At Islington Museum we are lucky to have a dedicated team of volunteers that share their skills and expertise with us regularly. These volunteers assist us with a huge range of activities on a daily basis, from customer service, to collections work, educational assistance and research. A recent addition to the volunteer team is Johnny, who moved to Islington in 2019 and assisted with the We’ll Meet Again exhibition by researching and writing the articles Each bob you pay keeps the bomber away: The Islington Spitfire and The German Destroyer in Finsbury.
In the below piece from Johnny, he talks of his experience researching life in Islington during the Second World War. Thanks from everyone at Islington Museum and Islington Local History Centre to Johnny and our fabulous team of volunteers who helped bring this exhibition to life, including Anne Marie and Julia.
Helping out on the WW2 Exhibition project has been a great experience for me, especially as it has taken me back to my nerd like interest in WW2 as a child.
Researching what happened in and around Islington during the Blitz was extremely interesting and informative. It was an aspect of the war of which I was aware but didn’t have a great knowledge of. My own home city of Belfast also suffered during the wider blitz, especially around the east of the city where I grew up as that was where the Harland & Wolf shipyard and Short and Harland aircraft factory were based. It wasn’t on the same scale as London, with only four raids recorded, but caused widespread damage and many people lost their lives.
The second raid, on the night of Easter Tuesday 15th April 1941, was undertaken by 150 German bombers targeting the city waterworks, harbour area and shipyard amongst others. Fifty-five thousand houses were damaged leaving 100,000 people temporarily homeless, 1500 injured and over 900 dead. It was the greatest loss of life in a night raid outside of London during the Blitz.
While I was aware of what happened it wasn’t something that was often spoken about by my family or others. As a child I used to play in my grand-parents back garden and over in one corner was an old, small concrete out building, big enough for me to stand up in that was used as the coal bunker. It was only years later that I found out that it had been built by the original owner of the house as an air raid shelter during WW2. That was my first introduction to the reality of how people lived at a time of war not knowing when the next raid would come or where the next bomb might fall.
This memory came flooding back to me as I looked through the photographs and read accounts of the people of Islington from this time. It was while doing this that I found a piece of information that brought the experience of the blitz a lot closer to me than I expected.
While consulting a bomb damage map for some information on a particular street for one of the archive photographs, I happened on the street where I now live. I saw that there was a little group of three houses toward one end of Ripplevale Grove that were colour coded as having been damaged. They were the only ones in the street that had been hit. On closer inspection I found that the house in the middle that had been ‘damaged beyond repair’ was my house! It had been totally rebuilt while the houses on either side that had been badly damaged were able to be repaired. Later I found an eye-witness account of what may have happened from someone who had been sheltering in a public shelter around the corner on Hemingford Road. It seems an unexploded anti-aircraft shell had fallen back down and exploded on hitting the house, causing massive damage. Other reports say that it was a high explosive bomb. Luckily the occupants of the house were already in one of the public shelters and escaped injury.
The captured Messerschmitt Bf 110, pictured above on display outside Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place in August 1940, became the most photographed Luftwaffe plane of WW2.
The aircraft was a twin-engined heavy fighter or ‘Zerstörer’ (‘Destroyer’ in English) flown by the Luftwaffe and some other nations during WW2. It was championed by Hermann Göring who nicknamed it ‘Eisenseiten’ (‘Ironsides’). The Bf 110 was a successful aircraft in the early stages of WW2 in the Polish, Norwegian and French theatres of war; However, its lack of agility in the air was its primary weakness and this was exposed during the Battle of Britain. Some Bf 110 equipped units were withdrawn from the battle after heavy losses and redeployed very successfully as night-fighters. It enjoyed a successful period following the Battle of Britain as an air superiority fighter and strike aircraft in other theatres of war. During the Balkans Campaign, North African Campaign and on the Eastern Front it provided valuable ground support to the German Army as a fighter-bomber (Jagdbomber/Jabo). Later in the war it was developed into a formidable night-fighter, becoming the main night-fighting aircraft of the Luftwaffe.
The aircraft seen on display at Garnault Place, Bf 110 S9 + CK, was originally part of a large German attack during the Battle of Britain that took place on 15th August 1940. The Luftwaffe had put together a force of 1120 aircraft to attack the airfields and airfield installations of Fighter Command, from Newcastle in the north to the Solent in the south. German aircraft came from airfields in Norway, Denmark and France.
The Bf 110 S9 + CK was one of 16 fighter-bombers from 2 Staffel Erprobungsgruppe 210 (2./Erp.Gr.210) that took off from Calais-Marck airfield in Northern France. It was piloted by Oberleutnant Alfred Habisch and crewed by Radio Operator Unteroffizier Ernst Elfner. They targeted the airfield at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk and destroyed some workshops and the officers mess. Two hangers were seriously damaged and the attack also ruptured the watermains and disrupted telecommunications.
The aircraft of 2./Erp.Gr.210 then went on towards London, escorted by 8 Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Their target was Kenley but, flying into the low setting sun, they mistook the South London airfield of Croydon which was a civil airport being used by the RAF as the target. As they commenced their bombing run, Hurricanes from 32 Squadron Biggin Hill and 111 Squadron Croydon arrived on the scene. While the Bf 109 escort departed and escaped largely ignored by the Hurricanes, the German fighter-bombers, led by Hauptmann Walter Rubensdorffer released their payload of bombs on the buildings below.
The suburb of Croydon shook as explosions shattered the airfield. Surrounding houses were damaged as blast waves tore holes in walls and one house had its roof lifted. The blasts were felt as far away as Woolwich and the Houses of Parliament in Central London. It’s not known if Rubensdorffer was aware that Croydon was a suburb of London. At this time, Hitler’s explicit orders were that London, including its dockland area and suburbs, were not to be attacked or bombed. Anyone violating this order would be court-martialled if they survived such an attack. Rubensdorffer would never find out if he would be court-martialled for what became the first ever bombing raid on London in WW2. His crippled aircraft crashed as he tried to guide it back to base after the attack, killing both himself and his crewman.
While being chased by the Hurricanes of 32 and 111 Squadrons as they tried to escape, the Bf 110s actually flew over the airfield at Kenley that had been their intended target. One by one they were hit and had no time to go into their defensive circle pattern, their only means of defence against the British fighters. Some tried to keep altitude and head for home, others became victims of the chasing fighters and crashed into the heavily populated suburbs around Croydon and Purley. The Bourjois Perfume Factory in Croydon sustained a direct hit. Sixty people died and over 180 were injured. A number of the German aircraft also came down in the fields of Kent and Sussex, of which S9 + CK was one, coming down at Hawkhurst in Kent. Others struggled to make it back to their base in France with many crashing into the Channel.
Habisch and Elfner both survived the crash and were captured by the local Home Guard. Elfner suffered a bullet wound to his right hand. Both crewmen were eventually shipped off as POWs to Canada. Their aircraft, still mostly intact, was later displayed outside various locations, including Finsbury Town Hall, as part of a ‘Victory Tour’ during the Battle of Britain. It was then shipped to the USA on the SS Montanan in April 1941 and passed to the Vultee Aircraft Corporation for evaluation.
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45, we delve further into life on the Home Front for the people of Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
Whilst the people of Britain had to adapt to new ways of living in the Second World War, there were many aspects of their lives that ‘carried on’. The now well-known term ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was one of three key phrases created by the Ministry of Information, Britain’s wartime propaganda department, in the Summer of 1939. Whilst the phrase was not seen by the public at the time, the stoical manner in which British people dealt with the Second World War is now often described as keeping calm and carrying on.
Many practical elements of life in Islington and Finsbury endured, but in a modified way. Weddings were adapted for the time, with the ceremonies taking place in a sandbagged Islington Register Office; vaccinations for babies took place in vans, such as the Islington mobile diphtheria immunisation clinic; communities came together to support those who required assistance and formalised support, such as the Ministry of Food’s Welfare Food Service provided free or subsidised cod liver oil and canned orange juice for children under five and pregnant women.
Childhood treats, such as sweets and chocolates, were still available, although rationed from 26 July 1942 all the way through until 5 February 1953. Rationing amounts fluctuated throughout the war from 16oz a month down to 8oz. Cadbury launched more economically sustainable ‘Blended’ and ‘Ration’ bars, made with skimmed-powdered milk, which were described as being “as appetising as eating cardboard.”
In spite of the many hardships faced by those on Islington’s Home Front, people did their best to persevere and ‘carry on’ with life.
Islington’s Home Front
Sandbag wedding, Islington Registry Office, 1939
In the first ‘sandbag wedding’ of 1939, 20-year-old Corporal Charles White of the 1st City of London Regiment leaves Islington Register Office with his bride, 18-year-old Harriet Nock. The happy couple obtained special permission to get married and enjoy a summer wedding. Notice how the entrance to the building is covered in protective sandbags, by then a familiar sight.
Charles and Harriet lived in Gainford Street, Barnsbury, and happily both survived the war. They later moved to nearby Richmond Avenue.
London Fever Hospital, Islington, 1 January 1940
The caption on the reverse of the original photograph reads, “Off-duty fun. Picture shows nurses of the London Fever Hospital, Liverpool Road, and St Bart’s students enjoying themselves during their off-duty period.” They were enjoying ‘frozen frolics’ on the hospital’s tennis court on New Year’s Day 1940.
The London Fever Hospital also became a general hospital during the War, with beds allocated for patients from bomb-damaged hospitals.
Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place, after 15 August 1940
This remarkable photograph shows a German Messerschmitt BF110 that was shot down over Kent, following a raid on Croydon on 15 August 1940. It was displayed outside Finsbury Town Hall as part of a ‘Victory Tour’ during the Battle of Britain.
The aircraft was probably the most photographed aircraft of the Luftwaffe and the image here shows Finsbury residents getting a close-up view of an enemy plane. The Messerschmitt was then shipped to the USA for evaluation in Spring 1941.
Firewood piles, Islington, 1940/41
Islington residents gather free firewood from the pile of debris collected from destroyed buildings. While brick, stone and some other materials were salvaged for reuse following bomb damage to buildings, timber was available to collect as an alternative fuel to coal.
The Fuel and Lighting (Coal) Order 1941 came into force in January 1942. Central heating was prohibited in the summer months. Domestic coal was rationed by the government to 762 kg for those in London and South East, less than those in the north, due to the milder climate in southern England.
Finsbury Food Office Mobile Unit, 1942
Food rationing in Britain was introduced in January 1940 for all adults regardless of age, wealth and status. Children and babies received extra rations of meat and milk.
In 1942 the Ministry of Food launched the Welfare Food Service. This provided free or subsidised cod liver oil and canned orange juice for children under five and pregnant women. The Ministry encouraged Jamaica and British Honduras to produce the oranges used. This cheerful photograph shows the women and younger children of Finsbury outside the borough’s Food Office Mobile Unit, where the oil and juice were dispensed.
Holloway Prison, Islington, 30 August 1943
The caption on the reverse of the photograph reads, “The Prison Nursing Service. Picture shows Sister Alice Shearer, the creche sister, with some of the babies born in the prison.”
HM Prison Holloway employed state-registered nurses who were qualified midwives. Mothers with babies born while detained in Holloway could care for them in their spare time, and children were looked after in the nursery while the women worked.
Islington mobile diphtheria immunisation clinic, 1945
Diphtheria is a highly dangerous and contagious bacterial disease primarily affecting children. Diphtheria causes a thick covering in the back of the throat, leading to difficulty breathing, heart failure, paralysis, and potential death. The Second World War prompted a number of developments in vaccinations for the protection of soldiers and civilians, including one for diphtheria.
The free diphtheria vaccination was introduced in 1940, reducing the number of cases from over 46,000 in 1940 to 962 in 1950, and the number of deaths from 2,480 to 49.
Next week will be our final installment of images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45. Next week we’ll be looking at VE-Day celebrations in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
Lord Beaverbrook, the Anglo-Canadian media tycoon Max Aitken, came into the British Government in early 1940 to help speed up aircraft production. He was an advocate of public appeals to raise funds for things like raw materials and also encouraged the public to shop thriftily to help the war effort.
The Spitfire Fund
The Spitfire was hugely popular with the public, capturing the imagination and was covered widely by the media. People wanted to know how more could be built and this led to the setting up of The Spitfire Fund in May 1940. Funds were set up by councils, businesses, voluntary organisations and individuals. Another way was the viewing of downed German aircraft. They were put on display and toured around towns and cities.
Each Spitfire had been priced arbitrarily at £5000 and to encourage the idea that every penny counted a components list was also published. A wing was £2000, a gun £200, sparkplugs at 8s each and rivets sixpence each.
There were some other interesting ways of fundraising. A Kent farmer charged sixpence “to see the only field in Kent without a German aircraft in it”. During an air raid, the manager of a London cinema pushed a wheelbarrow up and down the aisle asking for donations calling “The more you give, the less raids there will be!”. Market Lavington in Wiltshire drew the outline of a Spitfire in the square and challenged residents to fill it with coins. The task was completed in days. In Liverpool a ‘lady of the night’ left £3 at the police station “for the Spitfire fund”. This was the same amount as the standard fine for soliciting.
Pin badges were also produced and sold to raise funds. These were often made out of brass or tin with enamel inlays like button badges, showing the organisation responsible. Some were in the shape of a miniature Spitfire made from chromium plated metal stamped with the name of the fighter.
Fundraisers could have a dedication of their choice painted on the side of the Spitfire. Some were named after the place where the funds had been raised, others after the local newspaper that raised the money. The Kennel Club helped fund an aircraft called ‘The Dog Fighter’. POWs of Oflag VIB (a prison camp in Germany for captured officers) were able to donate a month’s pay through The Red Cross for ‘Unshackled Spirit’, no doubt kept secret from their captors! A group of women and girls named Dorothy paid for ‘Dorothy Of Great Britain and Empire’. The country of Uruguay, officially neutral, funded 17 aircraft. Other countries and cities donated enough for entire squadrons to bear their name – No. 74 (Trinidad), No. 167 (Gold Coast), No. 114 (Hong Kong). No. 152 (Hyderabad) was donated by the Nizam of Hyderabad in India. Some communities instead chose to name their aircraft in honour of bereaved local families.
Enough funds were eventually raised for 2600 Spitfires of which only 1600 can be traced due to incomplete records. Around £13 million (approximately £650 million today) was raised in total. The funds went into the Government coffers and were used to support the entire war effort as opposed to purchasing individual aircraft. The process had a profound effect on the morale of the people and helped them feel they had ‘done their bit’ for the war effort and was very important.
The Borough of Islington Spitfire Club
On Friday 9th August 1940 the Mayor of Islington, Alderman Douglas McArthur Jackson, launched the Borough of Islington Spitfire Club in the local press:
“I propose to launch the Borough of Islington Spitfire Club and I want £5000 for the first Spitfire. I am confident that Islington will respond.”
“Islington has never been behind in expressing its devotion to our beloved country and to all it stands for. The time has come to put that expression into concrete form and, Citizens of Islington, Go To It.”
– Mayor Jackson, August 1940
The Mayor wanted members of the public to get collecting sheets from the Town Hall and log their donations on the sheets. After raising £1 the sheet could be returned to the Mayor who would send out an illuminated certificate of membership of the club. Anyone raising £20 could receive a silver model Spitfire badge in addition to their certificate.
The slogan of the Spitfire Club was ‘each bob you pay keeps the bomber away.’ Cheques could be made payable to the Mayor of Islington’s Spitfire Club and by 13th August the Club had received nearly £150. The appeal had been going for less than a week.
On 24th August Mayor Jackson sat for nine and a half hours opposite The Nag’s Head at the entrance of Holloway Arcade collecting money for the fund. He began at 10am and finished at 7.30pm, interrupted only for lunch and a break for an air raid warning in the afternoon. By that time the fund had already passed the £1200 mark and that day’s collection added a further £89 5s. By the first week of October 1940 the fund reached the halfway mark of £2500. The daily progress of the fundraising was shown on a giant thermometer above the main entrance to the Town Hall in Upper Street.
There were various fundraising activities undertaken to raise money for the fund. A boxing tournament was held at the Caledonian Road Baths on Saturday 5th October where £52 was raised towards “the other kind of Fighters”. A whist drive was arranged by the West Islington Women’s Conservative Association. The Islington Gazette reported: “Just before the whist drive started an air raid warning sounded, but it was unanimously agreed to carry on.” Bracelets were made from the cuttings of Spitfire windscreens and sold. A Mrs Clark invited her neighbours into her back garden to see a deactivated landmine that had landed there during an air raid. She charged a penny a time and news of the landmine being on show spread quickly with over 2000 people coming to see it. In the end £9 was given over to the Mayor for the fund.
The Islington Spitfire
The actual ‘Islington Spitfire’ was a Spitfire Mk.Vb (Trop) ER206 built at Castle Bromwich and was named ‘Borough Of Islington’. It was allocated to No. 46 MU Lossiemouth on 29th August 1942 and eventually shipped to Gibraltar on 25th October, arriving on 9th November. After assembling and testing the aircraft was flown to North Africa and allotted to No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron at Souk-el-Arba. On 6th February 1943 it suffered engine failure while carrying out a sweep and crashed south of Pont du Fahs. It was flown by Sgt D.G. Boyce who survived unhurt.
Although the plane never saw combat, the Borough of Islington Spitfire brought together the Islington’s residents to express their “devotion in a concrete form to keep the bomber away”. On request from Mayor Jackson that they Go To It, the Citizens of Islington went to it and they Got It!
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45, we look at how the people of Islington and Finsbury prepared the Home Front for the Second World War.
The people of Britain endured the Second World War in an overwhelmingly stoical manner. The response to war on the home front was one of practicality, where people changed much of their lives to adapt to a new era.
By the Second World War, a number of essential items consumed or used by the British were coming from abroad, such as tomatoes and fruit; however, trade disruptions at this time made products scarce. By January 1940, the Ministry of Food began overseeing rationing to ensure the fair distribution of food, materials and goods. Each individual, whether man, woman or child, was given a ration book with coupons. Essential items, such as sugar, meat, cheese and cooking fats, were key rationed items; however, not all food was rationed – fruit and vegetables weren’t, but were often in short supply. In response, people were encouraged by the government to start growing vegetables in their own gardens or to ‘Dig for Victory’ in their public parks.
People on the home front were required to undertake diverse new tasks. Women began to work in ‘white-collar’ occupations and in jobs, such as clerical work, that were traditionally reserved for men. Air Raid Precautions services (subsequently Civil Defence Service) were integral in reporting and dealing with bombing incidents. First-aiders were employed to offer immediate help in response to air raids.
The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was formed as part of the Air Raid Precautions to supplement the work of fire brigades at local level. It was superseded in August 1941 by the National Fire Service. Members of the AFS were unpaid part-time volunteers, but could be called up for full-time paid service if necessary. Approximately 1.5 million men and women served within the Civil Defence Service during World War Two, almost 7,000 of which lost their lives.
Children of all ages would also get involved in the war effort. Older boys and girls joined the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. They supported Air Raid Precautions by acting as messengers or fire-watchers. Younger children helped salvage war materials, raised money for munitions or knitted items for troops, demonstrating that anyone could ‘chip in’ for the war effort.
Islington’s Home Front
Arundel Square, Islington, 23 September 1939
Residents of Arundel Square, near Highbury and Islington Station, seen here digging their own trenches and an air raid shelter in a section of the square’s gardens.
The ‘Dig or Die’ slogan, written on placards in the photograph, was not an official term but it sums up the urgent nature of ensuring that protection against air raids was taken seriously. Ultimately, the square suffered only light damage during the war, with just a few houses on the west side receiving direct hits and no reports of any fatalities.
Caledonian Road Public Baths, Islington, 1939
Sandbag usage was among the first precautions that were undertaken in protecting buildings during an air raid. The use of sandbag ‘revetments’ to protect buildings from the perils of bomb blast became a common sight on the Home Front, as seen here against the walls of the ‘Cally’ Road Baths.
Sand and soil were brought in from various places in and around London. One of the most popular excavation sites was on Hampstead Heath. Men, women and even children volunteered to fill bags.
Finsbury Labour Exchange, Penton Street, 1939/40
At the time that this photograph was taken, a huge effort was in progress using posters to encourage recruitment to the armed services, as can be seen here with ‘encouragement’ pasted on nearly every surface. Note the overriding message on the top of the side wall, which announces “National Service is the business of the citizen.”
Posters aimed at civilians included simple instructions, motivational messages, and humorous illustrations, urging everyone to ‘do their bit’ for the war effort.
Grocery store, Islington, January 1940
A fresh batch of eggs are available, as a shop assistant removes coupons from a customer’s ration book in an Islington grocery store. An adult’s weekly allowance included one fresh egg (plus an allowance of powdered egg) and 2oz (56gms) of butter.
Rationing began on 8 January 1940 when bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. By 1942 many other foodstuffs, including meat, milk, cheese, eggs and cooking fat were also ‘on the ration’. Clothes and many other goods were in short supply during the war and also rationed.
Holloway Arcade, Nag’s Head, Islington, 24 August 1940
The people of Islington collecting for the ‘Islington Spitfire’ at the Holloway Arcade. The day’s donations totalled just over £89, the target being £5000.
In May 1940 Spitfire Funds were launched nationally. The Spitfire fighter aircraft, which protected London during the Battle of Britain, captured public imagination and it was a matter of national pride to have a Spitfire named after your fund. The ‘Borough of Islington’ Spitfire Mk V was presented by the borough after May 1942, when sufficient funds were raised.
Lamp women, Islington, 1940/41
During the Second Word War, women were employed in work that had traditionally been undertaken by men. Once such occupation was the trimming and distributing of hurricane lamps. This captivating photograph shows women working for Islington Council.
Hurricane lamps were run on paraffin and were widely used following air raids, when gas and electricity supplies had been cut. However, the lamps weren’t entirely safe as vapours from spilled fuel could ignite. Hurricane lamps are still extensively used today in areas without electrical lighting.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs 1939-45. Next week we’ll be looking at more images from life on the home front in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45), we delve deeper into the significant bomb damage suffered in Islington and Finsbury.
Britain began preparing for the devastation of war on the home front well before the Second World War began. With the government conscious of war potentially being waged against civilians, Islington’s residents began receiving air-raid shelters from February 1939, more than half a year before the war and attacks on home soil began.
As part of war preparations, volunteers were trained in civil defence duties to warn or respond to attacks. Many civilians became Air Raid Wardens, Home Guard members, firefighters, first-aiders and ambulance drivers, who would provide invaluable assistance to their community once war began.
On 7 September 1940 the German Luftwaffe initiated their Blitz on Britain. The term Blitz was taken from the German word Blitzkreig, meaning ‘lightening war;’ a clear indication of Germany’s intent from day one. On the first day of bombardment, 430 were killed and 1,600 injured in London. Thousands of deaths and endless destruction would follow the continuous bombing over the ensuing months.
London was bombed significantly at night, but daytime attacks were frequent too. In October 1940, Islington’s rescue service attended 131 incidents, the most in one night being 32. Records show that 206 people were recovered alive, with 83 deceased. Rescue operations to retrieve casualties could take several hours or even days to complete and were sometimes performed whilst raids were still in progress.
Islington’s Bomb Damage Respondees
Auxiliary Fire Service drill, Islington, 1939/40
This photograph shows members of the Auxiliary Fire Service dealing with a blazing ‘incendiary bomb crater’ during a demonstration at an Islington square. Drills such as this were common during the early days of the war to ensure that crews were prepared for the ‘real thing’.
The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was formed in 1938, as part of the Civil Defence Service. Its role was to supplement the work of fire brigades at local level. The AFS and the local brigades were superseded three years later by the National Fire Service.
Hugh Myddelton School, Finsbury, after 25 October 1940
This photograph shows firefighters cleaning debris following a raid at their fire sub-station located at Hugh Myddelton School in Corporation Row, Clerkenwell. The building took a direct hit from a high explosive bomb.
Beatrice Arnold, 28, of Holloway and Swedish-born, Constable (Police Reserve) Karl Friman, 37, resident of Bloomsbury, were killed in the incident.
Pembroke Street, Islington, after 17 April 1941
On the night of 16/17 April 1941, Pembroke Street, Islington,was badly hit by a parachute mine. Lorries were brought in to clear the vast amount of debris from the bomb damage.
Although the majority of casualties from this were accounted for in two days, it was not until 29 April that the Rescue Service was able to finally leave the incident. In all, 23 residents from numbers 39-52 Pembroke Street died in the attack.
Finsbury Square, Finsbury, 15 October 1941
This atmospheric photograph shows firefighters bravely tackling a fire at Finsbury Square. The attack was part of the Luftwaffe’s ‘Tip and Run’ raids that followed the Blitz. These ad-hoc raids occurred between May 1941 and December 1943, and were carried out by fast-moving German fighter-bombers.
The buildings ablaze here were located in the north-eastern part of Finsbury Square, near to the junctions with Christopher Street and Wilson Street. There were no reported casualties but the buildings were considered beyond repair and later demolished.
Garnault Place, Finsbury, 5 July 1944
Firefighters in action in burning debris in Garnault Place, off Rosebery Avenue, following a V-1 rocket attack. To the right of the photograph is the Champion Arms public house at 8 Garnault Place. Eight people died in this incident.
The first V-1 (Vergeltungwaffe or ‘Vengeance weapon’) rocket to hit London landed on 13 June 1944 at Bow. The first in Islington occurred on 18 June in Spencer Street and Wynyatt Street, Finsbury, killing 13 people and injuring 83 more.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45). Next week we’ll be looking at life on the Home Front in Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.
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.
“After days of suspense the news was announced that on Monday afternoon [7 May 1945] the German Government had capitulated. War in Europe was over”, so announced the North London Press. The following day, Tuesday 8 May 1945, became known as VE-Day (Victory in Europe Day), with Winston’s Churchill famous speech marking the start of both official celebrations and a national holiday; he also reminded the nation that Japan had still to be defeated.
In 2020, in spite of the devastating and ongoing Covid-19 situation, and 75 years after this momentous occasion, the nation is together in its commemoration of VE-Day. Here, we pay tribute to all who bravely endured life in Islington and Finsbury (and beyond) during the dark days of the Second World War. In Islington, 958 people lost their lives, an estimated 3,097 houses were destroyed beyond repair: 1,253 seriously damaged and 36,877 damaged but could be occupied. In addition, damage was reported to 144 churches, 74 schools, 518 factories and 298 pubs. It was against this backdrop of six years of destruction and privation that Islingtonians and Finsburyites were ready to celebrate!
“London was jubilant. The people of Islington – a happy loyal people for all they had suffered in the war – were second to none in the high spirits with which they greeted the victory” (North London Press, 11 May 1945).
Indeed, like every other city, borough, town and village in the land, the residents of Islington and Finsbury celebrated the end of the Second World War in Europe with an outpouring of emotion, joy, revelry and jubilation. While London’s focal point for celebrations were Trafalgar Square, the Mall and Buckingham Palace, local street parties and festivities were also held all over both boroughs.
Local councils and revellers, however, were mindful of the Home Office directive instructing the nation on how they could celebrate: “bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” The Board of Trade did the same, “until the end of May you may buy cotton bunting without coupons, as long as it is red, white or blue, and does not cost more than one shilling and three pence a square yard.”
Eve of VE-Day
Some celebrations started as soon as the news of the end of the European war was announced on 7 May, and some were postponed until all evacuees returned home so that entire families and communities could celebrate together. Here is how the North London Press (11 May 1945) reported the borough’s reaction to the initial news:
“The eve of VE-Day was celebrated by cheering, singing crowds of people, youths and children who gathered round huge bonfires which blazed on many bombed-sites in Islington. Within a quarter of a mile area of Mackenzie Road, Holloway, there were at least five bonfires burning. One of the largest was at the junction of Palmers Place and Ringcroft Street. Youths fed the bonfire with doors, planks and broken furniture which they dragged from shattered buildings.
Many children and young people sat precariously on the sloping roofs of street shelters in order to get a better view of the proceedings. The crowds of people celebrated with all the enthusiasm they possessed. Some couples danced, others joined hands with anyone who happened to be there and then let themselves go in the celebrated ‘knees-up’.
It was a spontaneous display of joy, there was no effort at organising, no one wanted to be organised, everybody did what they felt like doing. But nearly everyone joined in the singing of old favourites like Pack up your Troubles, Tipperary, Lambeth Walk and endless others.”
“You have won the war, see that you do not lose the peace”
As with many post-Second World War events and activities, on 8 May 1945 Highbury Fields was a focal point for community celebration. During the evening, many families attended the park’s “less-confined atmosphere” where they enjoyed entertainment provided by Islington Borough Council:
“After dance music played on records a group of professional artistes gave a cabaret show from the stage of the open-air theatre. As the evening grew later the people became more numerous, young folks plucked up courage and asked each other to dance, while children, unmindful of ceremony, gaily romped in and about the weaving dancers. The lilting sound of the latest dance tunes was relayed from loud-speakers set up at various angles round the spacious field, and people sitting or standing round the field joined in the singing of the popular tunes. Darkness was not allowed to encroach upon this scene of merrymaking, for an Army searchlight unit operated the bold brilliant glare of their searchlight upon the dancing and singing throng.”
A surprise visit
The Mayor of Islington [Cllr George ‘Pa’ Bennett] paid a surprise visit to the Fields and spoke to the people from the platform of the theatre. He told them that they had “defeated Germany through the valour of their fighting men and the skill and resolve of the men and women who laboured in the factories, offices and homes. Now they must make certain that they did not slacken in their efforts to bring about final peace.”
“You have won the war, see that you do not lose the peace. I am proud to be an Englishman and you too have cause to be proud of your country and dominions.” After the Mayor had finished speaking the gathering joined in singing, ‘For he is a jolly good fellow’.” North London Press (11 May 1945).
Later in the days and weeks to follow VE-Day, local street parties became the order of the day. Across Islington and Finsbury, partygoers wore their best clothes or fancy dress. They made paper hats and sang and danced in the streets. It was the first festive occasion that many children would have experienced.
The Ministry of Food was preparing for the ‘V Holiday’ in advance of the German surrender to ensure that food traders, restaurants and cafes, as well as “housewives”, were prepared. Food was still on ration, and continued for several years after the war, but local businesses and benefactors gave donations of food and money to supplement the £2,000 (approximately one farthing per person) provided by Islington Council for the occasion. Foods that were likely served at VE-Day parties included spam and dripping sandwiches, eggless fruitcake and Lord Woolton pie (a pastry dish of vegetables).
Special treats, such as sweets, buns, jelly and “lashings of cake and ice cream”, as reported as being consumed in Thornhill Square and Gardens (North London Press, 25 May 1945), were also enjoyed at the celebrations.
Celebrations in the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury areas were reported as being particularly lively, with music and dancing into the early hours of the morning. In Frederica Street over 130 children enjoyed a huge tea with jelly and ice cream. They danced to an accordion band and were given a 10s (50p) note each.
In Cloudesley Street and Cloudesley Place contributions to the celebrations were so generous that there was enough extra money to fund a cinema trip for all residents. The children of Cloudesley Road also had an additional outing. Destination unknown! In Tufnell Park, Mrs England of Ingestre Road, whose husband was in Germany, was hostess for its children’s street party. For days she had planned the treat, making house-to-house collections of food and money. This was typical of the community spirit in both borough’s that lead the festivities.
Finsbury gives thanks
Finsbury’s celebration officially opened with a united, 1,000-strong open-air thanksgiving service at Wilmington Square on Sunday 13 May 1945, attended by Finsbury Mayor Frederick Barrett and Borough Council. On Wednesday 16 May 1945 evening there was an entertainment at the Town Hall for repatriated prisoners of war, members of the Forces on leave, families of prisoners-of-war and veterans of the last war. The Mayor also held an “at home” for representatives of the various voluntary organisations and local business houses.
The council also arranged for victory parcels of cigarettes to be sent to Finsbury lads serving in the Far East. However, the entertainment of school children had been postponed until all of the evacuees have returned.
Older people were not forgotten in the festivities. An Islington Gazette (18 May 1945) article wrote of a rousing speech and praise given by the Mayor to 900 of the borough’s older residents at a tea and concert at Finsbury Town Hall,
“It is your sons and daughters, born and bred in Finsbury, who have formed part of the British fighting services, gaining honour and distinction in every theatre of war”, said the Mayor. “Thanks are due to you for the way you brought up your children who, after spending their childhood days in ways of peace and happiness, proved themselves when the testing time came not merely equals but masters of a nation where every boy and girl was brought up to believe in war as the only thing worthwhile in life.” The Mayor paid tribute to the magnificent way the old folk had stood up to wartime perils and dangers, and for the service tendered to the community during their working lives.”
Chocolate and money
The entertainment of school children was been postponed until all of the evacuees had returned, and then the street parties could commence. The residents of Finsbury celebrated as much as their Islington neighbours, and this in spite of the borough being devastated by enemy air raids; 328 people lost their lives and approximately 18% of the area was damaged by bombing, a figure only exceeded in Stepney and Shoreditch. It was estimated that over 90% of Finsbury’s housing had suffered from some form of bomb damage, with nearly 1700 houses out of a total of 9899 uninhabitable, destroyed or demolished.
A victory party in Granville Square, Clerkenwell on Saturday 19 May 1945 was attended by 110 children from the square and neighbouring streets. The party was organised by Mrs Buck, who was the square’s shelter-marshall. The children had a “lovely tea, and afterwards ran races for prizes of chocolate and money. Each child also received ice cream, lemonade, and a bag of sweets. In the evening the grown-ups had a singsong and dancing,” as reported the Islington Gazette (25 May 1945).
For some, VE-Day was a bittersweet occasion. While residents celebrated, 8 March did not mark the end of the war for everyone, with many servicemen and women still fighting in the Far East or held as prisoners-of-war by the Japanese. These weren’t reunited until after ‘Victory over Japan’.
One resident wrote to the Islington Gazette to say that, “90 per cent of Theberton Street were flying colours. Why the 10 per cent aren’t I cannot say, unless they are less interested in victory than war.” This was later countered by a Canonbury resident who, incensed, replied, “What a ridiculous statement! There are still thousands for whom it is not yet finished… many ostentatious displays were made on VE-Day by people who contributed little towards victory and suffered even less.”
Pray for Germany
As families were reunited and local communities came together to celebrate the end of the war in Europe, the church and the press considered the possibility of reconciliation between Britain and Germany. A moment of editorial reflection appeared in the Islington Gazette titled ‘Pray for Germany’, “We should have failed if we have merely crushed and humiliated our foes, leaving legacy of bitter hate and sullen resentment. We must pray the German nation might experience a change of heart.”
A brighter future
The moment of victory for many people was also tinged with sadness who mourned the loss of a loved one killed in service or in an enemy air raid. The war in Europe had been won and following celebrations it was to be a time of rebuilding – homes and lives – and continued austerity for a number of years to come. This, all in the hope that Islington’s and Finsbury’s post-war plans would serve to symbolise a brighter and safer future for its Second World War citizens, their families and beyond.
We remember all those who died in Islington, Finsbury and elsewhere, and all those who suffered and endured throughout the Second World War, to safeguard future freedom and democracy.
Article by Mark Aston, Islington Local History and Islington Museum, 7 May 2020.
As part of the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45), we look at the various ways in which people from the borough were protecting themselves during air-raids in the Second World War.
From 1 September 1939, mass evacuations from cities were followed by nightly blackouts, with those left behind facing sirens, bombing, fires, and for many, death. British homes were now the front line, with ruins being left where family homes, schools and businesses once stood.
Preparations for air bombardment began prior to the Second World War, with the British government providing air-raid shelters to families for free or for a small fee, depending on their income. Over the course of the war, shelters would take a number of forms and provide security for the people of Islington and Finsbury, and throughout Britain.
Islington received the very first of the Anderson air-raid shelters in Britain, prior to the outbreak of war. These shelters were open and below ground level, and as a result they were often cold, damp and noisy, but did help protect those inside to a degree. In response to the installation of the shelters in 1939, Islington’s Mayor Douglas assured the Minister for Civil Defence that, “Islington Council would do their utmost to carry through their duties in connection with the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) loyally and efficiently.”
1.5 million Anderson shelters were distributed in the months immediately leading up to the outbreak of war. Mrs Treadwell of Tiber Street was one of the first to receive a shelter, but felt dubious about its protective qualities. She told The Times newspaper, “If trouble does come, I’ll feel safer than in the house. In any case, we can always use it as a summer house!” When production ended 3.6 million Anderson shelters had been produced.
Throughout the war other locations, such as underground stations, were used to bunker down, and a variety of shelters were developed. By 1944, Islington’s communal shelters had private rooms, each with three adult bunks and three children’s bunks. The rooms also featured electric lighting and each had an electric heater – a vast world apart from the simplicity of Anderson shelters.
Air-raid trenches, Islington Green, 24 January 1939
Sir John Anderson (centre), Minister for Civil Defence inspects new air-raid trenches on Islington Green. During the visit he formally handed over the trenches to Islington Mayor Douglas Jackson (right). Also present was Lord Wolmar (right), topped by members of Islington Council.
The previous year, serious civil defence efforts began. Cellars and basements were taken over as shelters, and trenches, such as these on Islington Green, were dug in the parks and residential open spaces. Buildings were also sandbagged and barrage balloons tethered over London.
Anderson Shelter, Carlsbad Street, Islington, February 1939
Cllr Douglas Jackson, the Mayor of Islington, visits the location of London’s first steel air-raid or ‘Anderson’ shelter. Resident Mrs Spong of 3 Carlsbad Street (now York Way Court) is seen here with her son Ernest. Named after Minister for Civil Defence, Sir John Anderson, and issued free to anyone earning less than £250-per-year, the shelters were made from corrugated steel sections.
Their bases were buried three feet in the ground and the tops covered with earth. These shelters gave good protection, except in the case of a direct hit. This photograph appeared on the front page of the Daily Sketch on 2 March 1939.
Hugh Myddelton School, Finsbury, 4 September 1940
Pupils of Hugh Myddleton School in Corporation Row, Clerkenwell, reading comics and playing cards in the school shelter during an air-raid drill.
Many children were evacuated from London to rural areas, and overseas evacuation was introduced in June 1940. Over 2,500 children were sent to Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, and thousands more were fostered privately in Canada and the USA. Those children who remained in Islington quickly became familiar with the various shelters that were available, especially in their schools.
Public air-raid shelter, Islington, 1940/41
An ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, wearing Pattern No.41 overalls, sits with three young women in an unidentified public shelter in Islington during the London Blitz.
This ‘moral-boosting’ photograph was taken by Bill Brandt, the Ministry of Information’s official photographer. It would appear in ministry publications and popular magazines, such as the Picture Post.
Air-raid shelter, Islington, 1 November 1940
Islington residents displaying ‘Blitz spirit’, sharing drinks with neighbours while sheltering in an unidentified underground location.
Many Londoners used tube stations and underground tunnels as air-raid shelters. They preferred to use the tunnels and platforms because they felt safest deep underground. Stations were fitted with bunks, supplied with first-aid facilities and equipped with chemical toilets. An estimated 170,000 people sheltered in the tunnels and stations during the war.
Communal air-raid shelters, Islington, 8 April 1944
This photograph shows new communal shelters constructed in an Islington street in 1944.
These contained private quarters and were built in areas where there were three and four-storey houses that could not be provided with either Anderson or Morrison shelters; the latter form of shelter were steel cages with mesh sides.
Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing more images from the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1939-45). Next week we’ll be exploring the bomb damage to Islington and Finsbury during the Second World War.