South London Memories: Keeping the home fires burning…

There are all kinds of snippets gathered together by author Austin Ruddy in his new book, The Home Front, 1939–1945 in 100 Objects. It outlines a collection of items that reveal the story of the Home Front during the Second World War. Many items are in private collections and so not normally seen by the public – so this book has a unique insight into everyday life from 1939-45.  Here Mr Ruddy talks about three items with special relevance to South London…

Some people put any long-term plans on hold during the war: but not the thousands of Britons who carried on and tied the knot. For many couples, a wartime wedding was the brightest highlight in those dark days.

Organising a marriage under Blitz conditions was no easy task and proved a battle in itself.

In 1938, there were 409,000 weddings: two years later, as Britain faced her darkest hour, the figure jumped to 534,000.

The Home Front 1939-1945 in 100 Objects

The best they could hope for was a 48-hour leave pass.

The moment they left their barracks, the clock started ticking.

As Britain struggled, it was considered unpatriotic to have a white wedding, so many brides just wore smart formal clothing.

A serving groom could wear his military uniform, but no extra clothing coupons were available, so make do and mend prevailed.

Some brides adapted their mother’s or even their grandmother’s wedding dress.

Others even fashioned dresses from parachute silk, old lace curtains or dyed bedsheets.

The government allowed the production of thin, nine-carat (instead of 22-carat) gold wedding rings, but second-hand family jewellery was often worn.

It was not unusual to stand in a cold, draughty, bomb-blasted church – many were hit.

Photographic materials were in short supply, so many couples simply had just one or two photographs.

It was illegal to make confetti, so many sprinkled rose petals.

A permit to buy extra food and a quiet word with the local shopkeeper might provide something under the counter.

Something alcoholic would appear, no questions asked.

Sugar restrictions hit three-tiered cakes – bakers supplied reusable cardboard cake covers, lifted to reveal a small, disappointing, plain, dark cake.

Gifts tended to be soap powder or money and an overnight stay at a local hotel was the extent of the honeymoon.

But many a first night was spent shivering in a damp Anderson shelter, cursing Hitler.

There was a decline in marriages in the middle of the war but in 1945, the figure jumped up to 457,000 weddings – with a baby boom to boot.

This wedding photo was never captioned. But the groom’s chest insignia reveals he was a member of the Beckenham AFS, so this view of a traditional firemen’s guard of honour axe archway was probably taken around spring/ summer 1940.

The Borough of Beckenham, was on the bombers’ flightpath to the capital so the area had a tough Blitz. Its fire service suffered particularly heavily in 1941, with 30 Beckenham AFS men killed.

The highest loss of life occurred at 1.53 am on April 19-20 1941 – a heavy London night raid known as The Saturday – when four Beckenham crews were ordered to the AFS station in Old Palace School, Leonard Street, Bow, East London.

Just 20 minutes after they arrived, a parachute mine made a direct hit on the school, killing all 21 firemen outright.

This remains the largest single loss of fire brigade personnel in English history.

Today, there are two plaques to their memory, one at the site of the school, the other at Beckenham fire station – we don’t know if any are pictured here during this happier moment.

40,000 Britons were killed during the Blitz

War Death Certificate, October 1940

Despite the best efforts of the Air Raid Patrol, the anti-aircraft defences and RAF night fighters, enemy bombers did get through – and claimed a dreadful toll of civilian lives. Some 40,000 Britons were killed during the Blitz.

They were packed close together in cellars, air raid shelters or even underground stations.

On October 14, 1940, when, at 8.02 pm, a 1,400kg ‘Esau’ semi-armour-piercing HE bomb penetrated 32ft underground and exploded in Balham underground station.

The blast burst a water main and sewer, causing a mudslide that killed 68 shelterers.

The ARP would try to rescue any survivors and recover bodies.

Unproven ghoulish rumours that bodies were just left at bad incidents and the site filled in continue to this day.

But the ARP was more professional than that: where possible, relatives wanted remains to bury. Some fatalities simply appeared to be asleep, without a scratch, the blast having collapsed their lungs.

Pre-war statisticians had theorised that for every tonne of bombs dropped, 17 people would die. They also predicted the Luftwaffe would drop up to 600 tonnes of bombs a day.

So the Emergency Mortuary Service was created. A label was affixed to the body, which was given a reference number.

A Civilian War Death form would then be filled in. The body would be put in a white shroud and placed on a metal ARP stretcher to await official identification, if possible, by a relative or friend.

From July 1940, photographs would be taken of unidentified bodies.

Mortuaries were often in drained local public swimming baths, which could hold large numbers of bodies – their temperature helped preservation. There were fibre coffins, at 11/5d [£30] each and children’s shrouds, in three sizes.

ARP mortuary staff had the most harrowing role of all. They may have been experienced in dealing with the dead, but not in these numbers.

They had to register, photograph and record scores of bodies.

The most harrowing task must surely have been dealing with child fatalities. One wonders what long-term memories they harboured.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists a total of 67,092 civilian war deaths – that is the reality of the singsongs and Blitz spirit stereotypes. This mortuary form is of Gladys Worboys, aged 11.

Her father, Sidney, 49; her mother, Alice; her sisters Lilian, 17, and Eileen, 14, were all also killed at Dame Alice Owens Girls’ School, in Goswell Road, north London, on October 15 1940.

They were five of the 143 people sheltering there when a large parachute mine demolished the building above them, sealing the exits.

The pipeline carrying the New River ruptured, flooding the shelter.

A 2005 memorial to the 109 victims of this bombing stands in Owen’s Fields, in Goswell Road.

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