Will it ever be possible to adequately establish a memorial which properly remembers the civilian war dead of Chelsea in the Second World War and for that matter all the service people from Chelsea who have served in the armed forces and did not return home?
Well, I know everyone in Chelsea during times past, present and future would like to do their best.
The slideshow above illustrates the war memorial in Sloane Square and the plaque on a wall at Dovehouse Green adjacent to the registry office and opposite Chelsea Old Town Hall.
This commemorates the 457 civilian war dead. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission at the time of writing (30th July 2023) has records for 462 civilian war casualties in the Borough of Chelsea during World War Two. And there is a brass plaque celebrating the bravery of Chelsea chimney sweep Anthony Smith awarded a George Cross for rescuing survivors of the bombing raid at Guinness Trust buildings in the World’s End in February 1944, and Albert Littlejohn who was given a British Empire Medal.
But this does of course omit any mention of George Woodward who received the George Medal for his rescue efforts in the same incident, and the British Empire Medals awarded to Woodward and his ARP colleagues George Pitman and Wally Capon at Bramerton Street on 9th September 1940.
There is a tablet in Turk’s Row remembering the 74 US serviceman killed in the V1 attack there in July 1944, and a small plaque at Chelsea Fire Station in the King’s Road remembering firefighters who died in Chelsea during WW2 and at other times.
So many of the civilian victims of the Blitz in Chelsea were buried in municipal communal graves at Brompton Cemetery. They do not have headstones and we are sometimes talking about entire families or the subsantial part of them.
It is my intention (with the help of many Chelsea-ites) through research and writing to provide as thorough an online tribute to the casualties of the Blitz in Chelsea as well as the Borough’s service people in the conflicts of the 20th Century’s world wars as I can.
History is not just about buildings, plaques and monuments. It is fundamentally about people.
The record of all WW2 bombing incidents left to us in the archives is largely down to the conscientious and scrupulous work of Chelsea artist Jo Oakman (1900-1970) who worked in the Town Hall’s Food Office by day and, whenever needed, she served part-time as an ARP Warden mainly from the Post Don in Glebe Place.
Jo Oakman (right) wearing her ARP Warden’s helmet and attending the Air Raid shelter in Paulton’s Square Chelsea. This photograph appeared in Picture Post 26th October 1940
It has to be said, it seems she was as full-time (and unpaid) working as an air raid warden as anything she did at the Town Hall.
Jo also sketched and painted water colours and kept a diary during the War which her family donated to the Imperial War Museum. She had been brought up in Battersea, where her father was a popular and respected general practitioner based in the High Street.
She went to Clapham High School and studied at the Slade School of Art before deciding Chelsea was to be her home.
Jo Oakman World War Two water colour sketches. Click on the links to Dave Walker’s RBK&C The Library Time Machine
Two paintings of the temporary bridge built for military purposes to the east of Albert Bridge:
She was a lady devoted to two wheels- a pedal bicycle to get about Chelsea and a motorcycle when visiting her parents after they retired to seaside Shoreham.
Her nephew Alan Wharam did his best to transcribe the hand-written content and left a copy with the local studies centre of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Everything I have learned about Jo Oakman convinces me that she is a veritable legend of Chelsea.
I’m pretty sure I may have passed her occasionally when walking in Justice Walk and Lawrence Street as a child in the 1960s.
I was just a little boy with unruly blond hair and a big mouth who talked too much at the time and given to the Chelsea Old Church choir in the hope that controlled and disciplined singing might keep the noise down at other times.
She would have been the old lady going in an out of number 8 Justice Walk where she had her flat. She was always looking out for cats.
Jo was also known as ‘Oakie’ and described by her friend Mary Glasgow as ‘one of the last of the great Chelsea eccentrics.’ Mary lived across the Walk at number 5 and would leave her cats in Jo’s enthusiastic care though her love and generosity meant she would often overfeed them.
In 1977 she wrote to Jo Oakman’s nephew: ‘One of the most vivid pictures I have of her is of a day when I called to find her toasting, or rather charring, a crumpet over a gas ring. She was at work on a half-finished oil painting, propped up on the window-sill; her bicycle (without which she never went out) was across the fireplace, and the cat, of course, asleep on the bed.’
Mary added that during the war: ‘…she was indefatigable: always ready for any emergency, always at hand with tea-pot or hot-water-bottle, always even-tempered, and of course immensely courageous during raids. She was one of those people who came into their own during the war.’
Leslie Matthews was the full-time Chief Warden at Post Don and wrote after the war that Jo Oakman’s work ‘was done almost entirely outside the [Warden’s] Post, pedalling round the area dodging shell casing fragments or watching raids develop from the rooftop. Everyone knew Jo, she was friends with practically every inhabitant of the area; her local knowledge was always useful and sometimes invaluable … she had drawn up her own code …She deserved official recognition simply for the colossal total of hours she spent on duty going round and showing all the time that the Wardens were on the job. ‘
He added: ‘As I recall her she was very rarely still; trotting off on some errand with short intoeing steps, warm quizzical grin which could speak volumes. Upsetting ‘Authority’ occasionally by filling paraffin lamps on tables meant for preparation of food, or sleeping under the tennis table when it was needed for relaxation; generous to a fault. At one point her superiors in the Food Office tried hard to get her transferred to the full time Warden Service, where she spent so much of her time anyway, but she continued to get her own way.’
The following database is compiled from Jo Oakman’s ‘Bomb Incidents in date order Chelsea 28-8-40 to 3-1-45’, ‘Bomb Incidents in street order compiled from ARP Control Cards & Survey Reports of War Damage held in the Licensing Office of Chelsea Borough Council 4 June 1949’, the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Mortuary Records of Chelsea Borough Council during the Second World War, Google Maps, Satellite images and Street view by embedding, and myriad other sources of books, memoirs and magazine and newspaper publications.
These online pages intersect with links to much more detailed narratives of individual incidents for the Chelsea History and Studies resource which seek to provide the wider social history context of individual streets and their community memories.
Another important tribute must be paid to Alan Wharam and his wife for taking so much trouble to prepare and curate Jo Oakham’s unique diary and archive of an artist recording, drawing and painting the Blitz in Chelsea between 1940 and 1945.
If anyone visiting recognises any mistakes, I would be very grateful to hear from you by way of comment so I can correct them. If you are related to anyone referred to and would like to add information and images to enrich and enlighten their memory and contribution to the life, times and community of Chelsea feel free to contact me by way of the comment facilities and I will do my best to honour them as well as I can.
The Chelsea Borough Council control room at the Town Hall in the King’s Road recorded false alarms and when these have been cited in the bomb incident reports, these have been included along with the correction.
It is difficult to appreciate the terrible noise and confusion that multiple bomb explosions caused combined with rapid anti-aircraft fire.
Chelsea was one of the smallest Boroughs in Britain and anyone following the trail of incidents in the present day will be able to understand how close, for example, a parachute mine exploding on the Embankment could be heard and felt in the King’s Road.
‘Casualties’ includes people injured, treated at first aid posts, taken to hospital, and those who sadly died. Those killed have been given their full Commonwealth War Graves Commission citation along with any further relevant biographical information available from the 1939 Register, previous censuses, Chelsea Borough Council mortuary records, diaries and memoirs, information provided by descendants, and newspaper archives.
There are bombing incidents recorded which stray into the neighbouring Boroughs of Fulham, Westminster and Kensington.
This is usually because injured victims were taken to hospitals in Chelsea (usually St Luke’s, Chelsea Cancer Hospital [now Royal Marsden] Brompton Hospital for consumption and chest diseases, Chelsea Hospital for Women and St Stephens) where they died.
The roof tarrace of the Cheyne Hospital For Children, Cheyne Walk on 15th June 1939 providing a unique view of the rear of Petyt House and nearby stables, the backs of the terraced houses 2 to 12 Old Church Street, and the newly constructed toilet/drainage supplies manufacturing factory of Fraser and Ellis.
Sometimes incidents, particularly incendiary bombs, were not recorded by the Wardens, but became subject to repair claims. These have been listed and explained under the separate heading between 1940 and 1941 of ‘Incidents recorded during between September 1940 and May 1941 but not given a specific date.’
A google map embed may be historical where in recent years there has been the demolition of a building which had been standing between 1939 and 1945.
There would be three major evacuations of children from Chelsea and other parts of London during WW2. From 1st September 1939 to September 1940 there was a ‘phoney war’ with no air-raids on London. Consequently, many children returned to their London homes.
The first evacuation ‘mobilised’ on the day Germany invaded Poland- two days before the famous speech by Neville Chamberlain on BBC radio formally declaring war on Germany 3rd September 1939.
The outbreak of the intensive Blitz from September 7th 1940 not surprisingly led to a second evacuation.
Evacuees of the Second World War- Operation Pied Piper. Imperial War Museum feature
After the heavy raid of May 10th 1941 and Germany’s invasion of Russia, there were much fewer and only sporadic air raids – the worst on West Chelsea 22nd February 1944.
Many children returned to be with their families in London.
But, the deadly attacks by V1 and V2 missiles from June 12th 1944 resulted in a third evacuation until the last V2 attack on Hughes Mansions in Stepney March 25th 1945 and a V1 attack in Orpington on the same day.
Marlborough School children from their Draycott and Sloane Avenue building being escorted across the King’s Road by the famous ‘Moon’s Garage’ in the ground floor and basement of Whitelands House during an ARP evacuation drill and experiment June 13th 1939.
Marlborough was then an elementary school teaching children up to the age of 14. After the enactment of 1944 (Butler) Education Act, it became a Primary School for children up to the age of 11. This was the school which the author attended between 1964 and 1970.
This location at the junction of the King’s Road and Walpole Street is shown below in the Google Street viewpoint from 2008 by which time Moon’s Garage, later renamed ‘The Blue Star’ garage was no more.
An earlier photograph taken of the Marlborough School group crossing Cheltenham Terrace by the Duke of York’s Headquarters features in the outstanding ‘The Library Time Machine’ online blog by RBK&C librarian Dave Walker on this link: https://rbkclocalstudies.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/arp-exercise-1939-031.jpg The contemporary Google street view-point is below.
The 13th June 1939 ARP drill and experiment in Chelsea was the first civil defence exercise of its kind in Britain and gathered huge national media coverage. Many of the reports highlighted the almost carnival atmosphere adopted by Chelsea residents. They found it hard to take it seriously.
Images from the Chelsea Borough Council archives of the 13th June 1939 exercise and the look of bemusement and amusement on the faces of people reflected the light-hearted public mood.
People standing outside the entrance to the Gaumont Cinema in the King’s Road, near the town hall may have been wondering if they were extras in a film to follow ‘My Lady of the Bath’ which was then being shown on the big screen.
It should also be noted that those people with second homes in the country and with the economic means to stay in hotels and boarding houses would often take advantage of these privileges during WW2.
This is why the population of the borough dropped substantially by about 20,000. It also means many more houses were left locked up and empty.
Between September 7th 1939 and the middle of May 1941 there was a regular exodus of the more affluent residents to the country at weekends, though it can also be said that would be the normal mode of living for many of them even before the War- town living during the week for work and country home and estate at weekends.
British Pathé news report on evacuating the children of London in early September 1939 after the German Nazi regime’s invasion of Poland.
Escaping the Blitz documentary- oral histories on evacuation from London during WW2 (made in 2020) (There was input into the project by the legendary Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council local studies librarian and historian Dave Walker)
In 1939-40 Chelsea was one of the most charming Bohemian, cultural and artistic districts of what could be described as the grandest capital city in the world.
It was still the centre of the British Empire and the beating heart of world finance.
The 1931 census recorded a population of Chelsea of 59,031 inhabitants living in one of the smallest boroughs of a city with a population of eight million.
Five years later large parts of Chelsea were in ruins, thousands had been made homeless.
Hundreds of men, women and children had been killed. Unique historical buildings were destroyed and would never be seen again.
The larger context of London is that over one million of its homes had been destroyed and damaged by bombing, 20,000 Londoners killed, and sites of national heritage smashed to pieces and gone forever.
Chelsea’s WW2 story is very much London’s story.
Socially it was much more mixed than it is now.
While it had a legendary reputation for being the place where artists had their studios, writers wrote their poetry and novels, and actors and directors resided before going to their film sets, theatres and the BBC, what is less well known is that it had a considerable amount of technical, and light industry which was turned to important war and munitions manufacturing.
This included the Fraser and Ellis factory in Old Church Street.
The Lots Road Power Station supplied the electricity for the London underground system.
The aristocrats, upper classes, and well-to-do middle classes were equally matched by working class and lower middle-class communities providing the engine and administration for the city’s transport, commercial and public services.
A large number of journalists working in the newspaper industry concentrated in and around Fleet Street liked living in Chelsea because it was a convenient bus ride away on the 11 bus route and quick underground commute from Sloane Square and South Kensington stations on the District and Circle lines to Temple and Blackfriars.
Chelsea had much more private rented accommodation during the 1930s and 1940s than it does now which was also affordable.
Buying freeholds and renting furnished and unfurnished leaseholds was a viable enterprise.
In less affluent areas house owners could earn a living by renting out their rooms as bedsits.
Large town houses with servants and housekeepers, blocks of affluent mansion flats with concierges were matched by housing association trust and council flat buildings.
Examples included Guinness Trust in the World’s End and Draycott Avenue, Sutton Trust in Cale Street, Lewis Trust in Ixworth Place, Peabody Trust in Lawrence Street and Chelsea Manor Street.
Even the Metropolitan Police provided blocks of low-cost rented housing for officers and their families, an example being Wray House in Elystan Street situated close to the new Art Deco style Chelsea Police Station in Petyward and Lucan Place completed and fully operational in 1939.
An aerial view of Chelsea in 1st January 1930 showing The Town Hall, Swan Court and Peabody Trust Estate (Chelsea Manor Street), Chelsea. Bottom left you can see Oakley Street and Margaretta Terrce, top left you can see St Luke’s Church, and opposite the Town Hall on the corner of the King’s Road and Sydney Street, it is possible to see the Chelsea Palace Theatre.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the completion of spectacular developments of modern blocks of mansion flats often with their own swimming pools, laundries, shops and restaurants.
Many were adorned with Art Deco style features and architecture.
Examples included Nell Gwynn House and Chelsea Cloisters in Sloane Avenue, Cranmer House in Whiteheads Grove, Pelham Court in the Fulham Road, Whitelands House in Cheltenham Terrace and Walpole Street and Swan Court in Chelsea Manor Street.
Chelsea Borough Council was planning to invest in and expand its council house provision.
Its largest holding was in Beaufort Street with the complex of Thomas More buildings, and the five blocks of Kingsley, Burleigh, Dacre, Winchester and Cadogan Houses.
There were still as many horses in Chelsea as private cars and so the new garages servicing the internal combusion engine were matched by stables.
Inevitably horses and carts replaced delivery vans when petrol would be the first resource to be rationed.
Chelsea was also a vibrant, and in some respects, rather toxic place for politics.
Again, its attractive riverside location meant it would be a popular London residence for politicians and senior civil servants during the week with its close proximity to Westminster and Whitehall.
West Chelsea and the large Stanley ward with the World’s End area of terraced Victorian tenements and houses with outside toilets was red for Labour, and to some extent Soviet Union sympathetic red for the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The communists would have an office in Chelsea and put up a candidate in the 1945 General Election.
The rest of Chelsea was largely Conservative with some throwback to support for the Liberal Party tradition of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George.
It was also the home of British fascism where the political colour was almost certainly black.
In 1933 Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists bought the Whitelands College building in the King’s Road near the Duke of York’s headquarters- the centre for the country’s territorial army.
Mosley and his black-shirts turned Whitelands into a paramilitary training centre.
They renamed it ‘Black House.’
The “Defense Corps” of the British Black Shirts, or Fascists lined up before their transport trucks in the courtyard of the Black House in London.
They also marched up and down the King’s Road provoking fights with socialists and communists when they turned the bend into the New King’s Road in what was Chelsea’s Labour land.
William ‘Haw-Haw’ Joyce was a key BUF propagandist living in Bramerton Street. He had undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of London and was in the University’s Officer Training Corps (OTC).
In 1935 when King George V and Queen Mary drove to Chelsea in their Silver Jubilee motorcade, BUF black-shirted activists lined the pavements of this part of the King’s Road to give them Hitler style ‘sieg heil’ salutes.
Support for the BUF and Sir Oswald Mosley declined after the controversy over the violent rally at Olympia in 1934 when there were clashes between anti-Fascists and BUF body guards, and the National coalition government introduced public order legislation to outlaw paramilitary uniforms and marches.
The BUF closed down and moved out of ‘Black House’ which was redeveloped into a mansion flat complex by 1939.
Towards the end of the 1930s young Chelsea-ites on the far left and far right had travelled to Spain to take up arms in the Spanish Civil War.
And journalists reporting from this proto WW2 conflict operating as a proxy war between the Axis powers of Germany and Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union came back with full knowledge and experience of aerial bombing of civilians in the Spanish town of Guernica.
The “Phoney War”
Writer, model and actress Theodora Fitzgibbon recalled that between the declaration of war on 3rd September 1939 and 9th September 1940 when the bombing of Chelsea really began ‘Londoners were waiting, always waiting, waiting for news, for buses, for trains…Waiting for bombs that never fell.’
However, there was no shortage of drama, tragedy and incident. Chelsea people were serving in the RAF and fighting The Battle of Britain in the skies.
Chelsea people were serving in the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine and fighting a desperately dangerous hot war at sea.
And ironically the black-out and intensive preparations for the feared bombing of London meant that Chelsea people died in terrible road accidents caused by the black-out conditions.
The worst incident involved the death of the young wife and three children of acting chaplain of St Luke’s Hospital and Chelsea Institution, The Reverend Hill Wilson de Vere White.
He was officially attached to the Parish of Christchurch in Chelsea.
The Clergyman had been in post in Chelsea for four years while his family lived just across the River in Wisley Road, Battersea.
Mrs Jessie de Vere White, 29 years old, and her eight year old daughter Patricia, six year old daughter Sheila and five year old daughter Eileen were travelling in a large 28 h.p. Buick Chrysler car which collided head one with a large heavy goods vehicle in Beaconsfield while on their way to Newport Monmouthshire as part of the evacuation following the invasion of Poland.
The collision took place early on Sunday morning 3rd September on the Oxford Road between Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross the very day Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would broadcast the declaration of war from Downing Street.
Five other people in the Chrysler died including the driver and they had all been friends of the De Vere Whites and had come from Battersea.
Both vehicles burst into flames, blazing furiously and were practically burnt out.
The blackout conditions were blamed for the accident which took place at about 5.20 a.m. just before dawn.
The 30 year old driver of the Chrysler, John James Thomas, had told his mother before they set out: ‘It will be awful driving in this black-out’
Mrs Thomas visited the scene of the crash and said: ‘The car was burnt to a cinder. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life. It was terrible. I could recognise my son only by his hair. The road where the collision took place and the grass verge were burnt. It must have been a dreadful collision.’
The bodies of Mrs de Vere White and her three daughters were driven from Beaconsfield to the family home in Battersea on Wednesday 6th September with the funeral at Morden Cemetery on Friday 8th September 1939 with two hearses, the first containing the mother and the second containing the coffins of her three children.
One of the other victims of the crash was 22 year old Freda Jarvis, a maid employed by the de Vere Whites. Freda, Mrs de Vere White and her children were heading for Blaina, Monmouth in a war-time evacuation.
Freda’s friend, 22 year old Mary Nott was going to be dropped off at Newport.
The Reverend de Vere White said the last time he had seen his wife and children alive was when he said goodbye to them at their home near Clapham Common at 4.30 a.m. on the Sunday morning: ‘All were in the best of health and in good spirits.’
At the inquest, the driver of the lorry, John William Edwards said the black-out regulations had come into force and the accident occured while it was still dark.
His lorry was unladen and he was driving with dimmed side lights and at no time had he exceeded his speed limit of 20 miles per hour.
The night was fine and clear and visibility very good and driving was assisted by the paining of white kerbs and marks on the road.
He told the inquest: ‘The car came straight at me. I do not think it had any lights. It was only six yards away when I first saw it and I was absolutely helpless. Both vehicles burst into flames and my mate was thrown out. I ran round the lorry and dragged him clear and then got a man and woman and two children from the other car.’
Five died at the scene. Three taken to Windsor Hospital, Patricia de Vere White, Pheanis Bell, and Mary Pauline Nott, all suffering from severe head injuries, either died on the way there or soon after arriving.
At the time traffic was rather heavy with people fleeing from districts in and near London who wanted to avoid the expected air raids.
Edwards told the inquest: ‘This car must have been travelling very fast; in addition to being right over on my side of the road it could not have been showing lights or I should have seen them.’
The Coroner added: ‘There may have been lights which you failed to see.’
Help was speedily forthcoming and the eight people were all dragged from their car before any were burnt. They were attended to by police from Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross and other places, a local Dr. Kipping, the Beaconsfield Fire and Ambulance brigades with traffic held up until 8 a.m.
The Coroner recorded verdicts of Accidental death and said ‘I am afraid it is one of those ghastly tragedies of the black-out, but it seems to me it could have been avoided if the car had been travelling at a speed compatible with the black-out. It is perfectly clear from the evidence that this car must have been travelling a a very considerable pace as it left Clapham Common, 25 or 26 miles away at 4.30 and the accident occurred at 5.20.’
The inquest had determind that the Buick Chrysler had travelled twenty five miles in only fifty minutes which at that time and in early war-time black-out conditions was astonishing.
The bereavement suffered by the Reverend de Vere White was understandably catastrophic and in early November he felt he had to leave his work in Chelsea and what had been the family home in Battersea. He was looking for a school appointment.
Most of his work had been administering to the inmates of the Chelsea Workhouse in Sydney Street. The Vicar of Christchurch said: ‘Many have appreciated his cheerfulness and understanding sympathy. His Sunday work began at an early hour, but he was always very punctilious in arriving long before the first service was timed to begin. Institutional work is not easy and the holding of many small services is often exacting, but Mr. White has been really painstaking over them.’
He would die in Ealing at the age of 61 in 1952.
This online resource is still being constructed and added to so remains a work of progress until sign-posted as completed.
Special thanks to Karen White and Chris Pain whose families lived in Chelsea during World War Two, and Malachy John McCauley, also brought up in Chelsea, who have very kindly encouraged and assisted my research. Special thanks to Marja Giejgo for editorial assistance. Research and archive facilities from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council library services, The Imperial War Museum and National Archives at Kew.