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.

South Hallsville School bomb damage in WW2.
South Hallsville School

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.

London Underground Air Raid Shelter
London Underground Air Raid Shelter

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.

74 thoughts on “Second World War Bombing Raid South Hallsville School”

  1. Hi,

    I am Dione Hassell and I am just reaching out to see if anyone on here knew my nan and her family as we lost her last week and she never gave us much information at all. Her name was June Webb, her mum we believe was called Mary and her father was called William Webb. She spoke about being on Rathbone Street as a young girl and about a big bomb there during the blitz. We never got any other info from her so we could never join any dots together about if she lived there or close by. Any information would be very special to our family.

    Thank you,

    Dione Hassell.

  2. Hi Malcolm, thought this may be of interest to you and maybe others, just obtained a book by Ritchie Calder, (Grandfather of Simon Calder) he wrote in 1941, a reporter for the Daily Herald, seems he spent a lot of time in the area writing about the “Dead End Kids”, he had been to the school previously and this is a truncated copy of what he wrote, and about the coaches going to Camden Town, not Canning Town, that has been a TALL Tale I think to lay blame at the coach drivers feet, not the authorities.
    He described the school as a “Bulging Ruin” as a bomb had already damaged the school at the back.

    I went with the Rev William Patton, We found many hundreds sheltering in a school, in the passages and classrooms mothers nursing their babies, Their where blind, crippled and old people, pensioners, there where ‘Black’, children of ‘Black’ firemen, then at sea, there where youngsters I knew by name (featured recently in the Daily Herald (Sun) Charlie, the dead end kids) Whole families where sitting in queue’s, perched on their pitiful baggage, waiting desperately for coaches to take them away from the terror of the bombs, which had been raining down on them for 2 nights, yes 2 nights, It had started on the Friday night.

    The crowed people in the school included many families who had been bombed out already, They had been told to be ready for coaches arriving at 3 o’clock. Hours later the coaches had not arrived. I heard women, mothers of young children, protesting with violence and with tears about the delay, Men where cursing the helpless local officials who knew only that the coaches where expected.

    One mother complained that her children where not allowed to play in the playground, The official could only say he was sorry and evade her questions. but he showed me the answer. In the playground behind the school was a crater. The school was, in fact, a bulging, dangerous ruin. The bombs which had rendered these people homeless had also struck the school selected by the authorities as their “Rest Centre”.

    And then I knew, on that Sunday afternoon, that, as sure as night would follow day, the bombers would come again with the darkness.
    But all these hundreds of people spent another night inside the shelterless school, the forth for some of them of many of my “Dead end Kids”. By then, 2 days after the coaches had been due, the survivors mainly from that second school, where boarding buses.

    (THE FACTS about the “COACHES”)
    It was found that the coaches had been ordered on the Sunday all right. The Drivers had been told to rendezvous at the “GEORGE” public house in a neighbouring Borough, The leader of the convoy thought he knew the “George”, He did, but it was “The George” in a different Borough. So the coaches just went home.
    Next day, coaches arrived at the school, but as the homeless where boarding them the sirens went. Local officials decided to abandon the transfer that day and attempt it the following day.
    The next day was to late.

    (THE FACTS approximately of those that lost their lives in the school)
    About 450 lost their lives in that school – a figure to be dismissed lightly by those that measure casualties in terms of Passchendaele or the Somme, It ws the needlessness of the tragedy which made it so terrible.

  3. Hi
    I had family who lived in agate street , my grandmother lived at no16 ( Florence parson ) and my grandfather who lived at no 5 , name of Walter Martin , and an uncle of mine Robert , an aunt lou ! Not sure if they were moved out , before the school was bombed or after ,, but I know my Nan and grandad were married in the church , I think was I ivy street . Anyway the whole family were evacuated to Dagenham .
    Hope this helps

    • My great grandmother and great aunt Olley Stafford and Caroline Prentice lived at 60 Agate Street and My great aunt and uncle Harriett Glitz nee Stafford Edward Glitz and their 5 children lived at 56 Agate Street All died in the school except 1 x

  4. Our family story is that our granddad (George Thacker) took his family from nearby Maplin Road to the school expecting to be safely housed during the air raid but when our grandparents arrived (with 9 daughters and 3 sons- the eldest, 4th son, was away in the Royal Navy) they were not allowed in because it was already full. The story goes that our granddad was very angry and cursed them and afterwards took the family to Epping Forest where they spent the night. The next morning when they returned home they heard the story that the school had taken a direct hit. Me and my 30 odd cousins appreciate that bit of luck without which we would never have been born!

    • Hi Alan, 1948 we lived across from the School, the New infants school had just been opened, everywhere a bombsite, till the council started a clearance scheme in the late 50’s
      Elliott’s are family members, David my dads cousin, but same age as me, his dad was a “Detail” plasterer one job the Savoy, I believe they live in Essex, Billericay area now, All West Ham supporters!
      Your Grandad lived at 49 Maplin road in 1939 with 4 others, but had also lived in Hooper road and Freemasons road previously, there are 2 George J’s on the register, 2nd birth is 26 Oct 1919
      Part of a Family Tree I have been doing over the years, can be a bit disjointed at times!
      BBC done a documentary on the bombing of the “School” under the title “Blitz”

  5. Did any one know the Holmes family in agate street before the war there was John the father Rosie mother then there children John junior Harry Tommy Jimmy Doris Rosie and moude Nick named nonna they moved to dagahenm in the 40s then down to kent in the 50s think Doris is still alive she in Australia sadly the others have all passed away I’m married to Tony Harry’s youngest who is now 62


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