St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

St Peter's School and Church, Walworth

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Walworth Under Fire (Part Seven)

Walworth Under Fire

The memoirs of Rev. John Markham,

Rector of St Peter's Church, Walworth 1937-1944.

The Women's Voluntary Service 
provide a mobile canteen during the blitz

Part Seven

Continued from Part Six

As a District Warden, I had to spend much more time out of the parish, visiting the post areas around us. At first, I shared the whole borough with two other District Wardens. Then one was called up for the Army, and the two of us who remained divided the borough between us, my section being the area south of the Elephant and Castle. It meant that I had nine Post Areas, about 200 full-time personnel, possibly 400 wardens and several thousand fire guards to deal with. My office staff, besides the Bakers, included two Head Fire Guards, one an ex-lecturer, the other, Mrs Phillips, the wife of one of my brother clergy, the Wellington College Missioner. Both of them were keen and skilled. The five of us therefore covered the District. It was interesting work in addition to being an Incident Officer and a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer. Later on I became an Incident Officer Instructor, lecturing to those who aspired to be Incident Control Officers.

Their task was to be on call from Control to be posted to the major occurrences to take charge, and relieve the burdens of the local wardens. It meant that I had to do a turn of duty on occasions at the main Control Centre in the Town Hall, although this was infrequent in my case.

Although parish life was greatly reduced by the raids and their aftermath, I still had to deal with the day-to-day needs of those who came to the Rectory for help. Bertram Calver was a great help but he finally volunteered as chaplain in the Royal Air Force, so that, for a time, I was single- handed. I did not feel that I could exert much pressure on anyone to start as curate under me in the peculiar conditions prevailing, and my time used up too much in Civil Defence. At the same time, the Civil Defence authorities were desperately short of trained responsible people, as the various armed forces called up more and more of them.

I think that the cumulative strain eventually caused me to have a bout of septicaemia, which the doctor at first thought might be paratyphoid. This was just before Christmas, and Leonard Trengove had just arrived, being ordained deacon on St Thomas’ Day, December 21st, preparatory to becoming my assistant. I had jibbed a little at the idea of having a newly ordained deacon for his first curacy under me, but the Bishop and his training college, The Sacred Society Mission of Kelham, thought that he should come. Poor Leonard!? He arrived to find me in bed, a bombed parish and its church. Our little temporary church was heated to stoke ourselves. Luckily, by two coke-burning Tortoise stoves, which we had from the days of my youth, I had known about the Kelham Fathers, as they were called, some of whom had visited my father’s parishes. One of them, Father Southam, knew Leonard Trengove. So I telegraphed a request to Kelham that, if possible, they should send Father Southam to take over for me. He duly arrived and joined Leonard Trengove in mastering the idiosyncrasies of the stoves, and the ways of our church over Christmas. I lay in bed, listening to the distant obliging of the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I was six weeks getting better. It was certainly a baptism of fire for a new deacon, but fortunately undisturbed by air raids.

Leonard Trengove was a black-haired Celt from Cornwall, descended from tin-miners, and trained during six years by Kelham. He had a first class brain, which he used to good effect even in that bombed parish, among other things that taking his Bachelor of Divinity exams at London University. I was sorry I had no more than a year or so with him, before I was called to take very different sort. He was ordained priest not long before I departed, and he in turn became ill, just before the ordination day. Eileen had to take a taxi with him to the cathedral, straight from his bed of sickness, and bring him back to put him to bed once more.

This was in 1943. By that time, our second daughter, Judy, had been born, like her sister, at home in the Rectory, on July 8th, 1942. In spite everything, we had a family life in our own home, denied to so many of my parishioners, whose children were either in the Forces or evacuated all over the country. Many of my colleagues in the surrounding parishes were living in miserable conditions, their vicarages damaged, their families dispersed. I remember the Bishop, when we entertained him in the Rectory, remarking on the fact that ours seemed to be a normal family household, as if it was a refreshing oasis in the desert of the diocese. I am certainly aware of how much I owed to my wife and family. I do not think that I would have lasted as long as I did without them. So many of my wardens faded out through lack of home amenities.

But I was destined to move out. That is another tale.

After all the years that have passed since the war, memories inevitably become polarised by those events, which left the deepest impression. The first raids during the autumn of 1940 therefore, have illuminated the picture I paint with the strongest colours. The years that followed seem to have left less positive traces. But before I end the story of them, I will pull out a few snapshots from the album of my mind. They may add gentler shading to the more violent scenes recorded so far.

After the bombing of the crypt shelter, Admiral Evans, the Regional Commissioner, who had visited us when I was asleep, never seemed to forget me. He organised, with the help of important friends, special shows in London theatres to which he invited different groups of those people who were involved in the bombing. I often received an invitation to these, although they might be intended for groups to which I did not belong. For instance, I attended a special matinee of a West End show, given for all the office cleaners of the City. About 4000 charladies made up the audience, with a few VIPs such as the King of Norway, Prince Olaf and Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, who sat in the stalls, one of which I was allotted. All around us, in the pit, the circles and the gallery, sat tier upon tier of cheerful, noisy London ladies, who were as entertaining as the cast of the show. You could not have found a livelier audience.

On another occasion, I attended a special matinee when Tommy Trinder was the compere, and the audience included a group of Chelsea Pensioners.

In this way, Admiral Evans paid tribute to some of those who were spending long hours in the service of the community. The office cleaners, for example, used to spend their nights in shelters, and then travel up to the City while the roads were still obstructed with craters and debris, often finding themselves having to deal, not only with the dirt of the previous day, but with broken glass and with fallen plaster.

Among the many different services, I think that the Women's Voluntary Service drivers deserve a special mention. Every night during the raids, they drove down to my Post Area, for instance, as they did for all the others, carrying urns of tea and soup, to be distributed in the public shelters. My messenger Jenner used to tell me how he met these girls in their vans at the edge of our area to guide them round the various shelters. This often had to be done, while incendiary bombs were falling around them. He remembered many times seeing incendiary bombs bounce off the bonnet of the van.
The Salvation Army also provided this service on occasions, but we mainly had the W.V.S., who also provided much appreciated mobile canteens for the personnel working on a big incident. I do not know if any of those young women received medals, but I certainly think they deserved them. So also did my messenger, Ted Jenner, who ran constant risks, always turned up smiling, and only finished when he went into the R.A.F.

I salute also a band of young girl messengers, attached to Post 14 in my District. They moved around among the bombs as bravely as any of the men, although they were in their ‘teens’.

Somebody also, whom I admired very much, was the local Police Surgeon. He was an older man, but never failed to turn out to help the wounded, when we asked for his aid. This was in contrast to the two young doctors, husband and wife, who had a local practice, and had been supplied by us with some gas clothing and equipment with a view to their help, when bombing started. They were never available, when we knocked on their door, and one day disappeared completely from their home, leaving their 4000 or so panel patients to be cared for by doctors in neighbouring practices.

Such changes of heart produced some curious political aerobatics. The Borough of Southwark was dominated by the Labour vote, part of which came from those who were nearer Moscow than London in their allegiance. As long as the Soviet Union was neutral or in alliance with Hitler, they were opposed to everything suggested by the National Government. This led to the poor state of preparedness, when War broke out, of Civil Defence in our area. Even after the war started, I found certain of my wardens holding little meetings among their colleagues, whom they tried to stir up to make trouble with the authorities responsible for Civil Defence. When I discovered this, I was in no doubt that they were embarking on a campaign of sabotage. I did not encourage their membership of my Post, and they soon disappeared from the scene.

A very different attitude was adopted by our crypto-Communist friends, when Soviet Russia became our allies. Then, they quickly organised a British-Soviet Unity Committee in aid of their Russian comrades. They asked the Mayor to be the President of the Committee, but he, being a Roman Catholic, refused the invitation. Then they asked me. I thought ‘They tried to infiltrate our organisations I will do the same to them.’ So I became the President of the Southwark British Soviet Unity Committee. I am afraid that I did this with my tongue in my cheek. I had great sympathy for their Socialist feelings: working in the depressed area of Kennington and Walworth for eight years or so made me sympathise with anyone who was struggling to improve the lot of the poor. But I had made a point of reading the most informed and independent studies of Soviet Russia that I could obtain. These had led me to believe that the Communist State would progress as long as there was the stimulus of new discoveries by the free world, that it would so discourage independence of thought that, in the long run, if the Communist system prevailed through the world, stagnation would set in.
I have always been convinced that individual and regional ideas should be encouraged and preserved, and that the centralising tendency of the State tends to smother them. One of the great strengths of the Civil Defence was its voluntary basis. It was amply demonstrated to me in my work with the Wardens’ service. Later on, I was to experience the same sort of thing in the Lifeboat Service. 

Because I was a volunteer, unpaid, I was free to do and say things which ought to be done and said, on behalf of my full-time, paid staff. I think that the Senior, full-time, staff also appreciated this fact and were correspondingly grateful and helpful. I certainly had very good co-operation from the officers of the Civil Defence in my borough, notably from Mr E.J. Prew, the Chief Warden and Mr Willmore, the chief training officer.

But what of my parish? I think that it is very likely that many of the congregation did not fully appreciate the necessity for the civil defence work that I did. They naturally expected more attention from their Rector than they received during the war years. Inevitably, my curate and I could not do all the civil defence work that we did without neglecting many duties as parish priests, which, in normal times, we would have carried out. But we both knew that love of our flock meant not only caring for their souls, but for their physical needs as well. In this, we were following the example of many devoted parish priests in Walworth for many years before our time. We simply could not say our prayers, while vital material needs of our parishioners were unsatisfied. It had been forced upon in the chaos of the first weeks of the war, that our parish needed the leadership in Civil Defence that we alone were free to give.

Nevertheless, when the time came for me to leave the parish, one thing was crystal clear in my mind. I must, once relieved of the long hours of duty in Civil Defence, put my priestly duties, my prayers, and spiritual discipline, in the first place. To have time and opportunity to celebrate the Holy Communion regularly every day, and say Morning and Evening Prayer, without too much interruption, was rather like suddenly finding an oasis in the desert.

Of course, after the first Blitz of 1940-41, we had long spells without air raid warnings. Church and family life, in Walworth even, became more normal. Thumbing through old diaries of that time, one is surprised to notice the church activities that revived and carried on. And yet, there was always the threat of further bombing; you never knew from moment to moment what might happen. I found myself involved in a lot of organisation, perfecting those sections of my district, which had gaps in their arrangements, many of which were caused by the bombing. Towards the end of my time, in 1943, we were being prepared for possible mass, incendiary raids, by large-scale exercises with the fire Brigade, involving Group mobilisation of the services. Although I was supposed to be briefed with all the secret information about German weapons, likely to be used on us, there was never a whisper of the possibility of flying bombs or rockets, the V1’s and V2’s, as they were called. They arrived unannounced on London, as far as wardens were concerned, after I had left the parish, in the spring of 1944. During those large scale exercises, I did not realise that they were secretly preparing us for a concentrated attack from something much more explosive than fire-raids.

If I had known what was going to happen, I might have listened more sympathetically to the appeals by the Town Hall authorities for me to stay, when I did warn them early in 1944 that I was being asked to take charge of a parish in a defence area in Norfolk. This was Caister-on-Sea, the most easterly coast of the British Isles. I replied to their appeal by saying, ‘What are you worrying about? It is all over bar the shouting.’ I mistakenly imagined that the Second Front, heralded at that time as imminent, would make it even more unlikely than ever before that London would be raided. I take my hat off to the tight security that surrounded the possibility of flying bombs and rockets. Certainly, the nerve of many people left in London would have been severely strained, if they had heard rumours of what the Home Office knew might happen.

One result of the flying bombs, as far as I was concerned, was that I received some sarcastic letters from my erstwhile, colleagues after I had moved to Norfolk. The flying bombs did a great deal of structural damage to many of the streets in my area, which still survived the earlier raids. The blocks of flats, which replaced them, make it difficult to trace their outline, thirty years or so later.

An added sting to my colleagues’ jibes came when I received the British Empire Medal in the Birthday Honours, a year later, probably on their recommendation.

In oilskins he is just another working member of the famous Caister-on Sea, Norfolk, life-boat crew. But underneath his sea coat is the clerical collar of the parish priest. The Rev. John Gabriel Markham, Rector of Caister, always answers the call when the 'Jose Neville' puts to sea on a mercy mission. The Rector goes through launching drill here with the Coxwain and Chief Mechanic, Jack "Skipper" Woodhouse. Back from a recent all-night vigil helping a fishing-boat in distress, the Rector stepped off the life-boat just in time to take an early service. 1959.

The above content is from the private papers of Reverend John Gabriel Markham, held at the Imperial War Museum in London.
This 50 page memoir written in the 1970s and entitled 'The Church Under Fire', concerns Rev. Markham’s involvement with Civil Defence when he was Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, SE17, prior to and during the Second World War, with descriptions of his work organising rudimentary Civil Defence for his parish at the time of the Munich Crisis, September 1938, preparing for the evacuation of local children and converting the crypt of his church for use as an air-raid shelter in early 1939, his appointment as ARP Post Warden in early 1940 and his responsibilities for training ARP wardens and Fireguard parties under his control, the evacuation of the church school, the effects of the Blitz, with references to conditions in public shelters and looting, his work as a Bomb Reconnaissance Officer, and final promotion to District Warden before moving to another parish outside London in 1944.

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