Croy­don Bor­ough ar­chiv­ist Lind­say Ould talks to Jon Bauck­ham about a let­ter that pro­vides a vivid ac­count of a First World War Zep­pelin at­tack

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - LIND­SAY OULD is Ar­chiv­ist for the Lon­don Bor­ough of Croy­don

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.

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