Last week saw London Shoes venture out to do a blog, on public transport for only the 3rd time since the start of the Covid19 pandemic lockdown in March. Not essential travel, I know – but ‘Shoes’ personally believes there is a need to return to some sort of normality, and public transport is part & parcel of a Londoner’s everyday life.
Anyway – this particular blog topic is one of those instances where, when re-tracing steps and events relating to the subject matter – you can’t help feel and be touched by the emotional vibe & sadness attached to the event.
So – this particular publication goes back 103 years to 1917 and the very first ‘day-time’ air attack on London, and re-visits the terrible tragedy that beset the ‘Upper North Street School’ – Poplar–London E14. A very sad story it is too.
We tend to think of air attacks on Britain as being something that happened in WW2 because of well documented historic events such as the Blitz and the Battle of Britain.
What history tends to forget at times is that we, as a nation, were attacked from the skies for the very first time, in WW1 and the death and carnage caused, was equally as devastating and fatal, as that experienced in the subsequent WW2.
At the commencement of the First World War in 1914 motorised winged & manned flight had not long been invented – the American Wright Brothers having been the first to successfully launch and fly a motorised fixed winged aircraft in 1903.
Germany had developed their large Zeppelin airships – a sort of massive floating balloon – which, just before the start if WW1, were being used to transport people via the skies.
However, in January 1915, just one year into WW1, Germany launched the very first ever attack from the skies on Britain, when a Zeppelin loaded up with a cargo of incendiary bombs, ‘sailed’ across the skies from Belgium, across the English Channel, and dropped its weapons on Great Yarmouth & Kings Lynn on the eastern side of England.
A few months later In May 1915, whilst London slept – a German Zeppelin once again ‘sailed’ across the skies above the English Channel, then cruised down the Thames Estuary and along down the River Thames – and then proceeded to drop 90 incendiary bombs on East & North East London – the very first air attack on London.
As WW1 progressed, so did German advancements in the development of flying machines that were now being designed to carry weaponry.
Previous Zeppelin air-raids had always been undertaken at night, to help avoid obvious detection – however, in June 1917, London experienced its very first ‘day-time’ bombing attack – with a devastating outcome.
On the Wednesday 13th June 1917, at around noon on a clear and sunny summer’s day, a squadron of 14 newly designed and developed German ‘Gotha GV’ fixed wing air-craft – dropped their cargo of incendiary bombs on east London’s docklands district.
This air-raid claimed the lives of 104 Londoner’s and left over 150 more, seriously injured.
If that wasn’t bad enough, of the 104 killed, 18 were school children, all pupils of “Upper North Street School” in Poplar–E14, right close by to Docklands.
Upper North Street School was a typical three story Victorian designed school building. The top floor held the girls classes – the middle floor was the boys classes – and the ground floor was where the infants held their classes.
One of the bombs from the German ‘Gotha’ air-craft missed its intended Dockland’s target, and proceeded to score a direct hit on the School.
The bomb fell through the roof of the girl’s class – then through the boy’s classes on the 1st floor – and exploded when it eventually hit the ground floor where the infants held their classes.
18 children were killed, 16 of whom were aged between 4 to 6 years old.
One week later, on the 20th June 1917, one of the biggest funerals London has ever seen, was held for 15 of the 18 children. (the 3 remaining children were buried following private services)
The burial service was conducted by the Bishop of London, at the Poplar Parish Church – and there were over 600 wreaths plus personal messages of sympathy from the King George V and other members of the Royal family.
After the service, thousands of people lined the streets of Poplar and east London. Blinds were drawn – shutters were closed, and flags flew at half-mast as 8 hearses carrying the 15 little coffins, made their way to the ‘East London Cemetery’ just up the road in Plaistow, where military personnel then carried the children’s coffins and placed them into to a mass-grave that had been designed especially for them – one of the saddest days in east London’s history.
The shock, outrage and horror felt by the general public following this incident – caused a knock-on effect, particularly in terms of improvements to Britain’s air defences, as tube train stations were immediately made available for Londoners to take shelter in down on the platforms, during further German air-raids throughout WW1. Look-out points and stations, with search-lights and armoury, were positioned all over London, to defend against future attacks.
In 1919, two years after the Poplar school tragedy – a memorial to the lost children of Upper North Street School was unveiled at the Poplar Recreation Ground.
This memorial bears the names of each of the 18 children who lost their lives on that fateful day.
Quite rightly, the memorial has been well looked after during the decades following it’s unveiling – and it stands prominently today on its original site, as a constant reminder of the tragedy that affected so many lives of the residents of Poplar and beyond.
The tragedy still resonates with the people of Poplar, to this very day, as in 2014 the Mayor of Poplar unveiled a commemorative plaque to the children who lost their lives – and at the same time, planted 3 new poplar trees, in Trinity Gardens, a small plot of public land right next door to Upper North Street School (now named Mayflower Primary School).
All in all, a very sad event in east London’s history – but one which is clearly still remembered and respected by future generations and I have no doubt will continue to be.
Now –even though Boris gave the green-light for the boozers to re-open on 4th July, I decided, on this occasion, to abstain from partaking in the usual mandatory cheeky beer, before leaving Poplar and heading off back home – but will be looking to recommence that particular avenue of pleasure when blogging in future weeks.
However, what I did notice throughout my time in Poplar, was that I was constantly being looked down on, by my old workplace – the Barclays Bank Head Office at no.1 Churchill Place-Canary Wharf, where I worked for a number of years before I retired in 2017 – It’s so close to the Poplar streets, that I swear I could see my old desk up on the 24th floor :-))
See below for the gallery of all the photos taken to accompany this ‘Upper North Street School’ bombing tragedy blog