After the Great War a vast number of war memorials were erected across London, the UK and other combatant nations across the world. Most commemorated those who had died (also commonly, but less frequently, those who fought and returned were remembered), others marked sites of important events in local war experiences. In the City of Westminster, an abortive scheme was launched in 1919 to commemorate the air raids on London.
The Zeppelin air raids on England killed 1,400 and injured 3,400 people between January 1915 and May 1918. Hundreds of the victims were Londoners in the thirty raids that hit the city. The City of Westminster Council established that in their area (a much smaller area then than now, mainly the area around Parliament and Whitehall and between Kingsway and Green Park) there had been 78 fatalities and 167 injuries due to raid raids. The bomb map produced by the City Engineer shows 54 bombs dropped (22 on 18 December 1917 alone) and 60 other sites where damage was caused by dud bombs or anti-aircraft shells.
In February 1919, a councillor called Philip Conway put forward a motion to the council stating
“That it be an instruction to the Works Committee through the City Engineer or as the Committee may think best to prepare a list and map of places and properties within the City which were struck by bombs during Air Raids with a view to obtaining the consent of the owners or occupiers thereof to the placing of suitable memorial or identification tablets for the purpose of reminding in perpetuity the Citizens of Westminster and of the Empire of the brutal, horrible and cowardly character of our principal and present enemy Germany and to submit a scheme and report forthwith.”
The council adopted the resolution and, apparently intending the scheme to be London-wide decided to send it on to all other Metropolitan borough councils. (n.b Germany was still the enemy because technically the war was still ongoing; after the Armistice of 11 November 1918, the war continued in law until 1921)
The Council’s Works committee reported back in July with a design for a plaque, which was to state:
City of Westminster
Near this spot bombs were dropped by
German Air Raiders
Total Casualties …Killed and …Injured.
“Lest We Forget”
They also reported that five quotes had been received for making them, ranging “from £10 10s 0d each to £16 10s 0d each for tablets of varying degrees of artistic merit in various kinds of metal.” The £14 version was picked, to be erected at 19 sites, a total of £266, plus £7 12s to put them up. The Council approved the scheme and the spending.
The scheme was up and running in Westminster, then, but it was less popular elsewhere. “Replies have been received from the Borough Councils of Chelsea and Hammersmith supporting the proposal, though the latter did not propose to take any action, no place in the Borough having been struck by enemy bombs.” Meanwhile, nine boroughs had “replied, not supporting, viz: – Bermondsey, Camberwell, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras, Shoreditch, Southwark, Wandsworth and Woolwich. The remaining 17 Borough Councils and the Corporation of [the City of] London have not so far expressed any opinion for or against the proposal.” The scheme was not popular in those boroughs where there had been air raid damage. We might also wonder whether the cost of the scheme did not appeal to the less well-off southern and eastern boroughs, compared with Westminster which (then as now) contained a lot of businesses.
In January 1920, the works committee felt that “Upon further consideration of the matter we thought that the desired purpose might possibly be served by putting up a tablet on the spot where the first enemy bomb fell in Westminster and another at the spot where the last fell. The Commissioner of Police states that the first enemy bomb in Westminster fell on the Lyceum Theatre at 9.26 p.m. on the 13th October, 1915, and the last on No. 26A, King Street, St James, at 12.30 a.m. on 20th May 1918.”
The Lyceum bomb was, of course, part of the raid that cause Mr Petre, the local pub landlord, such strain that he later committed suicide; the King Street bomb was the only one to fall in Westminster in that raid, although 49 were killed nationwide that night.
The City Engineer was sent off to inquire about erecting plaques at these two locations, but had little success. The works committee reported to the Council on 20 May 1920 (exactly two years after that last bomb):
“We instructed the City Engineer to report the exact positions where the tablets should be fixed, and whether all necessary consents of parties concerned had been obtained, and he informs us that he has received a letter from the Lyceum Theatre stating that the Directors do no approve of a tablet being fixed at the Theatre.
“With regard to 26A, King Street, the occupiers, Messrs. Robinson, Fisher & Co., have suggested a position which the City Engineer thinks too high to be suitable. The point as to what would be a satisfactory position has not yet been settled with them.
“It will be seen that the Council’s intention cannot be carried out as the proprietors of the Lyceum Theatre are opposed to the fixing of a tablet, and having regard to the circumstances we think the proposal had been be left in abeyance. Moreover, the price of the tablets now quoted is £30 as against £14 each some months ago.”
The Council agreed to put the scheme permanently on hold. Although there are sporadic memorials of the Great War air raids, Westminster Council’s attempt to have a London-wide commemoration failed in the years after the war.
- City of Westminster Council minutes 1919-21
- Map of bomb damage sites, Westminster Archives.