Black and white photo of a house destroyed by a bomb

While many of the area’s children had been evacuated at the start of the war, plenty remained, and some lost their lives. Locals who lived through these times recalled unimaginable scenes of horror.  

North Woolwich itself became cut off on all sides during the Blitz due to damage to roads and bridges, with emergency services unable to reach those in need. Eventually residents were marshalled down to North Woolwich pier and evacuated up the Thames on any vessel available.

Cyril Demarne, of the West Ham Fire Brigade, recalled that ‘the area from Woolwich up to Tidal Basin was just one mass of flames’. He recalled that North Woolwich Road was blocked by tar silos spilling their loads on to the road.  

He also saw people sheltering at a swimming pool on Oriental Road, Silvertown, only for it to be hit by a bomb. Other residents recalled seeing the water of the docks alight with flames, while sixteen of the seventeen large factories in the area received significant damage from bombs.

While the area never again saw devastation at the levels seen during the Blitz, bombs continued to fall in the area sporadically up until VE Day. Despite having to bear this hardship, the people of Silvertown and North Woolwich showed incredible resilience in the face of adversity.

North Woolwich Station, bomb damage, 7 September 1940 | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

Local resident Joan Plant tells the story of a parachute mine dropping on top of her grandfather’s house on Grenadier Street while all her family were inside. The mine failed to detonate however, and remained lodged in the roof, hanging over the top of the stairs.  

Locals started asking to pop by to have a look at the bomb and parachute, and the family decided to ask each sightseer for a small donation. Collecting almost £900 in today’s money, the family donated the proceeds to the council’s war effort, including money towards the cost of a Spitfire, which went on to fight in the war.

Local resident Stan Harris recalled one drama: 

Our shop and stables in Canning Town, were among the few things left standing after four years of bombings, leaving so much waste ground. One morning it seemed like we were being invaded. Masses of Army trucks full of soldiers suddenly began arriving. The noise was incredible.

Stan and Uncle Tom Cribb, then head of the business, went to investigate.

Tents, guns, provisions, barbed wire and the like were being unloaded and Uncle Tom found out from a commanding officer that the area was being turned into an army encampment. It took a week to set up in an area covering Canning Town, Custom House, Silvertown and North Woolwich.

Stan recalled:

Uncle Tom joked we must have been the only undertakers in the country to have our own armed guards.

Black and white photo of a firestation destroyed by bombs
Silvertown Disaster 1917, remains of Silvertown Fire Station | Photo: Newham Archives Local Studies Library

Even in the funeral business, there are moments of humour. At the celebration of a loved one’s life – these can bring joy to mourners. But in those dark days of Britain’s history, this piece of humour would have done credit to the scriptwriters’ of Dad’s Army.

At Cribbs’ base machine gun fire rang out, blasting the stable and buildings. Groom Jack Stubbs hid fearing for his life. After an hour of silence, Uncle Tom walked in.  

Stan recalled:

Jack said he was scared to death. Gunfire hit near where he was grooming a horse. Amazingly they both survived. Uncle Tom went outside and found a soldier lying flat out with his face blackened up, hiding behind rubble.

Uncle Tom told him: 

Did you just shoot a --ing round into my stables? You nearly killed the horse and groom.’ The soldier apologised, claiming everyone on Commando training thought the entire bombed out area was unoccupied. ‘Sorry guv,’ he said. Uncle Tom got assurances from commanding officers there would be no repeat.

Months later, Stan rode his bike to the base, and everything was quiet and deserted. No sentry on guard and the gates were open.

He said: 

That evening the family tried to work out what was happening. We feared there would be another massive raid and that would be the end. We had a restless night.

All was made clear the following morning on the family wireless. The family listened in amazement.

This is the BBC Home Service. D Day has come. Early this morning the Allies began an assault on the north-western face of Hitler’s European fortress.

Stan said:

We could not believe it, we had invaded Europe. This was the big one. If we failed now, England would be ruled by Hitler.

June 6, 1944, D-Day, saw one of the most audacious and heroic wartime operations of the 20th century. More than 130,000 Allied soldiers landed on the beaches of France as part of Operation Overlord. It was the largest and most difficult land and sea operation ever mounted. Stan said: “It did win us the war.”  

Even years later, it was not widely known that the Royal Docks area played such an important part during preparations for the landings. Leading up to the invasions, more than two million tonnes of stores left the docks. 190,000 tanks and vehicles.  

Many of the concrete artificial harbours, Mulberries, used in the landings, were also constructed at the Royals. Many of the invasion troops left from the docks. They had been waiting in those makeshift camps at rehearsing among the bomb-damaged ruins in the areas.

Even after the war came to an end, its legacy remained on the geography of the area. Many children born during and immediately after the war recall spending much of their time playing in the bomb-sites scattered around the area, while many houses and buildings had to be rebuilt.  

The war lives long in the memory of the area and helped to inspire the image of the stiff upper-lipped, resilient East Ender who laughs in the face of adversity. 

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Busy commuters walking past Henry Reichhold's One Hour installation 2019

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Photo: Newham Archives and Local Studies Library