Category Archives: World War 2

War is over: VE Day

As often happens I had a quite different post in mind for this week but the VE day commemorations reminded me of a publication in our collection, a set of photographs in a loose binding put together by the Ministry of Information sometime during the war. We seem to have just one volume, number 4 in the series. I’ve found this almost random collection of wartime images fascinating so have made a nearly random selection of my own, of images which caught my eye. I started out with the idea of featuring women at war for a reason I’ll reveal later, but there weren’t quite enough so there’s really no proper theme or angle just a few pictures which I hope are unfamiliar enough to be interesting. In the broadest sense of the term these are propaganda images, intended to paint the war effort in a positive light. But I think they go beyond that and show something of the psychology of the nation.

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Members of the Auxilliary Territorial Service (ATS) at a gun demonstration. The caption describes “the girls” as “attentive”.

Guards training

Soldiers in the Grenadier Guards, also training, in a dramatically posed picture. “Three fine types”, according to the caption.

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The ATS again, on a searchlight.

Home Guard

The Home Guard practice firing on a co-operative RAF plane. The caption assure us that it is not only possible to bring a plane down with guns but that it has already been done.


Naval officers at a training college.

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Members of the Women’s Voluntary Service in Edinburgh making camouflage netting.


A camouflaged 12 inch howitzer with a slightly apprehensive looking soldier on board.

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Royal Navy despatch riders. “The squad is ready for action.”

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Bronwen Williams, described as working in the “experimental section at an aerodrome” clocking up a great many flying hours. The caption makes her work sound mysterious but doesn’t fail to mention that she is “a pretty brunette in her early twenties.”

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A named Flight Lieutenant visits a mill in Oldham where uniforms are manufactured and pays tribute to to the unnamed worker beside him.


A debrief of air crew after a raid on Berlin. The flying jacket – always a flattering garment.

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The caption on this image is simply a line of destroyers at sea.


A group of soldiers walk through a bomb damaged town in North Africa. This is another of those pictures which look casual but show very effective composition.

Finally, back to the ATS.


A tribute from me, to the lady on the left.


As I said at the start I had something different planned this week but I’d always intended to use some of these images so why not  at this appropriate moment.

The answer to last week’s  question was that the last image was of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1921. The three figures at the back were Titania, Puck and Oberon played by Miss Elizabeth Irving, Miss Iris Hawkins and Miss Mary Grey. I don’t know how often Oberon is played by a female actor but I can see the artistic logic behind it. Now I’ve started wondering if we have any other pictures of productions of that play.

Home front volunteers: Chelsea, 1940s

We’ve spent a lot of time in the last year or so remembering the Great War and I’ve spent time researching what we’ve got in our collection. But it always brings me back to the Second World War,the one that lives in my imagination through my parents and other family members and in the popular consciousness as I grew up. Because of that we’re in no danger (yet)of forgetting those who served whether in the armed forces on the home front. The first war was not without danger for civilians in the cities, but the Zeppelin attacks were nothing like the Blitz. In London and other cities there were volunteer fire fighters, volunteer ambulance crews and volunteer ARP wardens.

This is the post that got away from the Christmas series. I thought of these photographs of volunteers and vehicles at outposts in Chelsea as light-hearted, a mismatched group of amateurs muddling through in a motley selection of uniforms and overalls, the slightly comedic way in which the home front is sometimes portrayed.

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Some of our men were outrigged in blue battle dress tonight – with black boots and gaiters. One chap asked me what I thought his looked like. I told him – he looked as if he’d just come out of jail or Borstal!

I scanned these pictures of men and vehicles (1,2 and 4) several years ago when a gentleman brought them in to show me. He had been a schoolboy at the time and told me an intriguing story about a friend of his mother’s, a librarian as it happens, who had the macabre ability to match separated body parts together by sight. He would be called down to the morgue in Sydney Street to consult with the pathologists who had to reassemble victims of bomb blasts.

That was the other side of the home front. You might pose for a picture with your fellow volunteers and smile for the camera. But when the bombs were falling a quite different world opened up.

September 10th
13.30 Bramerton Street fire has broken out again I hear 11 folks are underground. Mrs Castillo’s head has been found. Poor soul.
We heard the Jerry plane has been brought down. During this raid I was caught out in the road on my bike as the plane made a dive, machine gunning. I fell off the bike, fled up some steps in Glebe Place – somebody opened a door and I fell inside.

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September 11th
3.47 3 awful blasts from Beaufort Street – God help them. One struck Cadogan House Shelter – one Kings Road and caught gas main. Two terrific fires shot up from the gas. I ran for shelter and then went out to help. More bombs till 5.40 all clear. Lay down till 6.30 then went to Beaufort Street to help in the trouble – did clearing work, stretcher work, counted bodies, messenger work for hours. God! What a day dawning! Peace after a night of hell but what a price! Over 41 poor dead things in that shelter including our own warden Miss Darling whose head was blown in. Stayed there till 12.15. Came home to bath and got to Food Office at 12 o’clock.

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In this picture I can’t work out if the two men at the front are acting the business of examining the engine while the others stand in line.

Sept 14th
18.27 (edited) Bomb on Holy Redeemer. Got sent off by Bert Thorpe on bike patrol in Glebe Place and hardly got away when HE sailed through church window through crypt floor to cellar where it exploded…among 80 odd people…..A 20 stone woman blocked the doorway and we couldn’t get her up the stairs….later we got her up with some help from the police but she died…..
Thorpe was under the arch – I rolled him over and saw his face – he had none.. recognized him by his hair, uniform and ring on his hand.. I think my heart broke this night…….

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Note the modifications to the headlights on this car, so they hardly gave out any light at all during the blackout. A dangerous time for driving whether you were in the car or a pedestrian.

In the picture below you can see four sniffer dogs used in rescues.

Air Raid Precaution Chelsea

I’m quoting fom the unpublished diaries of Jo Oakman, who worked as a warden and at Chelsea Town Hall throughout the war.

In October 1940 there was much interest in an unexploded bomb nicknamed Ernestine which was sitting in Embankment Gardens. Oakman describes it as “our pet Bomb” The bomb was dug out and “tickled” by 6 “Scotchmen” Oakman found it difficult to understand. Eventually the Scots drilled the bomb and removed its nose. “She” was removed in a lorry but bits of the “ outerwork” given to people. Oakman kept a screw.

Also in October her size six boots were swapped by someone for a size three. She swapped them back and hid them in a house near the post. On the way back :“Got hit across the knuckles by a bit of shrapnel… rather painful”

She was also an amateur artist. This sketch shows the ruins of Chelsea Old Church which was bombed in April 1941

Oakman Old Church 01

Oakman was out of London when the Old Church was bombed. I looked for an account of the incident in Frances Faviell’s war memoir “A Chelsea Concerto” but found that at almost the same time Faviell’s home in Royal Hospital Road was bombed and she  barely made it out alive, the building reduced to rubble. “there was not a warden, not a soul about – it looked like a dead place – not a sign of life  from anywhere and yet we knew that in many of the houses people were down in their basements unconscious of the horrors above them. I looked down at my legs – they felt cold – and saw that I had no dress below the thighs. It, and my slip had vanished; the top of the black dress was quite whole – but the skirt was gone. The whole of it felt wet and sticky – and I knew it was the blood from Anne’s arm

Faviell refers to Jo Oakman a few times in her book. She recounts the story of Oakman discovering the body of Bert Thorpe and wishing she hadn’t so she could remember him as he was, and also Oakman’s part in the rescue of Mildred the daughter of Mrs Castillo (mentioned above). The 12-year old girl was trapped for four days in the debris before being rescued. “The first to reach the heap of ruins was Jo Oakman, a doctor’s daughter and a clever painter…”

This view by Oakman is of a temporary bridge erected near Albert Bridge for troops and heavy vehicles. (Some of you will know the famous sign on Albert Bridge instructing troops to break step when crossing. It wasn’t designed for  military work.)

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This view from 1947 shows the bridge being dissassembled.

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I don’t imagine Miss Oakman is in any of these pictures. But she might well have known some of the people who are, most of them amateurs, who turned themselves into heroes.

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Nov 29th

(edited) Was on Embankment talking to 2 coppers when 3 bombs came along….the third HE landed in the River near me and blew me down flat. I saw.. a flash of yellow in a red cloud descend into river – followed by a thud, a smack of water and rising foam and the crash of broken glass all around in Cheyne Walk.. I got covered in mud. Ran along Cheyne Walk and found mostly glass all over the road..Reported at Post and it was phoned to CCC with “no casualties”.

Jo Oakman survived the war. This is a painting of the Town Hall decorated for VE Day.

Oakman Chelsea Town Hall


The Library has an ancient photocopy of a transcript of the Oakman diaries made I think by her nephew. All rights for the text remain with the family. Josephine Oakman died in 1970.

The third and final photos, featuring the Auxilliary Ambulance station were donated to the Library in 2010. Thanks to JS.

Jean Darling, referred to in the text was a Chelsea Housing Officer who died when an incendiary bomb fell on a shelter she was supervising in Cadogan House, Beaufort Street. The Council commemorated her in the name of a housing block in nearby Milmans Street.

Forgotten buildings : The Abbey

What was here before? Many people ask that question about their house or their street and sometimes the answer is just some other houses that people lived in for a while which got demolished when the time was right. Sometimes the answer is it was fields or farmland or just unoccupied open space. Rarely the answer is that something remarkable and unique stood on this spot. Something which has now vanished so completely that you might never have known about it.

The Abbey, although it was sufficiently gothic in style to look like an actual abbey, was not a religious establishment. It was more like a latter day version of Strawberry Hill, the gothic dwelling built by Horace Walpole author of the first gothic novel the Castle of Otranto. Or a film set for a novel by Mrs Radcliffe or one of those other popular novelists which Jane Austen gently satirised in Northanger Abbey. Most bizarrely of all it was just yards from Kensington High Street which was then a classic Victorian high street of terraced houses and small shops. It was built in 1879 by William Abbott, a successful stockbroker. According to the Survey of London it was his “humorous caprice” to call it the Abbey. But the idea fits in with other medieval style creations of the time such as William Burges’s Tower House in nearby Melbury Road. He carved out a small estate from his property and the gardens of some other houses to the north.

Abbott unfortunately died of apoplexy in 1888 so he didn’t have much time to enjoy his creation. But we can see something of the sumptuous interiors in a set of photographs taken in 1924.

This is the entrance hall. It looks ready for some of the party goers we saw in fancy dress in the post about the Duchess of Devonshire’s Costume Ball (see link opposite) There was a great interest in Arthurian stories and imagery in the second half of the 19th century. The Pre-Raphaelites loved medieval themes, William Morris was writing poetry in that vein, and Tennyson was writing Idylls of the King.

But these photos were taken years after Abbott’s death and the owners were clearly more concerned with making the Abbey into a comfortable home. The pre-occupation with myths and legends was probably irrelevant to these inhabitants. The ball room:

The boudoir with its over-stuffed armchair and sofa. No shortage of light on a sunny afternoon to dispel the gothic overtones of the arched window.

A bedroom, looking a bit bare. Maybe a guest room. Ready for occupation if you fancy a country house weekend without leaving London.

The day nursery. Look at the soft toy – a dog I think, the large tin car, the ship and is that an airship between them? Surely not.

Another bedroom. This one looks a bit more lived in, with the rug by the fire, the statuette of a dancer on the fireplace and the weird looking cushion on the sofa.

The Abbey retained its forbidding exterior and continued to look a bit like a castle or a medieval town house but inside there were probably no ghosts of women in black or men in armour to disturb the affluent inhabitants. The interior looks more suitable for a P G Wodehouse comedy. Or if you had to have something supernatural a ghost story written by Noel Coward.

Who knows what might have happened to the Abbey in later years had it survived. What did happen was what the North Kensington diarist Vere Hodgson called “a fiendish raid” in April 1941. Considerable damage was done in Campden Hill Road. A German bomber was brought down and crashed into a roof. The crew bailed out and were captured. The next day troops were guarding the pieces of the aircraft.

And that was it for the Abbey. It entered another stage of its gothic existence. It became a picturesque ruin with an overgrown and ruined garden.

From William Morris (romantic medieval socialism) to William Hope Hodgson (the horror of desolate places) in one swift move.

The comfortable rooms are emptied except for shadows, broken glass and shattered masonry.

The site was cleared in the late forties and remained derelict. The grounds Abbott had created became a muddy car park for a while. The Council acquired the site and eventually owned the whole block between Phillimore Walk, Holland Street, Campden Hill Road and Hornton Street. In 1959 they built the Kensington Central Library, a distinctly 20thcentury building, where I now sit writing this post on the first floor. If I projected myself back eighty something years would I be in this room, sinking into the sofa and looking over at the statuette?

So it’s always worth asking that question, what was here before? Sometimes the answer is surprising.

Ready for war – June 1939

It’s Monday 19th June 1939.

Sir John Anderson and his colleagues have found a vantage point to watch an event of national significance. Down below something out of the ordinary is occurring.

Crowds are gathering to watch and to take  part.

Notices are posted.

A bunch of girls are getting out of school early.

Children of all ages are on their way somewhere.

Now they’re being organised and labelled. But this is not a real evacuation.

They’re being marched off again down the King’s Road. It’s all go.

This was an event for adults as well.

Buses had been hired for the day.

Casualties had been organised for the volunteer members of the emergency services.

It’s all an exercise of course at this stage. These casualties are only pretending.

Regional and national newspapers reported this event in some detail. According to the reports about 7,500 people took part in the biggest Air Raid Precautions test the country had ever seen. Children and adults marched to 125 shelters in the Chelsea area. Virtual shelters that is, chalked off areas to stand in and designated pubs. 400 wardens shepherded the crowds through the streets. 5000 children from 21 schools were taken to underground stations and then taken away again. Sirens were sounded for extra realism. As the streets were cleared “an unnatural silence fell” according to the Times, broken only by a loudspeaker announcement that the bombers were only seven or eight minutes away. A rocket was launched to give witnesses some idea of the noise of bombs falling. “A few idlers” refused to take shelter but at least kept still. Some flyers were distributed calling for real shelters to be built as opposed to the conceptual versions of this event. Buses, cars and taxis parked by the kerb. Some virtual bomb damage was made up for the purposes of the exercise and the casualties were escorted to the first aid post at Chelsea Library (In Manresa Road in those days). My colleagues at the library filled 5 small scrapbooks with cuttings from newspapers ranging from the Evening Standard to the Belfast Telegraph.

The people involved in the exercise are serious but not solemn.  People seem to be enjoying the event.

There’s very little sense of anxiety in these pictures.

From this distance in time I can’t get imagine what it was like for the people of London to be getting ready for a war which would be fought in their own city as well as in Europe. Did they know what was coming? Did they believe that the exercise of June 1939 was a realistic picture of what lay ahead?

The next picture is not of an exercise. It’s about a year later.

The men in the picture are not pretending to search for survivors.

Now go back to the picture of the woman putting up the sign. You’ll see her again wearing a coat and a helmet getting some instructions from a man not unlike Mr Lansdell, (he’s second from the left in the picture below). She might be on the far right of the group of women running. And she’s here on a roof in 1941. Now she’s an ARP warden in the real war.

Secrets of Avondale Park

Avondale Park is a pleasant but innocuous open space in North Kensington created in 1892 on the site of Adam’s brickfield one of the many light industrial sites in the area in the 19th century. Today it combines sports facilities with a play area and formal gardens. But beneath it lies a big secret .Landscapers working on the site in 2009 investigating the roots of a large tree discovered a set of extensive underground passages. There were several theories of how old the passages were and what purpose they might have served but research by the Parks department in Council Records showed that the passages were an almost forgotten municipal air raid shelter constructed in 1939 and sealed in 1946.

It seemed odd that a shelter which would have held up to two hundred people could have been forgotten. When local people were asked about the shelter many did in fact remembered its existence but almost no-one suspected that it was still there. This may be an example of the strange fog of secrecy that existed in the war years. Today it is hard to keep secrets. Information gets out through news media and over the internet. We forget that in the Second World War it was not only public policy to keep secrets but a matter of survival for the general population as well as the government. Major local events such as the destruction of Sloane Square station went largely unreported and obituaries for people who died in air raids often said simply that the person had died suddenly.  Perhaps this habit of secrecy persisted after the war and the existence of the Avondale Park shelter was gradually erased from public consciousness.

 During the exploration of the tunnels I got the chance to go down there myself and take a few photographs.

The walls of the shelter are concrete in some of the passages steel in others. In the picture below you can make out brackets near ground level where folding benches or beds might have been attached. The whole set of passages a rectangle bisected by a pair of middle passages seems large when you are wandering around it as I was with a group of less than a dozen people.

But imagine it filled with rows of people, just sitting together too close for comfort in the dimly lit passages, some talking quietly, some just listening for the sounds of aircraft and explosions, others just silently waiting for the all clear siren.

Imagine the sense of claustrophobia and apprehension as hours went by, punctuated by the sudden panic when an explosion was too loud or too close for comfort.

Shelters like this one were built in many parts of London where there was no space for individual Anderson shelters or there were no tube stations nearby. (The nearest Underground station would have been Holland Park, quite a distance if you needed to get to safety quickly) Several have survived so Avondale Park is not unique but it is unusual and worth preserving as an insight into life on the home front in World War 2. The Blitz is often associated at least in the popular imagination with east London but Kensington and Chelsea along with the rest of west London also suffered significant destruction and loss of life.

The shelter was cleared out completely in 1946. The toilets, furniture and lighting were removed. There is almost no sign of the many temporary inhabitants apart from this barely legible handwritten notice exhorting people not to spit and a faint drawing of an aeroplane.

But the shelter is quiet enough for you to imagine what it might have been like to spend hours underground uncertain of what you might find when you got out again. The shelter entrance has been closed until a final decision can be made about future use, possibly as an educational resource. The dark corridors are quiet again and remain as a hidden monument to the terrors of the Blitz.

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