Friday, 10 September 2010


From Flora of London Bombed Sites 1950, a collection at the Department of Botany, The Natural History Museum, London, a pressed specimen of Chamaenerion angustifolium, also called Rosebay Willowherb, or Fireweed. This was collected in Holborn.

Image copyright © The Natural History Museum, London.

Fireweed is also the title of a joint show by Liz Davis, Clare Gerrard, and Susanna Jacobs, at Exhibit at Golden Lane Estate, London. The joint theme of their work is wild flora in the City of London. More details about their work at

The show runs until the 2nd of October, and the gallery is open Tuesday to Friday 11 am to 6 pm, Saturdays 11 am to 5 pm.

The Golden Lane Estate was built in 1958 on the north part of the Barbican bomb site, and the Barbican Estate was built later on the rest of it. In the period between the bombing and redevelopment, this part of London became overgrown and wild.

As well as showing a series of drawings, Susanna produced a short piece of animation for the exhibition. It imagines Golden Lane as a wilderness, not just the wilderness of the bomb site, but also a wilderness before London, before humans came, and after they pass away. Living in Golden Lane Estate, as we did for seven years, it often suggests wilderness. The layout of the estate suggests the ruined walls and cellars of the bomb site, and where nature finds a space in the gaps, deliberate or accidental, it becomes all the more notable against the stark concrete.

Susanna also produced a more lighthearted animation with children for an earlier part of the project, titled Then You Were Gone.

The frames below are from footage included in the TV documentary Classic Homes: Tower Blocks (1998), but come originally from a documentary made in the late 1940s or early ’50s. They show the Barbican bomb site, destroyed in a firestorm on the night of 29 December 1940. The first shows St Giles’ church, now contained within the Barbican residential estate. I don’t know the name of the original film, and would love to hear from anyone who recognises it.

There is a full and vivid account of the raid in London Before the Blitz by Richard Trench. He describes the history of the area, just outside London’s Roman city wall, “swamp and heath, a wild and lonely place, until the expansion of London in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”. A few snippets from his book follow.

The Barbican had always been outside the City walls. In the Middle Ages it had been a heath, inhabited by outcasts, outlaws, marginals, mad people and prostitutes. Shacks and wooden houses were built and a market grew up in Whitecross Street, avoiding the City tolls because it was outside the walls. In 1545 the Barbican burnt down. The Elizabethans tried to clean it up but never quite succeeded. The prostitutes, the unlicensed craftsmen, the semi-legal market stallholders and the dubious businesses on the edge of bankruptcy stayed. Outside the walls, the Barbican survived the Great Fire of 1666, but almost perished in the Great Cripplegate Fire of 1897. The fire had started in an ostrich feather warehouse in Well Street off Jewin Street and spread through the six-storey warehouses and sweatshops filled with inflammable draperies, sheets, cotton rolls and dyes. ‘There were blazing shops and warehouses on either side, brickwork and debris of every kind were crashing down everywhere, and the heat was terrific,’ wrote Jack While, the Fleet Street journalist. ‘I got saturated to the skin over and over again, but I only had to go and stand in front of a blazing shop to dry my clothes.’ In spite of 228 firemen, 128 warehouses were burnt down throwing four thousand people, mostly women, out of work.

Richard Trench describes the Auxiliary Fire Service’s first major exercise in November 1938 through the eyes of Commander Aylmer Firebrace, Chief Officer of the London Fire Brigade, observing the event at Redcross Street Fire Station:

The exercise had already started, though you could hardly tell by the indifferent poses of the telephonists. There were fires in Jewin Crescent, fires in London Wall, fires in Silver Street. Some were checked by Auxiliaries’ pumps, trundled up to the fires behind taxis. Others spread unattended. Off-duty regulars shrugged their shoulders as Falcon Street, Wood Street, Addle Street and Love Lane burnt to the ground, treating the whole thing with the patronizing contempt of nannies leaving the children alone in the nursery. The exercise went on all night, and by early morning the overflowing offices, warehouses and sweatshops of ‘Fire Island’ had proved too much for the well-meaning amateurs of the Auxiliary Fire Service. The independent referees announced that the fires had won. Theoretically the Barbican was burning all around them.

The real thing came on the night of 29 December 1940. I can’t do justice to Mr Trench’s telling of it with just a small sampling, so I recommend getting the book. Instead, here is a little on the aftermath:

Next morning, as the firestorm died down, bedraggled groups of firemen, wardens, heavy rescue men and policemen assembled on the periphery and tentatively made their way into the smouldering ruins. Len Hunt and his electricity repair party joined them. They had assembled in Smithfield, crossed Aldersgate Street and walked into the Barbican. It was 9.00 am, Monday morning. The wind had died down and a million fragments of ash and embers snowed down on them. The tarmac in the road was still burning in places. A few walls, strengthened by their chimneys, stood like headstones. The remaining buildings were ghosts, their positions marked by piles of rubble. Only the shell of St Giles’, Whitbread's Brewery and irony upon ironies - Redcross Street Fire Station stood upright. South of St Giles’ along London Wall stretches of the Roman wall revealed themselves for the first time in 200 years. The electricity repair party made its way to the sub-station on Beech Street. They wanted to know if it was still there. The sub-station was deep underground, three floors beneath the firestorm. It was there. Not a screw was out of place. It had been protected by eight feet of water that had run from the firemen's hoses into the gutters and ended up in the sub-station. There would be no problem pumping it out. Firemen were standing around on street level with empty hoses. At this point the repair party should have gone round the streets and turned all the electricity boxes off. But there was no point. There were no boxes left. There was nothing. Len looked around him and thought that this was the most terrible thing that could happen; and for him it was, for the Coventry details had been censored and Dresden was still a name on a map.

As Len considered the destruction, the men of Redcross Street Fire Station reoccupied their posts. The fire reported on the roofjust before they evacuated had been blown out by the high winds created by the conflagration. Apart from a partly burnt roof the station was untouched. The sub-officer in charge came in carrying an unexploded incendiary. On it was its date and the firm's stamp. It had been made in 1938 by an engineering company in Islington, who had exported fire bombs to Germany right up to the declaration of war.

The Home Guard used the ruins to train in street-fighting techniques and the Cripplegate Rifle Range for target practice. 1941 became 1942. The Barbican was forgotten and returned to what it once had been, a heath. The wild flowers and weeds advanced from the railway lines and colonized the wasteland; fennel growing through rubble, foxglove next to blackened timbers, ragwort pushing up through bricks, brambles weaving around broken glass, and everywhere were the big purple flowers that people called fireweed. With the flowers came the animals, coming into the ruins along the same railway tracks, foxes, rabbits, field mice, rats and bats. Then the humans arrived, and the cellars and basements beneath the chop shops, sweatshops, warehouses, pubs, tailors, stationers, silk merchants, solicitors, furriers and hatters, became the homes of deserters, prostitutes, spivs, runaways, and marginals the people of the heath.

The firemen who reoccupied Redcross Street Fire Station tolerated them, imposing their sense of order no further than the waste ground behind the station where they established a vegetable patch and a piggery; so did the watchmen who camped in a cavern on the corner of Aldermanbury and London Wall guarding relics salvaged from the company's halls and a mountain of timber.

In the centre of the wilderness was St Giles’, where the two wild and innocent teenagers, Barbary and Raoul, first met Mavis in Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness. She was one of the people of the heath.
The girl was from Bankside, and had worked as a messenger in the city until her place of business had gone up in flames. She knew the ruins intimately, calling them and the anonymous alleys that ran between them by their old names, peopling them with industrious businessmen, chattering tea-bibulous typists, messengers and clerks: she moved among ghosts, herself solid, cheerful and unconcerned . . .

“I am very, very fond of ruins, ruins I love to scan,” Mavis hummed. She pointed across the wilderness towards the bastion. “That’s Mr Monty’s room up there, that was. Mr Monty always had his jokes. He’d look in at the warehouse - that was our warehouse, that pit with the pink flowers and nettles all over it - pretty, isn’t it? Mr Monty’d look in and speak to old Mr Dukes, he was the head clerk, and he’d have his joke with him, except on a Monday morning, and then it was look out for squalls. Poor Mr Dukes, he was ever so upset when it all went; for weeks he’d go wandering about the ruins, seeing if he could save anything, but of course he couldn’t, what the fire left the rescue men grabbed as quick as you could say knife . . .”

They climbed out through the window, and made their way along the ruined jungled waste, walking along broken lines of wall, diving into the cellars and caves of the underground city, where opulent merchants had once stored their wine, where gaily tiled rooms opened into one another and burrowed under great eaves of over-hanging earth, where fosses and ditches ran, bright with marigolds and choked with thistles, through one-time halls of commerce and yellow ragwort waved its gaudy banners over the ruin of defeated businessmen.

Related links:
A timeline of the Blitz at The Guardian.
In The Independent, a report and slide show on the exhibition Under Attack at the London Transport Museum, covering the bombing of London, Coventry, and Dresden.
Class War in the Blitz at Shiraz Socialist.

UPDATE: a follow up post with more about the film footage, and about a children’s novel Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh.

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