To be published in December 2018 Camberwell Quarterly, this essay on the Zeppelin 1917 events and commemoration has been written by Susan Crisp, Chair of Friends of Burgess Park. It was the 2018 winner of the Mary Boast History Prize, organsied by the Camberwell Society.
First World War Zeppelin Raid, October 2017
History can come to life when community research unearths new information and brings together people who have never met despite their shared close links to a historical event. The Friends of Burgess Park local history project tells the story of the last Zeppelin raid across London in October 1917 with a focus on the bomb which dropped in Camberwell.
The volunteer researchers unearthed details of all the people who died in the raid and several of the family members came along to the Zeppelin 1917 series of events in Burgess Park. Survivors of the bombing were able to see the exhibition, to meet with the relatives of neighbours who had been dispersed after the bombing. The news blackouts and stoicism had meant that they had not known the story of the raid until this exhibition as it was not something that the adults and children involved had talked about.
The launch event was attended by the sole remaining survivor of that raid, 102 years old Mrs Greta Druce (née Boyce-Balls); when the raid took place Greta was almost two years old.
In the raid Greta sadly lost her brothers Sonny (aged 5) and brother Eddie (aged 3); her father Henry, mother Nellie, brother Leslie (aged 4) and younger sister Joan survived. This proved to be the last ever Zeppelin bombing raid over London.
Greta went on to live a very full life and served in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) during WW2, played the bugle and saw the liberation of Europe in 1945. Mrs Druce was accompanied by her younger brother Peter Boyce and her daughter the Revd. Diane Druce.
We were also joined by descendants of the Glass family, who also lost family members in the blast.
The whole family found the exhibition and walk very informative and moving. Many people involved in the war didn’t like to dwell on the suffering and so details were often not discussed with family members in the after-math.
The changing roles and activity of women in Southwark during the First World War was key to understanding Camberwell life in 1917. This was especially relevant with because of the centenary of women’s enfranchisement in 1918 just before the end of the war. Our findings show that there were many Suffrage groups in Rotherhithe, Borough etc as well as Women volunteers working with Belgian refugees arriving at Waterloo Station. Women’s war work and need for entertainment and survival whilst their men were away at war or in other capacities drew attention to women’s growing independence. Women of colour showed their presence with tiny fragments of reference but little detail has been uncovered. More needs to be done.
The Zeppelin Raid
On the night of 19/20 October 1917, London was hit by a Zeppelin raid. Zeppelin L45 dropped a 300kg bomb onto the corner of Albany Road and Calmington Road, killing 10 people and injuring 23. Northampton, Hendon, Piccadilly and Hither Green were also hit.
Zeppelin engines were almost inaudible, and on the night in question weather conditions made the airships and their exploding bombs even harder to hear – producing a terrifying ‘silent raid’. This was the last Zeppelin attack on London.
To add insult to injury, the raid wasn’t even intended to target London. The eleven Zeppelins which left base on the morning of 19 October planned to attack the centre of England. The fleet included Zeppelin L45, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Waldemar Kölle, and carrying enough fuel for 22 hours, plus a cargo of bombs.
The raiders crossed the North Sea and headed for a rendezvous to the east of Flamborough Head, but were driven off course by an unexpected north wind. Airships were susceptible to losing course, especially when flying high to avoid being spotted.
Flight of the L45 on the night of 19/20 October 1917
L45, aiming for Sheffield, comes in over the Yorkshire coast and avoids planes by climbing to 19,000 feet, causing temperatures to fall to minus 9˚C. The engines struggled in these freezing conditions, and the crew also suffered from cold and altitude sickness. In addition, they were unsure of their location. Kölle wrote later of the confusion: Bearings could not be obtained. All the ships were calling. Well, the visibility seemed to be obscure everywhere.
L45 drifts over Northampton and drops its first bombs. One of the crew wrote later: We dropped a few bombs at some faint lights but Providence alone knew where they went.
L45 reaches London’s north-west suburbs. After bombing Hendon, Cricklewood and Piccadilly, it pushes onwards, dropping a bomb on Camberwell before floating further south-east and offloading yet more deadly cargo on civilians in Hither Green.
Continuing eastwards, the airship is attacked by an aeroplane from 39 Squadron RFC, but gets away. The pilot, 2nd Lieutenant TB Pritchard, lands in a field near Bexhill and later dies of his wounds.
8am, 20 October
Having crossed the Channel and now losing height, L45 comes under fire from the French.
L45’s attempts to escape to Switzerland fail. Kölle brings the ship down on the dry bed of the River Durance in southern France. The crew is interned in the prisoner of war camp at Sisteron, 127km north-east of Marseille.
Of the original fleet of eleven Zeppelins, seven eventually returned to German territory. Three others – besides L45 – were driven southwards and were either destroyed or surrendered.
Meanwhile the bomb that hit Camberwell late on Friday 19 October 1917 killed people in two locations – 101 Albany Road and the cellar of the doctor’s surgery at number 103.
That Friday evening, the fried fish shop at no. 101 had closed at 10.30. Alice Glass was counting the money. She lived above the shop with her parents, Emma and James Glass, and six siblings.
Edward Walter Brame, a fish fryer, was clearing up. Widowed four years earlier, he had two of his three daughters with him: Ivy, who worked there, and her younger sister Ada (14). Young Stephen Skelton was also in the shop.
In the front parlour on the first floor the young people were having a party. Stephen Glass and a friend, Alfred Fowler, were home on leave from their naval patrol boat. One of the boys played the mandolin and the other the piano. Jessie Martin, a friend of Alice Glass, who also played the piano, had come round to join them.
The parents had gone to bed early, and Jesse and Emily were also in bed. Daughter Margery was at work in a Lyons Tea Shop on the Strand and did not return home until almost midnight.
Meanwhile, over the road grocer Henry Boyce Balls had heard a distant noise which worried him. He had five children with his young second wife, Nellie. He decided to take his family to shelter in the surgery cellar (no. 103). Other Boyce family members, neighbours and a colleague of Dr Whitelaw came too. There were 18 people sheltering in the basement, with the children lying in a row in the centre – Sonny (Reginald) (5), Leslie (4), Eddie (3), Greta (nearly 2) and baby Joan. The adults were sitting around the walls.
The bomb fell just after 11.30, with terrible impact. P.C. Wilcox said he heard a hissing noise which increased until the explosion. There was a terrible bang and blinding flash of light. The South London Press reported on 26 October:
The roofs of a number of houses were cleared of their slates as though they had been removed by a monster razor; rafters were hurled in all directions, and…furniture…hurled into the street below as if by a terrible upheaval of nature. Women and children ran screaming into the streets…The front of the fish shop had been blown into the main road.
The group in the basement of no. 103 had been there ten minutes when the bomb fell. The house collapsed on top of them. Nellie Balls was injured in the back as she threw herself across her children to protect them from falling timber and masonry. Reginald and Edwin (Eddie) Balls were killed by a falling beam.
At 11.45 p.m. gas from a broken main ignited and the fire burned for nearly half an hour. Dr Whitelaw, who was taking shelter with the group in his basement, described what happened next in a letter to the South London Press shortly afterwards.
‘…Thanks to my wife’s pluck,’ he wrote, ‘we all got out safely except two children, who were killed by the falling debris’. He goes on to describe how, although all three exits were blocked by debris, his wife managed to crawl out through the coal chute:
Having had some experience in mining districts of falls in mines, I knew we must keep the air pure, and persuaded the people to sit still and not stir up the plaster, etc., by moving about until I established communication with the people outside. I was too stout to get through, but my wife, who is thin, grabbed a baby and crawled through to the chute. I followed, enlarging the opening, and was able to instruct the fireman where to break through. Undoubtedly she saved all our lives, as we men were too large to crawl through. Another doctor in the same thoroughfare who was in the cellar with us worked like a brick, extricating people from the debris, and others also did their bit.
The injuries at the fish shop next door were catastrophic. There was no warning or cover. The 4-storey house fell into its basement, crushing most of those inside. The bodies of Alfred Fowler, Stephen Glass and Jessie Martin were recovered from the cellar late on Saturday.
In the shop, Ivy Brame and Alice Glass were killed immediately, and Stephen Skelton died the next day of his injuries. A doctor had crawled beneath the debris and given him morphine, and an unknown civilian remained with the boy all night.
The rescuers – soldiers, civilians, Red Cross and Salvation Army workers, police, doctors – toiled all through the night and well into the following day, when Council workmen came to clear up the debris.
Ada Brame was pinned beneath a beam across the legs, and in great agony she kept crying as the police and Royal Engineers worked their hardest to free her, ‘Daddy, I want to come out of here.’ Her father had a head injury and could not help, and she could not be freed until eight o’clock next morning. Ada never recovered from the trauma of that night.
Those in the bedrooms fared little better. Mrs Glass was found dead on the pavement in front of the house, buried beneath a huge pile of wreckage. Mr Glass and the two little girls were found near each other after a foot was noticed at 4.10 a.m. Eventually Jesse and her father were extricated alive, but Emily Glass gave her last gasp as she was brought out.
In addition to the 10 people killed, 9 men, 5 women and 10 children were injured.
After the Raid
The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, visited on Saturday morning, and the King and Queen the following day. An inquest took place on 25 October. Margery Glass had the painful duty of identifying the bodies of her mother, brother and her sister Alice. Jessie Martin’s sister identified her by some of her clothing and jewellery.
Many of the victims were buried on 26 October, when thousands of people lined the streets after a civic service in St Mark’s parish church.
The project brought together the community of the people wrapped around park. There were a wide variety of participants who would not usually have the opportunity to work together creatively. Feedback shows that while people knew parts of the history of the park very rarely did they know the bigger picture of the war.
Along with many brave local people helping the trapped and injured on the night of 19 October, three brave police officers were crucial in saving several lives – Inspector Frederick Wright, PC Robert Melton, and PC Jesse Christmas.
Hearing the bomb, and despite the threat of another explosion due to a gas leak, Inspector Frederick Wright, PC Jesse Christmas and PC Robert Melton, who was off duty at home just a few houses down from the blast, raced to the scene.
The brave Camberwell bobbies cut a hole in the floor and dropped down into the basement, where they managed to find two children in the smoke and chaos. Ignoring the threat of the building collapsing and the toxic gas fumes, they led the children and a group of shell-shocked adults to safety.
Inspector Wright collapsed, received medical care, went home, and then returned to his rescue efforts later on in the night.
An eye-witness spoke of ‘the great bravery’ of the three police officers in a letter to a local paper that week. He said: ‘I can assert that their conduct was exemplary, deserving the highest possible praise and public gratitude.’
Inspector Frederick Wright was awarded the Albert Medal for his bravery, while the two police constables were decorated with the King’s Police Medals.
In 1919 PC Robert Melton’s career was cut short when he was sacked for taking part in the police strike which attempted to improve the pay and conditions of police officers. He died in Southwark in 1934 at the age of 53.
The Salvation Army were also on the scene very early after the bomb hit. They assisted in the rescue efforts and alleviated the suffering with meals from their travelling kitchen. Prime Minister Lloyd George met and congratulated them on their efforts the following day. On Saturday afternoon they continued by salvaging furniture from the ruins. In the longer term, their public food kitchen a couple of streets away fed around 50 people made homeless in the raids.
Local historian Stephen Bourne has researched the three men and compiled this account. He is striving to have the men properly recognised locally.
Local volunteers – 2017
The project brought together the community of the people wrapped around park. There were a wide variety of participants who would not usually have the opportunity to work together creatively. Feedback shows that while people knew parts of the history of the war very rarely did they know the local Camberwell story or the wider impact of the great war on people’s lives.
Over all from our record of attendances at the exhibition and events about 600 people took part in some way. Many more will have seen the posters in the park and wider publicity which will itself have raised the profile of the unusual history of Burgess Park.
Inspired by the local enthusiasm and support for the local heritage project Southwark Council appointed artist Sally Hogarth to create a new installation to commemorate the centenary of the Zeppelin raid. Information about Sally’s ideas for the art piece were included in the exhibition. It will be installed in 2018 with a launch event on Saturday 20 October 2018.
More details about local life in Camberwell during the First World war as well as the Zeppelin Raid are on the Friends of Burgess Park website bridgetonowhere/zeppelin1917 plus a podcast with a dramatic account of The Raid.
Susan Crisp, August 2018