Saturday, September 24, 2022

How post-war newspapers reported on children and bombsites

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When I was writing my article on children and bombsites and post-war British films I thought that what I should do is look at contemporary newspaper reports to see if they reflected the themes I had picked up.

Today I found that Rose Staveley-Wadham has already done it for me on the British Newspaper Archive site, and those themes are certainly present in the reports she had picked out.

There are stories suggesting a positive site to bombsites, but they do not celebrate children's freedom there so much as their organisation by adults.

So you can read about a bombsite garden party for children in the East End in 1952 and of Princess Margaret visiting a garden laid out on a bombsite by the pupils of a girls' school the following year.

It also turned out that German bombing was a godsend to archaeology in that it led to discoveries including a Mithraic temple in the City of London and the first cathedral in Coventry (which you may remember from a Time Team visit).

The idea that is was mothers who led the campaign to have something done about the bombsites is supported:

In March 1950 ‘housewives’ from Croydon protested ‘at the state of the bombed site in the vicinity of their homes,’ on Wilford and Forster Roads, as reported the Croydon Times. The newspaper detailed how:

The women want the bomb site cleared and houses built on it. They claim that as it is at present, a veritable dumping ground of all kinds of rubbish, it is a germ trap, a rat breeding ground and a danger to the health of their children.

And the Croydon Times tells us what happened next:

At three o’clock on Wednesday a number of women gathered in the centre of Wilford-road, carrying in front of them posters with slogans such as ‘Remove the war scars’ – ‘Give us homes.’ … As the women paraded round the block, others still in their aprons, without hats or coats, came out from their homes to join them.

Standing on an old water tank, Ann Waddell issued her rallying cry:

When you see what Croydon is and what it boasts of, this ‘scrap heap’ is an absolute disgrace. We want it cleared and homes built on it. It is an ideal site for houses or flats. We don’t want children cutting themselves on tins or taking back to their homes germs which might well start an epidemic.

There were, as I suspected, children who died playing on bombsites:

On 2 October 1950 the Northampton Chronicle and Echo reported how three boys from Southwark ‘were playing on a bombed site when the wall of a half-demolished house fell on them.’

The scene was a desperate one. ‘Women and a priest prayed on the street’ as men dug through the rubble to find the three boys, one of whom, Johnny Davies, who was just twelve at the time, lost his life in the accident.

Meanwhile, in February 1958 the Daily News (London) reported on the death of eight-year-old Kenneth Edwards on a bomb site in Hackney. He had been returning home from school across a bomb site with his friend Michael Aarons, when ‘the ground gave way beneath them and they fell 10 feet into an old cellar.’ Michael found himself landing in a ‘disused bath,’ but Kenneth was covered by a ‘ton of rubble.’ Sadly, Kenneth did not survive.

In the same year the Daily Mirror reported on the case of Dorothy Aldrich from Paddington, who at six-years-old had been playing a game of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ on a bomb site. She had fallen ’20 feet through a glass skylight,’ resulting in her skull being fractured. Dorothy was ‘unconscious for eighty-five days.’

In my article I suggested that there might have been tensions between developers who took over the bombsites as the Fifties progressed and the children who were used to playing there. 

Again, it seems I was on to something as when Dorothy Aldrich and her parents sued the demolition contractors responsible for the site, there followed an extraordinary outburst from Mr Justice Cassels, as captured by the Daily Mirror:

"Menace" of the Bomb Site Kids

Many of the children living in the district south of Paddington Station, London, are a MENACE, Mr. Justice Cassels said in the High Court yesterday. 

He added: "They respect neither persons nor property. They are UNDISCIPLINED, DESTRUCTIVE and REGARDLESS OF AUTHORITY." 

They present a problem which is insoluble."

This is a reminder that the Fifties were not the cosy decade we tend to see them as. For one thing people were concerned about juvenile delinquency, or at least 81-year-old judges were.

Still, the Mayor of Paddington, Councillor A.N. Carruthers, spoke up for the borough's younger residents - " I do not think that Paddington children are worse than any other children" - and Dorothy won her case.

On a final point, I did consider mentioning where London's last remaining bombsite is or was, but was unable to find a clear answer. But Rose Staveley-Wadham has given me an answer much nearer her home.

In 1950 the Leicester Daily Mercury reported that a bombsite in the city was to become a municipal car park. And that car park, on Dover Street, is still there today.


Anonymous said...

Interesting as ever. The Dover Street site in Leicester hasn't always been a car park. Until the early 90s it was the site of a VW garage called Castles. The Leicester planning portal is a good source of info. It shows that the original (1992) permission was for a temporary car park but it was renewed in subsequent years. Interestingly, the site was owned by Stead and Simpson.

Jonathan Calder said...

Thank you. I must have got carried away when I saw the reference to Leicester. The funny thing is that I must have seen that garage but have no memory of it.

The site in the newspaper report was on the corner of Albion Hill and Dover Street. Albion Hill is today's South Albion Street, but it obviously used to carry on further in the same direction before the post-war redevelopment of the area.