The war in East London

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 21 September 1940.</strong>

This article, s

Let us leave off talking about the morale of East London as if it were a different question from the morale of the West End, or anywhere else. In this "Battle of London" I have seen ordinary people behaving with a coolness and resource in the face of danger which one would only have expected from veteran troops. But you do not expect front line troops to stand unarmed, without support, under bombardment.

Here are a few concrete cases which I have investigated at first hand. Recrimination will not bring the dead back to life, and some amends have already been made. But these instances reveal not only that some officials had never imagined what the Blitzkrieg would be like, but also that the existing machinery of local government was unequal to its task and that the conflict of interest and functions of government departments led to tragic confusion. All authorities overlap and none were sure on whom responsibility lay.

The first was a horror which shocked the public and jerked the Government into belated action. It was a tragedy which could have been foreseen; indeed, so obvious was it that this tragedy would occur that three times in one day I appealed to the Ministry of Health to avert it. People on the spot were making equally frantic attempts.

It was the fate of the large number of homeless, whole families who were left by a series of blunders to be bombed to death in a dockland school outside the London County Council's jurisdiction. This area was so vulnerable that the population, with the exception of the effectives, should have been cleared out the moment the Blitzkrieg started. And it started there on the Friday night – the night before the major aerial offensive on London began. Bombs were dropped and a fire started, killing some and rendering many homeless. On the Saturday afternoon and night the docks were attacked and the residue of bombs rained on those slum streets.

Next day I went down to find what everyone had known for two years was inevitable when the bombing of dockland started. I went to the school, which was surrounded by shattered streets, and found there a very large number of homeless. There were aged pensioners. There were the blind and infirm. There were piccaninnies, the children of negro firemen then at sea bringing food for us. There were youngsters I knew by name, the "Dead End Kids" whom we used to exemplify the condition of unevacuated children in a series of articles in the Daily Herald nine months ago.

Whole families were there, sitting in queues, waiting desperately for coaches which were to take them away from the certainty of bombs. They had been told to be ready at 3 o'clock. I was still there at five and women, mothers of young children, were protesting with violence and with tears about the delay. Men were cursing the helpless officials who knew only that the coaches were expected. "Where are we going?" "Can’t we walk there?" "We'll take a bus!" "There's a lorry we can borrow!" They clamoured for help, for information, for reassurance. Impotent officials knew no other answer except the offer of a cup of tea.

One mother complained that her children had been forbidden to play in the playground. The official could only say he was sorry and evade her questions. He showed me the answer. In the playground behind the school was a crater. The school hall was a bulging, dangerous ruin. The bombs which had rendered these people homeless had also struck the school that the authorities had made their "rest centre." Note that – the school had already been bombed. So had a church and other buildings in a direct line with it. And I knew, as God is my judge, I knew that it would be bombed again.

It was not a premonition. It was a calculable certainty. These people told me how the bombers had come over the docks, shedding their bombs – one, two, three, four, then a pause as the 'planes banked in a tight turn and that remorseless fifth dropped each time on the same corner.

They spent another night there. Some were moved to another school, the breadth of a street away, to make room for the new homeless. During the third night of raids and terror another bomb got them.

I saw the crater. I saw the rescue men descending into it with ropes around them, saw them pause in a hushed, painful silence, listening for sounds of the living, saw the tomb of whole families, of my "Dead End Kids". Survivors were boarding buses – buses which should have been there two days before. They were struggling for place as crowds clamber at the rush-hour. I spoke to men who had been cursing on the Sunday. They were speechless and numbed now. They and their families had escaped by the breadth of a road, because they had been transferred in time to the other school. The police tried to stop me speaking to them. The Superintendent of the Division came in person and, ignoring my permits and official authorisation, ordered his men to "put me out of the district."

When the storm broke an inquiry was started. It was found that coaches had been ordered on the Sunday. They had been told to rendezvous at "The George" public house in a neighbouring borough. The leader of the convoy thought he knew "The George", but it was in the wrong borough. The coaches went home that day.

Coaches again arrived at the school on the second day, but as the homeless were boarding them the sirens went. Local officials decided to abandon the transfer that day and attempt it the next. The next day was too late.

If that were the only instance of ill-conceived plans it would be more than enough. But it was only the worst of many. Schools have been a common target for the Nazi bomber, as common as hospitals, poor law institutions and churches. Schools, however, are the only buildings in the densely populated East London which can serve as centres large enough and accessible enough for large numbers of people. They were selected as "First Line Centres." The "Second Line Centres" were church halls.

That schools would have to be used has been accepted in official plans ever since the possibilities of a Blitzkrieg were considered. Yet the Public Assistance Committees had no powers to make them safe, no powers to equip them with beds and bedding, no power to provide equipment for hot meals. Only a deplorable minimum of blankets were provided. All expense was curtailed because it was assumed that the homeless would go to them to rest for a few hours after the raid and receive a cup of tea and a sandwich meal.

I saw one of these centres in another borough. It was appalling. Bare and bleak, with the homeless huddled on the floor, it had no protection except brown paper strips on the windows. The windows were large, and mothers had spent the night before crouched on all fours above their sleeping children, to shelter them from flying glass. The alternative (it was the official arrangement) was to go out into the raids which had rendered them homeless a few hours before and find a proper shelter under arches some streets away. I saw a "rest room" – intended to give peace and quiet to the sick and ailing, or the aged, or the exhausted children. It was unfurnished.

That school was closed as a centre. It was fortunate. A bomb dropped near it a few days later.

When the grim realities were forced upon the Government hurried sanction was given for unlimited expenditure. Blankets were to be supplied to full capacity but the Public Assistance Authorities, which had been urging this since before the war, found that blankets and bedding were hard to come by. The Government certainly supplied thousands out of stock. The ruins of Public Assistance Institutions were searched for water-sodden bedclothes.

Hot meals were authorised. The schools were not equipped. Gas and electric supplies had been interrupted. Other kinds of ranges were almost unobtainable. No one thought of sending in the Army with field kitchens to succour the homeless as the United States Army did in the case of the Mississippi floods. Outside caterers were called on to bring down ready-cooked meals. But it was not long before it was demonstrated that such supplies can also be interrupted.

That does not exhaust the story of cumulative misfortune of the homeless. With a tireless young clergyman I went through raids to shelters seeking out the untraced homeless. We went into the crypt of a dockside church, where men, women, and children were sheltering under the arches, in yellow candlelight, like Early Christians in the catacombs of Rome. I flashed a torch around and read above their heads, "This is the Family Vault of. . ." They shared sanctuary with the dead. "Are there any homeless here?" called out the clergyman. There were hasty, anxious "Noes." Those who were homeless were afraid of being turned out because they were using it as a permanent shelter. "Because if there are, they should. . .," and he told them how to go about finding billets, how to get financial help from the Assistance Board, where to get a meal, and so on.

Many of these homeless had trudged round the streets trying to find help and guidance. Places where they might have got information were out of commission. They had to go elsewhere, to be directed somewhere else until they despaired. I can understand their helplessness because I stood in the crowded waiting-room of the billeting department of a certain borough. There were two clerks paying no attention, because the person whose job it was to deal with inquiries was busy. Some were in that waiting-room for four hours and at the end got, not billets, but forms to fill up or the advice "to go and find a house on their own."

Father Groser, that militant, indomitable clergyman, who in the raids sleeps under railway arches with the East Enders, is one of these grand East End clergy who helped to save a worsening situation. The police and wardens in the beginning had to send the homeless to these clergymen for help. And John Groser, of the flying cassock, assumed his own powers. He broke into an official food store to feed the homeless in his "Second Line" (then very much "First Line") centre. With Jimmie Hall, M.P., he rushed around trying to solve the hopeless question of billeting. The local council did not know what powers there were to billet outside the borough (and billeting in the borough was fantastic). Neither did the local P.A.C. officials. Father Groser and Mr. Hall stormed into Whitehall and began a six-hour fight. They besieged the Ministry of Home Security and the Ministry of Health, seeking audience and information until a helpful subordinate suggested that the L.C.C "probably had the powers." That was so.

Local authorities had been "circularised" ad nauseam until circulars lost their meaning. They were dealing with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Home Security, the Regional Commissioner, the Ministry of Food, the Assistance Board, the Regional Information Officer, the Metropolitan Police, the L.C.C., and voluntary organisations on the questions arising from the raids.

Few of them grasped the complications of billeting. Later it was clarified. London and the surrounding parts were to be treated as a whole. Homeless people could be shifted from one borough to another or into the surrounding counties.

Evacuation was admittedly difficult. Coaches would arrive to clear a centre only to find that half of the homeless were not prepared to go until they had "talked it over with the old man" (who had gone off to work from the centre) or with absent members of the family. Those who vaporise about "East End morale" should remember that whatever the sufferings and privations, whatever the risk of bombs, the family unit in the East End is more precious than life itself. I have heard mothers say soberly, "We'll move together or die together." Many will blame them, as we blamed them for not sending away their children with school evacuations; devotion to the family unit is a human factor which may be as sublime or as foolhardy as courage itself.

Another complication were the homeless who were evacuated from East London only to be bombed out of their new billets. I met one family of a father, mother, and three children and a grandmother of 79 who had twice been driven out of homes which had been found for them. The bombs had followed them, and they found that the district to which they had been sent had developed its own problems. They hitch-hiked back to dockland, and I found them, uncomplaining, but perplexed, in a shelter. They had to be evacuated again.

Only "genuinely homeless" could be helped under any scheme. And "homeless" was difficult to define. If the home was a mass of rubble it was simple. If the house stood, however precariously, only the surveyor could decide whether it was a "home," and the surveyors were overwhelmed while the householders were strangled with red tape. One victim whom I heard challenged by an official produced as proof positive that his home was uninhabitable the fact that the landlord had not collected the rent. But as I went through wrecked streets I saw rent-collectors on the doorsteps of houses where gaps were covered with tarpaulin and windows were cardboarded, where there was neither gas, light or water, and where a bomb, streets away, might shake down the remains. It was rent day, raids or no raids.

No one had authority to evacuate those who were not homeless, but who were shattered by the raids and desperate to get away from constant bombing. It was left to the clergy to 'phone up country vicars or generous friends and say: "We can't promise any billeting money, but will you have them if I can scrounge a car and petrol to send them to you?" The old and infirm had to be got away. One mayor took it on himself to send large numbers by river steamer to safety.

I have heard Ministers argue, with reason, that people should have stayed in their own shelters, whether brick surface shelters, Anderson shelters, or buttressed basements, instead of flocking to big communal centres, but the fact that they were prepared to go miles, with their mattresses and valuables, to tubes, or to the basements of great warehouses, is proof, if any were required, that the deep shelters, which many of us unsuccessfully urged, ought to have been provided.

The dormitory shelter, in which mothers and children and others actually slept, though it meant queueing up for hours, created new problems, so acute that a Government committee, including Lord Horder, toured them to study the critical health questions involved. That raises other issues of future concern.

Again there was the bomb-disruption of essential services of homes which were still intact, but without cooking facilities; the need for communal feeding was "nobody's business," although the Ministry of Food might have stepped in with immediate and enduring effect. It was a great opportunity which should have been seized, and which might have provided a social compensation for the raids.

I have direct Ministerial assurance that town houses of the wealthy and blocks of luxury flats will, or perhaps have been, already commandeered. If local authorities are loth, through deference to property or to influence, to act, then the Ministry of Health will step in for itself. They will be furnished, even if it means requisitioning furniture from private stores. They will be rented at rates governed by the means of the homeless families. That is a categorical undertaking. Such arrangements are infinitely preferable to billeting.

There is nothing wrong with the spirit of East London. Indeed, it has glorified a grim and bitter episode. Jew and Gentile have been bonded together in common danger and sacrifice. "We must share," said the tradesmen, mostly poor Jews, of the Petticoat Lane district, when they stripped their shops of food, tore up the rationing regulations, and pledged their credit to provide for the homeless. Religions and denominations disappeared in mutual help. The clergy never stopped to ask whether the people whom they, through the efforts of their churches, were placing in homes, were Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists or atheists. Church crypts and underground synagogues were shelters for all comers. And when it came to "Goodnight" prayers or morning thanksgiving they prayed a common prayer in synagogue or chapel. What I saw restored my faith in religion.

The poor helped the poor, as always. The ordinary folks of East London "held the line." They did not ask for medals, but they had a right to ask for help. Perhaps the turning-point was the barrage, which started on Wednesday of last week. "We couldn't sleep," they said to me, "but who wanted to sleep? We were hitting back. We were not just being 'asked to take it.'" About the same provision for the victims began to improve. Ministers hurried down to see for themselves. It had a salutary effect – on the Ministers.

The L.C.C authorities had foreseen much of the calamity. They knew that if the East End were bombed far more damage would be done by each bomb than elsewhere, and that those rendered homeless would have none of the reserves of money or friends elsewhere to make them independent of official aid.

But they had been hampered by the Government's refusal to sanction adequate funds or to give them proper power to override sometimes inadequate local councils.

I suggest that a Welfare Board for London should be immediately appointed to supersede the overlapping and antiquated system of authorities which, with the best will in the world, are quite incompetent to deal with a Blitzkrieg situation. Mistakes now will be unforgivable.