London’s streets are defined by the Blitz. The craters have been filled, but the shadows of the bombs remain.
January 1941, and craters scarred the cobbled streets of Maze Hill like a beach scooped by toddlers’ artless hands. The tramway that carries bleary war workers to Woolwich was an abstracted mass of twisted metal. A few nights earlier, a Messerschmitt flew so low along the length of the Thames at Greenwich that its fuselage could be seen above: yellow with a black cross.
Siemens typist Iris Bryce was more preoccupied with attending dances in New Cross than by the air-raid sirens that shrieked, most nights, into the fathomless blackout sky. As she recorded in her 1995 memoir Remember Greenwich, Bryce had been at a dance at Charlton Dance Hall on the first night of bombing with a gangly, Brylcreemed boy called Jim. It had been a dream: Iris’s silver-slippered feet clicking the perfect heel turn of a slow foxtrot as Jim held her close. Later, despite the ominous drone of approaching aircraft, the giggling couple tripped over sandbags and shared a kiss before Iris descended into the damp Woodland Grove air-raid shelter and Jim hared to safety down the old Trafalgar Road.
That night, 250kg of incendiary thermite fell on Tyler Street, one of three high explosives that pummelled Maze Hill’s tight cross-hatch of Victorian streets during the Blitz, razing half of the neighbourhood’s dwellings. She lived in a two-bedroom back-to-back rental on nearby Woodland Grove with her parents, older sister Daisy and brother Fred. Oil cloths dressed the floor, skinned rabbits sat in enamel bowls for tea and Iris’s parents were too stingy to electrify more than one socket in a house rented from the board. Her house was swept away for a block of council flats in the 1960s that are now a favoured spot for fly-tippers.
I live on a nearby rank of similar Victorian terraces that survived the war. From the 1840s to the 1940s they were home to generations of Irises and their families: manual labourers, women piece workers, the naval wounded and their many lodgers, squeezing ten-plus bodies into two-bedroom dwellings. Today, the character cottages are catnip for the middle classes. We have bought and extended them: L-extensions in the 80s, 1990s side returns, loft conversions and, for my generation, ugly top-floor box extensions to wring an extra 100 feet out of our 900-feet floorplans. In 2021, one of these modestly-sized terraced homes, flipped by a toothy young couple from the shires, sold for £1.1 million. Like so much about London’s overheated housing market, it’s a case of lipstick on a city mouse.
In the centre of the street, where two Blitz bombs landed, it’s a different story. Here, like an angry red eruption, sits a 1970s housing estate rendered in orange brick, dominated by a vast car park that recently saw an arson attack on a tradesman’s van in the retaliative volley of a drugs turf war. Many of these homes are occupied by elderly council residents who moved in when the homes were new; though one in three entered private ownership under Thatcher’s Right to Buy. A handful of the latter are now colonised by the middle classes, who rip out their large airing cupboards and knock the rooms through into sunlit walk-through spaces as older neighbours gripe. But, for these few incursions, it’s largely a tale of two streets: an invisible class line occupying the craterline where the bombs fell.
Historian David Ramzan, 69, is the author of many books, including Greenwich at Work. He grew up in the 1960s on Old Woolwich Road, a five-minute walk from Iris and I. Ramzan’s mum and dad and grandparents all lived on that road, as was common in working class communities in the 1960s. Two high-explosive bombs fell on the street during the 1940–41 Luftwaffe campaign.
‘They had a big crater in their back garden from the bombs, which they filled with cement,’ he recalls. ‘The back of my parents’ house was also blown off by an impact but they’d got sick of going down the shelter by then and were just sitting at the table having their tea when a bomb blasted their windows out.’
Ramzan remembers a childhood enlivened by the adventure playgrounds of Greenwich’s numerous bombsites, where purple buddleia bloomed amid wobbling turrets, dust and bricks. There was a rubble site on Ramzan’s street and, best of all, a site just off Blackwall Lane where the walls of the bombed houses still partially stood. A seven-year-old Ramzan and his mates would make a camp with an old piece of door mounted on two walls, light campfires and snack on the food they had pocketed from home. One of Ramzan’s schoolmates fell through what was formerly the first four landing of one of the bombed-out buildings and came into school one day with a broken arm. There was little in the way of health and safety on the old bombsites back in the 1960s,’ Ramzan laughs. ‘These days, they’d be all fenced off.’
Maze Hill was slowly rebuilt during Ramzan’s childhood, the rubble giving way to ranks of prefabs and 1970s blocks that, although hastily thrown up, at least gestured to the modern.
Linda Hope, 78, has lived in one of the council properties in the neighbourhood since they were built in the early 1970s. She moved in as a young mother after living in cramped accommodation with her parents in Plumstead, and remembers how modern the two-bed felt back then. ‘There wasn’t central heating, but there were mod cons, all your fitted kitchen and big cupboards,’ she says.
At the time, Maze Hill remained a working-class neighbourhood and the tenants of the neighbouring Victorian properties were looked down on. ‘We felt sorry for them because their homes were old and hadn’t been done up,’ she says. In the years since, Linda’s gratitude has faded, as the houses on her block were bought and sold through Right to Buy, and the remaining homes floundered under empty promises from the council. Despite being a tenant, Hope had to pay for her own central heating to be installed in the 1990s, and she knows some elderly neighbours who are still unheated upstairs. ‘The council don’t do much these days like back then,’ she tells me.
Avor Hill, 42, lives in an ex-council house on Tyler Street, built on the bomb crater that in turn fell on the listed residents of a Victorian cottage at the outbreak of war. The 1939 census lists the plot’s former residents as 41-year-old Florence Rice, her 17-year-old son Walter, her newborn Marilyn and a lodger, Alfred Jones, who was also working as a manual armature winder at the advanced age of 74. Florence and her children survived the bombings, although her husband, absent in the census, died at war.
Hill is surprised to discover that her home occupies the site of a World War Two bomb. She moved to the 70s-build from a basement flat in a Victorian property nearby. ‘All we saw all day was people’s legs walking past and it was really gloomy,’ she says. Hill and her husband bought the council house from a Dutch couple who had remodelled the property into a bright open space and lived between London and the Netherlands, AirBnBing the home in absentia to neighbouring council tenants’ chagrin. ‘These houses get a bad reputation but I think that’s because the council haven’t invested in them,’ she says. ‘Ours is really cheerful.’
Iris Bryce’s memoirs are a snapshot of these streets at the moment the bombs fell and war changed the neighbourhood forever. She depicts a tightly-knit working-class community where street-corner salad stalls sell beets and lettuces by the light of naphtha flares, cobbles clack with the wheelwrights’ horse hooves, street performers with accordions rehearse slapstick routines in orange wigs and fake bosoms, and children collect threepenny bits in a hat. Into the 1940s, a cat meat man would arrive weekly on his tricycle and sell metal skewers of horse flesh to the owners of mewling neighbourhood mogs; a corpulent Italian hokey-pokey man plied his iced cornets at the Maze Hill entrance of Greenwich Park. A local art deco cinema building, the Grenada – which is now a block of flats and in the 1990s was a nightclub known for its hair-gelled denizens’ love of fistfights – was unveiled in 1937 with a rooftop performance by music hall darling Gracie Fields. Fields sang Sally, Pride of Our Alley as 10,000 locals thronged Trafalgar Road munching faggots and pease pudding from the hole in the wall on Blackwall Lane. By the end of the war, the hokey-pokey and cat meat men, vestiges of Victorian London, were no more.
Today Maze Hill is again in social flux, as rising rents and housing benefit caps push families out of London, leaving these streets to moneyed DINKs and a smattering of old council residents. For Ramzan, the years immediately after the war were a missed opportunity to forge better lives. ‘There was this obsession with the new,’ he tells me, ‘but we didn’t yet know what that new would look like. We wanted to keep the sense of community, just with indoor loos. Though we did get the loos.’
Iris Bryce’s working-class father had refused to let his academic 13-year-old take up a school scholarship so she ‘didn’t get above her station’ and later refused to let her leave with other teenagers when her school was evacuated to Kent. Despite this, Bryce’s life – like her childhood streets – was inexorably transformed by war.
In 1941, she was conscripted for war work at Guildford and left Maze Hill for good, going on to be a teacher and winning the National Life Story for her memoirs. Boarding the train for Charing Cross, she only briefly glanced back at the bomb-scarred streets.