The Tragedy at Bullivant’s Wharf

In October 2013, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets invited residents to nominate a person, place or event in the borough they feel should be commemorated with a blue “People’s Plaque”. They included a list of 17 candidates for a blue plaque, including one titled The bombing of a public shelter on Bullivant’s Wharf, Isle of Dogs, with the description:

On the night of March 19, 1941, a public shelter on Bullivant’s Wharf, off Westferry Road, was hit by a landmine. Over 40 people were killed, and dozens were injured. Some families lost all but one member. This was the Isle of Dogs’ biggest wartime disaster….

I had heard of this terrible incident, but I did not know anything about it. A quick search on the internet did not reveal much more – and even Islanders were not too sure of the facts. It seemed to me to be a forgotten tragedy. Over 40 people killed in one bombing was significant even by the standards of the East End during WWII. Why was there no memorial to the victims? Why was it that nobody even seemed sure where the shelter was? More than reason enough to investigate further….

The official air raid shelter at Bullivant’s Wharf was announced in posters issued by Poplar Borough Council in 1939:

camerazoom-20131023160637726-01_w600_h900

Shelter Ideas

This poster is very revealing. At the start of the war, there were no purpose-built shelters. Based on experience of the bombing from Zeppelins during WWI, it was not expected that more protection would be required other than that offered by basements, crypts, railway arches and similar. The government was also concerned that a large-scale building of underground shelters (as was happening in Berlin) would serve only to cause unnecessary panic. During the so-called ‘phoney war’ of 1939, the government was even reluctant to allow use of tube stations as shelters, as they were genuinely worried that Londoners would move underground and not want to come back up to the surface.

The start of significant bombing in 1940 – and especially the Blitz which started in September of that year – revealed how poor the shelter arrangements were. Trenches were immediately revealed to be a poor option; they flooded when it rained, but worse than that, the sides would readily collapse on the inhabitants if there was an explosion close by. Many borough councils built trenches in their parks, but these quickly had only token value.

Significant numbers of deaths and casualties were caused in the early months by glass blown in by explosions that might even be hundreds of yards away. Window tape, heavy curtains and brick blast walls proved to provide some protection against this threat.

The start of the Blitz also spurred the government into the large-scale construction of purpose-built air raid shelters – frequently built with a combination of brick and concrete, and identified by the ubiquitous ‘S’ for shelter.

shelter

Typical air raid shelters (photo: Imperial War Museum)

Additionally, Anderson shelters were an option for those with gardens to accommodate them. Although they look less than sturdy, Anderson shelters turned out to be extremely strong and effective when covered in earth as prescribed. They could not withstand a direct hit (nor could even a concrete shelter), but they were very effective at withstanding blasts and the force of buildings, walls or other heavy objects collapsing onto them. As this photo shows, although the house is destroyed, the Anderson shelter is intact. The inhabitants survived the raid.

Anderson shelter after bomb explosion nearby

Photo: ww2today.com

The Ministry of Home Security – responsible for the shelters – was learning fast. And they had their doubts about the wisdom of large public shelters

Bullivant’s Wharf

Bullivant’s Wharf was located at 38 West Ferry Rd, close to Havannah St (next to the zebra crossing where Topmast Point is now).  William Bullivant opened his wire-rope company there in 1883. In 1926, Bullivant’s firm was taken over by British Ropes Ltd who in 1934 built a new building, half of two tall storeys, half of four storeys, and with reinforced-concrete floors designed to be take the weight of heavy machinery. It was appropriately named the ‘Stronghold Works’.

Stronghold Works is the tallest of the riverside buildings in the following 1937 photo. Most of the buildings in this photo belonged to Bullivant’s Wharf  (the ‘Stronghold Wharf’ name is possibly a mistake – but, wharf names had no official standing, they were simply given their names by the wharf owner, and thus changed frequently).

Bullivant Shelter 2

Photo: Port of London Authority

And an aerial view from around the same time, with the white Stronghold Works building clearly visible on the waterfront:

Bullivant Shelter 3

Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

It is almost certainly this building that housed the later public air raid shelter – considered highly suitable due to its strength (before the lessons of the early months of the Blitz were learned). It had room for 400 people seated and 200 in bunks.

For months I have been trying to discover if the shelter was the white building on West Ferry Rd or the one on the waterfront. The waterfront building matched contemporary descriptions of the tragedy, with its reinforced concrete floor separating ground and first floor, reinforced to support machinery on the first floor, but I could find no official information on the subject.

In my ignorance, I also thought it unlikely that they would create a shelter quite so far from the houses – I imagined people storming for the shelters when they heard the sirens, but I learned that it was simply a habit (during times of bombing) to head for the shelters before nightfall, knowing that the bombers would be turning up when it became dark, mostly. By the river or by the road, it didn’t make a lot of difference.

It was two old Islanders who made me feel that it must have been the one on the waterfront. The first was Arthur Ayres, who responded to my question with:

I remember the shelter being bombed. Although I was about 7 or 8 at the time these things leave a permanent mark in the memory. As I understood it at the time the shelter received a more or less direct hit and some of the wreckage fell into the river.

And most recently, just two weeks ago, Peter Wright’s uncle, Frank Wright (who himself lost an uncle in the bombing of Bullivant’s Wharf):

It was the building next to the river and not the one near West Ferry Rd side.

“The Wednesday”

On Wed. 19th March 1941, between 8 pm and 2 am, in a massive assault made by 479 Luftwaffe bombers, 470 tonnes of high explosive and more than 120,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on London. The targets, illuminated by parachute flares, were the dock installations along the Thames, from London Bridge to Beckton. Fire watchers assessed afterwards that there were close to 1900 separate fires.

A passage in “The Story of the Friends Ambulance Unit in the Second World War” (published by George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1947) makes a short reference to what happened at Bullivant’s Wharf:

The patrol had set out for it in the middle of a raid. A fresh burst of activity drove it back for a while to the shelter which it had just left. It was a few minutes later that the bomb fell on a corner of the wharf. The entire warehouse was covered by a single roof; when the bomb exploded the walls tottered for a moment, the roof fell in, and the whole shelter population was buried in the debris. It was estimated that there were about 180 people in the shelter at the time….

Keith Woods, who has also been researching the incident (and who counts family members among the victims), quotes Joyce Jacobs’ recollections of the evening (on http://www.islandhistory.org.uk):

We had our blankets and our kettle and all the things you took up there and we were going out the front door when it was really banging overhead. The guns and the planes and the bombs. So he said, “Hang on a minute” because you could get hit with shrapnel, running through it. Good job we did. We’d have been up there as well. Soon after, someone came running down the street. “Bullivant’s been hit. All the people in the shelter…” And they were bringing out the dead. And a woman drove the ambulance backwards and forwards through that, taking all the injured up to Poplar Hospital.

According to Joyce, the high death toll was due to particular circumstances: “A 56 bus, which was pretty full, pulled in there and emptied out all the people. The raid was so bad, the driver wouldn’t go on, so he pulled in there so everybody could get in the shelter.”

Keith also quotes Margaret Corroyer, who lost many family members in the bombing:

My memory of that night was of regaining consciousness and being pinned down, unable to move whilst a choking stream of dust filled my mouth and nose. I recall the journey to Poplar Hospital and afterwards thought I must have imagined a person on the stretcher above, but have since been told it was so. A horrific experience to lay there and feel something sticky dripping from above.

There were approximately 120 people in the shelter, and at least 40 had been killed, and a further 60 injured. This was to be the worst bombing incident on the Isle of Dogs during WW2.

In the following, the pre-war photo on the left highlights the properties belonging to British Ropes Ltd on Bullivant’s Wharf. The white space in the right hand photo shows how much was destroyed by that night’s bombing.

bull 1

Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

Sadly, similar incidents were being reported from over other parts of London. It is estimated that 631 Londoners were killed in what was the largest bombing raid since December 1940, with West Ham, Stepney and Poplar suffering particularly badly. On 23rd March, Downing St asked for details of the events of that night.

Scan0023

Public Records Office. Ref HO 207/986.
“Poplar Borough Council – War Damage to Shelters”

Two days later, the London Civil Defence Region supplied “Strutt” with the information he was to provide to the Prime Minister:

Scan0026

Public Records Office. Ref HO 207/986.
“Poplar Borough Council – War Damage to Shelters”

This same report describes also the damage on 19th March to shelters in Cording St, Bow Rd, Quixley St (all in Poplar), and Brunton House, Cowley Gardens, Oil and Cake Mills, Leith Rd and Orient Wharf (all in Stepney). The investigations formed the basis for repairs and improved shelter design, but in the case of Bullivant’s Wharf, the building was totally destroyed and there was no attempt to repair or replace it. The incident had confirmed the government’s concerns about large public shelters, especially those that were not purpose-built.

Very shortly afterwards, Poplar Council cleared the land and their Works Department used it for storage. In this 1950 photo, a tall crane in an open area marks where the shelter was:

bull 2

Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

By this time, the wharf had been taken over by wharfingers, Freight Express Ltd, who renamed it to Express Wharf. They later merged with Seacon and created a large shipping terminal on the site.

west ferry rd and seacon (10)

Construction of the Freight Express – Seacon shipping terminal. (Photo: Peter Wright)

The new apartment block, Seacon Tower, is almost certainly built on the site of the shelter, precisely at the level of the short service road that meets West Ferry opposite Topmast Point.

bull tower

Highlighted Seacon Tower

At the time of writing, the results of the People’s Plaque vote have not been announced, so it is not clear if the council will place a memorial to the victims of the tragedy of Bullivant’s Wharf.

If they do, I hope the council takes note of this blog article, in case it provides useful information with regards to site and text of the plaque.

And if it is decided there should be no plaque from the council….well, then we’ll create our own!

In Memory of the Victims*

bullivant victims

* This list is derived from information maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Civilian Victims). It lists 41 names, and not 44 as mentioned in the WW2 report. The precise number is unclear.

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9 Responses to The Tragedy at Bullivant’s Wharf

  1. Ann Storey says:

    To think that I lived in Mellish St & went to St Luke’s & did not know. Just feel totally overwhelmed with sadness.

  2. A very important piece of research, I have done a bit of research on the subject and like you came up with conflicting evidence. The piece from the Friends Ambulance service was especially confusing.
    It was difficult to even place where Bullivant’s Wharf was !
    It does seem strange that a place with such a large loss of life is not remembered , but we have to remember a large number of Islanders were dispersed during and after the war.
    Excellent piece about an important part of the Island’s history.

    • lemons says:

      I am (99%) certain that it was on the river front, where the new apartment tower block is, as indicated in the article. Always that 1% doubt, but I didn’t stop investigating this one……

  3. Pingback: Unveiling of Bullivant’s Wharf Plaque | Isle of Dogs - Past Life, Past Lives

  4. Lynda Meek says:

    My great grandfather was killed on the same night apparently he stayed in his block of flats (Providence House) & went out on the balcony after the all clear but a stray device exploded & he was killed along with a couple of other people.

  5. Ray Delaney says:

    I saw the plague of the wall the other day whilst doing my daily jog past there, didnt know any of this and sad that it took so long to reconise this, well done to those involved

  6. Katy says:

    Richard Murrell was my great-great-grandfather and worked as a stevedore. My grandfather told me stories about him & the family who all lived on the island.

  7. M Shulman says:

    Wow. I have just started researching my family tree and lost two members of my family in this tragedy – Lilian and Margaret Corroyer. Thank you so much for sharing this information

  8. steve F says:

    I am impressed at the level of research you have done. I would be very pleased with that work in any of my own research pieces, and came to this blog because I saw the marble plaque at the site and it made me think.

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