This post continues my account of my great-great-great aunt May’s experiences during the Blitz, a series of heavy air raids carried out over London and other major British cities from 1940 – 1941 that resulted in over 40,000 civilian deaths. My last post related some of my discoveries leading up to my trip to London in early April, including two of May’s letters describing life during the raids and a Museum of London World War II-focused community excavation near where she lived. This post details my visit to the site of her home during the Blitz years and provides an update on my correspondence with the Museum of London Archaeological Archive.
On our second day in London, an 82° Sunday in early April, my boyfriend and I walked from the Tower, up through the throngs of Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, on to Shoreditch Park, where May’s home at 68 Rushton Street and hundreds of others had stood prior to 1945. It seemed half the neighborhood was there soaking in what they reasoned could be the warmest day of the whole year. At the conclusion of the Second World War, the devastation of the Blitz and later air raids had left many area houses destroyed or uninhabitable, and the 19 hectares that comprise today’s park were cleared and replaced with pre-fab housing. While intended as a temporary, stopgap measure to address the post-war housing crisis—over half of London’s housing stock had been damaged during the war—some pre-fabs remained in use there through the early 1970s. Once the structures were finally removed, development of the current Shoreditch Park began (see map below or view on Google). In the process of creating the park, several old streets, including May’s, were lost. This documentary, shared in my last post, chronicles the excavation of three trenches dug among the lost streets, all mere blocks from where May had lived.
The image below shows how the original streets configure within the current park. Note how Rushton Street crosses Bridport Place and continues on a southwest angle toward New North Road. This smaller section of Rushton Street still exists today, with the park on the north side and a medical clinic on the south side.
In the photo below, taken with my boyfriend’s GoPro camera, I stand on the north side of Rushton Street between New North Road and Bridport Place with a newly-built playground behind me. As I posed for the photo, the exuberant clamor of kids swinging, sliding, and running in the unseasonable warmth called to mind a line from May’s 1940 letter to my great-great grandfather: “I do wish they would send all children away.” I thought she would be glad to know that, in spite of the destruction she and her neighbors endured, children are again able to play free of care along her former street.
The map below shows the extent of damage inflicted during the Blitz on the area encompassed by the current park (its boundary is indicated by the green line). Houses colored black denote complete destruction, while houses in purple and red denote extensive bomb damage. The circles show the locations of strikes by V1 and V2 bombs towards the end of the war.
May’s house at number 68 was likely near the intersection of Rushton and Northport Streets, close to the strike of the bomb on the right. For more information on the destructive power of V1s and V2s, part of a set of long-range artillery “vengeance weapons” dropped in retaliation for Allied bombings of German cities, see this section (29:32) of the documentary. While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to consult aerial survey photographs housed at the Imperial War Museum and the Museum of London Archaeological Archive, I do have a screen capture (below) that shows how the intersection where May lived (lower right) has been leveled by 1944.
As a result of the historical information uncovered during the Museum of London excavation, Shoreditch Park has implemented numerous measures to honor its unusual heritage, detailed in this management plan. One such measure was the reinstatement of paths following historic streets, which meant we were able to walk along May’s section of Rushton Street, despite its being enveloped by the current park. Below is a GoPro shot taken along what had been the section of Rushton Street where May lived.
Funny anecdote: about fifty yards along the Rushton Street path from what I believe was the location of May’s house, two young East Enders coming the opposite way timidly extended a handmade flyer, excused their interruption, and inquired, “Do you like techno?” My boyfriend and I looked at each other, smiled, and returned their politeness with a “No, not really, sorry.” After an “Oh, ok, thanks anyway,” they continued eastward toward May’s house.
Museum of London Archaeological Archive
During my trip, I also received a response from the Museum of London’s Archaeological Archive. I’d contacted them two days before our departing flight from Chicago to see if they would be interested in May’s letters, given that they contained detailed descriptions of the bomb damage to her address (eyewitness accounts had played an important role in the project archaeologists’ attempts to plot air raid damage to the neighborhood). I received a reply from a Curatorial Assistant at the Archive on our last evening in England, informing me that they have all the objects, written records and documents from the 2005 excavation of what is now Shoreditch Park, and that I would be very welcome to book an appointment to view the material. He suggested I come in the next day, but our early morning flight to Copenhagen made that impossible.
While the Curatorial Assistant said he couldn’t guarantee I would be able to find out much about Rushton Street, as the dig was focused mainly on two houses in Dorchester Street, he mentioned that they do have copies of bomb damage maps and statements by relatives of people who used to live on the street and in the surrounding area. He added that peoples’ relatives have continued to contact them after watching the ‘Buried by the Blitz’ Time Team program over the years.
Most exciting of all, the Curatorial Assistant mentioned that if I would like to donate a photocopy of May’s letters to the Archive, they would gladly add them to the story of the excavation, as they may help researchers studying the assemblage in the future.