Walworth Under Fire
The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,
Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.
Continued from Part One
The next few months have been called the ‘phoney war.’ Certainly as far as we were concerned at Walworth, the urgency seeped away. There were no air raid warnings. On the other hand, more and more young people were called up to the service: uniforms became more evident, including some for us wardens, who received blue boiler suits, with ‘A.R.P.’ in red on the breast pocket and chromium-plated buttons. We also got a slightly superior form of gas-mask carried in a canvas bag instead of the cardboard box. Equipment, such as rubber boots, tin hats and six small axes appeared sporadically. At one time, the crypt housed a dump of cardboard boxes, which proved to contain a large number of left-foot boots, but no right ones. Sandbags replaced our orange-boxes as protection. A start was made in issuing gas masks for children and unwieldy respirators for babies, whose air-supply was maintained by the mother pumping a bellows. Our area was slow in dealing with this issue, because of rivalry and squabbles between the two Head Warden groups. This tension came to a head when the borough decided to merge the two groups into one Post Area, under one Post Warden and a Deputy. We became the last area in the borough to be still disorganised. Early on, I had made it clear that I was not eligible as the new Post Warden, because the church authorities expected the clergy to be free for their own particular duties in the event of casualties. The impasse dragged on until February 1940.
In the end, the Chief Warden of the borough asked me if I would take over the leadership of the area, as the wardens themselves seemed to be unable to make up their minds about anyone. I said that I would only do so if the wardens were unanimously in favour. We circularised them all, and they replied, ‘Yes’ with one abstention. Thus I found myself head of a motley collection of wardens, and an area which was very short of training and readiness.
Before this happened, however, other things had been changing in the parish. The schoolchildren began to drift back, in spite of the devoted efforts of the Head Master and his staff, who thought nothing of writing up to 300 letters a week to the parents to keep them informed of their children. The story of the evacuation of our church school (St Peter’s, Liverpool Grove) is worth a word or two. When we saw them off just before the war, we had no idea where they were going, other than the fact that they left from Waterloo Station.
We waited for several days for news of their arrival. Eventually, a telegram came, telling us they had settled in Parkstone, near Poole. Apparently their train from London had landed them at Wareham, where coaches were waiting to take them to a variety of small Dorset villages. However, a train-load of Southampton children, carefully destined by their borough for the wealthy billets in Parkstone, were loaded onto the coaches meant for our Walworthians. The final result was that our children from the poorer district of South London were housed with the rich, while the Southampton children found themselves scattered in the more primitive villages.
It was not long before the richer families of Parkstone tired of their London children. Our Head Master, Mr Hardingham, and his staff worked wonders in re-billeting them all with working-class families. The strange turn of this story is that my church school landed in the very same parish, in which a few days earlier my wife and I had been staying on our shortened holiday.
Our school was happily united for teaching purposes with another South London school, All Saints, Surrey Square, our neighbours in Walworth. Most of the staff of both schools settled down with the children: Mr Hardingham, in fact, moved his home and family there. Everybody seemed happy and settled. It was a great relief to me, as it meant that the majority of the youngsters were off my hands, should bombing start. It seemed empty at church, with no school services, which were always a joy – a church filled with singing boys and girls. Our Sunday Schools were shut down, and only the elder young people remained to use the Crypt coffee bar. Some of the older Scouts, denied their usual den in the crypt because of the Shelter, used a bell-tent for a time in the small garden in front of the Rectory.
The story of this school evacuation, however, ended less happily than it began. The time came when the London County Council Education Department decided that only one Head Master was needed for the two schools at Parkstone. The Head Master of All Saints was the senior, due to retire within six months. It would have seemed sensible to have brought him back to London, and left our Head Master to look after our two schools. But no: Officialdom decided that our head was the junior in service of the two, so that he must return. The net result in the end was that the Head Master of All Saints took over for six months, and then, because of his retirement, was replaced by a stranger. Within a few weeks most of the children were back in London, and eventually had to be re-evacuated to many different places for the rest of the war, their teachers scattered likewise. Thus ended all our patient efforts to make the scheme work well. I was particularly sorry for my Head, Mr Hardingham, who had to move himself and his family back to London.
In the meantime, the Royal Air Force had requisitioned the school building to house a Balloon Barrage crew, and the playground became the home of a very large balloon and its winch. We soon got to know the crew very well, as their telephone was often out of action, and we had one of their number in our Wardens’ Post to take messages on our telephone. Incidentally, the County received one shilling per man per day as rent for the school premises. After some time, they tried to pressure me as Chairman of the School managers to get rid of them. I steadily refused to do so, because I felt that these eight fit men were the best insurance against fire that we could find, and they proved this amply, when the bombs began to fall. They were not going to see a comfortable billet go up in flames, if they could help it! In the final result, our school survived when many round about were burnt.
In due course, the men of the Balloon crew were replaced by WAAFs, and very charming ones too. I remember that we had them to tea, and they entertained my family in their billets, which by that time consisted of some of the flats nearby.
These barrage balloons, ugly, silver shapes, became a familiar feature of our skies. They were designed to keep the Jerry planes at a certain height, over 10,000 feet, making them an easier target for the anti-aircraft guns. They also made the aiming of the bombs more difficult, which accounted for the apparently indiscriminate pattern of the bombs when they did arrive. Flying at such heights, the balloons were tethered by thousands of feet of wire, on which were fixed bags of explosive to blow off the wing of any plane which might get entangled with the wire. This made for complications for us on one occasion at least. At night, the crew were only able to see the wire by attaching a white cloth to it, about 50 feet up. This could, and usually did, warn them if the wire was at an angle with the ground indicative that the balloon was deflating after a hit from enemy machine-guns or our own shrapnel. On one particular night, for some reason, the balloon deflated without any of the crew noticing, so that they ended up with about 2 miles of wire rope across the roof-tops of the borough. As they tried to winch it in, chimney pots and stacks were pulled to pieces, and we were called up from all sides.
During those early months of the war, I found it equally hard to reconcile myself to keeping the family away in the country. I could understand the way parents thought about their children evacuees, and those husbands who had seen their young wives and babies leave their homes for far-off country retreats. I was fortunate in that I knew the home in which my wife and daughter were staying – old friends of my mother’s. I was able to get down to Salisbury, where they were, once a fortnight for a night at a time, travelling down in blacked-out trains, crowded with soldiers. But I could see that my wife and the baby were being affected by the worry of not knowing from day to day what was happening in London. The fact that nothing did happen was no consolation during the long nights. It was much easier for me, because I was busy with church and the A.R.P.
So, one night down there, we spent hours discussing the problem, and finally decided that if we were going to be killed, it was better to face it together in the place which was our home, and among the people, who were my other family.
I know now that I would not have been able to carry out my work in Walworth during those years without the support of my wife. We had started the whole association with the parish together; we had made that contact with the A.R.P. and the Town hall together. We were, I believed, meant to finish it together. A parish priest has a very special relationship with his parish. It is not just a place of work – a job. I have found that each parish that I have served has been part of me – indelibly imprinted on my being from then on, and to which I can return years afterwards, as if I was returning home.
We settled down to the job in hand. One of the things I did was dominated by the black-out. The church was exceptionally well-lit by two tiers of very large windows the length of the building. They were impossible for us to black out, which meant that we could not hold services late or early during those winter months. We were accustomed to holding early communion services every day of the week, some as early as 5:50am, often at 6:30am, to which office cleaners, for instance, could come before work. Christmas was approaching, and how could we hold a Midnight Christmas Eve service in the unblacked-out church?
I found the answer in a scheme to make a chapel in the centre section of the crypt, in a part not planned to be used for the shelter. We transferred our Lady Chapel altar down there: did a bit of decorating, and there we were able to have our Christmas Eve service, which had become very much a part of Christmas for our people. We used it for many services through the winter, until the Bishop of Kingston instructed me to put it back in the church. By that time, summer days made it less necessary, although I was sorry at the time. However, one good result of this affair was that, in order to have the Reserved Sacrament handy at all times, without the danger of showing a light in the church, I had been given a Tabernacle for the Sacrament, which was then reserved on the altar in the crypt. Later on, this tabernacle was to be handy for the Sacrament, when the church was bombed and the aumbry, which we normally used, was no longer available. In this way, everything did work out for the best in the long run. If I had not attempted the crypt chapel, I would not have had the tabernacle, and we would have been in difficulty when the church was bombed. But more of that later.
Besides Church matters, I was faced with the task of organizing the A.R.P. Post Area, and the band of wardens. As I said before, their training had been neglected. We embarked on an intensive series of exercises at all hours, mostly in the evenings. We had to make sure that we knew what we were doing, if bombs did fall – not just in theory, but in practice on the ground. We had wardens lying about the pavements as casualties night after night, whilst others practiced the reporting of these incidents with the other services, such as Rescue and First Aid. We drilled ourselves so that, in the time of crisis, it would be automatic that we should put our real job first – the reporting to Control of the incidents.
At the time, the wardens used to grumble a great deal about this training, which often necessitated long waits in the cold and dark, without anything very tangible to keep their interest. The story runs that one acting as a casualty, got fed up with a long wait, and went home, leaving a note ‘Casualty dead: gone home.’
Another chore which was unpopular, and which occupied a great deal of their time, was a census of everybody in the area, indicating how many people were likely to be in the house and where, by day and also by night. This was to prove of vital importance later on, when we were faced with tunnelling into piles of rubble and could so easily give up the task, if we did not know for certain that Mr So and So, or his wife or his daughter, were supposed to be in the building or that part of it which had been hit.
Street shelters were now going up everywhere. They were mainly meant to be used by flat-dwellers, who had no Anderson shelters. They were originally built very rapidly out of brick and lime mortar, their walls sitting unkeyed on to the concrete of the roadway or pavement, and topped by a slab of reinforced concrete about 9 inches thick, which was also unkeyed by any reinforcing to the walls. Later on, these were known to us as ‘The Morrison Sandwich’ shelters, because in the actual blitz, too often the blast of a bomb would suck the walls outward and the concrete top would sandwich the occupants to the ground. Eventually, they had to be strengthened with reinforcing in the walls and down into the concrete base.
In addition to these street shelters, two more public shelters in our area were provided. One was a smallish underground shelter near the Walworth Road shops, and the other was constructed out of the basements of unfinished flats, which had only reached ground level. They were cellar-like rooms, down rather narrow and steep stairs, with little ventilation and very thin concrete roofs, intended as floors for the ground-floor flats. There was no form of heating and they were damp; but they did eventually house some 500 shelterers, and were a constant problem.
The crypt under our church in those first months of 1940 remained much as it had been at the start of the war. It might be as well to describe it more fully. It ran most of the length of the church, was paved with flag-stones and roofed with 15ft square blocks of york stone, about 6 inches think, which formed the floor of the church above. They were supported on brick arches about 7ft high, which divided the crypt into three or four aisles. They were filled in here and there with flimsy matchboard walls, which separated the various clubs which were using the crypt. The heating for the church came from a very large boiler, where pipes passed just below the ceiling of the crypt, providing a reasonable amount of heat. The whole area was lit by electric light. The only ventilation came from shallow windows high in the walls, which gave on to small wells at the foot of the church walls. These windows were sandbagged, so that no air or light could penetrate that way. In the middle of each side of the crypt were two doorways, to which stone steps gave access from the churchyard. This crypt was originally used for burials, which had been cleared from it many years before to enable it to be used for parish organisations. There was no running water down in the crypt, and the only toilet facilities were four Elsan closets, provided by the Borough. It might seem that we were ill-advised to offer this place as a shelter. But I knew that the people had used it during the air raids in the First World War, and would have taken the law into their own hands, if the authorities had not made it available. I consider that very little was done in the first place to make the best of the facilities. When the time came for it to be used, it was a constant anxiety to me.
In the first months of 1940, until the bombing started, it was used for those parish organisations, which were still functioning. I was able to recruit some of my congregation as shelter wardens to care for the people. One of them was Mr A. Morgan, well over sixty years old, who, in the event, proved indefatigable in looking after the shelterers.
In fact, I also recruited some stalwart shelter wardens for the recreation ground shelter, a Mr and Mrs Jackson, who performed miracles of energy and guts in serving their clients, although Mr Jackson had long hours of hard work as a meat porter at Smithfield Market. In this shelter, again, there was no water, except for one standpipe in the open playground above, necessitating endless journeys up the steep stairs from below to get cans of water for the thirsty children and their parents. Likewise, there were a few Elsan closets behind sacking curtains in cubby holes off the narrow trench-like passages, where the 9 inch deep wooden benches were so close to the opposite ones that the knees of the shelterers almost touched. During the raids, the parents of small babies had to bed them down on the concrete floor under their benches. Mrs Jackson tore up sheeting to make nappies for the babies, when supplies ran out during the 12 hours that some spent down there in the height of the bombing. All that was undreamed of by us or the authorities in that spring and summer. We were too occupied with the events across the Channel. The war was dramatically hotting-up, as German forces conquered Norway and Denmark, then Holland, Belgium and France. There were more and more casualties among the men from our parish. Then came Dunkirk, involving the taking of many prisoners by the Germans, and the death and wounding of many others. The list of those we remembered in our prayers in church, both of the dead and wounded, and of those on Active Service, rapidly increased.
Those who returned from Dunkirk had tales to tell. One I still remember. The soldier, whose name I cannot now recall was a very ordinary sort of working chap, a cheery South Londoner. He found himself marooned with several companions on the Dunkirk beach, being bombed and machine-gunned from the air, with no shelter, and many of the houses and hotels to the rear of them on fire. Somewhere out at sea were the ships that were to take them off, but the problem was to get to them. Our little man and his friends, like all Londoners, were impatient to get on with the job, so they scouted through the bombed houses, and found a tin bath, with a plug hole in the bottom, but no plug. They launched this into the sea, and, armed with some lengths of wood, jumped in and paddled out into the open sea. Luckily for them it was calm. They managed to stuff the plug hole up, but water seeped in. Just as they were about to founder, they were picked up, and brought home to safety. I could not help laughing at the picture of these three characters in a tin bath.
Another of my lads from the parish got back. He was Albert Smith, my Wolf Cub Master. After a short period of leave, he was drafted into the Highland Light Infantry, full of tough Glaswegians. I did wonder at the time what a life my young Londoner would have in such an outfit. He was eventually sent out with them to North Africa and was killed in the desert.
In Walworth, we were getting used to rationing, started in the New Year of 1940. This brought into being the usual black-market, in which some of the barrow-boy community were heavily engaged. As Post Warden, I had to be rather careful of what I might say in the endless chats we had together in the long hours of waiting about in the Post. Once, I was injudicious enough to mention that we liked prunes in my family. They were unobtainable. It was not long before a wooden case of them appeared in the Post to be presented to my wife.
In July, 1940, the appeal came for aluminium to build planes. Patriotically, my wife and I sacrificed all the pots and pans that we had collected on the occasion of our not so distant wedding. For the war effort, the iron railings round the churchyard, rather fine ones dating from 1824, were removed, but not the heavy gates, which remained in solitary splendour, while rough wooden palings filled the space on either side.
St Peter's Church in 1951 with railings removed
The war in the air, the Battle of Britain, began. We hastened our organisation of the wardens. By this time, we had about 40 part-time air raid wardens, and a few full-timers, who had to work 12 hour shifts. The latter were not the pick of the volunteers, but men and women who were ineligible for the armed forces, including one or two conscientious objectors. They found the long hours of duty very often boring during this pre-blitz era. The wardens’ post in our case was not very spacious, heated by a small gas fire, and no proper ventilation. No daylight as the one window was covered with sandbags. The floor was tiled. The furniture consisted of a few hard kitchen chairs and a deal table. There were big cupboards built onto the walls, a narrow twisting stone stair at one end, leading up into the Rectory hall, and a doorway the other end leading into a passage, giving access to the rest of the Rectory basement, and the two back doors, one leading to the street by way of a small courtyard, the other giving access to a small backyard and the Rectory garden.
As for the Rectory itself, I had had the small scullery, next door to the Wardens’ Post, shored up with heavy baulks of timber, with wire netting over the ceiling. This was to be the shelter for my wife and daughter, who slept in a bed there during the raids, whilst I had camp bed beside them, very rarely used by me at night time, and only occasionally at all. Bertram Calver, my curate, refused to go to shelter, and slept on the top floor of the house, although he too was on duty in every raid. We ate in the large kitchen, next to the improvised shelter.
Most of the wardens lived locally, and were able to get some sleep at home. However, the Crypt also became their club and rest room, which many of them used for sleeping, when they were not on patrol. We organised these patrols rather carefully. I was anxious to keep the number of wardens in the actual post down to a minimum, partly in order to avoid congestion of our limited space, partly and principally to avoid large casualties in the event of the Post being hit. One Wardens’ Post in the borough was hit, and many wardens killed, as a result of a different policy, which entailed the gathering of the bulk of the personnel in the post, until an incident occurred and they were deployed. I therefore managed to find disused street shelters or rooms in the empty houses in each sector of the area, and based a patrol of wardens in each of these, with sufficient chairs and a table, Stirrup Pumps, etc., and only allowed them to return to the Post if there was anything to report. At intervals, either I or a deputy, and our messenger, Jenner, visited each patrol during the raid to see how they were getting along. This policy also meant that a close relationship between the patrols and the people living in their respective sectors was built up.
Jenner, our messenger, was a lad of eighteen, and proved himself to be brave and completely reliable. He and I had managed to acquire, old bicycles, rather smaller than we would have normally chosen, mostly without brakes and lights. During the height of the blitz we perfected a technique, of falling off these bikes in full flight, whenever we heard an explosion, even some distance off, and landing flat on the road. This was the fruit of my reading the accounts of those who had been through the raids in the Spanish Civil War, when it was proved that you could be fifty per cent surer of escaping injury, if you lay flat, when a bomb exploded. Most of my wardens were hard to teach in this respect, preferring to stand nonchalantly in groups, saying, ‘That one was miles away.’ I did not mind their chaff, as I threw myself down. I suppose that the same differences of outlook can be seen in the varying attitudes to the wearing of safety belts in our cars. As I shall show later on, I probably owe my life to the habit that I instilled into myself and Jenner.
Part of my duties as Post Warden was to encourage the formation of Fireguard parties. In those pre-blitz days, there were plenty of volunteers to fire-watch in their own streets. I also had to inspect the business premises in my area to find out what Fire Precautions they had organised. One of these that I recall more than the others was that which was occupied by the War Office records of the First World War – a series of Wooden Huts on a site between two small streets of houses. In these huts, there were tall wooden racks, separated from one another by narrow aisles. The racks were at least twenty feet high and were filled with bundles of papers, bound together with string. These papers were the Service records of all the men who had fought in the First World War. In the centre of this wilderness of wood and paper was a magnificent concrete and steel shelter, with heavy steel doors. I asked the man in charge, what firefighting equipment and personnel they possessed to deal with what seemed to me to be a highly inflammable building. He replied ‘We have stirrup-pumps and buckets in each of the corridors between the racks, and nine men on duty in the event of a raid.’ I was not re-assured by his answer. For one thing, the very substantial shelter, which must have cost thousands of pounds, would tempt the fire-watchers to take shelter, rather than remain under the flimsy cover of the wooden sheds. A fire could well start without them knowing. In point of fact, when we had our first Fire Bomb raid, the whole building was ablaze before the fire-fighters could do anything. We had to rescue them from their shelter, which was surrounded by the burning building. A few weeks after the fire, Ministry of Works men came and dismantled the shelter with pneumatic drills. The morning after the fire, my parish was covered with half-burnt papers bearing the names and army record of many old soldiers. Some of them made interesting reading. As far as I know, these army records had no duplicates, so that it seemed strange that this store had been left in my parish, and not rehoused in a safer area. Incidentally, we had to rescue the families of all those living in the small houses in the streets round this store, which produced so much heat that the front doors of the houses were on fire.
When I did my Inspection all this was still to come. Even in those last months, most people did not seem to be worrying much about air-raids. All eyes were for the newspapers with their stories of the events across the channel – the fall of France and Norway, and towards the end, the Battle of Britain pilots, fighting their war over the southern counties.
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.