In the decade after the Second World War had come to an end, and indeed beyond, many communities across the United Kingdom were faced with very vivid reminders of the conflict: bomb sites, the country’s ‘war scars.’
In this blog, we will examine how people in Britain lived alongside bomb sits in the 1950s, using newspapers taken from The Archive. We will explore how communities adapted to live beside bomb sites, and how they transformed them into gardens and playgrounds. Meanwhile, we will also take a look at the dangers that bomb sites represented, and how they became associated with crime. Finally, we will look at how bomb sites were eventually redeveloped, becoming symbolic of a rejuvenated Britain, emerging at last from the rubble of war.
Living With Bomb Sites
During the Second World War, the United Kingdom experienced more than 30,000 air raid attacks, leaving bomb sites across its towns and cities. By the 1950s, many of these bomb sites remained, as the country struggled to get back onto its feet.
But with the resilience symptomatic of the nation’s Blitz spirit, communities across Britain adapted to the bomb sites around them, and fashioned them into places that could be used, and even enjoyed.
Take, for example, a group of amateur radio enthusiasts in South London. The Sydenham, Forest Hill & Penge Gazette on 15 June 1951 reported how the group recently ‘encamped on the bomb site at Lewisham-hill…with the object of contacting other radio operators all over Europe.’
This novel use of a bomb site was not unusual for the time. Indeed, communities adapted so that bomb sites became part of the fabric of their everyday lives. This was evident in Portsmouth, where ‘Ladies’ Bargains,’ as advertised in the Portsmouth Evening News, December 1951, could be found at the ‘usual stall’ on Charlotte Street, at the ‘Bomb Site Market (behind new wall).’
Other communities too were making the most of bomb sites. In April 1952 the Daily Mirror described a ‘Bomb site garden party‘ at Anthony Street, in London’s East End. Held for the children of the area, ‘Mums lent their tea pots, Dads their old Army mess tins,’ for the occasion. The sun beat down, and the children ‘built a fire, laid the table, and tucked in.’
Elsewhere in London’s heavily bombed East End bomb sites were being transformed into gardens. In the summer of 1953 Princess Margaret paid a visit to Shoreditch, as reported the Illustrated London News. There she visited the garden that pupils from Crondall Girls’ Secondary School had ‘made from a Shoreditch bomb site,’ and the Princess was cheered by 300 of the schoolgirls as she made her visit.
Three years later, materials from bomb sites were being put to a novel use – for cooking. The Burton Observer and Chronicle detailed on May 1956 how Swadlincote and Stanton Civil Defence cooked for Stanton Old Folk’s Association using materials that could be found on a bomb site:
They were invited to visit the Stanton County School, to partake of a meal consisting of cottage pie, peas and carrots, followed by a sweet and a cup of tea. It was a really excellent meal – and it was cooked in dustbins, bricks held together with mud, old iron sheets, steel plates, in fact, everything that one might find on a bomb site.
Indeed, the Civil Defence group had cook for 1,000 soldiers using ‘these same methods.’
Life went on in spite of the bomb sites, and what they had destroyed. On 21 September 1956 the West London Observer reported how there had been a ‘Big congregation at [a] bomb site service.’ The fact that St. Etheldreda’s Church had been destroyed by bombs did not prevent the institution of the Reverend B.G.B. Fox into his new parish, on the site of the demolished church.
The newspaper painted a vivid picture of the unusual service, which was held in the open air:
The ancient ceremony, normally carried out in church, was on this occasion held in the open air. In absence of an organ the music was provided by the regimental band of the Queen’s Westminster Regiment, of which Father Fox is Chaplain. A temporary sanctuary had been very beautifully prepared for the service, and the pulpit, lectern and font were in the approximate positions they will occupy in the new church.
During the institution and induction the only departure from the usual order was that, because of the noise from the traffic and the high wind, the Bishop did not give an address.
Bomb Site Discoveries
And whilst bombs had caused untold devastation across the United Kingdom, they also bought to the surface treasures from the country’s past. In March 1950 the Illustrated London News reported on how ‘two amphorae,’ or pottery containers, had been unearthed by archaeologists ‘on a bombed site in Walbrook, near the Mansion House.’ It was believed that there were ‘only four similar amphorae in existence,’ and the two discovered on a bomb site in London dated from 70 A.D.
Iron age pottery fragments, flints, and remains of a Roman building have been found during excavations at a bomb site at St. Margaret’s Street, Canterbury.
Thousands of people swarmed to a bomb site near the Mansion House last night to see the 1,800-year-old remains of a Roman temple that has been found there. Police, taken by surprise at the public interest, were rushed to control the crowds.
The newspaper reported how ‘more than 10,000 people saw the temple in less than two hours,’ and the crowd was composed of everyone from housewives to typists, from schoolchildren to bank clerks. Indeed ‘youths in Edwardian suits,’ also known as Teddy Boys, were there too. At the bomb site, the crowd ‘could look down upon the remains of the temple,’ where the marble head of Mithras, the ‘Eastern God of Light,’ had been discovered.
Further Roman remains were discovered at a bomb site in Falcon Street, in the City of London, as The Sphere in February 1957 details. A ‘Roman guard turret’ had been discovered on this bomb site, which was a part of ‘the West Gate of the Cripplegate Roman fort.’
Important archaeological discoveries were also unearthed in the heavily bombed city of Coventry. The city’s cathedral had been all but destroyed, but its destruction had revealed the ruins of Coventry’s ‘earliest cathedral,’ as The Sphere reported in October 1955:
The ruins of the earliest cathedral, found during excavations in the summer…are believed to be part of the east end of the Minster-Cathedral of the Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, an abbey founded by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife, Godiva, in 1043. It was dismantled at the time of the Dissolution. The ruins are to be preserved.
Dangers of Bomb Sites
Despite the discoveries that bomb sites across Britain yielded, and the opportunities they represented for communities to come together, they represented very real dangers, especially the longer that they were left uncleared.
In March 1950 ‘housewives’ from Croydon protested ‘at the state of the bombed site in the vicinity of their homes,’ on Wilford and Forster Roads, as reported the Croydon Times. The newspaper detailed how:
The women want the bomb site cleared and houses built on it. They claim that as it is at present, a veritable dumping ground of all kinds of rubbish, it is a germ trap, a rat breeding ground and a danger to the health of their children.
Indeed, a reporter sent to the bomb site agreed. They observed, when they ‘wandered over the site:’
…parts of old cars, lorries, prams, bedsteads, the twisted wires of old spring mattress; bits of old gas stoves, jagged pieces of rusting tin cans, iron tanks, dustbins, and heaps of decaying rubbish.
The Croydon housewives had been stirred into action by Mrs. Ann Waddell, of Kingsdown Avenue, who had come ‘across the site quite by accident,’ and had mistaken it ‘for a Government dump.’ She labelled the bomb site ‘a disgrace,’ and she was not alone in her protests. Indeed, the women of Croydon held a protest against the state of the bomb site, the Croydon Times describing how:
At three o’clock on Wednesday a number of women gathered in the centre of Wilford-road, carrying in front of them posters with slogans such as ‘Remove the war scars’ – ‘Give us homes.’ […] As the women paraded round the block, others still in their aprons, without hats or coats, came out from their homes to join them.
Here Ann Waddell, standing on an ‘old water tank,’ issued her rallying cry:
When you see what Croydon is and what it boasts of, this ‘scrap heap’ is an absolute disgrace. We want it cleared and homes built on it. It is an ideal site for houses or flats. We don’t want children cutting themselves on tins or taking back to their homes germs which might well start an epidemic.
Ann Waddell, however, was correct to state her fears regarding the dangers of bomb sites. Newspapers from the time detail the accidents and even deaths that resulted from visits to bomb sites, many such accidents involving children. On 2 October 1950 the Northampton Chronicle and Echo reported how three boys from Southwark ‘were playing on a bombed site when the wall of a half-demolished house fell on them.’
The scene was a desperate one. ‘Women and a priest prayed on the street’ as men dug through the rubble to find the three boys, one of whom, Johnny Davies, who was just twelve at the time, lost his life in the accident.
Meanwhile, in February 1958 the Daily News (London) reported on the death of eight-year-old Kenneth Edwards on a bomb site in Hackney. He had been returning home from school across a bomb site with his friend Michael Aarons, when ‘the ground gave way beneath them and they fell 10 feet into an old cellar.’ Michael found himself landing in a ‘disused bath,’ but Kenneth was covered by a ‘ton of rubble.’ Sadly, Kenneth did not survive.
In the same year the Daily Mirror reported on the case of Dorothy Aldrich from Paddington, who at six-years-old had been playing a game of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ on a bomb site. She had fallen ’20 feet through a glass skylight,’ resulting in her skull being fractured. Dorothy was ‘unconscious for eighty-five days.’
Dorothy and her parents had bought a case for damages against a firm of demolition contractors who were responsible for the site. But the presiding judge was critical of the ”menace’ of the bomb site kids,’ proclaiming them to be ‘undisciplined,’ and without respect for ‘neither persons or property.’ Despite his view that the men working at the Paddington site were ‘plagued by children,’ the judge did find that the contractors ‘failed to keep an adequate watch on the site during non-working hours, when they knew that children played there,’ and so Dorothy would be awarded her damages.
Finally, there remained the threat of unexploded bombs hidden on bomb sites across the country. In April 1959 The Sphere reported on an ‘unexploded bomb’ that had been found in London, which had caused trains to be delayed at Waterloo, as the 2,000 pound ‘Hermann’ bomb was removed. Indeed, unexploded bombs from the Second World War continue to be found across the capital to this day.
Bomb Site Crimes
And whilst bomb sites themselves posed a danger, they also were dangerous places to be, and were associated with crime throughout the 1950s.
On 26 July 1951 the Daily News (London) reported how a body had been found on a bomb site in Birmingham, by two boys who were ‘looking for grass for their pet tortoise.’ The body was that of a woman, and was identified as 23-year-old Margaret Dundan. She suffered ‘severe head and face injuries’ in the attack which left her dead.
Meanwhile, in March 1954 the Marylebone Mercury reported on the inquest of ‘a new-born child, who was found on a blitzed site at the corner of Edgware Road and Frampton Street, St. Marylebone.’ The baby had been found by a six-year-old boy.
And then in February 1955 Sydney Joseph Clarke, a 32-year-old labourer from Walworth, ‘was remanded in custody until March 4 accused of murdering Mrs. Rose Elizabeth Fairhurst.’ The Coventry Evening Telegraph related how Rose’s ‘partially-clothed body was found on a bomb site at Southwark.’ Clarke, when questioned, had reportedly stated:
‘It is about the woman on the bombed site, isn’t it? I want to confess I killed her.’
Clarke then confessed to killing Rose, after meeting her at the bomb site. An argument had started, and she had ‘smacked [him] across the chops,’ which resulted in Clarke losing his temper. Rose was strangled to death.
Bomb sites, therefore, became associated with the very worst of society. They became dumping grounds for bodies, crime scenes in their own right, as if they were not already the scene of so much devastation.
‘Resurgam’ – Redeveloping Britain’s Bomb Sites
With so many bomb sites across Britain, the question was, what to do with them? Some sites were totally reimagined, whilst others were returned to their former purposes.
In 1950 the Leicester Daily Mercury reported how a bomb site in Leicester at the corner of Dover Street and Albion Hill, which had ‘formerly housed a factory,’ would be transformed into ‘a municipal car park to accommodate 70 vehicles.’ The cost of this redevelopment, which involved levelling the ground and pulling down a chimney stack, sat at £500.
Meanwhile city officials in Belfast were not so keen on the idea of a car park replacing a bomb site in the heart of the city, as reported the Belfast Telegraph in May 1953. The idea had been to construct ‘four multi-storied garages’ at the cost of between £400,000 to £500,000, a cost which was deemed to be ‘prohibitive.’
Indeed, how bomb sites should be redeveloped caused much debate. The Croydon Times in December 1954 posed the question – ‘Shops or Posters in Place of Bomb Site Car Park?’ – in relation to a bomb site on the High Street at Thornton Heath. At the Thornton Heath Chamber of Commerce meeting ‘there was a feeling that shops should be put up to make up for those bombed during the war,’ although one councillor was in favour of putting posters on the site, commenting that such a ‘scheme could be very attractive and remunerative.’
In the end, it was decided that the council should erect temporary shops, the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce Mrs. Pheasant remarking how ‘It should be shops before anything else.’
Elsewhere bomb sites were being transformed for the benefit of the community. In July 1950 it was announced by the Birmingham Daily Gazette that a Birmingham city bomb site would become ‘a model children’s playground,’ with the council providing equipment for the scheme.
Also in Birmingham, residents were taking things into their own hands. The Birmingham Daily Gazette in August 1952 reported how the people of Oakley Road, Sparkbrook, were set to clear their local bomb site themselves, following ‘years of complaint.’ After 100 residents had signed a petition, pledging to do the job themselves, the local council had offered their support by providing ‘free equipment and transport.’ Councillor J.T. Webster, who had presented the petition to the council, told the Gazette:
If we get down to it now, we should have it levelled off and the top soil laid by the time the cold weather comes. All the work will be done by people in their spare time. As they dig up the debris ready for clearing lorries will come and take it away. It will be a fine thing for the people in the area – one of the most thickly populated in Birmingham. They are at last demanding justice for having to live in such very crowded conditions.
In Birmingham, the Blitz spirit continued, despite the war having ended some seven years before. And whether on a small or large scale, the redevelopment of bomb sites gradually began to take shape across the country.
And one of the largest redevelopment schemes was situated in the City of London, the capital’s former financial heart. In July 1950 The Sphere surveyed the devastated area, picturing a view of the ‘city of London from the tower of St. Giles’s, Cripplegate:’
…this overhead view shows the moss-grown ruins in what was once one of the busiest places in London’s commercial life. In the background repaired or unscathed buildings, some with white-tiled courtyards, provide a strong contrast.
The publication revealed how it was the intention of the City Corporation to:
…retain the city as the central commercial area of London and to promote redevelopment with office and warehouse buildings of high quality. At the same time an attempt will be made to improve sites and buildings of historic and architectural importance and to enhance their settings.
The City of London was slowly rising once more to its feet. The next year, in July 1951, the Illustrated London News reported on how a ‘Touch of Paris’ had come to the City of London, as an ‘open-air restaurant’ had been forged from a bomb site near King William Street, Bank.
Moving a little west to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had miracously survived the wartime bombing, a garden was to be opened on a nearby bombsite, ‘in time for the opening of the Festival of Britain,’ as related The Sphere in January 1951. This garden, with its flowerbeds and fountains, remains in situ to this day.
Back to the city, and by 1954 The Sphere was reporting how ‘Nine years after the war new buildings are at last springing up on the bombed sites at the City of London.’ This was after Prime Minister Winston Churchill had labelled the ruins of the City a ‘shocking site,’ and had asked for ‘licenses for new buildings and repairs’ to be expedited.
The Sphere pictured a new office block being built beside a ruined Christopher Wren church, St. Alban’s of Wood Street, where only the Wren tower and the walls remained. Meanwhile, the newspaper related how:
Such enterprises as the Monotype Company and the Morning Advertiser are rebuilding on the site of their old premises, long since destroyed by enemy action. Other enterprises, like Lloyd’s, and Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, have taken advantage of the bombed sites to extend their own premises and build anew.
Despite such progress, The Sphere observed ‘It may still be many years before the City of London no longer bears any scars.’ But the newspaper was sure that ‘ancient and modern will, as before, blend harmoniously on London’s skyline.’
Such blending was evident some three years later in 1957, when The Sphere again reported on ‘changing London.’ It showed a ‘badly war-devastated area’ near Holborn Circus being redeveloped. Alongside such a new building, there could be found a plaque which read:
History tells that here in John Gerard’s garden, towards the end of the sixteenth century, the potato was first cultivated in Britain.
Ancient and modern were merging, and nowhere perhaps was this more evident than in Coventry. The Sphere in October 1955 reported on how Coventry’s third cathedral was ‘taking shape,’ and how it was rising beside the ‘bomb-damaged Cathedral.’ The publication outlined architect Basil Spence’s design for the new cathedral:
By choosing a new site the architect has taken the opportunity of designing a completely new Cathedral in a contemporary style but harmonising with the ruins of the building 500 years old. It will stand at right-angles to the old building and will run from north to south, the Altar being placed at the geographically north end of the Cathedral.
Thus, the ‘war scars’ were slowly, gradually being healed, as the spaces left behind by bomb sites were reclaimed and reabsorbed back into the communities around them. But they took a long time to heal, and even beyond the 1950s evidence of war continued to litter the United Kingdom.