ADVERTISER 150: East End gets used to daily life in air-raid shelters in the Blitz
- Credit: Archant
1940: The War has been going a year, but the Blitz has only just begun, with nightly air-raids on London by Göring’s Luftwaffe. The East London Advertiser’s 150th anniversary lookback at the big stories over the years comes across the incredible tale of one man battling to make shelter life bearable for the East End’s poor, Mickey Davis, a midget in size but a man with a giant heart who hits the headlines at home and even in the American wartime press...
1940: Families get used to shelter life in the London Blitz as the bombing from nightly German air raids continues for five long months, well into 1941.
Shelter communities emerge at two East End refuge centres housing thousands of people—at Spitalfields Market in Brushfield Street and at the Tilbury goods rail terminal in the Commercial Road.
Optician Mickey Davis—at 3ft 3ins tall, known affectionately as “the Midget with a giant heart”—organises shelter life in the basement of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange.
He campaigns for Stepney borough council to improve health and safety, with 2,500 people crammed into the shelter each night, coping with lack of sanitation or facilities for food, lighting and heating.
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Mickey sets up first aid and medical units, raising money to equip a dispensary, persuading doctors and stretcher-bearers to come in when they are off duty to aid the sick and injured.
He persuaded companies like Marks & Spencer to donate food to run a shelter canteen, the profits of which were used for free milk for children—the fore-runner of the post-War welfare state.
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The government finally bows to pressure to improve shelter life. It appoints official shelter marshals and Mickey is being replaced, mainly it’s thought because he has been a thorn in the side of the authorities.
But the first action of the defiant Spitalfields shelter committee is to vote Mickey Davis to be their marshal.
Mickey’s shelter in 1940 has a free medical service up and running eight years before the NHS is established after the war.
His fame spreads and even American war correspondents write about “the midget with a giant heart”.
London, February, 1941: The London correspondent of Stars & Stripes writes: Take one big basement in the East End which holds around 3,000 people, a dwarfted man named Mickey Davis comes only to my waist. He has not been out of that shelter since last September except for the occasional walk. He works day and night. And he doesn’t get a cent for it. People idolize him.
“There’s something about living underground,” he told me. “You stray down here so long you don’t even want to go outside. Then when you do go out and get accustomed to the fresh air again you don’t want to come back down.”
There are thousands of ‘Davises’ serving these harassed people of London.
A mile away from Mickey’s shelter at Spitalfields Market is ‘The Tilbury’ in the basement of Whitechapel’s huge railway goods terminal in Commercial Road, one of London’s largest public air-raid shelters.
It is supposed to cater for 3,000 people—but numbers swell to 10,000 every night by the second week, all seeking shelter, and as many as 18,000 at the height of the Blitz.
The gates open in the late afternoon and crowds rush in to claim whatever space is available.
A witness for the government’s Mass Observation programme describes ‘The Tilbury’ as “a cavernous immensity held up by rows of arches, old and solid, giving a church-like atmosphere, so huge and dim that the end seems out of sight”.
The vast terminal built in 1886 by the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway, is 500ft long and 90ft high, solidly-built.
‘The Tilbury’ becomes home to a slowly-emerging shelter community with its own committee, medical facilities, entertainment and even its own shelter newspaper.