As we mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day, still under lockdown, there are still plenty of reminders of our wartime past in the area. Many of them are hiding in plain sight. Historian STEVE HUNNISETT takes us on a Second World War trail to show you what there is to discover in and around Charlton.
We start our walk adjacent to the Royal Standard pub. Take a look at the arcade of shops that we know as Stratheden Parade. These were rebuilt after the war, replacing those destroyed in a V-1 flying bomb incident on 21 June 1944.
The photo at the top of this tour below shows the scene immediately afterwards. You can just see the top of the Royal Standard peering above the ruins in the right middle distance.
As we set off along Charlton Road, heading towards SE7, you can see an innocuous-looking wooden door by the bus stop.
Step back slightly, and you will see a concrete slab roof. If you venture into the car park of Bernard’s Club (Combe Lodge), you will see a concrete structure that looks to be at a slightly odd height. This is due to the car park level having been built up over the years.
This is the former air raid precautions (ARP) wardens’ Post “Park 20” of the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich. These were a standard design, as the contemporary newspaper article shows us. This post was one of a network across the borough that housed the air raid wardens who patrolled a local beat during air raids, acting as incident officers to co-ordinate the response to individual bomb incidents.
During “all clear” periods they would continue their patrols, and would be on the lookout for infringements of the blackout – no doubt telling local residents in true Dad’s Army style to “put that light out!”
If you cross the road and take a brief detour into Invicta Road, it might be possible to catch a glimpse of a commemorative plaque in the school playground, fixed to one of the surviving walls of the original school building.
The plaque tells us that the school, whose wartime pupils had been evacuated to the safety of the countryside, was in use as Station 54X of the Auxiliary Fire Service. On 13 September 1940, one of the firemen based there, Arthur Grant, had been awarded the George Medal for his bravery in removing a 50kg bomb that had fallen through the roof of the school without exploding. He had carried it into the playground and covered it with sandbags to reduce the effects of any subsequent explosion. When the bomb did eventually explode, the damage caused to the buildings was minimal.
Sadly though, on the 14 November 1940, a parachute mine exploded which devastated the school buildings and killed 12 of the firefighters based there, as well as three civilians, including the school caretaker. Arthur Grant’s George Medal had been announced two days previously and he died without having the chance to have it awarded to him.
We’ll resume our walk along Charlton Road, but pause by the entrance to the Rectory Field. If you peer through the fence of the adjacent dental surgery, you can see a concrete structure in the garden. This is the entrance to a substantial air raid shelter. The reason that the house had this in the garden, rather than the standard Anderson shelter is that the house and the one next door to it had been requisitioned by the Army to house some of the guns’ crews for the anti-aircraft guns that were on the sports fields. (The shelter is usually filled with surplus furniture from the dental surgery, so cannot be accessed at present, although I will keep trying!)
As we continue our walk, we swing right into Marlborough Lane. About halfway along on the right-hand side, we can see some examples of wartime “stretcher fences”. These were originally manufactured by the hundreds of thousands and were known as ARP stretchers, for use by the Air Raid Precautions service to deal with the expected mass casualties from any enemy air attacks.
Fortunately, casualties were far lighter than expected and the vast majority of these stretchers were never used in anger. With the coming of peace, in an early example of recycling, the stretchers were used as railings, in many cases replacing wrought iron railings that had been sacrificed for the war effort in the production of steel.
From here, continue a short distance along Marlborough Lane, turn left into Sutlej Road and right into Canberra Road, before turning left into Hornfair Road. You will soon see the magnificent Charlton House on your right. Completed in 1612 for Sir Adam Newton, it subsequently became the home of the Spencer-Maryon-Wilson family.
During the Great War of 1914-1918, it had been requisitioned for use as a military hospital and following the war, was purchased outright by the Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich for use as a library and as the borough museum. During the Second World War, the basement was used as an air raid wardens’ post. On 25 January 1945, the house was “near missed” by a V-2 rocket, the blast from which demolished much of the Chapel Wing. Repairs were made after the war but shortages of materials meant that non-matching bricks of a different size and colour had to be used, which today gives us a vital clue as to which part of the building was destroyed and which is the original.
If we cast our eyes towards the attractive summer house, we can compare views with the building as it is now but also immediately following the V-2 blast, which left it in a state of near-collapse.
At the bottom right of the summer house, visible behind the fence that rings off the mulberry tree, can be seen a slightly obscured entrance. This was earmarked for use as an air raid shelter in 1939 and appears in the list published in the Kentish Independent at the outbreak of war. It was allegedly capable of housing 40 people but it is unclear whether it was ever actually used as such and it was certainly out of use by the time of the V-2 attack in 1944.
As we exit the park and turn right heading into The Village, we see opposite us St Luke’s Church and the War Memorial, in the shape of the Sir Reginald Blomfield-designed Cross of Sacrifice. The present St Luke’s dates from 1630 and the tower, which could be seen from the Thames, was once used as a navigational aid to ships using the river. As the church is entitled to fly the pre-1800 Naval Ensign on St Luke’s and St George’s Days.
The tower was also used for firewatching duties during the Blitz and my grandfather, William Henry Beresford (seen here in his Army days), a local air raid warden, was frequently stationed here at that time.
As you continue in to The Village, pause opposite the White Swan pub, now sadly closed since just before the lockdown began and the future of which remains uncertain. If you compare the pub in as-built form and how it appears today, you can see that it has a slightly truncated look to it. This was a result of events on the night of 17 October 1940, when a high-explosive bomb destroyed the Siemens Social Club, which once occupied the site now occupied by the more modern arcade of shops. The blast from this bomb also rendered the once-ornate top part of the pub unusable and in danger of collapse, leaving the pub with its present appearance.
Now turn left from The Village into Fairfield Grove and pause at the junction with Charlton Lane. Today this is the site of an unassuming apartment block named St Paul’s Close. On this site once stood St Paul’s Church, which dated from 1867 but which has the sad distinction of being the first church in London to have been destroyed by enemy action during the Second World War.
This came on 4 September 1940, before the “official” start of the Blitz when at 21:40 a single aircraft dropped a bomb at low level which hit the church, almost completely destroying it. There were no casualties but the church was deemed to be beyond repair. The following day, large crowds came to view the ruins but the novelty of such sights was soon to wear off. Some artefacts from the ruined church were salvaged and are now in St Luke’s Church, but the only remaining clue here lays in the name of the apartment block.
Continue down Charlton Lane but before you turn left into Harvey Gardens, pause and look into the near distance on the opposite side of the road, before the junction with Pound Park Road. This area is now part of the garden for the school, but in 1940 this was the site of a row of five houses. On the night of 8 December a high-explosive bomb demolished the houses, trapping five people inside.
A rescue squad under the command of Albert Brittan soon arrived. Brittan decided to enter the ruins. Crawling through the rubble, he soon found a baby and brought it to safety. He went back in and found the baby’s mother, freed her and brought her to safety also. Going back into the ruins a third time, he rescued a third person and recovered the body of a fourth. Whilst he was doing this, the roof of one of the buildings collapsed and almost buried him. Undeterred, he carried on his work and freed another man who was pinned down. Brittan spent almost five hours in the ruined building and continued working with no regard for his own safety.
For this act of incredible bravery Brittan, who lived in Deptford and who had been a bus conductor before the war, was awarded a George Medal, as this extract from The Times of 26 April 1941 informs us.
As you head into into Harvey Gardens, you will walk behind the Covered End of The Valley, which was hit on 16 October 1940 leaving a hole in the roof of the stand. The repairs to this were visible right up to when the stand was replaced with the present structure in the early 2000s. The photograph taken at the opposite end of the ground shows the arrangements that were in place for wartime football, with a “spotter” stationed high on the terraces; his job was to alert the referee using his large flag, in the event of enemy aircraft being seen approaching. The match would then be abandoned whilst the fans took cover in local shelters.
One shelter that was nearby was located at the railway arches at Ransom Road. These were extended with a brick and concrete structure so as to be able to accommodate eighty people. However, this type of shelter was not popular with the public, for the dual reasons of safety and sanitation, or the lack thereof.
Continue along Floyd Road and turn right into Charlton Church Lane for our final port of call, which is outside Charlton station. Today it is an uninspiring late 1960s structure, built in the former British Railways’ “Clasp” style of construction. Older residents might remember the shambolic appearance of the station before the present buildings were constructed, which resembled a collection of wooden and corrugated iron huts.
This was the legacy of a devastating V-1 flying bomb attack on 23 June 1944, when the station buildings were completely destroyed by a direct hit. Considering that the missile hit the station during the afternoon, it is perhaps surprising that only four people lost their lives in this incident, including Mrs Newick, the wife of the station master. Another 30 people were seriously injured in the incident, which left surrounding houses severely damaged by the blast.
Victory was hard earned but when it came, street parties erupted all across London, including in our own neighbourhood. To conclude, it seems fitting to return almost to where we began and to observe the street party held in Invicta Road on either the 8th or 9th May 1945 – I wonder if any of those small people enjoying the newly-found peace are still with us?
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