Tag Archives: Air raids

Bombs begin to fall on London, 31 May 1915

A hundred years ago today, 31 May 1915, the much-feared aerial attack on London began. The Zeppelins, whose visits to England had begun earlier in the year with bombs dropped over East Anglia, visited the East End of the capital – their first bomb was dropped on a house in Alkham Road, Stoke Newington.

Here is a map of all the bomb damage sites across London in 1914-1918:

Where the bombs fell in London, 1914-1918

Where the bombs fell in London, 1914-1918

This week, the London Borough of Hackney unveiled a plaque on the house where that first bomb fell. This interesting modern commemoration echoes a plan in the City of Westminster (see my blog post on it here) to mark the sites where bombs fell, initially every site and later just the first and last. The Westminster plan did not receive any support after the war among the other boroughs where bombs had fallen; it was shelved in 1920.

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Posted by on 31 May 2015 in Air Raid, War memorials


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Westminster’s air raid plaques – a war memorial that never was

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.

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

Great War bomb sites in central London (from a post-war Harmsworth atlas)

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.

The full map of London bomb sites

The full map of London bomb sites

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.

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

Damage caused by the second bomb to fall in Westminster, on Wellington Street near the Lyceum

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.





Posted by on 12 August 2014 in Air Raid, Places, War memorials


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SA Gabriel, an unusual hospital death

When we read about the bravery of nurses in air raids, it can be easy to underestimate the danger they were in. These raids on hospitals could be enormously destructive, and of course the patients were often immobile in the face of that danger. The coolness and bravery of the nurses must have been a real benefit. One of those who could not be saved, though, was Stewart Arkcoll Gabriel.

From de Ruvigny's Roll of Honour

(From de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour)

Stewart Arkcoll Gabriel was born in June 1878, the son of merchant James Sutcliffe Gabriel (who owned and ran a wharf) and his wife Susan (nee Arkcoll), the middle son and one of six children. The Gabriels lived in a large house on Leigham Court Road in Streatham. By 1901, Stewart Gabriel, still living at home, was working for his father. In 1905, Stewart was granted the freedom of the City of London as the son of an existing freeman in the Company of Goldsmiths.

In 1906, Stewart Gabriel married Elsie Dorothy Thornton in Forest Gate. By 1914, though, Stewart they were living in Epsom, Surrey, with their daughter Judith Ashley Gabriel (born in July 1913). In March 1915, Stewart enlisted in the army, giving his profession as Dog Breeder.

Gabriel was not at home in the army, though. After reporting for duty in Woolwich on 16 March, he lasted only another week before being discharged as not likely to become an efficient soldier. He had been very specific about the terms of his enlistment – he was to serve at home only and insisted that he should be put to work in shipping, to suit his experience as a civilian. Instead, he was sent to No. 2 Remounts Depot in the Army Service Corps, even though – as he wrote on 23 March “I knew next to nothing about horses.”

His entry on de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour states that his defective eyesight meant that he could serve. In fact, the army doctors thought his eyesight (although poor) was good enough for service. He was rejected anyway in March 1915 and returned to civilian life.

He was eventually conscripted in November 1916 and sent into the Royal Garrison Artillery – not exactly the kind of job he had been after in 1915 and certainly not one that would keep him at home in England.

After going out to the front in April 1917, he was wounded but soon returned to his unit – 76th Siege Battery RGA. The Battery served around Ypres during the Third Battle there, now better known as Passchendaele.

A few weeks into the battle, Gabriel was gassed and sent off to a Casualty Clearing Station at Dozinghem, near Poperinge in Belgium. On the night of 21/22 August, the CCS was attacked in an air raid. As the Matron-in-chief recorded in her diary (on the excellent Scarlet Finders website):

47 Casualty Clearing Station bombed: Miss Roy, QAIMNS, Sister-in-Charge to say that her Station had been bombed last night, several bombs falling near the lines for walking cases and several of them were injured; one of the Sisters, Miss W. M. Hawkins, TFNS, was injured in the left thigh and would be evacuated to the Base by the next Ambulance train with 4 other Sisters suffering from shock. Altogether there were about 50 casualties, 12 of whom have died, including one RAMC orderly.

One of those 12 fatalities was Stewart Arkcol Gabriel. He was buried at the local military cemetery, one of over three thousand British and Empire casualties buried there. The Epsom and Ewell History Explorer website has a photo of his headstone at Dozinghem. Elsie Dorothy Gabriel lived another 30 years, until October 1948; their daughter Judith married in 1940 and lived until 1986.

Gabriel’s story is unusual both for the manner of his (brief) early period in the army and for the manner of his death. In the end though, he was just one of the many men who were conscripted in 1916-18 and left their families behind, and sadly one of those men who never returned.

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Posted by on 12 March 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead


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Air-raid alert 1917

The Great War brought a previously-unknown danger to Londoners – air raids. This brought on challenge unknown in previous wars: how to alert people to the approach (and departure) of raiders.

London policeman warning of an air raid

In 1917, with air raids by Gotha bombers increasing in frequency and deadliness, the authorities had to devise a way to warn the population of the approach of enemy aircraft.

At the start of July, the Commissioner of Police announced the use of warnings carried by police, giving rise to the curious picture above.

Notice published in Flight magazine (19/7/1917)

Notice published in Flight magazine (19/7/1917)

Less than two weeks later, on 21 July 1917, further measures were developed. It was announced that three ‘sound rockets’ would be fired in quick succession to warn of air raids on the capital, alongside the display of ‘Take Cover’ notices. The rockets were to be fired from the tops of all London Fire Stations.

“Sound bombs” to alert to public in a raid (Illustrated London News, 28/7/1917) – showing the rockets (1), inserting the time fuse (2), loading the rocket into the mortar (3), firing the rocket (4) and cleaning out the mortar (5)

The ILN reported the use of this method the next day (alongside the above illustration).

“Our readers will be interested to see from these photographs exactly how the warning by sound-signals was given to London at 8.30 a.m. on Sunday, July 22, when 237 one-pound sound-bombs were fired 300 ft. into the air from 79 London Fire Brigade stations. An official notice that such a warning would be given, in case of an expected raid on London, had been issued by the Home Office only the previous evening. “Take Cover” notices were shown at the same time by the police in the streets, and at 9.45 they displayed the “All Clear” notice. The authorities were satisfied with the results of this system of warning, though the Home Secretary, Sir George Cave, thought that the number of signals might well be reduced, and that the warning might be delayed until enemy aircraft were nearer to London. Later, it was stated that only two, instead of three, rockets would in future be sent up from each station and that signals that could be seen as well as heard were considered.”

As well as the change to two sound rockets, the arrangements were nuanced so that they were automatically to be fired from Fire Stations inside the County of London and but only in other places within 10 miles of Charing Cross if they were felt to be at risk. The police would continue to display ‘Take Cover’ notices – now specified to be in red letters. From October, ‘Specials’ carrying these notices began to be issued with steel helmets.

‘All Clear’ messages were also to be given by the police – in black lettering. Late in 1917, this message was accompanied by bugles sounding.

The all-clear sounded by Boy Scout bugler in a motorcar (Illustrated London News, 27/10/1917)

This picture was accompanied by a description of bugles used to sound the ‘All Clear’ in October 1917:

“On October 18 it was announced that authorities had decided to give the “All Clear” signal in London after air-raids by bugle-calls. It was not long before the new system came into operation, in connection with the raid of October 19-20, wen took place the Zeppelin attack on London which ended so disastrously for the raiders during their return voyage to France. After the enemy had left, the first “All Clear”, blown by men, or in some cases by Boy Scouts, in motor-cars, was given in the London area soon after the official notification had been issued.”

This is not the full history of air-raid warnings during the war, which Neil Hanson tells more thoroughly in his account of the air raids on London – The First Blitz. It does, however, show us something of the ongoing development of the civilian experience of war, to which the urgent need to know about an enemy attack was a new development for Londoners in the Great War.



London Illustrated News

Flight magazine online archive

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Posted by on 6 December 2012 in Air Raid


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The British Museum in wartime

The wartime, many of people’s favourite pastimes were curtailed. Professional football was suspended, bank holidays were (temporarily) cancelled, and some of London’s best-loved museums shut their doors. The British Museum closed to the public in March 1916 and did not fully reopen for nearly three years.

The British Museum : Removing sandbags in the Assyrian Saloon” by Sir Henry Rushby, 1918 ( (c) IWM)

The British Museum is one of London’s (many) iconic buildings. Free to enter since opening its doors to the public in 1759, it is one of the world’s great museums. In 1914 it still also housed the Reading Room that later became the British Library; it also had a branch in South Kensington that became the Natural History Museum.

For the first months of the war the Museum continued as usual, albeit with many of its staff off in the armed forces. By March 1916, 110 British Museum staff (and 53 at the Natural History Museum) were serving in the armed forces, while another 42 were sent to work in other government departments.

In November 1914, a series of lectures were held at the Museum in aid of Belgian refugees. In April 1915 a poem by Edward Shillito (published in the Times) described the visit of a wounded soldier to its galleries. In August, the Museum put out a call for regimental magazines to be sent to the Reading Room so that a national collection of them could be kept.

In February 1916, the Government announced that several London museums would be closed for the duration of the war – much to the shock and indignation of MPs and writers of letters to the editor of the Times.

From March 2nd 1916, a long list of museums were closed:

The National Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum were not closed, while the National Portrait Gallery had already closed.

Early 1916 must really have felt like a time of change. Conscription was introduced (with single men liable for conscription from the very same day that the museums were shut), bank holidays disappeared, and priceless antiquities disappeared from public view into tunnels under the city (as in the case of the Rosetta Stone and other smallish items) or covered with sandbags in empty galleries to protect them from air raids:

Temporary openings seem to have taken place in August 1917 and again in August 1918, but otherwise the museum remained closed apart from its famous Reading Room.

Another big shock hit the Museum’s supporters in the dark days of the winter of 1917-18, when the Government announced that the Air Ministry was to be housed in the British Museum building in Bloomsbury (as part of the expansion of civil service accomodation that had already seen St James’s Park occupied). There was considerable protest in Parliament, in the press and from learned people and groups.

After a few weeks of these protests, the Government backed down and announced that the building was “no longer necessary” for housing the Ministry. Handily, it turned out that there was enough room at the Hotel Cecil on the Strand and the Ministry moved there – marked today by a plaque on the site.

The British Museum did not remain completely empty, though. When the war ended and calls came to reopen the closed museums, it turned out that part of the Bloomsbury building was being used by government departments (as were the National Gallery and Portrait Gallery) that had to be moved out at the same time that the Museum was being repopulated with antiquities. The building gradually reopened over that first winter of peace.

War returned to the Museum prematurely into the 1920s Great War tank was displayed outside the museum. In late August 1939, with another World War virtually inevitable, the Museum was again closed and largely emptied to protect the contents from air raid damage. This time around, though, there was not the same protest – and the museum was damaged in the bombing of London.

Damage to the British Museum in the Second World War (from the BM’s ‘Local history: the British Museum in the 20th century’ learning pack)




Historic Hansard online

British Museum website


Posted by on 4 October 2012 in Places


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Edie Bennett: love and worry

The history of women in the Great War tends to be told in terms of nursing, munitions work and other new directions for young women. Many, like Edie Bennett of Walthamstow, had a war that largely goes untold: getting by and waiting for her husband’s return. The story of her war, her love and her pining for her husband seems fitting for Valentine’s day

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Posted by on 14 February 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Women


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