Escaping the bombs

Government plans to provide shelters quickly proved horribly inadequate. Deep public shelters had not been built because the Government thought they would be bad for morale. Instead, they had provided smaller ‘Anderson’ shelters to be installed in back gardens – overlooking the fact that a great many East End properties had no gardens.

Voluntary and unplanned evacuation

Photo:Peggy Durham's family left London at the beginning of the Blitz and relocated to Kemsing in Kent.

Peggy Durham's family left London at the beginning of the Blitz and relocated to Kemsing in Kent.

Peggy Durham

Home Office Intelligence Reports which were being produced on a daily basis at this time, offer good insight into the mood of Londoners during September 1940 as well as some sense of the conditions which were being endured.  On Tuesday 10 September 1940 it was reported that ‘voluntary and unplanned evacuation of East End families continues and although it is largely confined to women and children, some men are also going .... taking with them such of their belongings as they can carry.... without any other apparent objective than to get away from it all.’ It was acknowledged that people weren’t being defeatist – just that they were ‘thoroughly frightened’.  An advertisement on the front page of the Daily Mirror 11 September 1940, offered a remedy to the effects of bombing asking: ‘Splitting Head?  Genaspirin kills pain quickly – time it! At every time of strain or pain Genaspirin sees you through.’

Whilst some may have tried this product, others preferred a longer distance solution. Peggy Durham and her family were among those who left the East End on 10 September 1940.  She recalls her father, who was suffering with TB, telling them:

'I don’t know where we are going, but we’re getting out of here'

Pick up a few things. I don’t know where we are going, but we’re getting out of here. So we packed a bag, picked up a few bottles of milk and off we all went. We had to get to Greenwich...and men were taking people across the water in small rowing boats.  We arrived at New Cross station. My dad looked up and saw Sevenoaks on the board. ‘Right!’ he said, ‘that’s where we’re going’. We sat in the gangway of the train, dirty and no doubt smelly, and drank from the bottles.

Arriving in the countryside at nightfall with nowhere to sleep, the family was helped by a stranger who arranged for them to stay in the village of Seal.  Peggy recalls when the owner of the cottage they were staying in opened the door:

She looked at us and said that the night before she had looked over to London, saw the sky lit up with fire, and prayed for all the people. So God had sent us to her.

Shelters and Rest Centres

By 12 September 1940 it was apparent that many of the Rest Centres for homeless people were overcrowded. In Bermondsey, two such places had already been bombed with great loss of life. That night, a crowd of Londoners forced their way into the underground stations for the first time and the Government, somewhat reluctantly, had to accept their use as public shelters. Some shelters were erected above ground; but these were of inferior quality – often with no cement – and it had never been anticipated that they would be in use for such long periods of time.  There were no facilities for sanitation, food or sleeping.  Blatant immorality in shelters was also a cause for concern. The situation was little better in the crowded underground stations, where the tunnels were used as toilets, lice proliferated and diseases like scabies and impetigo spread rapidly.

The Government responded by trying to improve the conditions in the shelters.  By April 1941 600,000 bunk beds had been installed, along with small coal stoves or electric heaters.  Better arrangements were made for providing food and to counter any apparent collapse of morale, the Government encouraged the image of the cheerful cockney emerging from the rubble with a defiant smile on his or her face.  The night raids became so frequent that they were practically continuous and many people virtually took up residence in a shelter. On the one hand, this gave rise to a new spirit of solidarity and community but when people were unable to gain access to shelters already overcrowded, resentment spread and certain groups such as the Jewish community in the East End were targeted.

As the Blitz continued it was evident that the less affluent residents of the East End were suffering much more than other Londoners.  Many of London’s richer families simply shut up their town houses and moved out to second homes in the country.  The bombing of Buckingham Palace did little to convince the working classes that the civilian population being ‘in the front line’ now extended to the Royal family. 

This page was added by Malin Lundin on 22/11/2011.