Second World War Bombing Raid South Hallsville School

One of the worst incidents to involve civilians during a Second World War bombing raid took place in South Hallsville School in Agate Street in Canning Town in 1940.

For years, people believed that the highest number of civilian casualties in an air raid had happened in another area of the East End, when an accident at Bethnal Green tube station killed 173 people in 1943. The official casualty rates for the South Hallsville School bomb were 77, but it turned out years later that closer to 600 people may have died, making this the worst civilian tragedy of the war.


The South Hallsville School Disaster

The East End was heavily targeted by German bombs during the London Blitz, due to its docks and key commercial production. The area was heavily populated with locals living close to their places of work; many lost their homes and their lives as bombs rained down on the nearby docks and industrial targets.

In September 1940, local residents were advised to take shelter in South Hallsville School, which had a useful basement that could be used as a bomb shelter. Many of these locals had lost their homes or seen them severely damaged. The building was being used as an evacuation point to get people out of the line of fire and into safer areas; however residents were left in the school for three days, even though it had been flagged as a potential target for bombing due to its location.

Residents waited in the school, having been told that they would be evacuated from the area as soon as buses could arrive to transport them. There was, however, an administrative mix up and the buses went to Camden Town instead of Canning Town. Held up on their way back to the East End, the buses did not arrive in time to evacuate the school as promised.

On September 10th, the school took a direct hit and was reduced to a pile of rubble. The whole school building fell into the basement, leaving hundreds of people dead, dying or trapped. The parachute bomb left a crater that was 20 feet deep on the site. Once recovery attempts were abandoned and all survivors who could be reached were rescued, the government released figures showing that 77 people had died in the bombing raid on the school.

Disputed Casualty Figures

Locals disputed this figure for many years, and eye witnesses who had been in the building but left it shortly before the bomb landed estimated that up to 600 people were in the basement. However, they could not prove that casualty rates had been much higher in the face of official government denials, and not all of the bodies in the basement could be recovered to give accurate data on how many people had died in the blast.

Moreover, it did not suit the British government to release details of such high casualties as this might have hampered their war efforts. As soon as the extent of the tragedy became obvious, the bomb site was cordoned off. Nobody was supposed to see what had happened and a press blackout was ordered so that newspapers could not report specific details about the incident, disclose the location where the bomb hit or print pictures of it.

The war cabinet probably covered up the scale of the disaster in an attempt not to lose morale in the area and the country as a whole. The Blitz was devastating London day after day and people were finding it hard enough to carry on. The government probably also did not want to give the Germans such a massive propaganda boost by admitting that one bomb had killed hundreds of people.

Memorial and Government Cover Up

In 2010, papers in the National Archives painted a different picture to the official line. They seem to back up local residents who believed that the death toll was far higher than was reported at the time and show that the government opted not to release full details of what had happened. The bomb site at the school was eventually tarmacked over and another school was built on the site after the war in 1948. This school, Hallsville Primary, now has a garden and a memorial plaque on site that is dedicated to the victims of the raid.

It is thought that the disaster at South Hallsville School may have forced the government to look at safer places for residents of the East End during bombing raids. Most had few options and congregating in larger buildings, like the school, was now obviously not a safe option. Five days after this bombing raid around 100 East End locals went to the Savoy Hotel and asked for shelter during an air raid as part of a planned protest. Other residents broke into tube stations and used those as shelters. From this point onwards, tube shelters were opened up to locals as air raid shelters, potentially saving many lives.

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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Posted in East End History

24 comments on “Second World War Bombing Raid South Hallsville School
  1. Tim Bowler says:

    My Mum and Nan lived in Lansdowne Road, Silvertown and went to Hallsville School for shelter from the nightly raid but it was full. A policeman who my Mother knew told them to go into the nearby Police Station and spend the night in the cells, which they did and it saved their lives and mine. My Nan reckoned there was more than 600 in the school that night but the casualties was all kept hush. A terrible tragedy!

  2. Robert best says:

    I was 15 months old when my father was in Hallsville School when it was bombed. He was a RADAR man from Plymouth, in the Artillery, and he and number of Soldiers were awaiting being shipped out to India, Burma and Assam. He recounted rolling his bed when the bomb struck, which protected him. There were perhaps 6 Soldiers alive, one hanging with his ankles trapped between floor (?) boards. Their biggest concern was the smell of Gas but later he saw a ruptured Gas Main flaming down the street. He cut through a door with his Sheath Knife but found only a wall behind it. Rescuers did a “Silence for Rescue” call and heard the men, digging down and winching them out. He got 2 weeks compassionate leave and then shipped out. He survived and returned back to Plymouth after the War with the Burma Star.

  3. Carol Coiffait says:

    Pat Barker`s book “NOONDAY” has an account of this tragedy, though she calls it Agate School. My son (whose laptop I’m writing this on and who Googled it for me) lives in the East End on Roman Road. He can only afford to do that because he lives in an ex-council flat, where the bombs fell.

  4. Don Eggleston says:

    I lived in Crediton Road and as kids we would climb the wall of the school beside the gate in Pacific Road. If our parents caught us we would get a clip round the ear because the bombed school was a special place.

  5. Dave Ewing says:

    My mother was a “Fire Watch Warden” and she was on duty that evening being a local who lived in Clever Road.
    She always maintained that the number of people who lost their lives that night was far greater than the official figure suggested.
    One of the sorry memories that never ever left her was that of picking up the body of a little girl, and when my mother lifted her up, the childs head, arm & neck had seperated from the main torso and the rest of her body remained on the ground.

    • Thank you Dave for your story. I would very much agree. Propaganda during WW2 was designed to keep Allied moral high and importantly deny the Germans information about bomb accuracy and deadly effect.

  6. Terry Ringwood says:

    There is a face book group regarding this .
    There is copy of a letter wrote by an eye witness giving great detail of
    This.
    I went to hallsville , we all said it was haunted by the green hand!

    • Could you give me details of the Facebook page please. I am currently writing a wartime novel based in Canning Town. I am including an account of this event. I would like as much background information as possible.

    • Carole Spiller says:

      I went to Hallsville late sixties early seventies and I had forgotten about the green hand. I also remember a lot of people saying about the bodies buried under the Bit where the tarmac was

  7. John Briggs says:

    I have been trying to find out anything I can on South Hallsville school, but it is not information that is readily available. does anyone know of a book on the history of the school is there a photo or picture of the school, can anyone tell me if the main gate was in pacific road, it would make sense to me given the information that I do have, can anyone help please.I have asked before but this time I would like to get a photo of the school.
    Also does anyone know if there is a memorial to the missing, I know the site has been left as a playground or car park but I feel it needs a memorial plaque

  8. John Briggs says:

    I have been trying to find out anything I can on South Hallsville school, but it is not information that is readily available. does anyone know of a book on the history of the school is there a photo or picture of the school, can anyone tell me if the main gate was in pacific road, it would make sense to me given the information that I do have, can anyone help please.

  9. Brenda Harding says:

    My Mum used to tell us the story of the school receiving a direct hit from a bomb. The story went that her family had been allocated beds at the school but when they arrived someone had taken their places. My grandfather was angry but said his family should leave and go to a nearby air raid shelter. That move saved their lives as the school was hit that night. Another unrelated story you may be interested in is the strange spooky things that happened in our flat in More Close. Both my sister and I experienced what seemed to be a person dying trapped under something heavy and struggling to breathe. This was quite terrifying in the dark alone in the bedroom. We both had the same experience more than once. We wondered if our flat had been built on a street previously bombed. Our Mum said the flat was built on Scott street which had been bombed. I’d love to know if that was true.

  10. benjamin stafford says:

    I would like to hear the truth about the Hallsville school disaster, My parents died not knowing the truth. My dads mum (my nan) was killed in the bombing. I can remember them telling me that families were told to go to the school because they will be safe there. please if you know what actually happened I be most grateful.

  11. george olmit. (Mc Williams) says:

    As an 8 year old I can remember walking from North woolwich to Canning Town on the morning after the Saturday air raid to visit my grandparents in Malmsbury road.
    The road was still on fire from the fats from Loaders ,the standard telegraph works and other factories having spread across factory road and the railway.the house in Canning Town was deserted and we were told to go to hallsvile road( The H being dropped made it allsville road) but was eurned away by the police.They had done a “moonlight flit “to Oxford.

  12. Paul Glitz says:

    Tracing my family tree, I found out my Fathers cousins family were nearly all killed in the raid on South Hallsville School.
    Father (Edward Glitz), Mother and four of their 5 children.
    Their 2 year old, Jane survived and was reunited with her Granny a few months later.
    The story of the reunion featured in the December 6, 1940 edition of the Daily Mirror on page 2.

  13. Vicki Coppell says:

    I grew up in Murray Square, moving in when the estate was first constructed around 1950/51 or so. We played in the ruins of the school – only ever known to us as ‘the bombed school’. We only played on the outer parts of the school, I think the core of the buildings was boarded off. We rarely stayed long on the site because of the eerie feel of the place. We grew up believing the site to be haunted. We never knew how many people died there only that it was many families sheltering from the bombs.
    We also had the bombed site in the centre of Murray Square as our main
    playground that was just known as ‘the debris’. Do you know what was there
    before the war?
    As a side bit I went to Clarkson St. school in Rathbone St. When that street was still a market.
    Thank you Malcolm for these historical treasures.

    • John Potter says:

      John Potter

      I grew up in Lawrence St and also attended Clarkson St school. Then Kier Hardie School and then
      Hallesville School going on to Ashburton.

      • Vicki Coppell says:

        John when were you at Clarkson St? I don’t remember a Keir Hardie school – where was that? My brother went to Ashburton – was a shocker of a school in the 50s. My sister and I both passed the eleven plus scholarship and went to Stratford Grammar – the old school at the back of the West Ham Recreation grounds (were/are). Is that park still there? We were also at the new scool that was built near the Spotted Dog. I don’t know if these places still exist. Be nice to know.☺

  14. Now in Brisbane since 1948, Iremember my mother trying to visit her parents after the raid. She came home in tears saying that they had sheltered at the school & we never saw them again. She believed they were in the mass grave under the ruins. I visited the new school in 2000 & was given a friendly reception by current staff & saw the wall tablet given by the Queen Mother.The bitumen surface over the bomb site is eerie when you know the history & I was told that the night cleaner staff believe it is haunted. R.I.P my grandparents.

    • Hello Michael, thank you for your comment. A very sad story and perhaps in time we might know the answer to the mass grave theory. My grandfather used to point out the small gardens and missing houses in the terraced rows all over London. As a child I didn’t fully understand the true impact of those gaps in the buildings. Best Wishes, Malcolm

  15. Steve Bull says:

    My Mothers home was bombed on the first night of the blitz. She was almost 10 years old at the time. Along with my Grandmother and her siblings they took shelter in the garden anderson. There was a second family in the same shelter. When the bomb destroyed the house,(in Queens Rd) the rubble fell on top of the shelter trapping all inside. Fortunately, my Grandfather had built the shelter with a second exit at the rear which enabled then to be rescued. During the next few days they took shelter in Hallsville School. My Grandfather (ARP) took them all to another nearby school just an hour or so before it was hit. I assume, because of the ‘cover up’, there seems to be no records of any bombs dropped in that area.
    My mother is now almost 85 but remembers the event like it happened yesterday.

    • Hello Steve, thanks for that great story. Yes I would imagine a lot of “bad news” was covered up during the war to keep moral high and also importantly to confuse the Germans with regards to their bombing accuracy.

  16. Dr. George Pinckney says:

    My family lived in Poplar during WW2. My father and grandfather (both dockers) had built an Anderson air raid shelter in the back yard. The air raid warden came to my grandmother’s house and asked that the entire family be moved to the nearby school because an air raid was imminent. My grandmother refused saying she had an Anderson shelter. That night the school was hit by a bomb. My family was OK as it took refuge in the Anderson shelter. My grandmother said it was the worst death toll from a single bomb in London in WW2. I never knew the name of the school but suspect it was South Hallsville school.

    • Hello,
      Many thanks for your great story. I can remember as a child in the early 1970s my next door neighbour still had his Anderson shelter in the back garden. I wonder how many people are still alive today thanks to those shelters.

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