World War 2 and East London

Local Eastenders will tell you that there were a lot of changes to the area after the Second World War and some parts were probably unrecognisable from the way they looked in pre-war years.

The East End in the Second World War

The area was heavily targeted and bombed by the Germans, and much of the regeneration in the East End came about in the late 1940s and 1950s to repair war damage and rebuild local infrastructures that had disappeared.

Why was the East End targeted by the Germans?

The East End of London contains some of the city’s most important dockland areas. At the time, it was a hub for imports and was used to store vital goods for the war effort, making this a prime target for bombing raids. In basic terms, if the Luftwaffe could disable the East End, it cut off a pivotal part of London’s supply chain. If you could do that, you also caused a severe strain all over the United Kingdom and weakened the country as a whole.

At the time, the East End was densely populated with local families and dock workers who settled here because of their jobs. The fact that so many civilians could potentially be killed or injured in bombing raids also led the Germans to hope that this would reduce support for the war. On the first night of the Blitz, 430 civilians were killed and over 1500 wounded.

By 1940, the East End was known as Target Area A by German bombers who made life extremely difficult for locals, especially during the Blitz. The German propaganda broadcaster, Lord Haw-Haw predicted before the Blitz even started that the Luftwaffe would “smash Stepney”. They certainly tried to. During this period of the war, London was bombed every night for 57 days.

The East End in the Blitz

London Underground Air Raid Shelter

Locals became used to intense bombing raids that decimated their homes and businesses. Although the government tried to protect against damage, this was hard to do in the face of such targeted bombing. Many local children and their mothers were evacuated and remaining residents became used to spending their nights in local tube stations, many of which were adapted into makeshift bomb shelters. Others built Andersen shelters or makeshift shelters at home and hoped for the best.

Although you cannot state how many bombs were actually dropped on the East End, the estimates are shocking. Bethnal Green was badly affected with around 80 tons of bombs falling on that area alone in this period.

It is also estimated that over 2,000 Eastenders died in raids in Tower Hamlets and nearly 47,000 houses were completely destroyed. Even if you managed to survive a bombing raid unscathed and still had a home standing, you were likely to struggle to cope with your everyday life. Bombing raids regularly cut out local services such as water, gas and electricity supplies and many locals lost their jobs as businesses were destroyed.

The nightly trials of the East End in the Blitz were well known across the country. Most famously, when Buckingham Palace was bombed in 1940, the Queen is reported to have said that she was pleased that they had been bombed as this meant that: “Now I can look the East End in the face”.

The East End was also the first place in Britain to be hit by a V-1 flying bomb. This one bomb hit Mile End in 1944 and single-handedly killed six people, injured 30 and left 200 people without a home.

Not all casualties were down to bombs, however. The biggest tragedy in the East End in the Second World War happened at Bethnal Green tube station in 1943. One evening, 173 people died in a crush on the entrance steps as they tried to get into the station, which was being used as a bomb shelter. The irony is that the air raid warning that sent them into the shelter was a test and they did not need to be there at all.

The East End after the war

By the end of the WW2 much of the East End was unrecognisable or in ruins. The Port of London lost a third of its warehouses and St Katherine and West India docks had been so badly bombed that they were unusable.

Tens of thousands of homes and buildings had also been destroyed or severely damaged and the area’s remaining residents faced lots of problems with housing and infrastructure. This led to an initiative to build quick and easy to construct prefabricated housing.

These temporary buildings were dotted all over the area; although they were only supposed to give a one or two year solution to housing needs, many stayed in place until the 1970s when regeneration was closer to completion. Sadly, many of the historic buildings in the area were destroyed and large areas were rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s.

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46 thoughts on “World War 2 and East London”

  1. Hi, I am keen to obtain copies of any photos of Jaimaca Street of Commercial Road, Stepney pre and post WW2. My grandparents (Charles & Rosina NORTHOVER) lived at 34 Jamaica Street. I remember as a young child visiting them. Opposite their house a row of houses had been destroyed by German bombing in WW2. Also, very interested to hear from anyone who has family memories of Jaimaca Street before it was redeveloped in the 1960s.

  2. Does anybody remember Sumner house in madam Street bow I lived there from 1940 until I did my national service in 1955

  3. Good morning folks, on Fathers Day 2022!

    I started to read this feed and soon became further drawn into it as I progressed. I am aware the content was drafted some years ago, but hope that some of you in this forum might still receive a note by email and be willing to respond.

    My father lived in Bethnal Green, and as a youth, boxed at Repton. As a young man (18 at the start of WWII), he was called to fight and joined the Army, and soon progressed as an operator into some interesting and disruptive work to unsettle the German forces. He was one of 12 in his family, and whilst he was the youngest, his only brother was the eldest – so ten girls in between. I am told large families were not uncommon for the time.

    As a family, he was always Dad (hence my draft on Fathers Day), but his name was George James Leonard Sutton, known as Len. His father died in 1931, leaving Len fatherless at the age of just 11, and his mother responsible for a handful of children, the others having grown up and some of them in work with others called to service.

    A wild question – would anyone in this extensive feed have known of him, or perhaps know any of his siblings (Sonny, Lilian, Victoria, Phyllis, and I am ashamed to say I cannot remember all their names from immediate memory, I will need to perform some additional domestic research).

    On returning from the war (lost at sea, presumed dead at one point 1942), Len then moved to Hainault, met Irene Constance Vera Bendall, and they married and moved to Dagenham. It was strange hearing the story within the family, that at the age of just 21, his mother received a telegram advising her that the ship he was on – Empire Lake – had been sunk 200 miles off Madagascar, and of 38 hands, only five survived the sinking, but all lost at sea, presumed dead.

    The fact was five had survived, but three had been shot by the U boat when it surfaced, with my father and the only other survivor lying on their backs pretending to be dead. The deception worked, and the last two survived on a life-raft (rather like a modern-day pallet with open slats) for two weeks in the Indian Ocean, and washed up on the beach of Madagascar.

    Oddly, even though the two had been through a living hell, they did not keep in touch after the war – people thought that perhaps unusual, indeed it was, but the reason is revealed below. He never attended a reunion, nor any remembrance parades, preferring to hold his own private thoughts at home – he recognised the loss of the fallen, and always stood for the salute, but never on show.

    The family held a funeral, and then four and a half months later, he popped up knocking at her door in Bethnal Green having been returned via South Africa! One can only imagine the emotional state of his mother, with her young son standing there before her projecting his beaming smile (he was 22 at that point, having had his 22nd birthday in Madagascar). As he had in effect died once, the military kept it quiet, as he had been working with SOE and operating in what we now know as SF (Special Forces). He was on his way to Eden (now Yemen) at the time of the sinking, so it was convenient that he had ‘died’, but survived (for additional work).

    His wife (my mother), known as Rene, or Reney, spent time at Bletchley Park, so we can speculate they may have ‘met’ via radio or transmitted messages, but he always asserted it was through dancing at a hall in Chigwell Row. I have a piece of shrapnel mounted on a small pedestal from a German bomb that had exploded near her family home in Grange Hill during WWII, which had lodged itself into the brickwork of the house – they were, fortunately, at the extended edge of the blast radius.

    … and there it is … an extended ramble which I hope stirs the minds of a few, but does anyone know of him, or family or have any recollections of the surname please?

    I would be most grateful for any information, as there are likely to be some stories and tales I have not heard of (yet), and some of you may know his sisters, albeit, the earlier description in the feed of a man with a small moustache could so easily be Sonny – he was a bit of a lad! … loved the pub, loved the ladies even more, and known to have his fingers in so many pies to make ends meet … the war brought out the best and the worst in people – it seems little has changed in life …

    Best, Chris
    aka Dapper

  4. My Grandma Doris Osborne lived here during the war, she worked in a parachute factory, I’m having trouble finding the name of the company, I think it was Courtaulds, if anyone knows for sure I’d be super grateful, I know she had a hard time protecting her parents from the bombs as they were both deaf/mute and she did tell me the house fell due to a doodlebug but everyone got out okay.

  5. My dad Dennis Carr lived at 47 wager street, he was born 1938-2019, his first memories were hiding under the under stairs from bombs being dropped . They moved to 17 Causton cottages when he was 11 years old. Dad described wager street like the flats with outside toilets that everyone had to share, like on call the midwife. His aunt lived above them in wager street. His mother’s maiden name was Brand. His father was Alfred and he was a cabinet maker, Dad had two brothers Terry 1939-2005 and Michael. I’ve been looking at their old addresses on right move map. Homesick for people that have gone into history. There use to be a pub near 17 Causton cottages,me and my brothers use to play near there and someone had a horse near by . Nan was born 1914-2000 at 3 maroon street and grandad was born 1908-1996 at 100 Elsa street.

    • 17 Causton Cottages still exists today. The pub was called the Richard Cobden and was in Repton Street. Terry Lee had the horses also in Repton Street. If you are on Facebook join two groups – “Living in Stepney” and Stepney & Wapping” – the are run by people that lived on the Limehouse Fields Estate. In the late 1990’s the estate was regenerated and although the Cottages remain all the old blocks of buildings have been demolished.

    • Hi Paula,

      So interesting to discover this site and all the incredible shared memories.
      My daughter is writing her history degree dissertation on children’s play pre / during and post WW2 and would love to interview anyone with memories of growing up in the East End and playing in the streets.
      Might you be interested in being interviewed or anyone you know who might be willing to share their memories?

      Many thanks, Helen

  6. I have been trying to trace family. I remember when I was a little boy my mother took me to a short turning in the east end with no more than 20 terraced houses with doors on pavement on one side of the road nothing on the other, a wall. I believe it no longer exists but does anyone know or know someone who would know the name of the road.

  7. I had a look at the map of the bombing of the east end and it does not show a bomb site that was from around 74 Whitehorse Road to 87 Whitehorse Road,my mother said it was a german parashute bomb which went off at 9am,so when I left my house 87 the nect place was what we called the corner shop of Joe Cornbleet,but it would have been a terraced property until the bomb went off,when my father was on strike in the docks he said to my mother have what you want Dolly you credit is good here,thats what it was like then people looked after each other.

    • Hello Brian, you lived a few doors down from me. My name is Lynda Reeves and my family and I lived at 91 Whitehorse Road (tailors shop). I remember your house had a front garden, probably the only one in the street and that your grandfather lived in the basement.

    • Hi Linda
      How lovely to hear from you,,yes I remember you lived just a few doors from us ,I think you had a sister Valery,I hated leaving that old house a shame it was knocked down as was your home as well,our house was georgian it must have been 200 years old,as you say it had a front garden very rare in Stepney,did you stay in the area,I wish we had,I missed my school the most,I found out about Joe Cornbleats shop in the 1871 census it was a pub.

    • Well it is still there but suspect it has changed alot,just put into the computer Ackroyd Drive Green Link,Huddart st is the middle road that crosses this green link.

  8. Terry, sorry pressed the button too quick. D block was the supers office. David and his mum moved into H block. Kevin was in D block as well, his cousin Tony was in I block.

  9. Does anyone remember or have knowledge of a street market which as a child I remember being held in an area that was still looking like a bombsite called the Waste or mabe Kingston Waste.
    ^0 years some of my memories are vague but would welcome any help to research this.

  10. My Ancestors lived in Bethnal Green in 1881 census, last name Stanton. My Great Grandfather came to Canada as a home child in 1877 although he was 14 at the time. He returned to Bethnal Green and married my Grandmother there. They immigrated to Canada w children before 1890. The lived at 8 Oakley Street, Bethnal Green in 1881, head person being Samuel George Stanton, wife Mary Ann Elizabeth Lee. I’ve often wondered what happened to the brothers and sisters of my Grandfather who stayed in London area. Particularly with the heavy bombing during WWII. They were Joseph George Stanton, Mary Ann Elizabeth Stanton and Samuel Edwin Stanton.

  11. my mother used to tell us stories about going through the Rotherhithe tunnel and up the stairs to the park. she also said the family lived in Caley street Stepney, I have been unable to find any references to Caley street. Can any one shed any light on this for me, has the name changed.
    the name of the family was Donovan and murphy.

    • Hi

      Do you mean Cable Street? I was born in the area in 1951 and have never heard of Caley Street near the Rotherhithe Tunnel whereas Cable Street was on it’s door step.

    • Janet – Are you sure it’s not Cable Street? That would fit in the area. I lived in John Fisher Street from 1951 to 1968 and have never heard of Caley Street.

    • Janet – you’re welcome. Murphy and Donovan were, in my area, more common than they were in Dublin so it wouldn’t be easy to place them!

    • I have just received a letter from a relative re our family history and the

      Address that our parents lived at was 26, caley street, stepney.
      Apparently the family was bombed out during the war and he believes that caley street
      Was demolished so doesn’t exist anymore.
      He also spells it Cayley. I still am unable to find any references to it anywhere.

    • Thanks Bruce.

      Hopefully Janet will see your reply and respond by buying your book!

      Given your intimate knowledge on the subject could you enlighten me please?

      I was born in John Fisher Street E1 in the 50s and people often referred to Glasshouse Street (I know that name was changed) but I can’t find any record of it – any clues?

    • Hi Terry, sorry for the delay, I have been away. Glasshouse Street was renamed John Fisher Street in 1938. It is shown on Wyld’s 1851 map as Glasshouse Street. On Greenwood’s 1830 map it is shown as White’s Yard and also called that by Lockie in 1810 described as at 58 Rosemary Lane, leading to 97 Upper East Smithfield.

    • Hello Terry. I used to live in H Block in the 50’s/60’s. Moved out in ’66. Andrew Blanking.

    • Hi Andrew

      If I remember correctly H was the Estate Super’s base. I was in F block from 51 – 67 so we must have bumped into one another I guess! My problem is names but I’m OK with faces so I can’t place you by your name only.

      Which school did you go to? I can remember Adrian Jones, Tony Cosgrove (both A block), David Delay (D block) and Michael Perkins (I block I think)?

      Nice to hear from you.

      Terry Clark

    • Many thanks for your message I will get the book and carry on with my family history.
      I am always at a loss to know what books to get once again many thanks

    • Bruce i am sorry but I lived in Whitehorse Road up to 1960,and shortly after that the large bomb site from 76 to 87 houses was redeveloped,they also knocked dowm 87,89,91 to build a block of flats,Caley street is still there,the only park in that area is the one surrounding St Dunstons church and that of course is still there,also Whitehorse Road was always in E1 not E14.

    • Hi Caley street is near Ben Johnson Road,there was and I think still is a school there my mother went there

    • Ok so Caley street is no longer with us as it was destroyed in WW2 or at least knocked down,it used to be near Maroon St which is still about today,you mother was right back then you could walk through Rotherhithe Tunnel there is still pavement either side of the road but you cannot walk through now it would be madness given the amount of traffic,with regard to climbing the stairs and going into a park,she means what we called Shadwell park,you see the tunnel was built with two bends in it and the one on this side of the river had steps that led up past four big fans that removed the fumes from the tunnel and you came out in the park right beside the river Thames,the correct name for the park was King Edward Memorial Park. I loved that park spent many hours there watching all the tugs and barges and of course ships,today the river is dead hardly anything happens.

    • There was a Cayley Street just off Aston Street in Limehouse, Poplar. E14. It was probably bombed during WWII, it no longer exists as the site is now overbuilt by flats and a park.

  12. My Father Kenneth Friend and Grandfather Charles had the textile/dressing gown factory at 3/5 Globe Road around the corner from Bethnal Green Station. I used to love as a child going to help at the factory. Does anyone remember Margaret Reardon, upstairs Manager or John Cox downstairs Manager. Lena Elliot was my Dad’s secretary and Rose one of the treasured ladies who worked the upstairs sewing machines.
    Such happy times.
    We used to lunch in the local pub with Mark Harris who owned the undertakers. In fact either he or his Son made the treasured headstone after my Father’s death. There was also a Mr Bassett another friend, a very tall well dressed man with a moustache. I don’t remember his 1st name. They all had local business in common.
    I’d love to hear from anyone who remembers any of those mentioned or indeed the factory. Thanks. Vicki Friend

  13. Oh how reading this bought back lots of mixed memories some very happy ones but some very sad, like the Bethnal Green Tube disaster,where I lost my best friend and almost lost my life too, somebody in the crowd held me back from following my friend down the stairs, it has always been a vivid memory with me for 73 yrs,I was 10yrs old when it happened in 1943,it started when a lady carrying a large bundle of bedding for her family suddenly tripped after someone in the crowd shouted that there was a bomb coming, once the lady went down everyone was just pushing everybody in front of them,and at that time there was no central rail down the stairs, although I remember people complaining about this before the accident, but nobody did anything about it,and I think that is way this was put under the carpet. it was not long after the accident that a rail was put there !I still remember my friend Joan’s face as I was pulled from her hand and everyone behind her just kept pushing her, and that was the last I saw of her.

  14. That’s interesting. My mother grew up in Dempsey Street at number 13 and lived there until she married and moved to Seven Sisters.
    She was part of a large family who used to run a haulage business out of the rear of the premises. The horses and carts would drive up a wide alley between number 13 and number 15. Their first floors formed a sort Of arch way over the front. The horses were stabled out the back underground with the yard above. Later they were replaced by lorries. The firm used to pick up huge rolls of paper at the Docks and take them to Fleet Street for the newspaper printing presses. As a lad I can remember sitting on the step in the summer watching the fun and games at a pub on the corner. My grandparents lived at number 13 until they were relocated to Burdett Road when Dempsey Street was demolished in the 1960s.

  15. I lived in Stepney during the war I remember vividly running into the Anderson air shelter one night a shell hit it and my mother said no more so future air raids found us under the kitchen table. I lived at 48 Dempsey Street, Stepney E1. One night a buzz bomb fell from the sky and completely demolished one end of Dempsey Street.


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