Three police officers should have their bravery celebrated with a plaque, says Southwark historian STEPHEN BOURNE. Here he writes why he has nominated them for the Southwark Heritage Blue Plaque for their extraordinary courage in the First World War when they saved women and children during the 1917 Zeppelin attack on the corner of Calmington Road and Albany Road.
During the night of October 19-20, 1917 a German Zeppelin dropped a 300lb ordnance, known as an aerial torpedo, on to two adjoining houses on the corner of Calmington Road and Albany Road.
Today, this location can be found
by taking a short walk along a pathway from the Burgess Park lake to Albany Road, Walworth.
Twelve people, including two children, were killed in the explosion, while at least another 12 were left trapped in the basement of a building with a fire raging above.
The victims of the air raid are remembered on the memorial in nearby Chumleigh Gardens, but three brave policemen, who attended the terrible scene, have been forgotten.
Despite the threat of another explosion due to a gas leak, Inspector Frederick Wright, PC Jesse Christmas and PC Robert Melton raced to the scene – then in the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell, now in Southwark borough.
It must have been terrifying, voluntarily entering the inferno, not knowing what they would find.
People remember the horrors of the London Blitz of 1940/41 but men, women and children were also killed in air raids during the First World War.
PC Melton was off duty at the time, just a few houses down from the explosion at 24 Albany Road with his wife, Kate, and their two young children, Ethel and George.
All three officers were based at the police station in Walworth Road, popularly known as Carter Street police station.
On their arrival at the scene, the brave Camberwell bobbies cut a hole in the floor and dropped down into the basement, where they managed to find two children in the smoke and chaos.
Ignoring the threat of the building collapsing and the near-overpowering gas fumes, they led the children and a group of shell-shocked adults to safety.
Inspector Wright collapsed, received medical care, went home, and then returned to his rescue efforts later on in the night.
An eye witness spoke of “the great bravery” of the three police officers in a letter to a local paper that week.
He said: “I can assert that their conduct was exemplary, deserving the highest possible praise and public gratitude.”
Inspector Frederick Wright was awarded the Albert Medal for his bravery, while the two police constables were decorated with the King’s Police Medals.
But what became of the three brave bobbies? PC Jesse Christmas and his wife Frances lived at 33 Aylesbury Road in Walworth and in 1919 they welcomed a son, Leslie, into their family.
They later moved to Wandsworth where Jesse died in 1979. Inspector Wright retired in 1920 after 31 years’ service but PC Robert Melton did not remain in the Met Police.
At that time, police officers were poorly paid and they felt exploited.
After the First World War, Robert supported a national campaign to improve the pay and conditions of police officers. He even went on strike.
The 1919 National Police Strike was the first and last.
In the Met, 1,056 of the 18,200 police officers employed came out on strike, but this was against the rules and they were all sacked, including Robert.
They desperately appealed for reinstatement, or at least the refund of their accrued pension contributions, but these were resolutely refused.
The punishment they received for stepping out of line was swift and harsh.
Politicians from all the political parties cold-shouldered the strikers.
The failed Police Strike of 1919 made it impossible for another to happen.
Anger with the strikers never went away.
When Labour’s Clement Attlee became Prime Minister in 1945 and met a delegation of elderly men from the Association of Strikers, he turned his back on them and refused to give them any belated support or compensation.
Robert Melton continued to live with his family at 24 Albany Road and, after being sacked, he took a job as a Gate Keeper at the Rotherhithe docks. Tragedy struck on July 1 1934 when he died from heart failure at the age of 53.
At the time of his death he was being cared for at Newington Lodge, 182 Westmoreland Road in Walworth, at what had been Newington Workhouse until 1930.
During the centenary of the First World War, we were good at recognising the sacrifices of the thousands of brave men on the battlefields of France and Belgium, but not so good at recognising the men, women and children who died at home in air raids, or the service of people who worked so hard on the home front.
A Southwark Blue Plaque will be a permanent memorial which pays tribute to the three selfless and brave policemen who put themselves in incredible danger to try to save the lives of others.
You can vote for the three brave policeman by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org