Since I am now living on the other side of the world to my family and most of my friends this blog is about things I enjoy, things I notice, people I meet, people I miss, history, planning for the future, love and life in general! I guess it's about whatever pops into my head which I want to share with my friends and family... and who knows? I might make some more friends along the way!

25 January, 2010

Tragedy on my doorstep, part 2

Not too far from where I live, just a few stops along the Northern Line, is a station called Oval. It is so named because it is quite close to Kennington Oval where cricket matches are held, presumably in the summer months... I recently took a train to this station for a very different reason. I was looking for evidence of an event that occured in 1940, but it was not until I was writing this & my previous blog that I realised the two events occured almost exactly 24 hours apart. The night after the people of Balham lost 67 of their own to a German bomb, the people of Kennington were similarly struck, but this time the cost was even higher.

Unlike Balham Station, the local authorities were loath to allow people to take shelter at the Oval Underground. The station had been completed, but never put into use, which wouldn't have precluded it from being used as a shelter. The barbed wire, which the authorities had placed around it, however, did prevent the local population from seeking refuge on the platforms as so many thousands of Londoners did that autumn.

The 'lucky' few who had a garden large enough to hold an Anderson Shelter, would stay in their own private place, about the size of a small bathroom, open to the elements, often flooding in heavy rain, and with just a few inches of soil over the top of a curved, corrugated roof to protect them. They did, none-the-less, provide some modicom of privacy.

For the rest of the population who wanted to feel that little bit secure during the nightly bombing raids of the Blitz, there were the public air-raid shelters. These shelters were in a 'trench formation', and were similar to those which were photographed on Clapham Common...

The trenches were covered in cement slabs, covered in a layer of sandbags & soil, and contained wooden benches. The amenities were menial, based on the assumption that a bombing raid would last 1-3 hours and people wouldn't need much in the shelters for such brief periods. In reality bombing raids often continued in waves all night, and when they were brief, the people were loath to relocate to their beds, only to be woken a short time later to return to the shelters... it was more likely that the average person would spend 12 hours at a time, sitting on wooden benches, in damp conditions (there are accounts of the mould & moss growing on the cement ceilings). They were prone to flooding, and with no lavatories on site, they smelled apalling most of the time! (An account of a similar trench shelter in nearby Wandsworth mentions a bucket in the corner behind a hessian 'curtain' for use as a toilet) People would smoke in the shelters as there was no sense of this being a dangerous activity at the time.

None-the-less, people felt safer when they were under the ground, even just a few feet, and so night after night they returned to the apparent safety of the public air-raid shelters which criss crossed the playing fields of Kennington Park.

On the night of 15th October the trenches were filled with women, children, men, the elderly & the infirm - families in general - & they had no hope when the bomb made a direct hit on the north east corner of the trenches. At the time the authorities were overwhelmed by the appalling scene which they came upon. Not only were there injured & dying people trying to escape the nightmare, there were body parts strewn for many feet in all directions... to make matters worse it had been wet recently & the soil in which the trenches were built was unstable, making it almost impossible to dig out survivors. After a night of rescue & recovery, it was agreed that there was nobody left alive in the collapsed trenches, and with recovery workers in danger of being suffocated by the unstable soil, it was agreed to call of the recovery excersize after a couple of days. The unrecovered bodies were covered in lime, and covered over, and it is estimated that there are the remains of approximately 50 people still under the ground.

I visited this site on a bitterly cold day, in january, to see the normal activities of people... folk walking dogs, children on scooters, parents with youngsters, a group of young people playing football... It is hard to imagine that these daily leisure activities go on over the last resting place of so many people, who, just 70 years ago were doing the same things!

There is now a memorial stone in the park, quite close to the site of the bomb landing. It bears a beautiful inscription, a qupte from the poet, historian & author, Maya Angelou: "History, despite it's wrenching pain, cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again."

Let us hope that more people learn the history of this beautiful park, and remember... & do what they can to prevent it happening again.

This blog entry is dedicated to the estimated 104 people who lost their lives that night, & the countless people of Kennington who's lives were never the same again as a result.

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