As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45, we look at the significant bomb damage suffered in Islington and Finsbury.
The Second World War turned the home front into the battlefront. On 7 September 1939, Dornier and Heinkel bombers, escorted by Messerschmidt fighter planes, began bombarding London. Islington and Finsbury would come under fire on this day – the first day of the Blitz – and throughout the war; with so many houses, pubs, churches and anything in between reduced to rubble.
Parachute mines were used to cause the most destruction by the Luftwaffe, leaving behind enough debris that fleets of lorries were required to remove the rubble. From the remains, usable bricks and timber were collected and stacked for later use, whilst timber was often offered to residents for firewood. In Islington, this remaining debris was taken to a temporary dump in Petherton Road, Highbury.
Whilst London was regularly attacked, the ferocity of some raids far exceeded others. On the night of 10-11 May 1941, London was hit by its largest raid, where 711 tons of high explosive, along with 2,393 incendiary bombs, were dropped on the city. 1,436 civilians lost their lives in that raid alone. Improvement of defences via increased anti-aircraft guns and spotlights helped the British ward off major raids on London until January 1943.
From 1943, Islington and Finsbury would suffer greatly under the Luftwaffe’s Operation Steinbock or ‘Baby Blitz’ and the V-Rocket campaigns. Whilst some areas of the borough came out unscathed from these attacks, others, such as the northern end near Clerkenwell Road, suffered from irreparable damage.
Islington’s Bomb Damage
Seven Sisters Road, Islington, after 8 October 1940
Damage caused by a 750lb high explosive bomb to Seven Sisters Road and the sewer, between Hornsey Road and Thane Villas.
12 adjacent shops were demolished and service mains and overhead electricity cables were also severely damaged during the raid. The local Civil Defence Service, operated by Islington Council, employed road, gas, water and electricity repair gangs to restore power and services as soon as was possible. Between September 1940 and May 1941 their work was relentless.
St Mary’s Church, Upper Street, Islington, after 9 September 1940
At 10.20pm on 9 September 1940, the third night of the London Blitz, a high explosive bomb destroyed the majority of St Mary’s church, leaving only the tower and spire intact.
The bomb exploded near the communion rails and brought the roof and galleries crashing down. The main body of the church was completely wrecked. St Mary’s was rebuilt following an appeal, and dedicated in 1956.
Pentonville Prison, Islington, after 11 May 1941
The night of 10/11 May 1941 found the rescue services once again fully extended, with what proved to be the most devastating raid on London during the Blitz. Islington’s rescue services operated at nine major incidents including one at Pentonville Prison, where a string of high explosive bombs scored a direct hit on the prison’s C-Wing. The wing was rebuilt in 1958 as Pentonville Prison’s education block.
The attack on the prison killed 13 people. In total that night, over 1400 people were killed in the capital and 1800 seriously injured.
Gaumont Cinema, Holloway Road, Islington, after 12 August 1944
On 11/12 August 1944, a V-1 rocket (or ‘doodlebug’) smashed through the roof of Holloway’s 3,003-seat Gaumont Cinema. The photograph shows extensive damage to its auditorium.
Just five months later, the building was again blasted, this time by one of the last V-2 rockets to be launched during the war. The Gaumont eventually opened for business once more in 1958. It survives today and is now the Grade-II listed Odeon Cinema at 419-427 Holloway Road.
Charterhouse Street, Finsbury, after 8 March 1945
At 10:58am on 8 March 1945, a V-2 rocket struck the north side of Charterhouse Street at Smithfield Market, near the junction with Farringdon Road, on the boundary of Finsbury Borough with the City of London. The market was very busy at this time with both workers and those queuing for produce.
As captured in this photograph, looking east from Farringdon Road, the huge explosion caused massive damage to the market buildings, affecting the railway tunnel structure below into which many victims fell. In all, 110 people died and 340 injured.
Mackenzie Road and surrounds, Islington, April 1945
At 7.26pm on 26 December 1944, an enemy V-2 rocket missile exploded at the junction of Mackenzie and Chalfont Roads. More than 340 people were casualties of this attack: 73 people died and 86 suffered from severe injuries.
Many buildings were destroyed, including the Prince of Wales public house on Mackenzie Road. The pub’s clientele who were enjoying a celebratory evening out for Christmas accounted for many of the fatalities from the attack. This aerial photograph shows the devastation caused. Paradise Park is now on the site.
Highbury Corner, Islington, 1946
On 27 June 1944, Highbury Corner suffered one of Islington’s most destructive wartime attacks. At 12.46pm an enemy V-1 rocket or ‘flying bomb’ dropped on Highbury Corner, near the junction with Compton Terrace. It killed 28 people, including a four-year-old girl, and injured a further 150.
This aerial photograph, taken by the RAF two years later, shows the empty space where houses in Compton Terrace once stood.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-1945. Next week we’ll be looking further into the bomb damage to Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.