THE HEATH AT WAR!
The first German air attack took place in London on the evening of the
7th of September 1940!
Thence began a chapter of history where Hampstead Heath, with its neighbouring villages of Hampstead and Highgate, had a role to play in those dangerous days between 1939 and 1945, before peace was declared.
"Whilst living in Hampstead there had been many nights when we would pack up our belongings and go to the Hampstead Tube Station where we would sleep on the platforms. The platforms were packed with people and sometimes it was difficult to find a place. Because this underground station was very deep, it was considered comparatively safe although it was far from comfortable or quiet but we did not bother about that at the time."
As in The First World War, public and private buildings were comandeered, such as Athlone House, Highgate.
In 1942 the building was taken for war service by the Royal Air Force and was used to house the RAF Intelligence School, although the 'official' line was that it was a convalescence hospital.
World War II brought periods of heavy bombing.
Hampstead and Belsize Park tube stations were used as air-raid shelters, Hampstead being a very deep station.
For most people, shelter from The Blitz was either in house basements or Anderson Shelters.
As the night raids became so frequent, many people who were tired of repeatedly interrupting their sleep to go back and forth to the shelters, virtually took up residence in a shelter.
The Anderson Shelter would be half buried in the ground, usually the back garden, with earth heaped on top to protect them from bomb blasts.
They were made from six corrugated iron sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, and measured 6ft 6in by 4ft 6in (1.95m by 1.35m).
The entrance was protected by a steel shield and an earthen blast wall.
The government gave out anderson shelters free to people who earned below £5 per week.
By September 1939 one and a half million Anderson shelters had been put up in gardens.
The Anderson Shelters were dark and damp and in low-lying areas the shelters tended to flood and sleeping was difficult as they did not keep out the sound of the bombings.
A Morrison Shelter was introduced in 1941, made of heavy steel, which was for people who had no gardens.
"Because it was such a beautiful sunny Sunday morning we decided to continue with our planned walk across Hampstead Heath. Some ten or fifteen minutes or more after 11 o'clock, when we knew Mr Chamberlain was due to speak on the radio to the nation, our happy walk was seriously interrupted by the wail of the air raid sirens. Although we did not know what the Prime Minister had said we both knew that it meant that we were at war with Germany!"
However, tens of thousands of civilians were forced to sleep far from their homes in parked cars, taxis and buses; in churches and barns; even out in the open, on Hampstead Heath!
"We quite literally did not know what to do next. We sat on a bench, high on Parliament Hill, facing south towards the centre of London. We watched an RAF barrage balloon crew at the foot of the hill try, with considerable difficulty and little success, to winch up their balloon. It just seemed to flop around near the ground like a drunken sailor"
During The War, sand was extracted from Hampstead Heath to fill sand bags and the pits were later filled with rubble from bombed sites in London.
Oil from lorry parts killed many of the trees and bren gun carriers killed the last heather plants on Sandy Heath, which are now replaced.
The people could still be entertained on The Heath, during the war, as The Fair continued through these years and afterwards.
Records show fairs were affected by blackout restrictions and limited supplies of food, fuel and 'swag'.
(above: Living Wagon Vale Fair 1939)
Coconut shies became rare as coconuts took up valuable shipping space and rifle ranges were deprived of ammunition. Music was also muted in case it drowned out the Alert.
Many showmens' engines were used for demolition work clearing debris from blitzed cities and demolishing unstable buildings, especially in areas of severe bomb damage.
(Boxing Match programme, courtesy of Burgh House)
Wartime hardships meant a big reduction in many of the usual leisure activities and entertainment that doubled as fundraising for the war effort was very popular.
Often these entertainments featured servicemen themselves, such as this boxing tournament held in Hampstead towards the end of the Second World War.
The inside of the programme lists the contenders who are all members of the Hampstead Squadron, Wood Green Squadron, the Naval Cadets, or the No. 5 Bomb Disposal Company of the Royal Engineers. (1943)
"Sleeping for a short while on Hampstead tube station platform.
Lying in bed after the sirens went off. First the thud of anti-aircraft guns, then the crump of bombs and the pulsating drone of enemy aircraft."
"There was and Ack Ack battery on Hampstead Heath, protected with a Barrage Balloon which was shot down one night. It landed ablaze in the drive of the house and we frantically tried to get the stirrup pump working to put it out. In the end the fire engine arrived and the firemen extinguished it."
Sandpits had again appeared on The Heath, in 1939.
One great quarry was at the south end of the Upper Fairground, just above The Vale Of Health, and another on The Sandy Road, just below The Spaniards Road, at the back of The Paddock.
These were wide and about twenty feet deep.
They were filled up at the end of the War with rubble from bombed London, which brought a colourful crop of Cockney weeds and are the only place on The Heath, where they can be seen today.
During The War, RAF barrage balloons and army anti-aircraft batteries occupied parts of The Heath.
On The Extension, the field known as Gravell Hart and some of Barn Field was an anti-aircraft troop camp, only dismantled in 1953.
There was a Z rocket battery on the Middle Heath manned by The Home Guard, only the other side of the stream from The Battery where, some 140 years before, The Loyal Hampstead Association had there exercises.
Allotments appeared, as shown above, in Golders Hill, near The Tumulus, near The Pryors and on The Heath Extension.
Emergency water tanks were built on The Heath for fire fighting and even Whitestone Pond was given walls for this purpose.
The creation of allotments was essential.
Cultivation of fruit and vegetables in shared allotments and back gardens became commonplace during the war years.
The nation was forced to quickly adapt to surviving without the 55 million tons of food it had imported not so long before.
The emphasis was on sharing knowledge of natural cultivation techniques and reusing materials.
The approach was pretty much organic, although the motivation then was producing crops with the highest nutritional value that were easiest to grow.
Parts of Hampstead Heath were used for allotments.
"But for most of that early part of the war us boys were free, free to run and play on Fortune Green, or a mile or so up to wonderful Hampstead Heath. The streets of houses, homes of the wealthy, a largely Jewish area, were deserted, the occupants having fled to safety, many to the States,
it was said, but soon the army arrived, and commandeered these houses for billets, the roads chocablock with camouflaged lorries."
In preparing for The War, various methods were employed.
In 1939, a questionnaire survey carried out in Hampstead asking people about blackout preparations, shelters, air raid alarms etc.
The building of shelters was discussed at town hall meetings and accounts written of volunteer stretcher bearers.
Civil Defence workers were expected to be released to take part time duties and Fire Watching registration took place.
The war damage in and around Hampstead was enormous, as it was in the rest of London and the country.
A bomb on Hampstead Heath near the playground severely damaged houses in Savernake Road and Estelle Road, and in 1944 Mansfield Road School was completely destroyed by a flying bomb.
Prefabricated homes, some of which lasted until the 1970s were placed on the cleared sites until rebuilding was possible.
Gospel Oak School was built in 1953 on the old school site, and a nursery school added much later in 1985 on the site of numbers 1-11 Savernake Road.
In the aftermath of war the condition of many of the houses had deteriorated. Multiple occupation, and lack of maintenance, particularly of the leasehold properties was later to be a cause for concern.
Notable buildings that were destroyed or heavily damaged by bombs were The Golder's Hill Mansion, which was completely destroyed, and Jack Straw's Castle, which was heavily damaged.
After the War, rebuilding was slow. The New End Area was particularly badly damaged and in 1948, Hampstead's 1st post-war Council Blocks, The Wells House flats were built on the site of Weatheral House, adjacent to Burgh House.
If there was any positivity at all, at least the LCC added the gardens of some of the destroyed houses, in 1948.
"We sat on a bench, high on Parliament Hill, facing south towards the centre of London. We watched an RAF barrage balloon crew at the foot of the hill try, with considerable difficulty and little success, to winch up their balloon."
"I was attached to an Army unit - No 8 WOSB - and sent to Spedan Towers, Branch Hill in Hampstead. This was a rather grand house which belonged to the John Lewis family. The girls were accommodated in flats over the garages but if there was an air-raid, then we had to go into the house and shelter in the billiards room."
"Two years later we moved to Hampstead just a few miles away. One day, during another air raid, a Doodlebug landed in one of the ponds on Hampstead Heath very near to our house in Parliament Hill. The explosion created a lot of damage. I was on my own at the time and it was very frightening waiting for the plane's engine to stop, again wondering where it would land."
"I attended New End School in Hampstead and often during our lessons the Air Raid sirens would sound and we were all taken to certain safer rooms to continue our lessons where we remained until the 'all-clear' sent. Then we would go back to our classes and try to concentrate on our lessons once again."