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Evacuations and sandbags the day War was declared

PUBLISHED: 22:02 04 September 2009 | UPDATED: 14:49 05 October 2010

Children (top) queue to be evacuated, while workmen (above) prepare sandbags in Old Ford

Children (top) queue to be evacuated, while workmen (above) prepare sandbags in Old Ford

THE 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War this week rekindled memories of evacuations from London and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain telling the nation that fateful Sunday, September, 3, 1939: “This country is at war with Germany.” Chamberlain made the historic declaration of war in a live broadcast on the BBC Home Service at 11.15am, 15 minutes after Britain’s ultimatum to Hitler’s Germany ran out

By Julia Gregory

THE 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War this week rekindled memories of evacuations from London and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain telling the nation that fateful Sunday, September, 3, 1939: “This country is at war with Germany.”

Chamberlain made the historic declaration of war in a live broadcast on the BBC Home Service at 11.15am, 15 minutes after Britain’s ultimatum to Hitler’s Germany ran out.

It was expected, after German forces invaded Poland two days earlier without provocation.

Homes across Britain were braced, ready for a long struggle ahead.

We didn’t know it that first day of war 70 years ago, but London’s East End in little more than a year was to get a battering from the Luftwaffe in air raids on the London Docks and the industrial heartland along the Thames night after night, month after month.

The East London Advertiser the day before on Saturday, September 2, had the front-page headline: East London Calm and Prepared’

The paper reported on precautionary measures, including iron shutters fixed at Poplar Hospital, workers filling sandbags outside Poplar Baths and one-way streets in operation as families began the biggest mass evacuation in London’s history.

One report said: “Most noticeable features of the crisis in Poplar and Stepney have been the sandbagging which has been going on everywhere.”

Our pictures show youngsters being evacuated and workmen filling sandbags on the eve of the outbreak of war. The workmen are pictured in Old Ford Road (now part of Wick Lane), near the Railway Arms on the corner of Iceland Street, Old Ford, in what was then part of the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar.

The first time East Enders headed for the shelters was September 3 itself, when the air-raid warnings sounded. But it was a false alarm. The aircraft spotted over the Channel turned out to be a French plane. The all clear’ was sounded just 30 minutes later.

The next day, September 4, a second air raid warning siren went off over London. Again, nothing, but it took two-and-a-half hours for the all clear’ this time. Aircraft had been spotted approaching for the sea, but it turned out that they, too, were not enemy aircraft.

Sirens were heard again on September 6, the East London Advertiser later reported, because “enemy air reconnaissance off the East Coast (were spotted), leading to the despatch of fighter aircraft, but the enemy were turned back upon reaching the coast.”

Schoolchildren had already been evacuated in the days before the outbreak of war. The Advertiser reported youngsters from Poplar who were described by their teacher Terence Newell as “wonderfully happy” in Oxfordshire.

Children from the Guardian Angels School in Mile End went to Wellington in Somerset. Within days, 10,000 children had left the East End for the safety of the countryside.

For those who wanted some relief from the anxiety of war, the Mile End Odeon was showing the Alexander Korda movie The Four Feathers, starring Ralph Richardson and June Duprez. The Mile End Empire offered Joan Crawford and James Stewart in Ice Follies of 1939.

Later in the week, however, both cinemas advertised that they were currently closed and asked the public to look out for the reopening date.


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