How wartime ‘ripple’ led to 600 deaths in east London school is revealed by BBC investigators
- Credit: Christopher Lloyd
The little-known tragedy of a wartime bomb that never exploded—yet had a “ripple affect” causing 600 deaths in an east London school—is being uncovered by BBC investigators.
Painstaking research has revealed the disaster on the 80th anniversary of the South Hallsville School incident at Canning Town when men, women and children perished who were sheltering there for safety during the Blitz.
The story unfolds in a BBC documentary on the London Blitz 80 years ago about families who escaped the UBX, yet met their fate while seeking safety in the school.
A wartime journalist looking into the tragedy later met a people’s champion in Spitalfields five miles away, Mickey Davis, who was running a public air-raid shelter in Commercial Street that historians view as “the forerunner to the post-war welfare state”.
Eight decades on, a series of BBC2 documentary reports begins tonight with families having to be evacuated when the bomb lands on Martindale Road in East Ham the first night of the Blitz on September 7, 1940.
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But it fails to go off, so the people are led “for safety” to Canning Town to wait at the school for buses to evacuate them to the safety of the countryside.
The buses never turn up — the people are left stranded.
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Fleet Street reporter Richard Calder meets the families put up in cramped conditions at the school and writes in the Daily Herald that “there’s going to be a disaster unless something is done”.
His tragic prophesy comes true the very next day when the school gets a direct hit during another German air-raid, killing everyone sheltering there.
“It puts Calder on the warpath as a campaigning social journalist,” BBC producer Tim Kirby said.
“Calder comes across Mickey Davis’s public shelter in Spitalfields in his investigation and sees the outline of what we later come to call the welfare state.”
Calder has been looking into the South Hallsville tragedy when he meets the man known as “Mickey the Midget”, just 4ft tall, who runs the air-raid shelter like a welfare service years ahead of its time.
He includes a chapter on Mickey’s shelter under the Fruit Exchange in Spitalfields Market in his wartime book Carry On London.
Researchers have since traced Calder’s nephew, university lecturer Gideon Calder, and Mickey Davis’s nephew, East London Advertiser journalist and former BBC news broadcaster Mike Brooke, who were both interviewed for the documentary in 2017 at Spitalfields Church.
Gideon said after the filming: “My uncle looked at what people were doing in their everyday lives and community leaders like Mickey Davis trying to feed them and run the air-raid shelters.
“We still live largely in the world created on the back of the Second Worlds War—more caring, where something like the NHS is absolutely vital.”
Back then, east London is bearing the brunt of Goring’s Luftwaffe Blitz for five months, night-after-night.
The South Hallsville tragedy triggers a chain of events that leads to a government policy change into how to deal with mass homelessness caused by the air-raids.
People believed for years afterwards that the worst wartime civilian disaster had been at Bethnal Green in 1943 where 173 people died, the youngest a five-month-old baby, when a crowd surged down a tightly packed narrow staircase into an underground shelter and got crushed during a tragic false air-raid alert.
The official casualty figure for South Hallsville at the time was 77—but it turned out decades later that closer to 600 people had died, nearly four times the number killed at Bethnal Green.
The episode broadcast next Tuesday is the first in the four-part BBC2 series, Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain, at 7pm, September 29, following “the ripple effect” of four bombs that were dropped on Canning Town, Hull, Clydebank and Bristol.