During the night of 19th-20th March 1941, more than 40 people were killed, and dozens injured, when the public air raid shelter at Bullivant’s Wharf, off Westferry Road, received a direct bomb hit. This was the Isle of Dogs’ worst wartime bombing incident.
I previously wrote two articles about the tragedy – one describing an investigation into its precise location and events, and another about the placing of a memorial on the site in 2014. With the 80th anniversary approaching, I thought it was time to merge the articles, update the information and photos, and bring some attention to an event planned for a couple of weeks from now, to wit:
A small commemorative party will be attending the Bullivant memorial plaque at 12noon on the 19th March. At the corresponding time you are also invited to observe 2 minutes silence before Keith and Anne Woods lay flowers at the plaque on behalf of the Woods family, Con Maloney and Brian Smith will then lay a wreath on behalf of Friends of Island History Trust, to remember all those affected by the bombing. Reg Beer will also be there to represent those injured, including his Brother in Law Reginald Crouch and Cllr Peter Golds will represent today’s residents of the Isle of Dogs.
Fr Tom Pyke, Vicar of Christ Church will lead the proceedings and Con will video the occasion this year, as numbers are limited to 6 due to the current Covid-19 restrictions
Debbie Levett, Friends of Island History Trust
[Update 27th March 2021: Ian Dunnigan took a fantastic photo of the sun setting over the memorial after the ceremony. I’ve included it at the end of this article as it seems the perfect image to end with…..]
In 2014, when I wrote the first article, 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:
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, sturdy buildings and similar.
The government was also concerned that the large-scale construction 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 finally spurred the government into the construction of purpose-built air raid shelters – frequently built with a combination of brick and concrete, and identified by the ubiquitous ‘S’ for shelter.
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.
Bullivant’s Wharf was located at 38 Westferry 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 take the weight of heavy machinery. Named ‘Stronghold Works’, it was selected as the site for a public shelter due to its strength. It was a large building, and the shelter had room for 400 people seated and 200 in bunks.
On Wednesday 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.
The Stronghold Works at Bullivant’s Wharf received a direct hit, as mentioned by rescue worker Bill Regan in his diary entry for 20th March 1941, when he was stationed at the emergency services depot in Millwall Central School, Janet Street (quote from Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs – Bill Regan’s Diary from the Second World War, by Ann Regan-Atherton):
Nothing of great moment until now. Plenty happened last night. We were all bedded down in the boiler-house, waiting for calls, but before anyone else got to us, we had our own problems. A couple of big ones landed close by, then one through the railings, and under the outside wall of the depot, which shook us up a bit.
Then a call came through. Bullivant’s had a direct hit, and the basement was being used as a shelter. Ringshaw took his squad out, and almost immediately, another bomb landed outside the depot, at the corner of Alpha Road, bringing down the first 4 cottages, so some went across to the site, but someone said they were empty, so we busied ourselves with fire bombs that were blazing in the road. We buried them in earth and rubble. Fred Harrison, my squad leader, was on depot duty answering calls and had sent the rest of my squad to Bullivant’s to assist Ringshaw’s squad.
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….
Joyce Jacobs’ recollections of the evening (from 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.”
On the same website page, 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 were killed, and a further 60 injured. This was to be the worst bombing incident on the Isle of Dogs during WW2. The names of those known to have died are registered in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Civilian Victims) list. It names 41 victims, and not 44 as mentioned in the WWII report; either the report was incorrect, or the names of all victims were not established.
Sadly, similar incidents were reported from other parts of East London that night. 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 Street asked for details of the events.
Two days later, the London Civil Defence Region supplied “Strutt” with the information he was to provide to the Prime Minister:
This same report describes also the damage on 19th March to shelters in Cording Street, Bow Road, Quixley Street (all in the area of Poplar Borough Council), and Brunton House, Cowley Gardens, Oil and Cake Mills, Leith Road and Orient Wharf (all in Stepney). The investigations formed the basis for repairs and improved shelter design. The incident had confirmed the government’s concerns about large public shelters, especially those that were not purpose-built.
Repair of the shelter at Bullivant’s Wharf was not an option as the building was totally destroyed. Poplar Borough Council cleared the land and their Works Department used it for storage.
Three members of the rescue services were commended for their bravery during the night in question – at least one of whom, Charles Storror, was commended by W. Ringshaw, mentioned by Bill Regan in his diary entry for 21st March.
As was the case with many bombings during WWII – in the interests of security and morale – the incident was sketchily reported and certainly no specific information appeared in the press. The injured and families of the deceased were painfully aware of what had happened but, as that generation passed, there was less and less knowledge of the tragedy. If it wasn’t for the efforts of the Island History Trust, which captured and documented Islanders’ memories, and the determination of the families of some of the victims, we wouldn’t know as much as we now do.
One such family member was Keith Woods, with whom I started communicating in 2014, both of us wanting to learn more about the bombing of the shelter and in particular its location. Keith’s Grandmother Minnie, who was 48, and his Aunt Doris, who was 19, were among the dead. His Grandfather Albert Woods was badly injured, but survived. Keith was keen to arrange some kind of memorial at the spot.
As we zeroed in on the location of the shelter, Keith approached the council to get permission to affix a plaque nearby. If you’ve ever made an unorthodox request to a local government organization, you will know what hard work that is. Keith was persistent, however, and with help from (then) Councillor Gloria Thienel, permission was given.
Keith’s determination extended even as far as paying for the plaque and personally fixing it in place on the wall on Thames Path. (I am proud to say I also provided a very small contribution, providing the text for the plaque.)
The location – opposite the Seacon Tower – was chosen because it was the closest piece of wall to the former air raid shelter which could be found. Mounting it on a fence or wall on the inland side of the Thames Path was problematic, as this was all private property, and even the council was not quite sure who owned the fence and wall along the riverside. But, in the end, Keith scouted the path and found a nice piece of wall which could barely be closer to the location of the WWII air raid shelter….just a couple of yards away. Keith was also thankful to the concierge of that building (not sure if that’s his title), who was great. Seeing what Keith was up to, he provided assistance, tools and fixing materials.
At noon on Saturday 5th July 2014, an informal ceremony took place to mark the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to the memory of the victims of the WWII Bullivant’s Wharf tragedy. Perhaps ‘ceremony’ is too somber a word for what was actually a very informal and relaxed event. Everyone was so pleased that the victims were finally getting a memorial, and there was plenty of reminiscing among the many old Islanders who were present (including plenty from the Island History Trust), some of whom had lost family or friends in the bombing, and some of whom only just missed being in the shelter themselves at the time.
Tower Hamlets Councillor Andrew Wood was present, as was some weird looking bloke wearing a back to front hat (you know who you are 🙂 ).
Con Maloney was kind enough to distribute print-outs of the blog article I had written on Bullivant’s Wharf a few months previously.
Keith’s cousin Don gave a short speech at the end of events.
Afterwards, many of the group made their way to The George for fish & chips and drinks. Thanks also to the landlord and staff of the George for their hospitality.
The unveiling of the plaque was a great success, and I hope lots of people see it and want to find out more about what happened during the night of 19th and 20th March 1941. As much as I hope it keeps alive the memory of those who lost their lives that night.
Here are just a few of the many photos taken on Saturday, followed by a great photo taken by Ian Dunnigan in the evening of the 80th anniversary commemoration on 19th March 2021.
Postscript: On 27th March, Reginald Beer shared this text and image on the Friends of Island History Trust Facebook page:
Ian Dunnigan, a Glaswegian living in Limehouse, who often assist at FoIHT ‘Open Days’ and exhibitions at ‘The Forge,’ sent me this photograph of the sunset at the Bullivant Wharf memorial site. In his email, he remarked, “an elderly gentleman, doffed his hat when he passed. Manners from a different era.” At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.
I was moved by the accounts of the courageous rescue attempts, and feel I have a better understanding of the tragic event and it’s consequences. The personal interest of the PM spurred officialdom to improve the provision of effective shelters, thus saving many more lives.The Memorial will keep alive interest in future generations.Thank you for your painstaking thorough research recording so many aspects of isle of Dogs history.
Thanks for your comments Malcolm
Thank you Mick for your continuing recording of the History of the Isle of Dogs. My Grandfather William Pettitt born in 1872, was on duty as air raid warden at Bullivents Wharf, but no record of his death can be found, and we assume he was one of the 3 unnamed victims. A family account states that he went outside the shelter to hurry up late comers, when the bomb exploded, leaving nothing that could be identified. He lived his whole life in West Ferry Road, or immediately close by, and it seems a shame that there is no record of his demise. Could there exist somewhere a list of Air Raid wardens on duty at the time of this great tragedy ?
Hello Malcolm, I wish I could help, but I am not aware of any such list. I did however look on ancestry.co.uk and found a possible match (perhaps you already know this one):
Name: William H T Pettitt
Death Age: 68
Birth Date: abt 1872
Registration Date: Jul 1940
Registration Quarter: Jul-Aug-Sep
Registration District: Edmonton
Inferred County: Essex
Thank you very much Mick. I will follow this up. His birth certificate records his second christian name as Henry, but there was no third name registered. If it is my Grandfather, he was dead well before Bullivents Wharf was bombed, and the family story may relate to another earlier raid. I would be so very glad to discover what he died of, and where he was buried.
My husband’s aunt Ellen Baggs nee Coleman, was the woman driving the ambulance. She worked tirelessly for as long as she was needed, ferrying the injured to Poplar Hospital, along roads with no lights and huge craters and pot holes to negotiate, brave lady!
A very sad story Mick
I seem to recall Bullivants Wharf from my younger days round the island
But your photo it showed it as being almost next door to John Lenantons then I realised exactly where it was.
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A sad,humbling yet heart warming story. So important to put down a marker for all those casualties.
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Thank you for this history. I have no connection other than having noticed the plaque many times since coming to live at at a nearby building about five years ago. ‘Lest we forget’.
Thanks for the comment.