Bombs dropped in the ward of: St Mary's
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in St Mary's:
- High Explosive Bomb
Number of bombs dropped during the week of 7th October 1940 to 14th of October:
Number of bombs dropped during the first 24h of the Blitz:
No bombs were registered in this area
Memories in St Mary's
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by David Draper (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was born on the ninth of April 1939,in the Dick Whittington Wing of St. Mary's Hospital North London, to Florence Margaret and Albert Edward Worboys.
Of course I had no idea at that time of what lay ahead of me.
Years after it was all over, in my teens and in a moment of some weird flashback, I asked my mother, "Did she ever try to stuff me into a basket, when I was a baby ?" She looked at me strangely and said: "Why do you ask ?"
I was lying on my back looking up, as this thing came down upon me it covered the whole length of my body (little did I know then, that I measured about 18 inches in full at the time)
It was shaped kind of oval and I could see a pattern similar to an Easter egg.
As it came down on me I screamed my head off and fought against it in sheer terror..... then blackness.
My mother said: "I tried to fit you into a baby gas mask chamber, you were too big for it, you were about nine months old, you didn't like it one little bit "
My first memory of the war.
I cannot remember, times, dates or even the year in which my memories of the war occured. Strangely, they are simple, vivid flashes, with nothing either side to identify what was happening before or after. Albeit, they have been with me all my life.
My father led my mother, then me, followed by my younger brother John, down the passageway of our home in Landseer Road, (off Holloway Road, Islington) Outside the closed front door I could hear explosions. My father was about to open the door. He stopped suddenly and said: "Wait". There was a high pitched pinging sound outside the door.
After it stopped, we went out to the shelter.
I often wonder, now what would have happened if my dad had not recognised what must have been shrapnel coming at and hitting our front door. I think I was about 18 months old at the time.
We had moved into my Grandmother's house at number 1 KIngsdown Road, in the next street, off Holloway Road. Air raid shelters had been built on the road directly outside the houses all along the street. Brick and concrete,shaped like giant shoeboxes.
Whenever I smell green concrete, I remember those shelters.
One miserable morning after spending the night in our street shelter,my mother and I had emerged to see a sky absolutely filled with flack. I looked up at it, there was a fireman standing near a fire engine.
I said to my mum and pointing up at the flack," Who gets that stuff out of the sky, mummy?".
Mum looked at me and at the fireman, who was smiling, then she said"The firemen do,my love" I replied "How"? My mum seemed momentarily lost for words and then confidently answered,"They go up on their ladders and clean the sky with their hoses".
I was very young then but the vision that came to me of a fireman climbing high up into that sky on a ladder with a firehose to wash out all of those little black clouds, didn't somehow ring quite true.One look at the firemans grinning face convinced me that"Mum" wasn't being quite accurate with me.
Sometime, about when it all began, I was huddled against my grandmother in the corner of the street air raid shelter, it was dark and the noise of the explosions,close by, was terrible. I said to my grandmother: "Nan, who is doing this ?"
She said:"The Germans."
I conjured up an infant's image of fire breathing dragons, I could not comprehend that other human beings were creating such terror for me and my loved ones.
As the war went on and during nights spent in the air raid shelters, my nan and I became very close.
One of our favourite times was when the "All Clear' sounded after a raid (or as it was later, an uneventful night in the shelters) I would go to her and she would take my hands in hers and I would say "All Clear Nan," and she would smile at me and say "Yes,my lovely all clear."
Now and again amid the noise, flashes, bangs and occasional screams of it's occupants the door of the shelter would open and a white helmet with ARP painted on it's front, would appear, atop the tiny head of Mrs. White, the wife of the cornershop grocer, "Everybody allright"? she would enquire, The reply was always "Yes,Mrs.White we're allright " Warm, comforting thoughts and feelings for each other were a way of life by then.
After the war we would continue to get our groceries from Mr. and Mrs. White's shop and comiserate with and help her when her husband became ill and began taking terrible fits. She was only a tiny woman but she had a great heart and magnificent patience.
I had started school with my younger brother John, at Grafton Road infants, (near Seven Sisters Road, Islington) and there we were in the assembly hall with all the other kids listening to Miss Somper the P.T. mistress telling us that "We were not allowed to take cherries on the train, which was going to transport us to the evacuation centres." "The stones and wrapping paper will make too much of a mess."
Dutifully, my brother and I did not take cherries on the train. We were the only little tots that didn't. There were purple wrapping papers, stones and stalks from one end of the train to the other. My brother and I had none.
Was it Banstead, Burk Hampstead or some other place I don't remember exactly. I do know it was an evacuation home and that ache that had been in my throat since leaving my family in London, was there as usual.
One of the nurses at the home collected a large group of us littlies and shepherded us down across the playing field to a "monkey climb" . She then proceeded to place the other kids on the "climb" and then placed me in front of it facing her. There were some other people there with cameras and one of them put a blindfold on her and then she,(the nurse)made as if to try and catch me.
I had returned to my family in Kingsdown Road(I don't think the war was quite over at the time). There was may grandmother and my mother, at the kitchen table and there was this newspaper "The Sunday Pictorial" They were pointing at it, for me to look at the front page. There I was, playing "blindmans buff" with the nurse. A full front page.
Was it that same afternoon that, as we all stood there in that room,suddenly there was a massive whoosh of air and the windows seemed to buckle in and out like balloons. My grandmother screamed and then it was all over and quiet again. I didn't know what doodlebugs were at that particular time, I do now.
After the war, the bombed areas(we as kids called them debris)became our playgrounds. On them we attended concerts organised by the local "talents", built barricades and engaged in territorial gang wars, climbed into the attics and out onto the roofs of derelict rows of condemned houses, took the lead out of the windows of the burned out church and melted it down, etc.etc.
The burnt out church in question was Saint Pauls and once stood at the corner of Kingsdown Rd. and Stanley Terrace. It must have been a beautiful structure before the blitz but had been reduced by incendiaries, to a shell whose walls and internal pillars only remained. It's pulpit was filled with a small mountain of rubble which extended from wall to wall at each side.
The door of the church had gone and the brickwork so patiently and continuously erected by workmen to seal it off was constantly being removed, just as patiently, by us kids, so we could get in and play. The floor was usually covered by about eight inches of water from end to end and made an excellent obstacle course for traversing across on old milk bottle crates and other junk.
One day whilst playing there, I and my mates, for some inexplicable reason decided to dig away at the rubble near the pulpit. We started at the left side and before long to our wonder and awe, we realised we had uncovered an arched opening over a large concrete shelf, beyond which we could see what appeared to be a small room. We clambered over the shelf,into the room one by one and as I stood there, my eyes becoming accustomed to the dark, feeling like an explorer,as I imagine pyramid explorers might have felt, entering a mummies tomb, another, strange,familiar feeling came over me.
I was looking at the walls;
They were patterned in gold diamond lattice over a purple background that I had seen somewhere before. I forgot about it and I and my mates continued on with our usual activities of getting thoroughly dirty and wet.
Weeks, maybe months later, I was talking with my Nan and out of the blue I said to her: "Nan, have I ever been in the old church, before it was burned?" My Nan looked at me incredulously and said: "How did you remember that?" I said to her: "It was the pattern on the wall in a room we discovered next to the pulpit". My Nan was amazed, she said: "You were only a baby then, we went into that room in the church to get a food parcel".
Contributed originally by chamberlaine (BBC WW2 People's War)
"I'm the king of the Castle. You're the dirty rascals". . The words were half shouted, half sung by Tommy Carroll, a six-year-old, standing atop a large heap of yellow building sand, it was both a boast and a challenge to the other young and very grubby boys, gathered around the base of the castle. The lads all wore short trousers and knee length socks down around their ankles. They had been playing with and around the sand for some time and it showed. Sand in their shoes, sand in their hair, sand covering the grazes on their knees.It was in the spring of 1940.
A communal air raid shelter was being built in the road outside numbers 97 to 107 Hemingford Road, Islington, London, N1. This was a little part of the preparations for the expected mass raids by the Luftwaffe.
The boys were too young to appreciate the dire times in which they lived and as boys of all nations will, they found some fun in almost all circumstances. As the builders had knocked off for the day, the boys naturally put the building materials to a good boyish use.Tommy was doing his dance at the top of his castle when one of the lads ran up the hill to dethrone him. After a brief struggle the lad came sliding back down. Another attempt was made without effect and then up went little Georgie Chamberlaine. Now it was Tommy's turn to take the slide to the bottom. "I'm the king of the castle. You're the dirty rascals" shouted Georgie. One abortive attempt was successfully fought off and then Terry Khober took a turn. Terry was victorious and this time it was Georgie's turn to take the slide. But he went down head first and in so doing struck his skull on the granite kerb at the bottom. His friends gathered around him to ascertain whether he was badly hurt, he had a bloody cut on the head. "Looks bad they said, we had better take him home." So a small procession went to 93, though he was quite capable of walking unaided, one boy on each side supported their injured comrade. They knocked at the door and presented Mrs Chamberlaine with her injured son.George was the youngest of Elsie Violet Chamberlaine's four children. He had come six years after the youngest of three girls, Elsie who was now twelve and at school. In answer to the enquiries of the concerned parent the boys said, "We were only playing on the sand Mrs Chamberlaine and George hit his head." "You boys know that is not a playground." she reprimanded them and took her son indoors.
Once the blood and dirt were washed from the wound with an antiseptic solution it was found not to be serious. Within half an hour, having had a slice of buttered toast with jam and that well known British elixir, a cup of tea he was back outside with his friends, sporting a white bandage which he had been instructed to keep clean and not play anymore on the sand pile, which instruction he immediately forgot.
There were three of these street shelters in Hemingford Road and another around the corner in Ripplevale Grove. They were squat looking buildings of brick and reinforced concrete. While being proof against blast they would not withstand a direct hit without serious damage to the structure and to at least some of the occupants. However they were relatively safe as compared with the houses. This was early days in the great conflict. Later the lads would stand on the steps of their houses, witnessing the skies to the south being turned red as incendiary bombs and high explosives dropped by the Luftwaffe turned the East End and the largest port in the world into a blazing inferno.
Hemingford Road was a different place then. There were never more than two cars parked in this street of about 200 houses. Much of the traffic, of which there was little, that came by was horse drawn. Games of cricket were played in the middle of the road, hopscotch was marked out in chalk. All these war children could think of was ways to enjoy themselves, their parents though were thinking about the war.
Mothers had to find how best to make meagre food rations go as far as possible with ever hungry young children to care for. The young ones did not realise it at the time but this was often accomplished by the mothers giving up part of their own ration for their children.
The Anderson Shelter
93 Hemingford Road was a substantial terraced Victorian house of four storeys with basement rooms. Part of a terrace built in 1846. Fred Chamberlaine, the father, worked at Harris Lebus in Tottenham. Lebus had been a furniture manufacturer but now it was an aircraft production facility building for Mosquito fighter bombers, an aircraft that was to become famous as the war progressed. Later they would also build Hotspur gliders to carry men and armour to the liberation of Europe. Fred would go off to work each morning very early, taking the workmen's bus which offered a cheap fare, and he would return late each evening. As the air raids intensified Fred became a fire watcher and with his comrades carried out fire watching duties on the roof of the local synagogue in Lofting Road. From this vantage point the fire watchers would spot fires and keep the fire brigade informed by telephone. After a sleepless night on duty he would then again be off to his job at Lebus. There was little rest for any able-bodied civilian.
Workmen came to put an Anderson shelter in the garden at the rear of No. 93. A hole of about 8 ft by 6 ft and of 4 ft in depth was dug and in this the shelter was erected, protruding about 3 or 4 ft above ground level. The sheets of corrugated iron were shaped so that the top was a semi circle, the structure was then covered with soil from the excavation forming a layer of about 18" deep. The builders erected a simple shuttering inside so that concrete could be poured to form a wall rising about 3 ft from the inner base. Almost as soon as the workmen left, the shelter flooded. Fred Chamberlaine dug a deep sump in the clay underneath to drain the water, he then made and fitted a floor of wooden slats, built a pair of bunk beds and placed a wooden wall in front of the entrance for protection from blast. Against the outside of that wall there was a rockery with a variety of flowers which could be seen from the basement kitchen window.At night during the Blitz Kreig, as the air raid sirens sounded their wailing tone, the family would get out of their comfortable beds and troop into the comparative safety of the shelter. Sometimes they would be joined by the Kays, a family who had the top part of the large Georgian house and preferred the Anderson to the street shelter. There might be as many as eight or ten people in this confined space. For lighting there was a hurricane oil lamp.The occupants would take turns resting on the bunks, two to a bunk laying head to toe, or sitting on the wooden bench. At some time an adult would go into the house to make a warm drink of tea or cocoa. To young George, sitting in the entrance of the shelter, the night sky was a fascinating sight, lit by searchlights and flares, there were barrage balloons all over and with the accompanying noise of the anti aircraft guns at Highbury Fields and the more distant crump of the bombs it was exciting.
Anti aircraft shells did not need a direct hit, they were designed to explode at the height and hopefully close to the aeroplanes. As the shells exploded in 'flak' a cloud of shrapnel or steel shards would be scattered and any Luftwaffe bomber close by would be at least heavily damaged if not brought down."Look Dad there's one in the search lights." "Yes the lights are locked on him for the gunners." "See, those are parachute flares. The Germans are dropping them to show their targets." "You Georgie come back in here." "Oh, its alright Mum.". "Your Mum's right. Come on inside, son. "George had a broken air rifle, given to him by his cousin Derek. He really wished it would work so he could have a shot at the huns. Though his dad told him that if it did work it wouldn't reach them anyway. Despite asking, his dad never did fix the gun for him, he said he didn't know how. But George knew his dad could do anything like that, he just didn't want to for some reason. Hemingford Road was not badly hit at that stage in the war. Even so the youngsters would find pieces of shrapnel laying in the road or even on the roof tops, where they should not have been looking. Some of the lads started collections of interesting items such as burned out incendiary bombs, bomb tail fins as well as the larger shrapnel pieces. Some of it was sold to the scrap merchants, enough would buy a cinema ticket.
Many Years later, George was talking to a German friend, Hans Bracht and Hans told of how when he was a child in Hamburg, he and his friends collected shrapnel to sell as scrap metal. Children are much the same the world over. What goes up must come down. One night, a house just around the corner in Ripplevale Grove was gutted by an anti aircraft shell which had failed to explode until it went through the roof, fortunately the family were in the street shelter at the time.
There were also underground shelters in Richmond Gardens at the top of Richmond Avenue and some in nearby Barnsbury Gardens. The underground shelters were a maze of concrete lined tunnels which provided a good play area for the boys. They played at Tommies and Huns, of course the Tommies always had to win. "I was a German last time, I don't want to be a German this time!"
Girls played too, they were nurses, some of the boys seemed to get wounded a lot. Another play area was the bomb houses of Sheen Grove and Box Grove just off Richmond Avenue. The houses there were not flattened at that time. Islington Boro Council did that after the war as they preferred to build a park rather than homes for the many homeless families on their housing list. These houses were gutted and roofless but at that time still standing. Floor boards were missing, they had been used by the youngsters to make push carts and by some of the grown ups to build garden sheds and the like. They made ideal club houses and the infant pretend armies could practice their house to house fighting skills. Clambering across rooves, climbing in and out of windows, running across boardless floor joists and trying to out manoeuvre the enemy. Terry Khober one day slipped off a joist and fell through two floors to the basement, so breaking a leg. But young bones mend quickly. The Armsby family lived in Ripplevale Grove. Mr Armsby was a coal merchant. Sometimes he would let his son Ronnie and a friend ride the pair of great cart horses that pulled coal wagon. They had a Morrison shelter in their house. This was a large dining table made of steel under which the family could retreat during air raids.
Later, came the Doodle Bugs and then VE Day with celebration street parties and bonfires.
Contributed originally by hemlibrary (BBC WW2 People's War)
The Three English Brothers French.
By Alan French.
Once upon a time, in a country called England, there was a very poor area in the London Borough of St. Pancras, called Somers Town. It was here, that three brothers were born. Their names were William, Thomas and James French. Sadly, their father died of wounds that he obtained during the dreadful Battle of the Somme, in 1916. This left their mother, now a young widow and parent, having the unenviable task of having to make ends meet, like a lot of others, in a very hard and tough environment. Eventually, their home was demolished. I believe this was due to a government scheme to smarten up the area. The French’s found themselves acquiring new accommodation, which was, believe it or not, next to Pentonville Prison, in the Caledonian Road, in the London Borough of Islington. The residence was known as Burns Buildings. It was possible that at a certain vantage point at this address, the prisoners could be seen exercising in their yard. That is providing the warden could not see you.
Their mother, Harriet, never remarried. As time progressed, their lives went down each respective path. The one crisis which was common to them was the outbreak of what became another world war.
Their mother survived this dreadful time in human history, and died during its post war period.
The following is a brief as possible account, of what happened to the three brothers during the conflict.
William. Known by me as Uncle Bill. And possibly in some circles as Watford Willie. :-
Uncle Bill, when leaving school, forsook a potential career with Marconi. Instead he worked for the local railway’s, road haulage service. Originally with horse and cart, and subsequently by motor vehicle. This job prevented him, upon the outbreak of war, from serving in the armed forces. The job had a reserved occupation status, as it was deemed valuable to the war effort. So in his spare time, he became a member of the Home Guard. (Dad’s Army.) In this capacity, he found himself on duty, in a park near Buckingham Palace. Here he manned guns. Although it is doubtful that the gun shells ever reached the range of the respective target, it did boost the morale of people who felt that something was being done in the interest of their defence.
I have heard that possibly due to the fact that his employer required him, he was unable to join the army as he wanted, and be alongside with his youngest brother, Jim.
Uncle Bill was a family man. He had a wife and two children. His wife, I knew as Auntie Anne. His two children, a girl and boy, were named after their parents. Uncle Bill never spoke much of his Home Guard experiences, as far as I am aware. After the war, life resumed back to normality. Late in life, he moved from Somers Town.
However, his son, on one occasion, as a wartime evacuee, attended a church. When the collection plate came round to him, he found he had a minor problem regarding money. He therefore, made his donation and then, quite innocently, took some change from the collection plate. I think it best, at this point to move on to the next brother.
Thomas. Known by me as ‘Father’ and to my cousins as Uncle Tom:-
He was the second oldest brother. As mentioned elsewhere, he planned on joining the Royal Air Force. But his employer eventually stepped in, as they required him for their contribution for the war effort. They were a leather firm based in Somers Town, with the name of either Connolly, or, Colony Brothers.
I have heard him say that when he went to enlist in the R.A.F. he was told that he was reported missing. Obviously, it was someone with the same name.
Because he did not become one of the ‘First of the Few’ he became a Fire Watcher.
I gather my father may have been asked to supply a character reference for someone, who it was felt should not have been serving in the armed forces, and so was causing concern to certain people. I regret the full details of this are not known to me. Therefore I am not able to say anything further regarding this matter.
Although I have heard my parents often referring to the war, it is not until I became involved in this project, how little I know of his actual wartime activities. This seems to be a common situation.
My parents lived in Islington during the war. Originally, in Barnsbury and subsequently the Holloway region of this London borough. This is where I was born. My mother’s name was Rosina or Rose for short. The reason why they moved from Westbourne Road to Madras Place was because they were near, or, at the top, of their dwelling. This was not an enviable position to be, should they have had cause to evacuate the premises, in an emergency.
I, however, must be grateful to my father on one particular occasion, when our address caught the blast of an explosion. My father instantly grabbed me from my portable tin bath. Had he not done so, I, as a baby, would have been lacerated. For bits of glass went in the water. I am indebted to that man for this action.
We eventually, in 1950, moved from London to Hemel Hempstead.
After my father’s death, many years later, I did come across a letter that was possibly used as a reference, praising him for his loyalty and reliability as a Fire Watcher. I have a feeling that should he be alive today, my father would have a very interesting story to tell.
For not only saving me, but on behalf of anyone else he may have helped, I must owe him a debt of gratitude. Thank You.
James. Known by me as Uncle Jim:-
Uncle Jim was the youngest of the three brothers. He, like his two older brothers, had a sense of humour. He was a very popular member of the family. It is therefore with some degree of sadness, that I have to say what I have to, during this narration.
He was the unfortunate one of the brothers. He saw action, much to the detriment of his health.
His wife, I knew as Aunt Flo. His eldest child was Brenda. When she was old enough, but still a toddler, Brenda would sing ‘Pistol Packing Mama’ in the air raid shelter. (I wish I had a record of her performance.) Her brother Jimmy was born after the European segment of the war had ended, but the Japanese part was still on. During the now peacetime, two more daughters came on the scene. These were Pam and Jackie.
Uncle Jim served in the Royal Fusiliers during the war. His love of football earned him a place in his unit’s team. (Well, after all, he did live near Islington’s local football team’s stadium: Arsenal.) He at one point became a corporal. It is known that during his army career, he was billeted somewhere on the European continent where there was a little French girl. The soldiers, I gather, would sit her on their knees and try and teach her some simple English.
But war is a gruesome business, and sooner or later, niceties vanish. Uncle Jim’s unit was involved in an operation, shortly prior to the action of Arnhem. He was, somewhere along the line, wounded. He was in a snow covered ditch. We do not know where. He was mistakenly, left for dead. Who knows what thoughts went through his mind, as he lay there? Not only wounded, but he had now contracted snow blindness. How close to death? No-one knows. How long did he lay there? I don’t know. Eventually, a booted foot belonging to an American soldier, trod on him. This caused Uncle Jim to groan. This saved his life. He was mistaken for a French Canadian and sent to a hospital for Canadian soldiers. Again, I am not certain where the hospital was. It was during this stay that the Arnhem campaign was in full swing, causing horrific casualties. Some of those casualties were admitted to the same hospital as Uncle Jim, who, in turn, heard the terrible cries of pain from those who were badly burned. At length he was transferred from mainland Europe, to his native England. Oxford, in fact. This enabled him to be visited by his friends and relations. He was a patient for some time.
Eventually, he was discharged from the army. With his discharge papers was his pay book. It read, “Services no longer required.” His army mates wanted to know what to do with his kit. He issued instructions for them to sell it and have a drink on him. The experience left him very bitter. So bitter, that he refused to receive his medals. I must admit, that I think that the army’s phraseology in his paybook seems too abrupt and cold. I appreciate that on medical grounds they had no option but to discharge him, but I think they could have put it more delicately. It could still have been short. But as the wording stands, it displays no human depth or gratitude to a man who had fought and suffered for his country. It achieved the adding of metaphoric salt to an emotional wound, which became soul destroying in the process. Possibly to the extent of a de-humanization factor, leading to contempt. I feel angry and emotional myself, as I relate the story. I can well understand Uncle Jim’s bitterness and frustration. He was more than a name, rank and number. He was a flesh and blood human being.
Uncle Jim’s sight did return. But the snow blinding experience did pose problems on occasions. With the progression of time, and certainly in his very late years, his sight badly deteriorated.
In the late 1950’s he moved from Islington. The penalty, if you pardon the expression, was that he was not close to the Arsenal Football Stadium. He eventually retired from his maintenance job with the London Underground.
Although some details of his army experiences were known, many were not. He did not want to talk about them. However, it is after the sad death of his wife, my Aunt Flo, during the closing months of his own life, that he started to open up on the subject.
Uncle Jim fought for his country, and peace, as a soldier, during World War 2. In peacetime, he lived for his family. Here his services, I am pleased to say, were required.
There you have it. Three brothers who lived through two dreadful world wars. Each of them raised their respective family. Each had their ups and downs, like most people. I am pleased that I both knew, and was related to them.
But was the effort worth it? Did the achieved peace, work? Did civilization live happily ever after? That, my dear fellow members of the human race, is now up to you.
Copyright Alan French. May 2005.
By same contributor:
Alan French: War Baby: Interview . Parts 1 & 2.
Uncle Jim: Send Him Pictorious!
The White Figure. (A true wartime ghost story.)
Handed to Hemel Hempstead Library in conjunction with the BBC’s People’s War Project, May 12th 2005. Subject to conditions related to this project.
Contributed originally by hemlibrary (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the Peoples War web site by Hertfordshire Libraries working in partnership with the Dacorum Heritage Trust on behalf of the author, Mr Alan French. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
I am uncertain as to whether I was present during the following tale, for the event I am about to relate, was experienced by my mother. Let’s face it! If I was conceived prior to this happening, it could be intelligently argued, that I was there. Even if it were by what some people might term as a small technicality. On the other hand, that may not have been the case. Irrespective of my possible presence, my mother unfortunately, did experience another presence, one that absolutely terrified her whole being. One that, pardon the expression, was liable to haunt her, for the rest of her life .
It took place in the London Borough of Islington, during the dark days of World War Two. My mother, whose name was Rosina, or Rose for short, was what was termed as a volunteer fire watcher. By day she worked, as far as I know for Cossor’s, at Highbury Corner, a firm which manufactured wireless/radio and radar equipment. Therefore, she was involved in doing some very valuable work. In fact, deliberate or not, possibly due to the nature of the firm’s products, the premises received some very serious war damage, leaving a most terrifying crater in the ground, where there had been a substantial part of the building. My mother could be a very compassionate and conscientious person. She was probably more conscientious than this story implies. Although, as we are about to discover, she did have some relapses.
My father’s name was Tom. He was a very honest and trustworthy person. He was also very conscientious about his responsibilities. His ambitions to perform his duty in the Royal Air Force were eventually quashed by his employer, a leather firm, called either, Connolly, or Colony Brothers.
This firm was based in another part of London, named Somers Town. Therefore he also eventually became a volunteer fire watcher, when not working. This enabled him to still do “his bit” for this dreadful war. On the night in question, my parents dwelled in a small turning named Madras Place. It was sandwiched in between Liverpool Road, at one end of the street, and Holloway Road, at the other end. There were also two side turnings that led to the inside of Madras Place. They were, Morgan Road and Ringcroft Street. Opposite, was a church called, Saint Mary Magdalene. The church grounds could be described as part park and part gardens, containing the occasional tombstone. The whole area was often referred to as the Chapel of Ease. There was, and still is, as far as I know, a low wall bordering some of the ground. The metal railings surmounting this wall were removed, and subsequently melted for whatever requirement necessary, because of the “war effort”. Despite this, the grounds were locked up at night. This was an interesting procedure, due to the fact that anyone, wishing to gain access, could quite easily lift their leg up over the said wall, and then follow up the action, with their other leg. The grounds may well have looked attractive to the eye, but one thing some people may have considered spoilt the view, was the small public toilet constructed within the wall. Although, bearing in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it must have been transformed into a beautiful sight to have beheld, and occupied, should it have been necessary to utilize the toilet’s facilities in an emergency.
I am not sure where or what my father was doing on the night in question but although he was no doubt doing his best where needed, he was still unavailable, which meant that my mother had to report for duty on her own. Self conscious of this fact, and considering herself a respectable married lady, she decided not to report, and carry out her fire watching function on the front doorstep of her dwelling. Should anyone query her actions, her logic was that she was performing her duty. Albeit from the entrance of the house was immaterial. She was still looking for fires, wasn’t she? Furthermore, there did not appear to be a lot happening that night. It did not seem that anything was likely to happen either. So what were the odds? The doorstep was her post. Whether the other fire watchers would see it that way, was another matter. Oh Dear! She would soon be sorry for her decision. It happened thus:-
She stood as planned. Nothing significant seemed to be happening. At length, this situation changed. From a distance came the sound of explosions. Obviously, at least one air raid was in process. It did not sound very good. She felt that someone, somewhere, was “getting it bad” that night. Apart from that, in the immediate vicinity, all seemed quiet. Or was it? For after some time, she thought she heard something. Nay! She did hear something! It was rather like a rustle. There! It had occurred again! It seemed to have been emitted from the grounds directly opposite her standing point. Still remaining on the doorstep, she peered over into the direction of the Chapel of Ease area, but could not detect anything of significance amid the dim light and shadows. Most of the dimness was due to the building of Saint Mary Magdalene’s Church and the trees within the grounds. During the daytime, this was a pleasant spot, but tonight, it started to become a bit too creepy. In fact the atmosphere was very macabre. There it was again! It was definitely a rustle. This time my mother was more certain from which direction the sound came. It was no good dismissing that the sound’s identity was, for example, a bird or some other harmless creature. After all, this was war time. She was on watch. It was her duty to see if she could confirm what the cause was. For all she knew, Adolph Hitler’s plan to invade, might have already started here, in the Holloway Road region of Islington. And so she once again, bravely, stared as best she could, opposite. This time, from her vantage point, her eyes scanned more deeply into the grounds. It was when she peered more to the left, where she had possibly not glanced before, she experienced what must have been one of the most frightening sights in her life. There it was! A very tall shining white figure! Such a conspicuous contrast to the surrounding area’s darkness! The apparition was too tall for the average tombstone, but more alarmingly, it was also too tall for a living human being. The sighting was so eerie, it must be a ghost! What other explanation could there be? It was definitely a phantom- like figure. Oh Dear! The possible reality of the situation had started to sink in. Despite her fear, she nervously accepted that she was witnessing a spectral sighting. A supernatural experience was not one that she wished. My mother was of a nervous disposition. In fact, she could be sometimes exceptionally highly strung. Looking at a ghost whilst performing fire watching duty from her doorstep was not what she needed. She required something to calm her down. She could utter no sound, for her vocal chords became useless. She could not move. She could only stand, transfixed in stoic silence. Then something else strange started to happen. It was a condition that she had heard of, but as far as I am aware, had not experienced. She claimed that she actually felt the hairs on her head move. My mother firmly believed that they were stiffening and standing on their ends. That is how terrified she was.
I personally, find this aspect of the tale most intriguing, as she was wearing a metal helmet upon her head at the time. I shall refer to this phenomenon later.
I am not certain as to what happened immediately after this incident, but one evening, my mother told the story to some visiting relations. Irrespective whether they considered the story being true or a joke, they were unaware they too, were in for a shock. When the front door opened, for them to depart at the end of their visit, they all jumped back in amazement. There, opposite, in the Chapel of Ease, was this same strange white figure!
I can assure anyone that the story is true. But is there a rational explanation as to validate this tale? Or is there a more sinister truth that will fill one’s emotion with unease? In my opinion, there are fascinating facets to this narration that require explanation.
One explanation, concerns the hair standing on end. At the time of writing, I view this from a new perspective. Yes, I agree that it is possible that my mother might have utilized poetic licence, when telling the story. I also have considered the genuine possibility that her hair may have moved beneath her hat, albeit, in a limited fashion. But now I realize that inside that style of helmet, there was a design enabling the wearer to feel more comfortable. Inside the rim was a leather band which encircled the head. There was also a lattice system, constructed from soft material stemming from inside the leather band. This enabled the lattice to rest on top of the head. It also helped prevent the wearer coming into contact with the metal of which the main part of the helmet was constructed. I personally think that any unfortunate person, experiencing something that was exceptionally terrifying to them, causing their hair to move due to a nerve condition, even wearing a metallic helmet, could well be telling the truth. Their hair would have ample space to move through the gaps, within the lattice framework. There was still some room above the framework, and the helmet’s main metal structure. Therefore, the hair could continue to pass through this lattice, up to the inside of the domed shape roof of the helmet. However, I doubt that the stiffened hair could contain sufficient strength to move the hat off the wearer’s head. And of course, if the wearer was using the chin strap affixed to the helmet, assuming that there was a chin strap, the hair would be even more suppressed. Nevertheless, I find this situation is now definitely more plausible, than originally thought by me.
Secondly, had my mother heard about the ghost, or was she aware of anything suspicious concerning the grounds, before this particular night? Some people may logically, query why, living opposite the church grounds, she had not viewed this apparition until more recently. Regrettably, neither my parents are alive for me to ask. However, I can surmise, that one reason for this, is that the apparition could only be seen during certain conditions. Unfortunately, I cannot expand upon this point during my narrative, without revealing certain facts, which I would prefer to explain later. Another possibility, is that I do know that it was sometime during the war, that my parents moved to this particular street. I do not know how long they had lived there, prior to the incident. It therefore, could be possible that they were not living in the vicinity long enough to have had the opportunity to see the spectre.
Now for the real nitty-gritty question, and the respective answer. Did my mother see a ghost? I do not know exactly when the problem of identifying the ghost was resolved. Let us examine some clues. It was not of human appearance. It was taller than a human being. The spectre was shining white and very eerie. It stood motionless. It was seen after the sounds of rustles. It was taller than the odd average tombstone or memorial that occupied the grounds. So what was it? The average tombstones and memorials, irrespective of their dimensions, may not have been taller than a human being, but there was one that was above the average in height. It was basically a four sided column, which was surmounted by a vase and cloth like sculpture. This was the ghost. At least I hope it was, just for my mother’s sake. By day, it did not look pure white. In fact, this family memorial could have possibly done with a clean. There was nothing to betray the memorial’s startling nocturnal appearance in certain lighting conditions, especially by moonlight. Oh! What an incredible transformation! It is also worth mentioning that in the war, should there be an air raid, there were black-outs. During these, there was no street lighting at all. The street lighting used was also different to the lighting system that was in some cases installed after the war. I must also remind you that there were trees within the grounds which could also obstruct the view of the memorial. Not forgetting that at some angles, there was a public toilet as well. And also my mother did not make a habit of standing on her doorstep for a long time, gazing yonder. Remember that she did not see anything immediately. When she viewed the ghost, she had to look in a direction, at an angle, to her left. So the apparition was not quite geometrically opposite the house. She occasionally donned spectacles. I am not certain as to whether she was wearing her spectacles at the time, which may have made some difference as to how she perceived the situation. We are also dealing with someone, as also explained earlier, who was very highly strung. The eerie atmosphere, the rustles and then the following sighting, which climaxed the event, added a new psychological depth to the experience, emotionally, it brought to the fore, her nerve condition, which in turn, moved the hairs of her head.
Oh Dear! Was this some form of poetic punishment, for not reporting for duty, in the official manner? Who can say? Your guess is as good as mine. Embarrassingly enough, my mother, had occasionally played near this memorial, when she was a little girl.
Should anyone wishing to study the memorial, it can easily be viewed. Just go along Holloway Road, until you arrive in the vicinity of the Central Islington Library. Opposite, is one of the entrances to the area in question. Just inside, is the memorial. At least it was there when I last visited the Chapel of Ease.
I do not know what my mother’s subsequent attitude was when reporting for duty. I personally would be most surprised if she performed her watch on the doorstep again. But that surprise would not compare to the traumatic surprise that she experienced on that unforgettable evening long ago, during World War Two.
Sweet dreams everyone.
“The White Figure.” Copyright by Alan French 2004.
Copyright wavered only for the BBC People’s War campaign, Remembering World War Two. This story was issued to this project October 14th 2004
An extract from, “A French Collection.” Copyright 2004. Amended version.
By the same contributor:
Alan French: War Baby: Interview (Amended.) Parts One and Two.
The Three English Brothers French.
Uncle Jim: Send Him Pictorious!
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