The Gurney Street incident 6 June 1942

If today we were to stroll around the new Elephant Park development, built on the site of the old Heygate Estate, we might hear joyful children playing in the new water feature or in the playground in New Lion Way.  If we were somehow transported back 80 years to 6June 1942 and walked the same course, we also may have heard happy children and seen people relaxing in what was then called Gurney Street. At the turn of the 20th century, Gurney Street and the streets around it had been in one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in London.

Architectural drawing produced for inquiry into Gurney Street Bomb. Courtesy the National Archive

Close to the Elephant and Castle, the area had been pounded during the Blitz and bomb-damaged houses stood all around. Though entry to these was officially prohibited, they became exciting playgrounds for local children, many of whom had returned from evacuation now that the worst of the bombing was over.  One of these damaged houses was 6 Gurney Street which had been hit on the last night of the Blitz, 10/11May 1941.  Contemporary architectural drawings showed an approximation of the damage which would have been visible in June 1941.  However, little beknown to the residents of Gurney Street, deep within the ruin lay an unexploded bomb which would later wreak havoc.

6 June 1942 was a fine hot day.  The Daily Herald printed a notice that the London blackout would not start till 10:57 pm and would lift at 5 am the following morning.  Many residents were sitting on the steps of their blocks and groups of children were playing cricket with a tennis ball, using old floorboards as bats. Another child was riding up and down on a ‘fairy cycle’.  John Garret, a 43-year-old ARP demolition worker was planting tomatoes.

At around 9:30 pm, as crowds of Cinema goers were leaving the Trocadero Cinema, the ground shook as a large explosion ripped through Gurney Street.  Eyewitnesses recalled seeing a huge plume of dust and smoke rising over the area and the explosion was heard up to 5 miles away. One young boy even remembered seeing a massive steel girder flying through the air.  Once the dust began to settle, a scene of utter devastation was revealed.  No air raid warning had sounded, nor had any enemy aircraft been reported so it soon became apparent that this explosion was likely to have been caused by the detonation of unexploded ordnance.  6 Gurney Street and the 2 houses either side had been completely obliterated and severe structural damage was caused to many other buildings in the neighbouring streets. Glass was shattered up to 670ft away.

Rescue operation at Gurney Street. Photo courtesy IWM

The Civil Defence Services including firemen, heavy rescue squads and medical teams were mobilised to the scene promptly. Immediately treating the walking wounded and searching the ruins for those missing, they were soon joined by members of the public and family members who wanted to help, some scrabbling at the rubble with their bare hands.  Priests were seen among the collapsed buildings offering comfort to the injured and dying. The Rev. A.N. Turner of St. Matthews, Old Kent Road, told newspapers that it reminded him of a colliery explosion with families congregating at cordons set up by the home guard, with people desperate to hear any news of their missing loved ones.

A Canadian soldier called Samuel Schwartz had been in the area when he heard the bomb explode.  He went to the scene and helped to bring bodies out. He continued to assist until Sunday evening but was later arrested, charged with being an absentee from his unit.  Appearing at Old Street Police Court on 10June, the magistrate released him sending him back with instructions of what to say to his officers.  He was not the only soldier who had stopped to help. On 13June, the Daily Mirror printed a ‘thank you’ letter to an unknown Royal Engineer who had assisted on the evening despite having an injured foot.  

Rubble pile in Gurney Street. Courtesy IWM

While the vast majority of rescuers and survivors conducted themselves in a professional, dignified and courageous manner, there were reports of looting from damaged houses, even while the rescue operation was still in progress.   The South London Press carried a story on 12 June where a Mrs Fish said she would ‘String up the looters’ after spending the night trying to locate her family and rescue furniture from her bombed out house, only to find that £15 worth of clothing had been stolen from a pram.  Unfortunatley the ‘Blitz Spirit’ did not spread to everyone as some criminals saw the war as an opportunity to rob and steal. Air Raid Wardens had previously recalled other instances in Walworth, where the bodies of those killed in air raids were robbed of rings and other jewellery.

Ministry of Home Security Map produced after bombing showing extent of damage. Photo courtesy The National Archive

According to the official Ministry of Home Security report, eighteen people were killed, 62 were seriously injured and 72 were slightly injured.  Among the dead were six children under the age of ten. Their bodies were found close together by rescuers.  Mr & Mrs John Garrett lost 3 of their 5 children: Charles age 7, Ivy age 6 and David age 2. They had also been looking after another boy who was killed, Thomas Bishop aged 5.  The family had been living at 65 Gurney Street since being bombed out of De Laune Street in 1941.  John Garrett had to identify their bodies by means of pieces of clothing, rings and a scar. Early newspaper reports said that the youngest, David, had been found clutching a penny in his left hand.  An older son William age 13 had survived but had been buried under a kitchen table by debris. Another son, Tom aged 22, had returned to his army unit after 7 days leave just one hour before the explosion.  His wife was not initially told that her children had died but was later seen being taken from the steps of her wrecked home weeping after hearing the sad news.  Mr Garrett had told the Daily Mirror that his children had never been evacuated as his wife had said that ‘if we were bombed, we would all go together’. 

Mary Ann Wright aged 20 had lived at 45 Larcom Street for two years whilst working at a local lemonade factory, possibly R. Whites.  Her first wedding banns were due to be read the following morning, but she was killed whilst walking home to her lodgings.

9-year-old Sydney Edward Colwell had gone with his 7-year-old sister Sheila to buy ice creams from Roffo’s shop on the corner of Deacon Street and Ash Street.  While Sheila was dawdling along Ash Street, Sydney rushed back to his nans house in the Palatinate Buildings.  Sadly, he was walking along Gurney Street when the bomb exploded, crushing him under tons of falling masonry.  His grandmother, Mrs C Donovan, was reported to have been seen wandering around the blast zone searching for her lost daughter and grandchildren. Sheila had survived, as did Sydney’s older brother Eugene and another sister Norma. Eugene later went on to write an account of the incident which can be viewed at the Southwark Local History Library in the Borough.

BOMB DAMAGE: 1943 (HU 131405) Woman with policeman Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205400962

All the victims should be remembered but Frank Shaw Dawson stands out as a very interesting personality. Though totally inappropriate to modern sensibilities, in the language of the day, the South London Press described him as a ‘British African Negro’ who was a well-known and popular character in the Walworth area.  He was said to have been a stoker in the merchant navy, a boxer in fairground booths, an East Lane tipster and a street vendor.  The 1921 Census showed that he was lodging at 25 Dugdale Street, SE5, and is recorded as being 29 years and 7 months, single and that he was a British subject born in Freetown, Sierra Leone. This would indicate that he was born in January 1892.  His profession is stated as ‘pro music hall artist’.

At the time of his death, Dawson was employed as a foundry labourer by Dewrance & Co. Engineers who had been based in Great Dover Street since the mid-1850s.   One of the many products made by Dewrance during the war were air pressure gauges fitted on the RAFs Lancaster and Wellington bombers.  Like Dawson, many of those killed or injured would have been employed in vital war work in Southwark factories and workshops. 

His funeral is one of the very few mentioned in the aftermath of the incident. As it was likely that he had no known relatives living in London it had been suggested that it would be left to the local council to bury Dawson.  These ‘paupers’ burials’ would have been despised by many of the working classes, so in a kind gesture, friends and employers at Dewrance donated money from the firms Air Raid Distress Fund so that he could receive a proper burial.  

Damage to East side of Gurney Street. Photo courtesy the National Archive

The following Saturday, 13 June, a procession left Simpson and Sons Funeral directors in East Lane, travelling past the Dewrance factory in Tabard Street before moving down Falmouth Road and past the scene of the tragedy in Gurney Street. It then proceeded to Nunhead Cemetery where Frank Shaw Dawson is still remembered on the Southwark Metropolitan Borough memorial along with the other victims of this tragedy.

Many people had lucky escapes and were pulled out of the rubble after being trapped for many hours. Using both heavy machinery and hand tools, rescuers would periodically call for total silence in the hope that any survivors could signal their location. At one somewhat bizarre point, work stopped whilst rescuers watched a wedding taking place at the nearby Crossway church. A new mobile sound location unit was used to try and locate any possible survivors trapped in the rubble.  The Daily Mail had reported that rescuers were using a ‘magic eye to spot bombs’ prompting an angry note from the Ministry of Home Security asking whether anyone at the scene had talked to Daily Mail reporters.  Later correspondence suggests that the newspaper had seen the listening device in operation and ‘either deliberately or through ignorance’ had ‘made a bit of a story about it.’   The search had continued until late on Monday 8 June when Mrs Gudgeon, believed to be missing, had telephoned relatives to inform them that she had been away visiting relatives at the time the blast occurred.

BOMB DAMAGE: SALVAGE, 1942 (HU 129117) Damage was a result of an unexploded, undetected bomb detonating probably over a year after it was dropped. Location: Gurney Street, Southwark. Incident 6 June 1942 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205395239

Anger was directed towards the Civil Defence Services for their failure to identify the danger, which the later official enquiry recorded as being a 1000kg G type parachute mine which had lain undiscovered since when it was dropped on the last night of the blitz, May 10/11, 1941. This had pierced the wall of 6 Gurney Street but had not exploded. However, air raid wardens at the time believed that a 50kg high explosive bomb had exploded and caused the damage observed on the building. Sometime after, the building had been demolished and the debris had been back filled into the crater, unwittingly covering up the mine.  The reason why it exploded after thirteen months was unclear but quite possibly could have been caused by vibration from heavy machinery which had been used in the surrounding area to clear bomb damage. An official enquiry was held at Southwark Town Hall and the Civil Defence Forces were exonerated from all blame and praised for their heroic rescue attempts. However, after this event, further guidance was issued to all Air Raid Wardens about the need to carefully assess their bomb damage reports to minimise the risk of such an event happening again.

There are now probably few people alive who witnessed the incident, but its legacy would cast a shadow over the lives of those families affected for many years.  All losses in war are regrettable but considering many of the people killed and injured had survived the worse days of the Blitz, to die in such a tragic manner, on a beautiful summers evening was a cruel twist of fate.

List of those killed at Gurney Street on 6th June 1942

THOMAS EDWARD BISHOP                   aged 5                     of 56A De Laune Street. Son of Pte. Thomas Edward Bishop, Pioneer Corps. Died at 65 Gurney Street.

EDWARD BRYAN    CARTER                   aged 4                     of 16 Gurney Street.. Died at Gurney Street.

SYDNEY RAYMOND COLWELL 9                                              Son of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert John Colwell, of 66 Brocket House, Union Road, Wandsworth. Died at Gurney Street.

FRANK SHAW DAWSON                         age 43                     Died at 8 Gurney Street.                                                                        

CHARLES MICHAEL GARRETT                 aged 7                     of 56A De Laune Street. Son of John Edward and Jane Elizabeth Garrett. Died at 65 Gurney Street.

DAVIDGARRETT                                      aged 2                     of 56A De Laune Street. Son of John Edward and Jane Elizabeth Garrett. Died at 65 Gurney Street.

IVY ROSINA GARRETT                             aged6                      of 56A De Laune Street. Daughter of John Edward and Jane Elizabeth Garrett. Died at 65 Gurney Street.

WILLIAM ALBERT LAWRENCE                 aged14                    Died at Gurney Street.

HERBERT STANLEY LONGMAN              aged 63                   Died at 14 Gurney Street.

ELLEN MOYCE                                         aged 23 months      Died at 8 Gurney Street.

FLORENCE MAY OLIVER                          aged 12                   18 Gurney Street, Injured at Gurney Street; died same day at Lambeth Hospital.

JOSEPH SOPP                                          aged19                    Died at Gurney Street.           

CAROLINE LOUISA SUMMERFIELD         aged 54                   Died at 12 Gurney Street.

WALTER ERNEST USHER                        aged 4                     Died at 65 Gurney Street.

THOMAS VERITY                                    aged70                    Died at 47 Gurney Street.                                                                      

WILLIAM JOHN WELLS           aged 64                   Husband of Mary Wells. Died at 59 Gurney Street.              

MARY FRANCES WHITEHEAD aged 65                   Died at 12 Gurney Street

MARY ANN WRIGHT               aged 20                  Daughter of William Wright, of 45 Larcom Street. Died at Gurney Street.          

4 thoughts on “The Gurney Street incident 6 June 1942

  1. It was heart-warming and emotional to see the remembrance information of the Gurney Street bombing outside Walworth Town Hall today, (Wansey Street side). Our maternal uncle was Thomas Edward Bishop aged 5, who sadly died that day. There wasn’t much our mum could say about Tommy as she was only 9 herself, but when she spoke of him it was with such fondness, she also said that he was a lovely little boy. Sadly, 6 of the children, Thomas, Walter, Ellen and the Garretts, Charles, Ivy and David are all buried together in one grave (unmarked) in Streatham Cemetery. How tragic that we have been told that we can’t do anything about this as it wasn’t a private burial and give them the remembrance and respect that they deserve.

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    1. Hi Hazel, thank you for this. The Walworth Society are really keen to commemorate all aspects of our local history and the Gurney Street bombing deserves to be remembered. It’s such a shame that the children have an unmarked grave. I’ll email you soon and see if there is anyway we can do something about this.
      Neil Crossfield

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      1. Amazing, thank you so much! Also, incredibly grateful to you for everything that you have done so far.

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  2. My name is Pamela Bishop, Thomas Edward Bishop was my half brother. I remember the Gurney St story, my Mum & Dad told me. I always remember how my dad struggled to talk about it & that he kept Thomas’s photo in a bible, which I now have with photo still there. I Look at this often. I feel sad that the grave Thomas is in along with 5 other children is unmarked.. Tommy Bishop 5, Ellen Moyce 23 Months. Walter Ernest Usher 4. Charles Michael Garrett 7, Ivy Rosina Garrett 6, David Garrett 2. I’m hoping to change this in the very near future . God rest their souls 💙💙💙

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