Like many parts of inner London, Finsbury suffered badly from bombings during the Blitz (1940-41) and, again later, as part of the V1 and V2 rocket attacks on the capital from the summer of 1944 onwards. Citizens lived with the threat of bombing, invasion and untimely death. However, in spite of fatalities, an uncertain future and much hardship, Finsburyites kept calm and carried on. The constant bombings were designed to break morale but conversely brought people together.
The London Blitz inflicted major damage on EC1’s historic buildings, including the Charterhouse, the Priory Church of St John and the Church of the Holy Redeemer. However, not all was ruined. The 17th-century Oak Room at New River Head was removed to safety “for the duration”.
In 1943, the parcels depot at Mount Pleasant Post Office was destroyed. It relocated to the Royal Agricultural Hall in Upper Street, where it remained until the 1970s. Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Rosebery Avenue was requisitioned in 1940 to serve as a rest centre for bombed-out local families, while the cast and company went on tour.
One of the cruellest losses of life occurred on 15 October 1940 when the deep basement shelter at Dame Alice Owen’s School in Goswell Road received a direct hit. Many families were taking refuge when damage caused to a large New River water pipe resulted in many drowning. A total of 109 people out of the 143 people in the shelter perished – rescuers took weeks to recover the casualties.
The number of bombs dropped on Finsbury during the London Blitz amounted to 175 high explosive bombs and four parachute mines. In addition, further bombs landed during the ‘Baby Blitz’ of early 1944, as did the fearsome V1 and V2 Vergeltungwaffe, or ‘vengeance weapons’, rockets during 1944 and 1945.
Five days after the first V1 rocket or ‘Doodlebug’ hit London at Bow on 13 June 1944, it was Finsbury’s turn. A V1 rocket landed in Spencer Street and Wynyatt Street resulting in 13 people losing their lives, with a further 83 injured. Six more V1 and V2 strikes were to follow, culminating in the devastating V2 attack on Charterhouse Street and Smithfield Market in the morning of 8 March 1945. A huge explosion caused massive damage to the railway tunnel structure below, into which many victims fell. In all, 110 people died and 340 were injured.
Of the borough’s 9,899 houses and flats, no less than 9,015 were damaged during the war: 983 were totally demolished, another 23 virtually so, and 642 hit badly enough to force the residents to evacuate. This left more than 11 per cent of the population needing re-accommodation. Although the population more than halved, from approximately 60,000 in 1939 to 27,000 by 1945, it was estimated at the end of the war that some 5,000 new housing units were needed. In the meantime, prefabricated houses rehoused the displaced in various parts of EC1, including Farringdon Road, Gee Street, Hermes Street, Ironmonger Street and King’s Square.
The severe housing shortage was recognised by the new Labour government, and Finsbury Council could now realise several housing plans that had been decided in its mid-1930s’ ‘Finsbury Plan’. The borough’s rebuild ensured that housing catered for its working-class – the majority of its population. This began with the Berthold Lubetkin-designed Spa Green Estate on St John Street/Rosebery Avenue (1946-50) which embodied the promise of post-war housing: a pleasant life, well-equipped flats and careful design.
It was to be a while before the council’s fuller realisation of a better residential post-war future was accomplished by building among others: the King Square Estate (1961), the Brunswick Estate (1949- 62) and the Finsbury Estate (1967). These schemes were truly born out of the rubble and wreckage created by the ‘terror from the skies’ some quarter of a century or so earlier – a rebuilding of Finsbury in the hope that the post-war era would serve to symbolise a brighter and safer future.
Article produced for the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1935-45) by Mark Aston, Islington Local History Centre and Museum Manager. First published as The blitz spirit returns: EC1 under attack in EC1Echo (April/May 2020). With thanks to Oliver Bennett.