The Wars

Bermondsey’s hero in WW1

Bermondsey-born Fred Holmes was one of the first soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross (VC) in the First World War. He was given this award for two acts of bravery on 26th August 1914 during the Battle of Le Cateau just weeks after the start of the war. He carried a badly wounded soldier out of the trenches on his back for two miles until he reached other people who could help.

Fred Holmes was given his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 13th January 1915. Afterwards he was driven through the streets of Bermondsey with the Mayor and was presented with a testimonial and a purse of gold at the Town Hall. He became known as the “Bermondsey Hero.”

On 26th August 2014, Fred Holmes was honoured with a commemorative paving stone marking his birth place on Abbey Street, Bermondsey outside what is now the Bermondsey Square Hotel.

Keeping soldiers safe from gas attacks

Soldiers needed gas masks to help prevent the damage that could be caused by poison gas. Breathing in this gas could cause burns, temporary blindness and even the lungs to dissolve.

John Bell, Hill and Lucas Ltd. opened a factory on Tower Bridge Road in Bermondsey in 1909, making legal drugs and medicines. When war broke out they switched to making gas masks. And they were very successful – the company made over 40,000 masks for the army during the Great War.

Bombs in Bermondsey

This area was a major target during World War II because of all the transport (on the river and the railways) as well as the warehouses and factories.

Between 7th June 1940 and 6th June 1941, 81 high explosive bombs and 1 parachute bomb were dropped on South Bermondsey.

On 29th December 1940 German planes attacked London with powerful bombs causing what has been called The Second Great Fire of London. More damage was done than during the Great Fire of London in 1666. The German air force were clever about timings because the raid coincided with a very low tide so it was hard to get water to fight all the fires that broke out – apparently more than 1500 on that one night!

R.I.P. Mayor Alfred Henley

Mayor Alfred Henley worked non-stop during the Blitz, often sleeping in his office. He would help out where the need was the greatest in those dark days.

Mayor Henley was killed by enemy action on 11th May 1941 outside the Bermondsey Town Hall in Spa Road. This night was the last real night of the “Night Blitz” of 1940/41.

On that sad night he and his brother had just finished some electrical repairs at the Municipal Offices when they heard that Peek Frean’s shelter had been hit. He summoned his driver, Eddie, to take him along to help but was hit by shrapnel from a bomb in Spa Road. He later died of his wounds in hospital. Henley Drive just around the corner is named after him and there is a block of flats named after him too.

Devon Mansions bombed

During the raid which killed Mayor Henley a bomb landed on Building 3 of Devon Mansions, destroying a 20 metre section of the building between Blocks 12 and 13, killing three residents.

Railways and docks bombed

Germany wanted to target the docks because a third of Britain’s overseas trade passed through them. Railways were also bombed to stop people moving around.

At the start of the bombing the government did not allow people to use underground railway stations – they were thought to be far too dangerous. But the population of London took the matter into their own hands and opened up the chained entrances to the tube stations. In the Underground they were safe from the explosives and bombs that rained down on London night after night.

The river wasn’t safe, either. More than 25,000 bombs fell on the docks and the surrounding area. Can you imagine living there at the time?

Take cover!

When the alarm sounded people ran for cover, sheltering under railway arches and bridges.

One of the most well-known arches in Bermondsey was the “John Bull Arch” named after the pub alongside it. It was (and still is) a wide brick-built railway arch with steel girders bridging the road. The pedestrian tunnels were bricked up and used as air raid shelters and fitted out with bunks.

The Arch suffered a direct hit on Sunday 8th December 1940 and more than a hundred people were killed. It happened again in November 1944 killing a further eight people. The first rocket wiped out most of the bridge and caused the railway tracks to collapse onto the road. Two weeks later, after the wreckage had been cleared and a temporary bridge put up, another rocket landed in exactly the same place.

Girl power

Soon after war began women were recruited into the armed forces as nurses, drivers, cooks and telephonists. With so many men away fighting they also worked in factories, on buses and trains and in schools and hospitals.

There were some benefits to working in factories. Apparently Bermondsey women were famous for their beautiful skin and thick hair from working with fish oils used during the glazing process in leather factories.

Around 80,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army to work on farms. Nicknamed Land Girls, because they weren’t really an army, they carried out a wide range of jobs, including milking cows, lambing, managing poultry and ploughing, gathering crops, digging ditches and catching rats.

Initially, Land Girls earned £1.85 for a minimum of 50 hours’ work a week. In 1944, wages were increased by £1 to £2.85. Nowadays that would pay for one coffee in London.

You can see a video about life as a Land Girl