that you can get used to those sorts of conditions, if you stay in them for 12 hours night after night. At least one family of parents and young children stayed down there almost twenty four hours, rather than go home and risk losing their place. Plates were as precious to the regulars as seats in some theatres, so that queues formed outside hours before the sirens wailed, and I had to provide some wardens to regulate the flow of would-be shelterers, some of whom came from some distance, even by taxi. My wardens did a difficult job well, sorting out the regulars from the gate-crashers. They quickly got to know the locals, but they had to suffer a lot of abuse and even threats. I was reminded of their skill, when one of the shelterers developed Scarlet Fever. The Borough Health Officer promptly forbade us to allow more than the official number of 230 in the crypt the following night. I refused to put the burden of dealing with the 400 or so, who would have to be excluded, on the shoulders of my wardens, and told the authorities that the police would have to be responsible. That evening, two burly sergeants and six constables were sent to regulate the intake. By physical force during two hours, they were able to keep about 100 shelterers outside the churchyard gates, which they chained. Naturally, this crowd did not take this treatment lightly. The warning went: the police returned at once to the Carter Street Police Station; the crowd broke open the gates and piled pell-mell into the already crowded shelter, causing much more confusion than would have been present, if we had been allowed to fill the shelter methodically with the regular shelterers.
I certainly kept out of shelters, whenever possible, relishing the fresh air of the nights. Likewise, I kept out of the Wardens’ Post for the same reason as much as was possible, preferring to keep an eye on the area by means of frequent visits to groups of wardens and fire-guards, who got to know me so well, that I never had any trouble. I marvel now, these thirty or so years later, at the freedom that I enjoyed during those long dark nights in the streets. I was never attacked, never threatened, not even sworn at, during those four years, although I had to chase would-be looters, discipline wardens, and was a ‘bloody parson’ possibly in the minds of many in the recent past. My predecessor had not been very popular, so that I might have inherited a reputation which called for the epithet ‘bloody’. I suppose that being seen about so much, and having to deal with the often tragic situations which came my way all too frequently during the raids, helped to alter their views of a parson. I did not think about this at the time; I merely did what suited me best, preferring to see and know what was going on for myself and enjoyed getting about.
I had about 2000 people in Public shelters of some size in my area, and they weighed heavily on my mind, because none of the shelters was safe from a direct hit, and the recreation ground trench shelter was not even safe from a bomb falling in open ground between the trenches. For some unfathomable reason, these trench shelters, of which there were a number in open spaces, such as the London parks, were planned on a sort of ‘ladder’ outline. That is to say, there were two longer trenches, joined by four shorter ones at right angles to them, making a closed grid. Any bomb falling inside the grid, between the trenches, would create an earth shock-wave, sufficient to crush the trenches, the walls of which were made of thin pre-cast concrete slabs, strengthened after a time by a steel frame at intervals inside the shelter. I was thankful that this particular shelter in my area, did not have a direct hit, although one bomb fell outside the grid not more than twenty feet away.
Nevertheless, that trench shelter provided me with other problems, for it proved to be far from water-tight, so that in the heavier rain of that autumn and winter, when it was occupied night after night for 12 hours or more at a stretch, it filled up with water to a depth of anything up to a foot. I had to summon the Borough Engineer's department to come and pump it out. You can imagine what it was like for the shelterers, many of them very elderly, or with young babies, sitting in the wet with their feet on damp concrete, even after the pumping-out. I remember that I encouraged a deputation of shelterers from those trenches to storm the Town Hall under the able leadership of the shelter-warden’s wife, who shared the nightly task of caring for them with her husband. I salute them and many others who did similar thankless tasks during those long nights and then going off, to their daily work in many cases, or to care for their homes. In many cases, wardens and other Civil Defence workers returned to cold, dark houses, with no wife to give them a meal, because they had been evacuated. It was a cheerless business for them, whereas I had the support of my wife throughout, seeing that we had a cooked meal at least twice a day. This was not easy to do for a greater part of that first blitz, as the local gas main was fractured, and not repaired for two months, so that my wife had to cook on a small primus that we had bought the year before for a camping holiday on the Thames. Luckily, so many people had left the area that the local butcher had a plentiful supply of meat to enable him to be generous to those who remained. We were also fortunate that the gas supply was restored two days before Christmas. I particularly remember this happening because I was just about to light the altar candles in the church before the wedding of two young people of my congregation, Jack and Pat Wagstaff, when I noticed a strong smell of gas. I dashed outside the church in time to see a gang from the Gas Company digging up the road. The crypt had been bombed and the three inch main leading into the church had been broken. I tore down into the crypt and managed to turn off the main before the gathering congregation were overcome. A few moments later, I would have probably blown us all up with the taper I was about to light. This was only one of many escapes that I experienced in connection with broken gas and electricity mains.
This kind of event, however, provided an amusing relief from the grimmer side of our work in the parish. Before I describe the more serious incidents that I remember, it would be a good thing, perhaps, to explain the real nature of our work as air raid wardens.
Southwark Town Hall, May 1943. The distribution of new ration books.
The prime function of the air raid warden was the reporting of incidents to the Control Centre at Southwark Town Hall, from which the necessary services of Stretcher parties, ambulances, Light and Heavy Rescue teams, doctor and his Mobile Unit, Fire Services, and Police could be summoned as needed. In order that necessary services in the right numbers could be sent rapidly, it was essential that the wardens should send in accurate reports, with the probable number of casualties, the type of damage, whether the casualties were buried, the presence of fire or other hazards, and, above all, the exact location. His next duty was to see that the various services were directed to the exact scene, and told where the casualties were located, and where the various vehicles could be parked without blocking exit and entry to others that might arrive.
For this to work effectively, it was vital that the wardens did not get involved themselves in rescue attempts too deeply or too quickly, or in such a way that their messages might be delayed. To bring about such self-control in a warden, when the people involved in an incident, very naturally, wanted him to help them, either to get free themselves, or to dig in the debris of a building for their relatives or friends, required a great deal of training. I was very glad, when the bombing started, that my wardens and I had spent many hours in the preceding months in exercises, designed to test their discipline. Nevertheless, exercises with simulated casualties were a very different kettle of fish from the real thing, when they could hear the cries of injured and frightened people, and were obliged to turn a deaf ear and get their messages correctly written on the special forms provided, without unnecessary delay. This training was to be put to the stiffest test in the biggest incident in our area, the bombing of the church and the crypt shelter underneath. More of that later.
The above content is from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
This 50 page memoir written in the 1970s and entitled 'The Church Under Fire', concerns Rev. Markham’s involvement with Civil Defence when he was Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, SE17, prior to and during the Second World War, with descriptions of his work organising rudimentary Civil Defence for his parish at the time of the Munich Crisis, September 1938, preparing for the evacuation of local children and converting the crypt of his church for use as an air-raid shelter in early 1939, his appointment as ARP Post Warden in early 1940 and his responsibilities for training ARP wardens and Fireguard parties under his control, the evacuation of the church school, the effects of the Blitz, with references to conditions in public shelters and looting, his work as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer, and final promotion to District Warden before moving to another parish outside London in 1944.