St Bride's: History: Chapter VIII: 1940 - 1957

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St Bride's: History

Chapter I: Intro

Stepping into 2,000 years of history. The story of St Bride's is woven into the fabric of the City of London.
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Chapter II: AD43 - 1000

The dawn of our history: a Roman house near Lud Gate. Brigid: saintly teenager & default bishop
Photo Credit: Peter Dazeley
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Chapter III: 1000 - 1500

An accident of medieval geography brings importance
Photo Credit: Paul Freeman
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Chapter IV: 1500 - 1665

Wynkyn de Worde came to St Bride's and it was time to start the presses
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Chapter V: 1665 - 1666

Plague pits, nosegays, brokers of the dead & a torrent of flame.
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Chapter VI: 1666 - 1730

'Will you rebuild our church, Mr Wren?'
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Chapter VII: 1730 - 1940

The rise and rise of the Fourth Estate
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Chapter VIII: 1940 - 1957

The night St Bride's luck ran out
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Chapter IX: 1957 - 1989

Wynkyn de Worde's revolution ends in tears
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Chapter X: 1989 - 2021

St Bride's: a church for the 21st century
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Chapter VIII: 1940 - 1957

The Blitz began in the early autumn as the Germans, their plan for a summer invasion thwarted, sought instead to bomb Britain's cities into submission. Guildsman John Colley, now in his 80s, recalls what it was like to be in a Grub Street at war:

John Colley

John Colley
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"The nightly bombing to which London was being subjected for those last four months of 1940 made little apparent difference to the way Fleet Street went about its business. The business of producing tomorrow's newspapers was so all-consuming that there was little time to think about what was going on above; and that was true not only of those working in the great buildings housing the Nationals, but also in the basements of the scores of London offices of the big provincial papers.

"That isn't to say there weren't moments of sheer terror when the ominous whistle of a bomb you knew was going to land close by could be heard, but once the immediate danger was over you just got on with the job that had to be done. It was such a familiar situation that one became hardened to it.

"Outside, Fleet Street appeared to be its usual nightly hive of activity and got on with its job as much as circumstances would allow. News vans still dashed off to the London termini; couriers brought Government hand-outs from the Ministry of Information; messengers from picture and news agencies dodged the shrapnel and bombs as they darted from office to office; even the odd tramp made his nightly call to cadge a cuppa.

"With most of the newspapers gathered together in an area all around Fleet Street, the agencies - PA, Reuters, Ex Tel and the rest - sent the majority of their news through cables strung across the Street to tape machines in subscribing offices, all liable to disruption by bomb and blast - which brought more messengers delivering a hand service.

"Night life in the Street at that time centred around the all-night cafes - and there were many of them, all doing good business serving sustaining tea and snacks. Pubs, of course, had to keep to licensing hours, but Fleet Street's two Black and White all-night milk bars did a roaring trade serving hot soup and a great variety of milk shakes.

"Occasionally a fire-fighting party of three dodged from building to building, one carrying a bucket of water, one a stirrup pump and the third a hose on their way to put out an incendiary fire. Air Raid Precaution wardens made their nightly calls and public service vehicles on their way to or from an incident were up and down the Street throughout the night. All in all, there was hardly a quiet moment, either on the ground or up above."

Two days before this grim year ended, St Bride's luck ran out. On the night of Sunday 29th December the Luftwaffe targeted the City of London in a concentrated incendiary raid. Some 1400 fires were started; eight of Wren's churches were destroyed. St Bride's was one of them.

The years of desolation after the bells melted and fell

St Paul's amidst the fire

The church, locked after Evensong, suffered incendiary hits which pierced the roof, and the seasoned timbers proved perfect tinder. Some treasures were rescued from the flames, including the medieval gospel lectern which had survived the Great Fire of 1666. But most was destroyed. The famous bells melted and fell, but the steeple, despite having flames pouring from it, prevailed - testament to Wren's design.

Up Ludgate Hill, the Times reported, "the dome of St Paul's seemed to ride the sea of fire like a great ship lifting above the smoke and flames the inviolable ensign of the golden cross."

But all that lay ahead for St Bride's were years of ruined desolation until the war ended and the church's administrators were able to address the question that had faced their predecessors in 1666: How do we rebuild both the church and its congregation?

Legacy of the dead in the crypts

Service in Bombed Church

Services continued in the bombed out remains of the church

By the time the austere 1950s came round, services were being held on the site, some in the open air and others in the crypt chapel.

Rebuilding work was scheduled for 1954, thanks to the restoration fund which was a tribute to the dedication of the Rector, Revd Cyril Armitage. The chosen architect, Godfrey Allen, an authority on Wren, studied the master's original plans and produced a faithful recreation. He kept the clear glass Wren loved, but did not rebuild the galleries, instead laying out the stalls in collegiate style.

With rebuilding came excavation as well as restoration. In addition to the astonishing discovery of Roman remains on the site in 1953, the crypts were found to contain thousands of human remains, many of them victims of the Great Plague of 1665 and the cholera epidemic of 1854. The latter claimed 10,000 lives in the City of London, and, as a result, Parliament decreed that there should be no more burials in the City. The crypts were sealed and forgotten about.

Sample of human remains re-discovered during the crypt excavations

Sample of human remains re-discovered during the crypt excavations
Photo Credit: Stephanie Wolff

One hundred years later the excavations of Professor F.W. Grimes resulted in St. Bride's possessing two almost unique series of human remains. One includes well over 200 skeletons identified by their sex and age at the time of death, thus forming a very important source of research into forensic and other forms of medicine.

jelena bones video.jpg

Jelena Bekvalac - Curator of Human Osteology, Museum of London - recently catalogued the collection of human remains.
Watch Jelena describe the process of examining bones

The other series, which is estimated by some to include nearly 7,000 human remains, is in a medieval charnel house where all the bones were found in categories - thigh bone with thigh bone and so on - and laid in chequer-board pattern. This is probably evidence of a land shortage in London even that many centuries ago.