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Page last updated at 10:58 GMT, Wednesday, 13 October 2010 11:58 UK
Kennington's forgotten Blitz tragedy

Hyde Park trench shelters
Digging trenches in Hyde Park, similar to the trench shelters in Kennington

By Rob Pateman
Friends of Kennington Park

Seventy years ago, Londoners sheltered as best they could from 57 consecutive nights of German bombing.

The Blitz conjures up images of people sleeping on the platforms of Tube stations, but for many people sheltering in the Tube system was not an option.

In fact, the government tried to stop people retreating underground in case it fostered a bunker mentality that would hinder morale and the war effort.

An alternative was an Anderson shelter but, as only 25% of Londoners had a garden, communal surface shelters were set up, mainly in working class areas.

Another method of shelter were the trenches built in parks across London, including Kennington Park which, in October 1940, suffered the worst loss of life in Lambeth during the war - something that until a few years ago had been largely forgotten.

Diagram of a trench shelter
Diagram of a trench shelter

Unsafe and unpleasant but the only option

The trench shelter dug out in Kennington Park followed the standard design.

Reverend John Markham, rector of St Peter's church in Walworth at the time, recalls them as being "planned on a sort of 'ladder' outline.

There were two longer trenches joined by four shorter ones at right angles to them, making a closed grid."

Each section of the grid could accommodate up to 50 people. The earth walls were reinforced with sandbags and the corrugated iron roof covered with a layer of soil.

Even before the war started some officials felt the ladder design was dangerous, declaring that a direct hit would cause a collapse of the whole shelter.

Reverend Markham observed that "any bomb falling inside the grid between the trenches would create an earth shock wave sufficient to crush the trenches."

A young schoolgirl from Streatham, Maud Dare, recalls "sitting with my mother and father in one of those shelters and while we were there it started shaking. The earth started to come in."

Trench shelters were intended to be 'bolt holes' so were poorly equipped with just a few wooden benches and very basic sanitation.

It was anticipated that the average stay would be around three to four hours but people often spent 12 hours crowded into the stinking, water-logged shelters.

As one witness explains "the public shelter was horrible, smelly. It had a mouldy slab of concrete for a roof. But you couldn't go anywhere else."

Trench shelter
The Kennington Park shelter was similar to this one in Claphan Common

A direct hit

At 20.05pm on 15 October 1940, part of the trench shelter in Kennington Park took a direct hit from a 50lb bomb.

Fred Armer, then a small boy in a different part of the shelter, recalls "the whole ceiling lifting up and banging back down again. Then there was an eerie silence for a few seconds. Then a call for help."

Rescue workers spent hours digging out the dead and wounded, despite the pitch darkness and the bombs that continued to fall around them.

A man who helped rescue efforts reported that "the whole thing was blown to bits. There were heads and arms and legs and feet lying about. The only way you could tell the girls from the men was because of their hair."

At 7am the next morning, a request was made for 100 shrouds and a large lorry for the removal of bodies. No official death toll was announced at the time but the figure is now believed to be 104 fatalities.

Forty-eight bodies were recovered and buried in Streatham Cemetery; the remainder still lie beneath the park.

Remembered

A memorial at Lambeth Cemetery commemorates Lambeth's civilian WWII casualties. But those killed in the shelter were largely forgotten until a memorial service, initiated by Councillor Marietta Crichton Stuart, took place at St Mark's Church in 2003.

The Friends of Kennington Park raised funds for a permanent memorial in the park and commissioned local sculptor Richard Kindersley. The memorial was unveiled in 2006 in front of more than 100 local people.

Trench shelter
The public shelter was horrible, smelly. It had a mouldy slab of concrete for a roof. But you couldn't go anywhere else

"It is a story that still resonates with people after all this time," explains Gordon Johnston, Chairman of the Friends group.

"We ran out of copies of the booklet we published about the shelter and have had to reprint it - and had requests for it from all over the world."

One person who found out about the memorial online was Pauline Harrison, now 81, who lost her mother, Eva Ludlow, and brother Dennis, in the tragedy.

Her family explained that previously Pauline had shut out all memories of her mother since her death and wouldn't talk about her. She has now visited the memorial three times, remembers more with each visit and now has a greater sense of peace.

Which makes the memorial's inscription from poet, author and historian Maya Angelou all the more pertinent:

'History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again.'




SEE ALSO
The forgotten Blitz heroes
07 Sep 10 |  History
The Blitz: Store Wars
06 Sep 10 |  History
Tales from The Blitz
01 Sep 10 |  History

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