Evidence of the Blitz: 'Infill' houses replace those damaged beyond repair

Battersea still carries the architectural scars of World War II. You don’t need to go far to find a few buildings that are out of keeping with their surroundings, providing an immediate contrast between post-war architectural styles and constraints and their older neighbours.

Inspired by the anniversary of the start of the Blitz (and the excellent, and occasionally chilling @ukwarcabinet on Twitter) I decided to have a look at a few of the incidents in Shaftesbury.

Off the top of my head I can think of many examples that I suspect are evidence of bomb damage. There’s a block straddling Parma Crescent and Lavender Sweep. A small blocks in Lavender Gardens and Gowrie Road. The open space and flats running across both corners of Elspeth Road with Lavender Hill and into Mysore Road. The Dorothy Road park and houses opposite and on Kathleen Road. And several areas in the Shaftesbury Park Estate (most notably on the eastern side of Brassey Square and Sabine Road). The one that immediately interested me are the houses just down the road from me at 177-181 Elsley Road.

What surprised me is how little is available online. There are a few resources. The Guardian have detailed the locations of bombs dropped on the first day of the Blitz. Other sites like Flying Bombs and Rockets have detailed where V1 and V2s hit in south London, including Battersea. Working more laterally the Commonwealth War Graves Commission also detail civilian war dead and someone called Geoff Sullivan has constructed a search front-end that means you can search by road. But this in imperfect, since it means someone has to have died – searching for Elsley Road only produces one fatality, Albert Chapman, who lived at number 7, but was actually killed at the gas works at Queen’s Circus.

So I ended up in the local history library at Battersea. Where the staff were incredibly helpful, despite my insistence on repeatedly breaking rules.

I was expecting a fairly dry report. Possibly nothing more than a day, date and bare details. In fact they have all the original documentation which includes copies of the messages passed to and from those on the ground and between the various controls. Reading through them gives an incredible sense of the way the information developed, from the first report, to initial assessments and refinements.

29 December 1940
What struck me, though, was how my ‘neighbours’ plight appeared routine (though, for them, it was anything but). Incident 744 at 2032 on 29 December 1940 revealed a high explosive bomb (they had options of HE, incendiary or poison gas – later in the war the word ‘FLY’ was written by hand on the pro forma) had hit 179, damaging 177 and 181 either side. There were no fatalities, but there was a fire in the front room and one man and two women were taken to hospital.

The walls were noted as being “dangerous”. Then, at 2058 the warden phoned for an ambulance for one casuality at 201 Elsley Road. The ambulance was noted as being despatched at 2058½!

16 April 1941
If the neighbours felt the chances of another hit were slim they were wrong. Towards the end of the Blitz, on 16 April 1941 183 Elsley Road was hit by an incendiary device. It was a busy night, the report (incident 815) detailed 21 sites hit in the raid – the main focus for response seems to have been Arding and Hobbs which was described as “well alight” at 2210. 183 seems to have been left (it was hit at 2205) until 2300 when it was reported that wardens were on scene and the fire under control.

Unlike 177-181, 183 Elsley Road was undamaged enough to be repaired and stands to this day.

It is slightly bizarre reading these rather matter of fact reports written almost 70 years ago. I would not have imagined that so much data and information was captured and catalogued on small slips of paper. The bureaucracy must have been enormous. And despite that they managed to despatch an ambulance within 30 seconds – I’d bet it doesn’t happen that much quicker even now.

But it’s also strange to think about how people reacted and coped with all of this, and I suspect expectations have changed to the extent we might not cope today (at least not without suing the government over the quality of temporary accommodation). But there is so much writing about the ‘Blitz spirit’ that I cannot add anything but banal cliché so I will stop there.

However, I would invite you, next time you walk past a set of building that are obviously different to their neighbours – in just the same way as 177-181 Elsley Road – to stop and think how it happened, and what happened to the people living there.

[Of course, the next stage would be to try to find out something about them, but I fear that would be beyond my limited skills as an historian.]