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History: Bomb turned quiet Collier Row street into scene of carnage

18:00 19 April 2014

Essex Road after the bombing campaign April 19, 1941. Picture: Hitler v Havering by Peter Watt

Essex Road after the bombing campaign April 19, 1941. Picture: Hitler v Havering by Peter Watt

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Tonight is the anniversary of a tragedy that came to Romford and Hornchurch which left the local population shocked and horrified.

A sign? 'Light of the World' by William Holman Hunt escaped unscathed from the Essex Road bombingA sign? 'Light of the World' by William Holman Hunt escaped unscathed from the Essex Road bombing

April 19, 1941 was, without doubt, the most horrendous night the district suffered in damage and casualties during the Second World War.

It became known locally as “Essex Road Night”.

Today, Essex Road, in Collier Row, is a quiet suburban street, but on that April night, it was a scene of hideous carnage when a parachute mine brought death and destruction.

The death toll was 38 – most were women and children. Another mine fell in nearby Hillfoot Avenue, where six more perished.

Grave of the all nine members of the Gill family at Hornchurch CemeteryGrave of the all nine members of the Gill family at Hornchurch Cemetery

This night of terror continued when a direct hit on an air-raid shelter at 144 Brentwood Road, on the Hornchurch border, caused the death of nine members of the Gill family: father George, 64, mother Adelaide, 39, and their children Joyce, 11, George, nine, John, seven, Mary, six, Adelaide, five, Edward, three, and Pamela, 23 months.

This area was in the direct path of German bombers following the Thames to the heart of London, the docks, and the many industrial targets there.

RAF Hornchurch housed fighter squadrons guarding the eastern approaches and was also a prime target.

It was no consolation to the civilian population of the area that enemy planes unable to penetrate the defences of their proposed target would dispose of their bomb load in this area before returning home.

One of the first mines to fall landed at 9.40pm when many were preparing for the regular nightly routine of settling into their shelters.

A whole terrace of houses in Essex Road was reduced to rubble in just moments.

With bombs still falling, the rescue squads worked to extract the living and the dead. Countless pitiful cries for help accompanied their efforts. Overwhelmed, help was sought from county control and aid from Hornchurch, Brentwood and Chelmsford came promptly. Hillfoot Avenue, Carlisle Road, Princes Road, Pettits Lane and Brentwood Road all needed help.

At Essex Road, the work went on through the night and all through Sunday. Even then, in the afternoon of Monday, a crying child was heard. The cries were those of Vera Carter, 10, who, when eventually pulled from the ruins, told her rescuers: “I’m all right.” Sadly, she was wrong. Soon afterwards, she fell unconscious and died that day in Oldchurch Hospital.

She joined her mother and the other residents of Essex Road who died.

There was a mass funeral service for many of the 38 Essex Road victims at St John’s Church, Mawney Road, which was attended by many local residents

Amid the rubble, a small piece of wall still stood, bearing a copy of William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World.

In the sea of devastation, the picture with its glass unharmed was viewed with wonder, bringing comfort, some peace and faith and hope to some.

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