When we think about war damage in London, we tend to think about the Second World War. After all, the Blitz in 1940 caused significant damage all over the East End. Many civilians lost their lives, their homes and their places of work in the East End.
This area was a natural target for bombing raids, as it was so close to the docklands areas that were vital to the war effort.
But, this was just as true during the First World War. The Kaiser initially ordered Zeppelin bombing raids on the docks areas and then moved on to using aircraft carrying massive shrapnel bombs. Zeppelin raids tended to take place by night, but the later aircraft raids took place during the day.
World War 1 London Bombing
Unfortunately, bombers did not always quite hit their target, and areas like Poplar were often damaged by bombs that fell just a little bit short of the docks. The bomb that caused this disaster did not hit its target. It was probably aimed at the nearby Isle of Dogs, as some British destroyers were berthed there.
On the 13th of June 1917, on the first day of German aircraft bombing in daylight, this stray bomb hit a Poplar primary school close to the dock targets, causing one of the saddest tragedies of the First World War. The school, Upper North Street School, had three floors of classes. Girls were on the top floor, boys on the second and infants on the ground floor. The bomb made a direct hit, scything through the top of the building and down to the ground floor where it exploded.
Most of the 18 children who died in the raid were from the infant class and were between four and six years old. It is thought that around 37 other children were injured in the blast, some of them badly. Teachers and other school staff bravely shepherded their classes to safety afterwards and many of the children watched as the bodies of their classmates were then carried out of the building.
The disaster struck at the hearts of the entire country, but was felt most deeply close to home. One young survivor of the blast described his shock the next day when the school’s headmaster read the register – this figure of authority wept openly every time he called out a name and no answer was given. The school’s caretaker, Benjamin Batt, had to carry out the body of his son Alfie and it is thought that the shock was too much for him. He died in November that year, never having got over the death of his young son.
London saw one of its largest funeral processions a week later when the victims of the raid were buried. The public, much affected by this tragedy, sent over 600 wreaths and King George and Queen Mary sent a personal message to be read out at the funeral service. The service itself was held at Poplar Parish Church, but it was led by the Bishop of London.
Three of the children were buried in private graves, but fifteen were interred together in a mass grave at the East London Cemetery. The last coffin in the funeral procession is reputed to have contained pieces of bodies that could not be identified.
Local worthies set up a fund after the funeral to give the mothers of the children who had died and some of the children who had been most affected by the blast a break away from the area. They were sent to Maidenhead for a couple of weeks to stay in holiday cottages.
Monument to Those Children Who Died
There is a monument to the children who died in the Upper North Street School disaster in the cemetery in which they are buried. There is also an official war memorial on the site itself, which lists the details of the disaster. It has a photo of the graveside monument and a letter from Queen Alexandra. You can also see a memorial to the children who died in Poplar Recreation Ground.
The money for the original memorial was funded by donations from the general public. It raised so much money that part of the money was used to fund a bed in a local children’s hospital and one in a home for crippled children in Hampshire.
World War 2 School Tragedy
The Upper North Street School disaster was not the only tragic bombing accident in the East End at a school. In the Second World War, a stray bomb hit South Hallsville School in Canning Town. This bomb, according to official figures, killed around 77 people. It is now believed that almost 600 people died when the building was destroyed. The school was being used as a makeshift shelter for local residents during a period of blitz bombing but was turned into a pile of rubble when a bomb hit it before they could be evacuated out of the area.