The WWII Bombing of Cubitt Town School

In 1891, Cubitt Town School was opened in Saunders Ness Road.

1920s. Photo: britainfromabove.org.uk

By the 1930s, the building was in need of enlargement and modernization, and it was decided that it would be more efficient to demolish and rebuild it instead.

1938

The ceremonial opening of the new school was on 21st March 1938.

1938

At the start of World War II, the school was commandeered for use by the emergency services  (as were two other Island schools: Millwall Central School and Glengall School), and it housed members of the Auxiliary Fire Service, Air Raid Wardens, Stretcher Bearers, the Ambulance Service and a Mobile First Aid Unit.

On 18th September 1940, it was hit by a high-explosive parachute mine. These were naval mines, weighing up to 1000 kg which were dropped by parachute and detonated 25 seconds after impact.

A parachute mine which fell in an alley in Manchester but failed to explode.

That evening, these and other bomb types were dropped by an estimated 230 aircraft during a raid in which 200 Londoners were killed and more than 500 injured.

Rescue worker Bill Regan, whose home was close by at 271 Manchester Road, reported in his diary*:

What a bloody mess, the whole guts blown away, only two end flanks standing. There were more than 40 people stationed here; I only saw one survivor, the gatekeeper, a man who lived in Pier Street, who had lost a leg in the 14-18 war.

He said he saw this parachute coming down, and thought it was a barrage balloon, it was a parachute mine, and he was lucky to be on the opposite side to where it landed, with building between him and it. He was blasted into the road, but miraculously none of the debris had hit him. Within minutes we had located the spot they were likely to be, and got two people out, but I don’t think they were alive as were working without lights and they were at best unconscious.

I don’t know how many we recovered, our relief came on at 8.00 a.m., but we carried on until nearly ten, when a squad from the other end of Poplar came to help.

The victims were fire-brigade personnel, ambulance men, and a complete mobile operating theatre, [which was] billeted next to our depot, in the swimming baths, and always left for Saunders Ness when the sirens sounded.

* Heavy Rescue Squad Work on the Isle of Dogs – Bill Regan’s Second World War Diaries, Ann Regan-Atherton. The book is available from Amazon, and all proceeds go the Friends of Island History Trust.

Aftermath of the bombing of Cubitt Town School

Aftermath of the bombing of Cubitt Town School

Memories of the evening of the 18th were also included in an Island History Trust Newsletter :

Violet Pengelly and Joan Bartlett were in the AFS. When they went on duty, they knew what the night might hold, not only for them but for their families at home in their shelters. But there was no question of not going on duty, or of not remaining at their posts, even when taking a break, not for them nor for the hundreds of people all over London who were facing the same prospect of sleepless nights and anxious hours spent helping and protecting others.

The bombers came in the darkness of the black-out. Violet and Joan had gone up to the first floor rest-room. Others were on duty or resting. As the raid began, the centre of the building took a direct hit. A fireman stationed in Millwall Fire station recalled later that the explosion had literally flung a girder out of the building across the road into the warehouses opposite. Fireman Arthur Sharpe, who was on duty inside the School, recorded his memory of a dull thud and a bright flash, the crash of falling masonry and a desperate rush for the exits, then a roll-call and the missing girls, of trying to climb the staircase to the women’s rest-room, but it was ready to come down at any moment and the centre of the school had been flattened. “Are you there?” he called. There was no response.

Bill Regan:

…while I watched, two more bodies were being uncovered. I know none of us are very happy having to handle corpses, and it shows. They have uncovered two young girls, about 18 years of age, quite unmarked and looked as if they were asleep. I looked around at the other men and most of them looked shocked and a bit sick; we had usually found bodies mutilated and they were usually lifted out by hands and feet and quickly got away. Major Brown sees one man being sick so he fishes out a bottle of rum to be handed round.

By now I am feeling a bit angry at the prospect of these two girls being lugged by their arms and legs so I got down beside them. They had obviously been in bed for the night. They both have only their knickers and short petticoats on and the dry weather we have had and the rubble packed round them had preserved them. Their limbs were not even rigid. They were lifelike. I could not let them be handled like the usual corpses…I looked up at George and I just said: “Stretcher – blanket”. Then I put my right arm under her shoulders, with her head resting against me, and the left arm under her knees and so carried her up. I laid her on the stretcher. “You’ll be comfortable now, my dear”. I did exactly the same with the other one. I stood up and waited for some smart Alec to make a snide remark but nobody did. I cooled down a bit after I had smoked a cigarette.

Later Bill Regan discovered that the girls’ names had been Violet Pengelly and Joan Bartlett – who had the same first names as his own two daughters who were then away on evacuation.

Photo: Ann Regan-Atherton

Bill’s diary entry for 20th September 1940 includes:

We keep finding bodies, and we are told there were at least 42 to be accounted for, and from what we can gather, there are nearly 2 dozen still here.

After the remains of the dead were discovered and identified, they were later buried together at Tower Hamlets Cemetery.

Joan Bartlett (right), Violet Pengelly (next to Joan) and other members of the Women’s Auxiliary Fire Service at Cubitt Town School in 1939. Photo: Island History Trust Collection

A Mrs. Sanders referred to Cubitt Town School in an article in the Watford Observer which was published in recent years.

In September 1940 I lived where I was born, on the Isle of Dogs. On September 5th, I was 13. I have no recollection of a birthday celebration; I think we all forgot it. Bombs were falling every day and night, destroying houses, shops and factories all around us. Anderson shelters had been built into our gardens but the burning oil from nearby paint factories crept down the road into these shelters, which rendered them uninhabitable.

My father worked in a nearby school – a fairly new modern building – having four assembly halls, one on top of the other. There were no children present, as they had all been evacuated. The school had become the headquarters for the Auxiliary Fire Service. For several nights we slept in the lower hall, using it as an air-raid shelter, because of its solid structure and sandbagged windows. We carried our blankets and pillows through the streets from home.

I was sent originally in September 1939 to Brightlingsea with George Green’s School, Poplar, where I began my grammar school education. But when the bombers began dropping bombs on us there, my mother said: ‘If you’re going to be killed there, you might as well come home and risk it with us.

I remember my father taking me and my eight-year-old sister up on to the roof of the school (a large playground area) after our first night at the school, and we saw the whole landscape lit by fires. I shall never forget it.

After a couple of nights it became impossible to get off the Island at all for a while. The dock bridges had been withdrawn to protect them, so no-one could cross the docks. Also the tunnel through to Greenwich had been bombed so that was flooded. The river was on fire with burning oil, so crossing the river was unthinkable.

The next night my father decided we must risk our own home, as there were at least 50 firemen using the school hall when they had to take a rest and it didn’t seem very safe anyway. So we four, plus several friends, went back to our home dragging our blankets and pillows with us, my father and a friend having to remove a fire bomb from our doorstep first. Our downstairs back sitting room had been turned into a bedroom – windows covered outside with sandbags. We four slept on the bed, two people under the bed, one each side and one on the floor. I slept like a log, though I know from the consequent damage next morning that bombs must have fallen most of the night.

The next day my mother decided this was foolish. She had to do something to protect us, so she gathered up a few clothes, discovered we could now get a bus across the bridge at a certain time, and escape via Aldgate station to Baker Street and thence to Northwood by train, where my grandmother lived.

It was a bit of a squash as my aunt and uncle occupied the front bedroom; my mother and grandmother had the back bedroom and we two sisters slept on the floor in the parlour downstairs. My father had to work so was still at home on the Island.

About ten days later I was alone in the house when a policeman knocked at the door. ‘Could I see your mother?’ he asked. ‘I’m afraid she’s out shopping.’ ‘I’ll come back later.’ He departed and I knew that this was not good news. “When he returned, he told my mother that my father had been injured. ‘Would she please visit him at Poplar Hospital?’

She and I hurried down to the station and got a London train and eventually arrived at Poplar Hospital. “Neither of us mentioned our fears. What would we find? “The casualty sister greeted my mother with ‘I’ll take you down to the mortuary’. No-one had mentioned death.

His neck had been broken by fallen debris when the four halls of the school had a direct hit from a land-mine used as a bomb. About 50 people died in that raid. We had no husband or father, no income, no home.

As we struggled back to Aldgate station, we climbed over hoses, watching firemen fighting fires most of the way. No buses could function, there was too much debris from falling shops, too many fire engines.

Yes, I remember the Blitz. Fortunately I have been blessed with a good life. No I do not hate the ‘enemy’. There is evil everywhere, even in this country. I have spent most of my life as a nurse. I have a great husband, a couple of loving offspring and four delightful adult grandchildren. God is good. To my amusement, my original home, where I was born, is now part of George Green’s School, which relocated to that site after the war.

I unfortunately don’t know Mrs. Sanders’ maiden name, so I don’t know which family she was referring to. They were clearly Islanders, lived locally, and the children were young, so the choices are few; mostly likely the deceased father was either Albert Littlewort or Henry Saward, both of whom died later in Poplar Hospital.

All together, the following were victims of the bombing of Cubitt Town School, all but one of whom was an emergency worker :

Air Raid Warden

  • Frederick Hall, aged 38, Brig Street

Auxiliary Fire Service

  • Joan Fanny Mary Bliss Bartlett , aged 18, 61 Henia Street, Poplar
  • Violet Irene Pengelly, aged 19, 8 Gaverick Street

Stretcher Bearers

  • Jack Bauer, aged 33, 64 British Street
  • Charles Arthur Clutterbuck, aged 32, 18 Havannah Street
  • Horace William Field, aged 50, 14 Phoebe Street, Poplar
  • Cyril John Hawthorn, aged 31, 11 Rounton Road, Bow
  • Arthur James Jones, aged 47, 84 Culloden Street, Poplar
  • Albert Edward Littlewort, aged 28, 39 Stebondale Street (died 20th September in Poplar Hospital)
  • Albert William Mears, aged 31, 5 Melbourne Buildings, Oceana Close, Poplar
  • William Charles Miles, aged 41, 25 Salmon Lane, Poplar
  • David Arthur Morton-Holmes, aged 31, 21 Grosvenor Bldgs, Poplar
  • Ernest John Purdy, aged 27, 146 Coventry Cross, Poplar
  • Edward Henry Snook, aged 36, 19 Chilcot Street, Poplar
  • Charles William Patrick Staff, aged 23, 31 Old Church Road, Stepney
  • Cyril Swerner, aged 25, 39 Morgan Street, Poplar

Ambulance Drivers

  • Mark Breslau, aged 20, 60 British Street
  • Cyril Eugene Jacobs, aged 46, 287 Burdett Road, Poplar
  • Reuben Norman, aged 20, 70 Greenwood Road, Dalston
  • James Samuel Spratt, aged 36, 10 Naval Row, Poplar
  • Thomas John Steward, aged 29, 24 Pattenden Road, Lewisham
  • Victor Ronald Tidder, aged 32, 45 Lefevre Road, Bow

Mobile First Aid Unit

  • Mary Bridget Cooke, aged 36, Nurse, 45 Parnell Road, Bow
  • Dr Leonard Moss, aged 36, 658 Commercial Road, Poplar
  • Lilian Gladys Hawkridge, aged 30, Nurse, 64 Abbot Road, Poplar
  • Florence Tyler, aged 45, Nurse, 2 Dee Street, Poplar

Close by, but not in the school:

  • Henry Saward of 152 Manchester Road, died in Poplar Hospital

c1949. Remains of Cubitt Town School after clearance.

The school was rebuilt and re-opened in 1952. A relatively recent addition to the school building is a memorial to the emergency workers who died during the bombing.

Auxiliary Fire Service Memorial at the former Cubitt Town School (whose buildings are now occupied by St Luke’s School)

Not named on the memorial is builder’s labourer Henry Saward who lived with his family at 152 Manchester Road (if you remember the ‘gap’ to the right of Bob Olding’s hairdresser’s, that was No. 152 – it was  destroyed during the war). I understand why he is not mentioned, after all he was not an Auxiliary Fire Service worker, but it is a little sad he is a  ‘forgotten’ victim of the tragedy.

Update: My thanks to Lesley Murphy who commented on the article after it was posted:

I believe the Mrs Sanders in the article is Joan Saward who married a Peter Sanders in 1955. So Henry Saward was her father. Henry married Lillian Mayaski in 1924, Joan was born in 1927 and her sister Patricia in 1932. I did some research because, as you say, Henry and his family shouldn’t be forgotten.

Violet Pengelly and Joan Bartlett are further commemorated in the naming of the former Millwall Fire station residences, with Pengelly Apartments being built in Bartlett Mews. The naming ceremony was held on 16th July 2009, after which family members went to Tower Hamlets Cemetery to lay a wreath at the civilian memorial (see below).

The premises of Cubitt Town School are now occupied by St. Luke’s School. The memorial to the victims of the bombing at Cubitt Town School in the night of 18th/19th September 1940 is to the right of entrance.

Bartlett Mews

Pengelly Apartments

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

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13 Responses to The WWII Bombing of Cubitt Town School

  1. Nicholas Sack says:

    Thanks for this powerful and poignant article, Mick. Searing reports from the witnesses and emergency workers. Born some ten years after the War, I and my generation are so fortunate to have been spared carnage like this.

  2. jonrr45 says:

    Dear Mick
    Thank you for this. My great uncle William George Stephenson was a student and then a teacher there from c. 1875 to 1888. The Headmaster’s daily record tells you pretty well what lives the children led and shows the dedication of men like him.
    Best
    Jon Roberts

  3. jonrr45 says:

    Sorry Mick, wrong school. He was at Glengall Road.

  4. Lesley Murphy says:

    Wonderful article, really brings to life to the people involved.
    I believe the Mrs Sanders in the article is Joan Saward who married a Peter Sanders in 1955. So Henry Saward was her father. Henry married Lillian Mayaski in 1924, Joan was born in 1927 and her sister Patricia in 1932.
    I did some research because, as you say, Henry and his family shouldn’t be forgotten.

  5. Joyce Anne Calvert says:

    As usual Mick your research is great, and it tugged my heart strings as Cubitt Town was my home. My brother went to Cubitt Town school in the early 50’s and my dad who was in the AFS could well have been stationed in that building. Island names I recognise are there. Thank you for honouring their memory.

  6. Geraldine Salt says:

    Thank you Mick for this very interesting article. Hearing the detailed eyewitness accounts really brings it home what people went through. Having done some family history research, I found that one of my ancestors was Frederick Hall, the ARP warden whose name is mentioned on the plaque at the school. I did actually pay my respects with a visit to the plaque a couple of years ago. Very important that those who died there are commemorated.

  7. Alan Miller says:

    A bleak description of how effective these land -mine- bombs were. One landed about 150 yards from me in Crosby, Liverpool. But it landed with one end on the ground, and the other end on a small 2 ft. high garden wall, so its igniter never got bent/broken, and it just sat there. It was draped in a beautiful green silk parachute. My mother, and I (age 10 or 11), discovered it as we were passing it, as we ran from a Birthday Party House, to our house, (two streets away). The little garden wall saved our life. (And the lives and the houses of about 50 families in this area.) The local bomb disposal squad took this Block Flatener away, the following day. I was annoyed because I was never able to get that green silk parachute. ( that’s how young kids think).

  8. Raymond Harris says:

    Very poignant,the bravery of all concerned will never be forgotten.

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