“British Schindler” was born in West Hampstead

Nicholas Winton, who was instrumental in getting more than 650 children out of Czechoslovakia right before the outbreak of WW2 was born in West Hampstead. He’s still alive today and many would like to see him be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nicholas Winton with a rescued child courtesy of Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority

Nicholas Winton with a rescued child courtesy of Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority

Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas George Wertheim. His family came from Prussia, (part of the German empire) but by 1871, his grandfather was working as a clerk and living in Manchester. By 1895 he had moved to ‘Stonecroft’, 5 Cleve Road, where the family remained until 1933. His son Rudolf, a bank manager, took over the house in the early 1900s and Nicholas George was born on 19 May 1909. With anti-German sentiment on the rise, the family changed its name to Winton in October 1938. Nicholas lived briefly at 5 Belgrave Road Marylebone and he was at 20 Willow Road Hampstead by 1938.

In December 1938, aged 29, Nicholas Winton was getting ready to go on a skiing holiday in Switzerland when he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake who said: ‘Cancel your holiday and come with me to Prague. I have a most interesting assignment and I need your help. Don’t bother bringing your skis.’

When Winton arrived in Prague he was asked to help thousands of refugees who were enduring appalling conditions in camps. That October, Hitler had annexed the Sudetenland, a large part of western Czechoslovakia. On the night of November 9th, there were violent Nazi attacks on German and Austrian Jews. This was Kristallnacht, ‘the night of broken glass’. Almost a hundred people were killed and more than 30,000 were put in concentration camps. Winton and many others believed that war was inevitable.

After Kristallnacht, the British Government agreed to support ‘Operation Kindertransport’ to help children at risk. The Refugee Children’s Movement organised extensive fund raising and on 2 December 1938, the operation began in Germany and Austria. Eventually almost 10,000 children were rescued and given shelter with foster parents in Britain. But the scheme didn’t extend to Czechoslovakia.

When Winton was told there was no organisation in Prague to deal with refugee children, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He found that to get an exit permit, each child had to have a family willing to look after them in Britain and £50 (a large sum at the time), had to be deposited with the Home Office. Applications rapidly increased from anxious parents, and Winton who’d started in a small way using a dining table in his Wenceslas Square hotel, had to rent an office.

Leaving two Englishmen to run the Prague end, he returned to London, working by day at the Stock Exchange and devoting evenings to his evacuation plans. He was helped by his mother, his secretary and a few volunteers, who fundraised and found foster homes. But the Government’s response was frustrating, as Winton explained: ‘Officials at the Home Office worked very slowly with the entry visas. We went to them urgently asking for permits, only to be told languidly, “Why rush old boy? Nothing will happen in Europe.” This was a few months before the war broke out. So we forged the Home Office entry permits.’

On 14 March 1939, the first children left Prague by plane for Britain. This was followed by seven more rail transports, the last leaving on 2 August, bringing the total to 669 children. On 1 September, the largest group of 250 children left Prague but on the same day Hitler invaded Poland and all the borders controlled by Germany were closed. Winton said: ‘Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared. None of the 250 children aboard was seen again. We had 250 families waiting at Liverpool Street that day in vain. If the train had been a day earlier, it would have come through. Not a single one of those children was heard of again, which is an awful feeling.’

After the war Winton, who was a very modest man, didn’t tell anyone, not even his wife Grete about his rescue efforts. In 1988 Grete found a scrapbook in their attic with photos and names of the children and Nicholas told her what had happened. Grete shared the story with Elisabeth Maxwell, a Holocaust historian and the wife of Robert Maxwell, the Czech born newspaper magnate. The amazing story appeared in Maxwell’s newspapers and Winton appeared on Esther Rantzen’s ‘That Life’ TV programme and some of the children, now adults, appeared with him.

‘Winton’s children’, as they call themselves, included the film director Karel Reisz who made ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ and Vera Gissing who wrote ‘Pearls of Childhood’ and was a co-author of ‘Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation.’

In 1993 Nicholas Winton was awarded an MBE and in 2002 he was knighted by the Queen for his services to Humanity. Today he lives in Maidenhead where he celebrated his 104th birthday in May 2013. There is a campaign to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Several films have been made about Nicholas Winton and are available on YouTube.

Nicky’s Family 2013 trailer:

That’s Life 1988:

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.