How Romford prepared for the Blitz

The Brewery, Romford, was hit by rockets in December 1940. Picture: Brian Evans

The Brewery, Romford, was hit by rockets in December 1940. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Archant

Eighty years ago Havering’s volunteers mobilised to cope with the expected Nazi bombing onslaught, says Prof Ged Martin

On September 7, 1940, waves of German aircraft unleashed the terror-bombing of the Blitz upon London.

In 1938, with war looming, the government had warned local authorities to organise air raid precaution (ARP) schemes. As with Covid-19, nobody knew how devastating bombing might be.

To mark its promotion to borough status the previous year, Romford had built a new Town Hall (now Havering’s headquarters). Its reinforced basement, designed for storage, became the Report Centre, containing a control room which co-ordinated responses to “incidents”, a switchboard, an office and a dormitory stacked with bunks.

READ MORE: Havering’s grandstand view of the Battle of Britain

Personnel were allowed to smoke. With “the nervous tension induced by war conditions, the atmosphere was often somewhat cloudy”.

The machine was headed by a controller. Poor health quickly forced Councillor G.F. Chaplin, an estate agent, to hand over to Labour Alderman William Russell, who did “magnificent work” throughout the Blitz. He left public life in July 1945, saying it was “imperative he take a rest”.

The Report Centre team included the borough engineer, the medical officer of health, representatives of the fire service and of gas, water and electricity utilities. Youngsters with bicycles waited patiently through long hours but provided vital communications when phone lines were blasted down.

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Home Guard sentries stood ready to defend the Town Hall against Nazi parachutists. Hornchurch had a similar operation at Langtons in Billet Lane.

The Report Centre controlled civil defence depots in the market, Havering Road and Oldchurch Road. The destruction of the Oldchurch base in a December 1940 air raid was a blow, since it was also the ambulance headquarters.

Other services came from first aid stations, rescue parties and road repair teams. The ARP operated through 43 wardens’ posts. In the British tradition of burdensome bureaucracy, wardens were supposed to complete report forms to provide a permanent record of bombs that fell: one commented that he was more concerned during air raids with his posterior than with posterity. The Romford joke that ARP stood for ’Anging ’Round Pubs was forgotten when an unexploded Nazi landmine hit Birkbeck Road, on September 23, 1940, forcing the evacuation of one thousand people.

A bomb disposal squad removed the detonator but the Army lacked manpower to remove the still-dangerous monster.

On October 5 volunteers and council staff gingerly loaded it onto a lorry which was driven by a roundabout route to Bedfords Park. There the bomb was blown up, and Rush Green people returned to their homes.

Public air raid shelters, supervised by volunteers, accommodated only one tenth of residents.

The government’s outdoor Anderson shelter was unpopular, because in Havering back gardens it usually flooded.

The borough engineer, F.V. Appleby, designed an alternative, nicknamed the Appleby Dumpling, but many people slept under their stairs. Even a dining table might give some protection against falling rubble.

In 1940, everyone assumed that men would perform masculine roles like searching for survivors in bombed buildings, while women would staff mobile kitchens and run centres for the homeless. But with so many males away in the forces, gender roles became blurred.

Large numbers of firewatchers were needed to tackle the menace of incendiary bombs. One local recalled “the horror which filled many of us mere men at the possibility of having women on duty with us”, but in emergencies it was all hands to the stirrup pumps.

Fortunately, some preparations weren’t needed.

READ MORE: Food gifts from Australia helped Havering in grim post-war years

Romford Council distributed 62,000 gas masks. The Nazis never dropped poison gas.

Invasion committees were formed for Romford, Collier Row and Noak Hill, to evacuate residents should the Germans land. They never came.

Although Havering was not the bombers’ chief target, Peter Watt’s book, Hitler v. Havering, lists 148 people killed between September 1940 and July 1941.

Of course, local politics today involves vigorous, even divisive, argument. But, 80 years on, let’s look at Havering’s Town Hall as symbolising a community that was united, prepared and defiant.