Weird & Wonderful London 4


Ploughing through far too many books on London and trying to work out which ones to take with me to Barcelona, where I’ll be working in seclusion next week, I can’t help but stare at photographs that touch me in some way. A lot of people complain that we have an idealised view of London past. I’m not so sure I do, as I remember the racism, sexism and homophobia, the stiflingly dull Sundays, the dirt, the early closing, all too clearly – but although the above photo was taken in the 1930s, I do recall coppers on the street in the 1960s often acting as baby-fetchers (when the little ones wandered off), child-minders, marriage councillors and emergency goalkeepers.

Until 1934 there were no driving tests and no speed limits, so an awful lot of people got mown down. The start of the blackouts saw a massive rise in the pedestrian death rate, and night-strollers took to wearing luminous items of clothing including hats and brooches. Here a pet cemetery sprang up to point out just how many animals were needlessly dying from careless driving.

I saw, what’s on television? You’d need a magnifying glass to see the programme, and that’s exactly what they did, fixing magnifying screens over the image. My neighbours had one that made you feel like you had early-onset cataracts. Here John Logie Baird, who had invented television in the 1920s, is watching TV on a gigantic 7 inch screen. In 1947 there were less than 14,000 TV owners.

Underneath the British Museum there’s a party going on – actually, the the old British Museum tube station, which became a children’s play centre during the war, as well as an air raid shelter. By this time the station had closed; it only opened for 33 years, from 1900, made redundant by Holborn Station. The dude on far left is a reader, not a joiner-inner. Yay!

Underneath the fashions for 1948. Clearly a huge influence on Madonna, this scary-looking model is wearing some kind of ironclad foundation garment with conical breastplates, butch shoulder-pads and hip enhancements to emphasise a tiny waist. It presumably took a couple of strong lads armed with screwdrivers and a blow lamp to get her out of it.

What on earth are these people doing? Is it a new spectator sport for all the family? Sort of. Incredibly, they’re watching a bomb disposal squad at work. In the summer of 1949 they removed a massive bomb that had fallen through the roof of a London cinema and failed to explode, so here’s everyone crowding around to see if it can be got out without blasting them all to bits. Sometimes unexploded bombs were taken to the nearest field and exploded, where they would routinely make craters 20 yards across.

The past looks ever-more like a lost world, dangerous, weird and unsettling, but always human.

19 comments on “Weird & Wonderful London 4”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    Really big bombs, like the huge ‘Satan’ (1800 kg), were generally taken to the Erith marshes to be detonated. If they were of a new type, or had a previously unknown type of fuze or combinations of fuzes, then they were taken to the ranges at Shoeburyness, where they could be examined, and hopefully neutralized with no danger to the public. Bomb disposal was a war of attrition. Every time the Germans realised that we had found out how to stop their (often deliberately) unexploded bombs from going off, they invented an even more fiendish fuze device. Give the book ‘Danger: UXB’, by James Owen, a look if this interests you. A factual book but one where you shouldn’t get attached to some of the lead characters.

  2. Anne Billson says:

    “the old British Museum tube station” Ah yes, wasn’t this the tunnel that collapsed in 1892, trapping construction workers whose descendants survived by snatching commuters off the platform at Russell Square and eating them?

  3. snowy says:

    Cheeky film reference!

    Ms. B, If I wore a hat I would raise it in salute!

  4. SteveB says:

    In Frankfurt, where I part time live, there are still regular finds of unexploded WW2 bombs. About once a year I can‘t go home because the area was evacuated because of a bomb.

  5. Brooke says:

    SteveB…how awful. Poor people coming upon bomb.

  6. Brooke says:

    Snowy, back attacha.

  7. snowy says:

    Now I’m really confused are Anne Billson and Brooke the same person?

    They are both very lovely but, one is in Europe and the other is in…. *brain melts*

  8. Jan says:

    Why has that Pc nicked that toddler do you reckon?

  9. admin says:

    That’s a standard police-issue toddler for use in photo opps, Jan.

  10. Brooke says:

    Aargh! Not same person, Snowy; responded to your post on wrong post page. Game , set and match to you.

  11. snowy says:

    Brooke, * Bows before your grace *, I opened a jar of my Home-made “Branston style” Pickle to celebrate, [first ever and it was rather nice, even if I do say so myself.]

    Jan, he hasn’t nicked anybody, he is showing the latest Direct-Entry graduate Inspector round their patch.

  12. Jan says:

    Snows you are probably right that’s why he’s bowing down to respectfully request if he can take the last two.hours of his shift off.

  13. snowy says:

    I think he’s worried it might need changing before they get back to the station.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    It looks to me like the child is leading the policeman back home to possibly a variation on the Monty Python ‘Milkman’ skit, which will end thus: “The room is full of policemen, some of whom are very… old.”

  15. Mike says:

    It wasn’t me officer. A big boy did it and ran away.

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    Is the Boiling Kettle a Café? If so did they sell a dog’s dinner. Sorry.

    I remember the old TV series, Danger UXB, it always seemed a ramshackle affair and not a job for those who wanted to live long.

    I remember Manchester being particularly grim, especially in the 70’s and 80’s, a lot of the industrial side was just pulled down. I remember Trafford Park being all but razed in parts, the roads & pavements still in place but empty spaces where the buildings used to be, on the odd corner you’d see a pub stood on it’s own, sometimes with strong wooden supports to keep them upright. The intolerance seemed to grow, football in the 50’s going into the 60’s Manchester people would go to City one week and United the next, people rarely went to away games, by the end of the 70’s hooliganism had exploded. Race riots and attacks on anyone who didn’t fit in. If you disagreed with this ethos you were marked out for trouble no matter what your background. I guess the parallel was the 20’s & 30’s (the Devil’s Decade.). Fear and anger looking for somewhere to be channelled.

    Crikey change of mood in this post, you’d never know I’ve just eaten a Smarties ice cream cone, and very welcome it was.


  17. snowy says:

    Bomb disposal was an Arms Race between two opposing teams of Engineers trying to constantly outwit each other. If the results had not been fatal it might almost been an enjoyable technical challenge to defeat ones opponent. Measure and Counter-measure, Anti-handling devices, Booby traps designed just to kill anybody attempting to render the bomb safe.

    The book to find is “Unexploded Bomb, A History of Bomb Disposal”, by Arthur Hartley, but copies are now very rare and very expensive.

    Those curious about the effects of individual bombs might look for ‘Blitz Street’ a Channel 4 series that built an entire street and then proceded to blow it up.

    Blitz maps exist for most large areas not just London; Manchester, Exeter, Coventry, Southampton, Hull, Clydebank, Liverpool, Bath and even out into the countryside.

    [P&P fans will know the film “The Small Back Room”, which has Thermos mines as the ‘motor’ to its plot.]

  18. Jan says:

    In the mid to late ’70s football aid that is working football matches wasn’t a posting you looked forward to whichever team you supported!

    There was a very real sense of threat and certain teams posed particular difficulties. At Millwall pcs were doubled up that is they didn’t work alone in any circs.

    Even into the late ’80s the violence lingered. I can well remember the Chelsea v Leeds match played in 1988 where the Chelsea supporters engaged in violent disorder@ their own ground.

    Back in those days the fences were still up preventing supporters from invading the pitch. The delightful Chelsea supporters spat at the Pcs on the other side of the fence. Of course we all ended up covered in gob. Finally the keys to the fence gating was found and we went in and cleared the Chelsea end in a swift and timely manner.

    On a different tack I can remember the scenes you describe the odd pub standing alone in the rubble around the Regent Road area of Salford – parts of Salford were pretty much a wasteland.

    Trafford park is so changed now it’s virtually unrecognizable. On a fairly recent visit I made up home supporters of opposing teams shared the same bus to Old Trafford. I can remember getting on a bus with me little suitcase thinking this could be a bit of a lively journey. But no bother at all someone even offered me his seat!

  19. Wayne Mook says:


    Your right about the change in Trafford Park, it’s not a place I recognise now, to be fair there were parts that really needed to be pulled down, but not all.

    I remember the alleyways around Maine Road, Manchester City’s ground being particularly worrisome. As time went on the fans used to arrange to go somewhere to fight, it used to be at Hough End which was not far from the bus stop I used to jump off to get to Maine Road, so it could be quite fraught getting to the ground.

    There were some scary times, I mainly went in the 80’s and as you said there was still a lot of trouble around. oddly enough there was a lot of trouble in the 1880’s as well.


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