West Hampstead at war

As London commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, I thought I’d take a look at how West Hampstead fared during the war. There are tales of amazing rescues, tragic stories of wedding parties, and some explanation for the streetscape we all inhabit today.

The old borough of Hampstead was not as affected as badly as some parts of London as it had no major military targets. Nevertheless, more than 200 people died in the borough as a result of bombing. The density of the railway lines around here probably contributed to some of the munitions that fell in NW6, a tiny number of which are mapped below.

View West Hampstead WW2 sites (a small selection) in a larger map

West Hampstead itself escaped widespread damage, and large-scale rebuilding was not needed. Indeed, much of the 19th and early 20th century character of the area remained intact. But that is not to say that life was easy for residents during the two main periods of bombing raids: 1940/41 and 1944/45.

The first bomb to fall in the area hit Birchington Road at the end of August 1940, but the first serious damage in West Hampstead happened a couple of weeks later. The sirens sounded at 10pm on September 18th, and in the early hours of the 19th seven bombs fell between Mill Lane and Sumatra Road killing 19 people. In a macabre conicidence, 19 was also the number of houses destroyed. These included 76–86 Sumatra Road and 9–17 Solent Road.

It was a sharp wake-up call for wartime whampers many of whom – like people across the country – were only starting to believe that the war was ever going to be a direct threat to them.

A week later, another seven bombs struck in Broadhurst Gardens – the first strike of many for this road. Amazingly just three people died but only a few houses escaped damage. Ten days later, on October 7th, the central library on Finchley Road – now the site of the Camden Arts Centre – was badly damaged and a female warden on duty at the observation post was killed. This was a night of heavy bombing across the country. A wing of Hampstead School in Westbere Road (then Haberdashers School) was damaged; this plaque marks the event.

(photo courtesy of Ed Fordham)

The Blitz lasted until May 1941, killing some 20,000 Londoners. Tube stations provided natural bomb shelters and Hampstead and Belsize Park were especially popular due to their depth. War artist and famous sculptor Henry Moore made some evocative sketches of people huddled together in Belsize Park tube. Residents had to get to these stations fast though as space was limited.

Swiss Cottage also served as a shelter, although initially there were no toilets and people had to take the train to Finchley Road to use facilities there. Councils began to realise that people were going to use the stations regardless so began to make them more comfortable, installing bunk beds, toilets and providing some refreshments.

Quite a community built up among the regular occupants of Swiss Cottage and they produced their own magazine called (honestly) The Swiss Cottager. There was a lobbying component to this publication. Bulletin No.2 claimed that “the installation of three-tier bunks on tube platforms would be hailed with relief by the thousands of people who nightly use the tube-station platforms as dormitories.”

The group also politely requested that shelterers refrained from bringing their own deck-chairs and suggested people were being “far too generous” with their litter.

Such doughty spirit was part of the reason Hitler turned his attention to other fronts and large-scale bombing of Britain subsided. He had failed to crush either the morale of Britons or sufficient industrial sites. Even during this lull in bombardment there was the occasional mishap: in 1943, a barrage balloon caught fire and fell onto houses on Gascony Avenue.

On Saturday February 19th, 1944 bombing began again. A bomb at the corner of West End Lane and Dennington Park Road struck a wedding party. The Camden History Society’s excellent Hampstead at War gives a full description of the explosion, which killed 10 people including two babies.

“In a flat over a butcher’s shop, a party was in progress attended by relatives and friends of the occupier’s son, a soldier who was to be married later that day. The company remained during the alert in unprotected rooms, no doubt lulled into a false sense of security by the long period of aerial inactivity. A high explosive bomb fell at ten past one in the morning demolishing the upper part of the premises over the shop… The premises were soon burning furiously and the rescuers were forced back time and time again.., The only survivor from the party was the father of the bridegroom who had left the room and gone to the rear of the house just before the bomb fell.”

The site wasn’t rebuilt until 1954, and today houses West Hampstead’s library.

That same night, eight bombs fell within 100 yards of each other at Agamemnon Road and, although only three exploded, 16 people were killed at what is now a terrace of three-storey houses built in 1952.

A few months later aerial bombardment intensified again when the V1 flying bombs entered service. Hampstead borough took 10 hits from V1s. Hampstead Town Hall was a vital observation point to track the V1s, and wardens would follow the bombs right to the point of impact – even if that was just yards from where they sat.

The first flying bomb hit a West End Lane house used as a hostel for refugees. Three houses were completely destroyed but the damage extended across five roads. Rescue efforts lasted two days and although 17 people died, a woman was found alive 48 hours after the bomb exploded.

The site was used to build Sydney Boyd Court in 1953, the large council estate that hugs the curve of West End Lane between Acol Road and Woodchurch Road.

In late June 1944, Broadhurst Gardens was struck again, at almost exactly the same point as in 1940. The following day, a building in Mortimer Crescent was hit – it was used to store furniture for people whose own houses had been destroyed. This was probably the same attack that forced author George Orwell out of his Mortimer Crescent home, where he had written Animal Farm. Further doodlebugs hit Fortune Green Road, Mill Lane (damaging an ambulance station) and Parsifal Road where a District Warden headquarters was damaged.

Broadhurst Gardens suffered yet more damage in August 1944 when a V1 fell in the gardens between Broadhurst and Compayne Gardens just 50 yards from the previous bomb. The road was the worst affected in the borough, which is why large stretches of it are occupied today with council housing.

More than 1,300 V2s fell on London (only Antwerp was targeted more) killing 2,750 people. Britain never developed effective countermeasures for these supersonic missiles. Of those 1,300 V2s only four had an impact in this area, with one causing particularly widespread damage.

Superlocal blog Northwest 6 covered wartime memories a couple of years ago. One reader, John Lewis, recalled “I was staying with my grandparents at 25 Gladys Road towards the end of WW2 when a V2 came down about 250m away in Iverson Road. I was covered in soot, dust and broken glass but unharmed.”

In 2004, the Camden New Journal printed an anecdote from Gladys Cox, who also recounted a bomb in Iverson Road. Although her account said it was in January 1944 it seems likely it was in fact the 1945 attack.

“After lunch, it stopped snowing, and as the air was invigorating we walked, or slithered in the slush, down to Iverson Road. Here, rows and rows of small houses had been blasted from back to front; doors, windows, ceilings all one. Whole families were out in the street standing beside the remains of their possessions, piled on the pavements waiting for the removal vans; heaps of rubble everywhere, pathetically showing bits of holly and Christmas decorations.”

The bomb actually fell on the railway embankment, but both sides of the railways suffered. The driver of the first rescue vehicle on the scene found one of the dead – his own 19-year-old daughter. One woman was rescued eight hours later after the rescue teams had almost given up. She was found jammed under a sink in the scullery.

Iverson Road was by far the worst affected street, but damage extended to Sheriff, Maygrove, Ariel, Loveridge and Lowfield Roads, Netherwood Street and West End Lane. Although only three people lost their life, 1,600 people required some form of assistance and 400 had to be temporarily rehoused. There’s another personal account of the attack at Northwest 6.

Seventy years later, it can all feel rather like a numbers game. So many people died, so many houses were damaged. It is impossible for most of us who have grown up in a peaceful western Europe to wrap our heads around the permanent sense of fear that must have underpinned lives for millions and millions of people across Europe during the war. The work of the civil defence organisations and rescue services should not be overlooked. They may not have received the plaudits of the fly boys in the Battle of Britain, or Monty’s Desert Rats, but their commitment to the lives of ordinary Londoners was astonishing.

Hampstead at War, Hampstead 1939-1945, pub Camden History Society, 1995 (first published in 1946)
Wartime Camden, Life in Camden during the First and Second World Wars, compiled by Hart, V. & Marhsall, L, pub. London Borough of Camden, 1983
‘Hampstead: West End’, A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9: Hampstead, Paddington (1989), pp. 42-47. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22636

  • WHampstead

    I am trying to find out about copyright issues for photographs. There are some excellent ones in Hampstead at War and Wartime Camden, and you can see some of the Iverson Road photos in the Northwest6 blog.

  • Keith Moffitt

    I used to live in Buckingham Mansions at the top of West End Lane which was hit by a bomb in 1944. There's a great personal account by the resident at the time on the BAM (Buckingham/Avenue/Marlborough Mansions) estate website at http://www.bamestate.co.uk/page4/bombstruck.pdf.
    I now live in Cholmley Gardens where one of the lawns was built over a wartime bombshelter which is still evident.

  • WHampstead

    I'm happy to add things like this to the map above. I had read that Buckingham Mansions (and Cholmley Gardens) was hit, but the extra detail here is interesting. Thanks Keith

  • Fascinating stuff. My Mother was a resident at Belsize Park tube station during the worst days of the Blitz. She also tells the story of being chased down Belsize Avenue (where she lived when not underground) by a doodlebug; of course it was sound of engine cut-out that was the harbinger of real trouble…

    Also, I believe that 18 Fortune Green Road was destroyed by a bomb as a friend’s father was responsible for the rebuild.

  • Anonymous

    My Grandfather, Constable George William Steele was a PC throughout the Blitz. Stationed at West End Lane, he would have been familiar with many of these stories, I daresay – and yet all we ever heard of it were jokes and light-hearted anecdotes… On 6th Nov 1940 the Police Section House at Kilburn was hit by a bomb, killing 12 Police Officers in one go. Here are their names, since we’re in the mood for remembrance:

    PC John Brown, 34

    PC Clifford Howell Davies, 27

    PC Charles MacInnes, 26

    RPC Charles Summers, 55

    WRC George Bromley Borham, 35

    WRC Leonard Bowes, 30

    WRC Thomas Henry Coe, 63

    WRC Thomas Henry Craven, 38

    WRC Llewellyn Robert Davies, 29

    WRC Gerard Audley Fred Harvey, 56

    WRC George Edward Smith, 29

    WRC George Thomas Wallis, 46

  • Anonymous

    Would anybody happen to know what sort of business was being run at 86 West End Lane in 1943/44, as I have a link to a typist who worked there?

  • WHampstead

    “They knew the Armsistice was coming at New End School. How could they know when there was no radio?… but they did. There was an unusual restlessness after the day’s start, and teachers debated whether to send the children hom… But we had to be released: our mothers had come in a body with flags to wave and cheer with on the way home; all except mine who had no money to spare. How deprived I felt! It was like magic that mothers should know that the War was over and produce flags from nowhere” (Louise Eickhoff, in “Wartime in Camden” p16)

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous said…

    Would anybody happen to know what sort of business was being run at 86 West End Lane in 1943/44, as I have a link to a typist who worked there?
    1 November 2010 17:04

    I am not sure what was going on at 86 West End lane in 1943/44, but as far as I am aware it has been the premises for the “Acol Bridge Club” for many years – perhaps since the 1970s, if not even earlier. Maybe you could contact them to inquire whether anyone there can assist. (- They have a website).

    Good Luck.

    – A. Nonny-Mouse.

  • Barry Williams

    I live in the USA now. On a cold snowy day in Feb 1945, I was a 7 year old playing outside house in Ravenshaw St, West Hampstead. I vividly remember a red flash reflecting from all the windows followed by a wooshing sound and then an explosion which blew out all the windows. In fact, my hand was cut by flying glass. I ran home to find that all rooms were covered in soot which had come down from all the fireplace chimneys. Our cat was missing and took a week to return.
    Later, we found out that a V2 had hit Iverson Rd which was quite near across the railway tracks. My mother always thought that the tracks were the Nazi’s target. Not likely, considering the unguided nature of the V2.

    • Len Parker

      That was January 8 Barry our house was where the children’s playground is now

  • Anonymous

    I was always under the impression that the bomb that killed the wedding party in WEL exploded where Banana Tree, the restaurant is. It's a newish building compared to the rest of the block so something demolished it.
    Des Brittain.

    • You can sort of see here http://www.flickr.com/photos/tetramesh/2104444382/in/set-72157603431281726/ that in 1906 at least there was nothing above the present day Banana Tree site. Which isn't to say there wasn't by the 1940s. I'm sure it's also a bomb site, but the report I read said the wedding party was on the Dennington Pk Rd corner.

    • Barry Williama

      I can confirm that the Dennington Pk corner was a bombsite. As a preteenager in the late '40s, along with my friends, we played there often. Of course, we were always being chased off the site by the local bobby.

  • Anonymous

    I noticed this article with interest, as I am researching my family history. My Great Grandfather (George W Jacklin) lived with his family at 51 Agamemnon Road, West Hampstead in the census of 1911.
    George died in 1938, but I notice that bombs fell, on this road on Sat 19 Feb 1944. Can anyone please tell me if the house at No51 was destroyed in the blitz, as it appeasr new when I looked on google maps.
    Many Thanks
    Simon CHURCH (Perth, Western Australia)

  • Can anyone tell me if 5 Upper Park Road was damaged by enemy action? I am tracing a relative who lived there in WW1 but it's completely gone on Google Earth.

    • The only information I could find about bomb damage to Upper Park Road was from this map of bomb damage in the borough of Hampstead;


      It looks like there was some damage at the lower end of the street but whether number 5 was hit or damaged is not clear.

    • The new bombsite.org website also shows that there was some damage close to 5 Upper Park Road.


  • Anonymous

    Very Interesting to read about Hampstead in the War .4 generations of our family lived and worked in Mill Lane .My Father,will find your article very interesting as he was there during the war and remembers the bombing in that area.My Grandad was in the Fire Service and stationed in West End Lane .

  • Thank you! That explains a lot!

  • John Woods

    As a boy of nine I lived with my family at number 9 Acol rd. This was opposite the Acol bridge club at number six. The V1 which demolished the refugee hostel on the corner of Acol rd and West end lane, the blast from the explosion brought down some of the internal walls of our house and most of the windows were smashed. My father had sublet the upper two floors and they were occupied by Mr and Mrs Randall and their daughter Patricia and Mr and mrs Antonio and their two daughters
    Lucrecia and Shella.. The only casualty in the house was Mr Randall who broke his toe when a wardrobe fell on him. I well remember the following morning walking up Acol rd and seeing the damage. There was a block of flats called Acol Court on the opposite corner to the refugee hostel and I recall seeing military personnel laying out pieces of the remains of the actual v1. Our house was no longer suitable for occupation so the family upped sticks and went to St Helens in Lancashire to stay with grandparents until the end of the wa. We returned to Acol rd when number 9 had been repaired under the war damage compensation scheme and I lived there until I joined the RAF in1952.

    • Len Parker

      Do you remember the V2 that hit Iverson Rd We got clobbered by that

    • Len Parker

      Just realised we are same age as I joined RAF in 1952. Wonder if we went to school together.

  • Len Parker

    Standing on Finchley road & Frognal station on way to school, someone suddenly looked up and screamed DOODLEBUG ! and sure enough there was one aimed directly at the station diving at an angle of 45 degrees. I have watched many Olympic 100 metres but I am sure I have never seen people move as fast as those on the platform did. People sheltered everywhere despite most places would have been useless , I was behind a dustbin and there were people under a bench that you would swear was impossible to get under. Fortunately for us the V1 tipped into a vertical position and hit Broadhurst Gardens. Never got to school that morning as I was still shaking by lunchtime. Only a temporary reprieve though as we got the Iverson Road V2 in which our landlady got killed and mum and I spent 3 months in hospital