GEM FROM THE ARCHIVE
Croydon Borough archivist Lindsay Ould talks to Jon Bauckham about a letter that provides a vivid account of a First World War Zeppelin attack
A letter about a WW1 Croydon air raid
lthough air raids are something we normally associate with the 1940s, the first bombings of mainland Britain were actually carried out during the First World War.
With East Anglia taking the first direct hits in January 1915, it wasn’t long before German Zeppelins – colossal flying airships filled with hydrogen gas – began unleashing their cargo closer to the capital.
An account of an attack can be found at the Museum of Croydon, as Borough Archivist Lindsay Ould explains.
Which document have you chosen?
I have chosen a letter written by the Reverend Alexander Sandison on 18 October 1915. He was the minister of South Croydon Congregational Church and was writing to his brother Tom, who lived in Shetland and ran the family’s general merchant business.
The two brothers started their correspondence in October 1914 and continued throughout the war until 1920. Alexander wrote one or two letters a week, tending to begin one each Monday and the other often on a Wednesday or Thursday. The letters contain a mixture of news regarding family and friends, together with observations on daily life and events in Croydon.
What does it reveal about the lives of our ancestors?
The letter reveals how civilian life was disrupted following the arrival of German airships, mainly Zeppelins, which caused damage and death at the heart of the community. The first raids on mainland Britain began in January 1915, when Kaiser Wilhelm II sanctioned an air campaign against strategic targets such as military bases and ammunitions dumps.
On the nights of 13 and 14 October, five airships accounted for the lives of 71 Londoners. Nine of the casualties were in Croydon, including three young boys from the same family and an elderly Belgian refugee who supposedly died of shock. The raid directly affected the citizens of Croydon, who had never experienced aerial bombings before. Alexander’s letter starts with a factual account: 11 bombs had fallen in 30 seconds, with five falling within 60 yards of each other.
He then contrasts the horrors of the air attack with the “glorious spectacle” of the airships. One friend is said to have been “held up under one of them for over half an hour”, while another recalled it as the “awfullest of apprehensions – My God, never again”. Civil defence arrangements are also described, with the Special Constabulary leaping into action against the “luminous devil”. They expected another raid the following night, but this turned out to be minor.
Alexander continues to describe his role as minister to his congregation, having to refocus from the terrible events of the past few days in order to compose addresses for upcoming meetings. Parents were too frightened to leave their children alone in the evenings, so services were held earlier in order to accommodate this.
News of family and friends is then added – his nephew Harry’s training as an officer and an “interesting account of a gas attack” led by a neighbour.
Bad news is mentioned but not communicated due to censorship. He acknowledges receipt of his brother’s previous letter and that it had been opened by the censor, but that “not one of the cheery words had been deleted – Bless him!”.
The letter ends with more mundane details of how the flowers were still in bloom in the garden and that the people’s food provisions were supplemented by apples and plums, “sufficient for the day and no more”. In spite of the frightening events of the previous days, life in a provincial market town appears to have carried on very much as before.
Why did you choose this document?
I chose this document because it is a good example of correspondence between families which rarely survives. It also tells the story of the First World War from the point of view of a civilian, rather than a journalist or the propaganda of military communications.
This particular letter depicts a point during the conflict that
directly affected the people of Croydon and contrasts the horror of death and destruction with the desire to witness the spectacle of the huge airships. Air warfare was still in its infancy and those who witnessed this attack were seeing the devastation that t could happen in a few seconds at first hand.
Life continued, and within this one letter we hear news of a gas attack alongside more mundane words about the weather. The role of the chur rch is also highlighted t o acknowledge the emotion of such an event and to providee support and hope for the future.
Tell us more about your collections…
The Museum of Croydon collects, conserves and interp prets Croydon’s cultural heritage to enable individuals and organisat tions to take part in creative an nd enjoyable learning experi iences.
The Museum of Croy ydon Gallery tells the story of Croydon from 1800 throughh to the present day, while the Riesco Gallery is home to Croydon’s Roman and Anglo-Saxon collections and 200 items from the Riesco Collection of Chinese ceramicsceramics. There is also a regular display of artwork from the Croydon Art Collection in our exhibition gallery.
Our research room, designed to improve access to the borough’sboougs aarchivecve collectionsco and local history, offers access to resources such as maps, newspapers, street directories and photographs. We hold the archives of the London Borough of Croydon and its predecessor bodiesbodies, as well as collections representing our diverse community.