Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Blitz - Researching the Damage Today

The 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Blitz in London has reminded me what I have seen in my research of the city over the past few years. One of the key aspects of my work as an historian is the impact, literally, of World War II on buildings in the capital. No research into the history of a house or area can be complete without checking if there had been any damage sustained between 1939 and 1945. Most of the local borough archives hold records of “enemy action”. 

Some of these archives hold the original, hand scrawled reports, written by air raid wardens at the time; of the death and devastation as it happened and which streets had been hit, how many people were injured and how many were dead. I remember particularly searching the Tower Hamlets archive in Poplar and seeing these reports, noting hundreds of dead, one street after another. Even from my safe position nearly 70 years later in the peace and calm of an archive, I shivered at the horrible reality of what these people went through.

The most revealing source of information which I use for every research assignment in the capital is the series of London County Council Bomb Damage maps (held at the London Metropolitan Archives). These were commissioned to detail the extent and nature of bomb damage across London. Each building that sustained damage was coloured depending on the severity of impact. 

Black - Total destruction 
Purple - Damage beyond repair 
Dark Red - Seriously damaged, doubtful if repairable 
Light Red - Seriously damaged, repairable at cost 
Orange - General blast damage, minor in nature 
Yellow - Blast damage, minor in nature 

The map here shows the centre of the City of London. You can see the swath of purple denoting “Damage Beyond Repair”. It is impossible to think of such total destruction happening today, but it happened within living memory. If you get the chance to view the complete map collection in the London Metropolitan Archives, have a look at Stepney and the Mile End Road. That isn’t coloured purple, it’s black and covers acres of small back to back houses where ordinary working people were killed in their thousands.

I am often moved by the stories that emerge through my research. Cold official documents can reveal the human side of love and loss, triumph and disaster – but nothing achieves that more for me than the records and maps of 1939-1945.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, its hard to believe such sadness and destruction ever happened as we tumble on our modern day lives.
    As an architect student I find this extremely fascinating and moving. A truly remarkable and passionate scar on the facade of british architecture. brilliant.