London Underground Air Raid Shelter

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.

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

  1. 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

  2. My family lived on Martindale & Frederick Street. The Rabey & the Close family.
    Quite a few of them were bombed The day before the Hallsville School Bombing.

    My Great Grandad (James ‘Jim’ Rabey) went to visit my family members in the school. It was very cramped & oversubscribed. So he told them to go to the church down the road, which were offering help. They all moved to the church. That night the bomb struck the school. My family were very lucky & eternally thankful to my Grandad Jim.

    I only found out about this after speaking to my Grt, Grt Uncle Patrick Close, who sadly died about 9 months ago, at the grand age of 92.

    1. My family (Skillett) lived in Martindale Road & Varley Road……..they went to the school but my great grandad wasn’t allowed to be evacuated with them – just my nan and kids (about 8 of them IIRC inc my dad) So my nan refused to go unless they all went….this was refused so they went back home……..very lucky for them

      1. Francesca Skillett

        Hi Gary, my dad was James (Jim) Skillett from Varley Road. Brother of Joan and son of Jayne. Both his parents died when he was a teenager and Joan brought him up in the family home. My dad passed away 22 years ago so I don’t know a lot of the history, I wonder if my dad is related to you? Thanks, Francesca Skillett

  3. I went to Hallsville Infants, Miss Bergen and Hallsville Juniors Mr Carpenter 53 to 59 there was some good teachers there, then Ashburton, Head was I think Mr Shinappa?
    The Police Station was half way down Lansdowne Rd, between Sandford St and Eldon Rd(Where the Health centre is) both off of Radland Rd (Portland Rd) used to feed the Police horses, Cribs had a Stable nearby. also there used to be a lady that sold toffee apples out of her front window, nice. If you have a look on Google maps, you can still see the outline of the buildings and Lansdowne road in the grass, and in the playing field of Hallsville, can still see the outline of Agate Rd in the grass, Running East to West,
    There used to be a Workmans Cafe next to the left of the Entrance of the infants School where the pathway is.
    DAVE EWING said about his mum Fire Watcher and the body of a baby, Mum (Pat) was Warden told me the same story she lived in Jersey Rd, She also told me there was a swimming pool at the school where the bodies where buried? also she said the body count was 600+
    I saw a plaque at the memorial in the 60’s that recorded 137, and recently found a picture of the memorial with a list of names, could not make out what they said, but I could count them 116?
    As for the cover up, I found this War Cabinet Document Dated Friday September 20, 1940 12 noon from a 384 page document
    The War Cabinet
    (b) Invited the Minister of Information to take steps to secure
    that the Press did not, by their choice of photographs,
    give an exaggerated picture of the damage done to
    London.
    A virtual “D” Notice on reporting the damage done! Thats why pictures are hard to come by!
    There where other Schools Keeton Rd Rotherhithe 400 killed and Columbia Rd, Bomb went down an Air Vent Reports where 20 actual 300+
    If you Google – newhamphotos blacksaturday pdf – Newham Council have a Downloadable file with pictures and reports of the time.
    What was left of the Bombed school I was told, bulldozed about 1949
    The “Infants School” was built in 1948, Dad done the Boilers and Heating system, The Juniors, Part of it dates back to 1932 same as the bombed school, its the part that faces Radland, Butchers Rd. (West I______I East).

  4. Does anyone know off the chapman family , who lived and worked in a shop on pacific road e16 custom house, near hallsville school prior to the war or after if it still stood?
    Regards Roy

  5. I am researching my family tree and just found distant relatives who died at the School on 10 September 1940, George Newman-Death married my distant relative Ellen Harriet Alsford and had 2 daughters, Annie in 1916 and Ellen in 1918, George’s wife died in 1925 and he remarried soon afterwards to his 2nd wife Elizabeth and had 2 more children, Edward and Daniel Newman-Death, Annie and Ellen along with Edward and Daniel, and their mother Elizabeth all died at the school, George was injured and found but died later at the Plaistow Fever Hospital the same day. I am just shocked to find an entire family gone, I thought George had found happiness after the loss of his wife, with a new family and his 2 girls and it was just all taken away on that fateful day

    1. Lady Priscilla Etienne

      Hi Linda. I am one of the admins in a page set up on face book called. South Hallsville school Uncovered.
      I have nearly finished a book on the bombing and wanted to feature your story. Please have a look on Facebook page and add your story

      Many Thanks

      Priscilla Etienne.

    2. Hi Linda, I’ve only just come across your message and had to reply, in spite of it of it being two years late! George Newman Death was my husband’s great uncle, and the youngest member of the family. He had nine siblings, my husband’s grandfather Alfred was the third youngest. Please feel free to contact me if you want any more information. The incident was truly an horrific event, among many sadly! Regards Barbara Morris

  6. My mother in law died on the 2nd Jan – She survived the bombing; was pulled out after three days and thought it was angels taking her to heaven. Both her parents died, her farther’s death certificate recorded the date of death as September, presumably part of a cover-up. Her Mother died in the hospital a few hours after Nancy was rescued, without knowing that her daughter had been saved.

    RIP

    1. Lady Priscilla Etienne

      Hi Linda. I am one of the admins in a page set up on face book called. South Hallsville school Uncovered.
      I have nearly finished a book on the bombing and wanted to feature your story. Please have a look on Facebook page and add your story

      Many Thanks

      Priscilla Etienne.

  7. Katherine Winter

    Hi all,
    I have just seem this and i am to young to know what happened at the time. However i was at hallsvile school when the queen re attened the school 50 yrs on. I was part of the BBC production covering the visit to the school and was part of a small group allowed to met the queen. Part of our production for the BBC and the queen registered the lose as over 740 lives. When the queen opened the second plaque at Hallsvile. We where also followed by the BBC as we attened the opening of the bliz experance at the war museum in central london.

  8. I LIVED AT NUMBER 8 MARTINDALE ROAD MY FAMILY WAS IN THE SCHOOL THAT GOT BOMBED.I LOST AUNT UNCLE AND COUSINS IN SCHOOL

  9. Jean Pudney Timcke

    My dad had an Uncle (Thomas Pudney) Aunt, (Lydia Pudney) Two Cousins (Annie & Charlotte Pudney from 10 Martindale Road E16 who were killed in South Hallsville school…There were other siblings to Annie and Charlotte but they were already evacuated and couldnt be traced after the war.. Im currently looking into perhaps finding any relatives of those siblings who were probably adopted or may have been put in a Childrens home…

    1. HAVE YOU TRIED TO TRACE YOUR RELATIVES IN CHUMLIEGH NORTH DEVON I WAS AVACUATED THERE and so was a lot of children from canning town

    2. Hi I have just seen your post. Annie and Charlotte were my mum’s cousins. On the memorial for ‘Civilian Dead of West Ham’ Charlotte and Thomas are listed as children of Thomas and Lydia, with no mention of Annie. Mum lived at 47 Martindale Road and never forgot her cousins, who she always named as Lottie, Annie and Tom.. Your uncle’s wife Lydia (Lizzie to mum) was the sister of my mum’s mother, Mary Ann Bailey. Unfortunately, my grandmother died when mum was 9 months old. Apart from knowing about Grandfather Bailey, who also lived at 47 and a George and Mary Bailey who lived in Dagenham, Essex I do not know anything about my grandmother’s side of the family, nor do I have any photographs. I do hope you have been able to trace information about your relatives and would be interested to know what you have discovered. Also, could I ask if you have any photographs of your Uncle and his family and, indeed, any others by chance of the Bailey family. Mum never did see a photograph of her mother and didn’t know where she was buried until much later in her life. My lovely mum passed away in December 2020 and although living in Essex for a great number of years never forgot her roots and the families and friends she grew up with in Martindale Road. Best wishes .

  10. Elsie Ellis (nee Graves)

    I lived in Granville Road and attended Hallsville School. Evacuation was made compulsory near the end of 1940, so my older brother and I were evacuated to Norfolk. My mother was able to accompany us as we had a babybsister under a year old. My dad stayed living in our flat as he worked at the docks. We heard about the school disaster but as I don’t know the exact date I don’t know if any of my school classmates were lost. Our flat was badly damaged so my dad moved what was left of our stuff to a house in Charford Rosd. I now live in Surrey.

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