Sunday, 4 September 2016

The 'other' St Paul's - the first church in London to be bombed

St Paul's Church in ruins with Rev. Campling inspecting the damage (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

It is sometimes hard to believe that I am now well into the seventh year of writing this blog. Like everything, it has evolved and what was once a twice or three times a month post, has now settled into a usually monthly piece, usually about the Second World War, although sometimes we have wandered into the realms of the earlier global conflict as well as occasionally moving forward to the Cold War. We have also moved into the world of book reviews, usually World War Two related but not always. The joy of writing one's own blog is that the rules of what can and can't be included can always be bent slightly, just so long as one doesn't become too self indulgent!

This morning though, whilst posting my regular Battle of Britain related Twitter feed, I was reminded of an anniversary which directly affected my own locality and which was a precursor to the wider Blitz on London and other British cities. This incident formed the basis of the very first post on this blog back in April 2010, so with a few slight updates, it seems an appropriate time to re-post the piece today.

In Charlton, southeast London, at the junction of Fairfield Grove and Charlton Lane stands a small and fairly unremarkable block of flats known as St Paul’s Close. The name of the block gives a clue to the building that previously stood on this site and with the anniversary of this building’s demise upon us, perhaps it is time to recall St Paul’s Church, which has the sad distinction of being the first church in London to be destroyed in the Second World War, pre-dating the official beginning of the London Blitz and the image of which can be seen on the Home page of our main website.

The site of St Paul's Church in 2016 (author's photo)

The origins of this church go back to November 1st 1862, when an Order in Council constituted the district of St Paul’s Charlton. This was a response to the influx of new residents to the suburb caused by the growing industrialisation of the area which subsequently became known as New Charlton and as a result of this growth in the populace, the existing parish churches of St Luke’s and St Thomas’s in Old Charlton were neither large enough or conveniently enough located to accommodate these new worshippers.

The cornerstone of the new church was laid in June 1866 by Sir Thomas Maryon-Wilson, the Lord of The Manor and was consecrated on Tuesday March 19th 1867, having cost £ 5,500 to construct. The church was constructed from brick with stone dressings and the interior was faced in Suffolk white with red and blue Staffordshire bricks in bands and devices. A half-life sized group depicting the conversion of St Paul carved in stone and overlooking the altar table was the most striking feature of the new church. A seat at the upper end was marked for Sir Thomas Maryon-Wilson, patron of the church and the Baronet’s Arms surmounted the Reredos. The church could accommodate 900 but due to heavy snowfall on the day of the consecration service, the numbers attending were kept down to a mere 600!

A few years after the church was completed, the building began to suffer from subsidence on the north side but the structure was strengthened in 1885 by adding a new inner arch over the chancel and at the same time a substantial new bell porch surmounted by a single turret was erected and a 35” bell made by Messrs Mears & Stainbeck was installed in memory of the Rev Canon WH Pritchett, the first Rector of the Parish. Upon the subsequent demolition of the church, this bell was sold to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1951.

St Paul's Church some years prior to destruction (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

In 1934 a new Reredos was presented by Miss Helen Swinton in memory of her parents, Mrs Helena Swinton and Lt Colonel Arthur Swinton, late of the Royal Bengal Artillery who was author of ‘The Green Curve’, a volume of short stories of military and native life in India.

By September 1940, Britain had been at war with Germany for a year and the Battle of Britain was at its height. After initial attacks upon shipping targets in the Channel and along the East Coast, the Luftwaffe's attacks had become focused largely on the RAF's airfields with a view to knocking Fighter Command out of the war, thus leaving the skies clear prior to a land invasion. Whilst attacks on some individual airfields had been devastating, the only airfield to have been put out of action for any length of time had been RAF Manston, in Kent. Other airfields such as Kenley and Biggin Hill had been put out of action for short periods but the Luftwaffe, who never did understand Fighter Command's system of Interlocking Groups and Sector Stations, failed to press home their attacks sufficiently to cripple the RAF's fighter defence. Their intelligence was vastly over confident and was based upon the assumption that as soon as an airfield was bombed and damaged, then it was simply out of action. According to them, the RAF was on it's knees and it was a matter of time before the attrition rate saw Fighter Command neutralized. The British aircraft industry was also targetted with attacks on the Supermarine factory in Southampton, Short's in Rochester and Vickers Armstrong at Brooklands causing great damage. Once again though, these attacks were never pressed home and rarely repeated; British aircraft production actually rose in 1940 and outstripped German efforts for the first time during this conflict. At this time, London was strictly off limits, by order of Hitler himself, perhaps in the hope of still bringing the British to a negotiated peace.

However, on the night of 24th/25th August, London was bombed for the first time, supposedly by mistake due to a navigational error on the part of a small number of German bombers aiming for the oil refineries at Thameshaven. Bombs fell upon east and north London and although damage and casualties were minimal, Churchill ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin. The disruption caused by the RAF was also slight but Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler's deputy had previously boasted that no enemy aircraft would fly over Reich territory. The resulting loss of face and outrage within the Nazi Regime following this raid caused Hitler to switch the Luftwaffe’s attention from Fighter Command’s airfields to full scale attacks on London, thus also taking the pressure of the RAF's airfields.

Reputedly the site of the first bomb on the City of London at London Wall (Author's photo)

Even so, what became known as The Night Blitz was not to start until Saturday 7th September, so the raid on the evening of Wednesday 4th September was very much a new experience for Londoners and the citizens of Charlton in particular.

Shortly before 9.40pm a High Explosive bomb entered the church through the roof and completely destroyed the building. The Rectory, a few hundred yards from the church also suffered with smashed windows, ceilings down and walls damaged.St Paul’s was the first London church to be destroyed and the following day, large crowds numbering thousands of people came to view the ruins. Sadly, the novelty value of seeing a building ruined by bombing would soon wear off and sights such as these would become all too commonplace, not only in London but in towns and cities across the whole country during the next five years.

The ruined interior (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

A few items were salvaged from the ruins of the church but the Church Commissioners considered that the structure was beyond repair and it was immediately de-consecrated. The crucifix and two attendant figures, part of the Reredos were salvaged and after restoration, placed in the Lady Chapel of nearby St Luke’s Church but the gutted building remained an empty shell until the end of the war, when it was finally demolished. War Damage Compensation was assessed at £ 3,823 in July 1943 with the parish divided back to its pre-1862 boundaries and split between St Luke’s and St Thomas’s Parishes. The site itself was sold for £ 2,000 in 1956 to Greenwich Borough Council who built the apartment block that occupies the site and gives the clue by its name as to the former usage of the site.

The interior of St Paul's before destruction (Greenwich Heritage Centre)

A far more famous St Paul’s in London became an iconic symbol both of The Blitz and British defiance to Nazi tyranny, whilst the ‘other’ St Paul’s today is largely forgotten but which in its own small way is an important reminder as to what Londoners faced in those dark days of 1940. 

Published Sources:

A History of Charlton, John G Smith - Privately Published, 1975

Unpublished Sources:

Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich Civil Defence Incident Log
Author's Family Recollections