The ‘First Blitz’ on London from an unpublished WW1 diary

Cropped detail of a private back garden photograph of an airship or possible Zeppelin, location and date unknown. (Image source: copyright World War Zoo Gardens collection)

Cropped detail of a private back garden photograph of a British Zero airship , location and date c. 1917 /unknown. (Image source: copyright World War Zoo Gardens collection)

July 1917 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

July 1917 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

Air Raid Precautions were not just part of wartime life at London Zoo in WW2 and the 1940s. Amongst one of the  prescient safety actions at London Zoo in World War 1 was to build reinforced enclosure fronts for some of the dangerous animals such as reptiles, to protect the animals and staff from flying glass and the public from escaped animals.

The shape of things to come? A private back garden photograph of an airship or possible Zeppelin, location and date unknown. (Image source: copyright World War Zoo Gardens collection)

The shape of things to come? A private back garden photograph of a British airship , location and date unknown c. 1917. (Image source: copyright World War Zoo Gardens collection)

Researching what we can learn from how wartime zoos survived for the World War Zoo Gardens project, it is curious to see how people prepared for this new threat, beginning with the first aeroplane raids on Dover around Christmas 1914 mentioned in our previous December 2014 blogpost The first Zeppelin raid on Britain took place on 19 January 1915. London was reached and bombed at night by Zeppelins on 31 May 1915.

These were noticeable responses to a new threat from the skies,  German zeppelin airships and later, Gotha and Giant bombers. London Zoo and Regent’s Park were in the flight path of several raids but thankfully spared air raid damage in WW1, although Regent’s Park was bombed on several occasions. The London Zoo was spattered with spent shrapnel from the “Archies” (Anti-aircraft guns) on Primrose Hill  and prepared against possible animal escape with firearms trained staff of “a special emergency staff of picked men was always on call. Heavy shutters were fitted to the glass fronts of the poisonous snakes’ cages” (Source: The Zoo Story, L.R.Brightwell, 1952). A long-term outcome of the WW1 air raid preparation was the provision of a First Aid post for visitors continuing after the war (Source: The Zoo, J. Barrington-Johnson, 2005).

In some of the London Zoo histories such as by L.R.Brightwell, the “barking of the Archies” (anti-aircraft guns) on Primrose Hill nearby was an interesting note. London was slow at first to realise and respond to the threat. In Ian Castle’s books on these first London air raids in the Osprey History series, the maps show zeppelin and bomber routes heading over Regent’s Park with one or two bombs in the Park. By day and by night, a Zeppelin or large bomber aircraft must have been a strange and unnerving sight for visitors, staff and zoo animals.

Animals here at Newquay Zoo which have aerial predators such as meerkats, monkeys and lemurs quite frequently respond to aerial objects. Most notably in the past skies above Newquay  we have seen ranging from the Eclipse in 1999, candle party balloons, hot air balloons, party fire balloons, hang gliders, air ambulance helicopters, the Red Arrows, the Battle of Britain flight to the more natural occasional Sparrowhawk or Buzzard. Being near a former RAF base and Newquay Airport, although supposedly a no-fly zone for aircraft, the animals do see  some unusual aerial activity over the zoo.

Having been around on watch at Newquay Zoo on Firework Night in the past with nervous new arrivals, I wonder what the London Zoo animals would have made of Zeppelins, anti-aircraft guns or searchlights. Even the odd daytime firework or past lifeboat maroon sounded for emergency or Armistice Sunday in Newquay elicited a very noisy or nervous reaction from many animals from peacocks, macaws,  monkeys  and lemurs.

Cropped detail of a private back garden photograph of an airship or possible Zeppelin, location and date unknown. (Image source: copyright World War Zoo Gardens collection)

Cropped detail of a private back garden photograph of a British airship , location and date unknown c. 1917. (Image source: copyright World War Zoo Gardens collection)

There is lots of fantastic detail on Ian Castle’s excellent website on WW1 air raids. Ian is the author of two Osprey books London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace and London 1917-1918: The Bomber Blitz amongst several other airship related books.

Ian Castle identified the photo in January 2015  as “a British SSZ (Submarine Scout Zero) airship.” As Ian goes on to explain ” We had nothing to compare with the Zeppelins, but built numbers of small non-rigid airships to patrol the maritime approaches to Britain, looking for German U-boats trying to threaten the all-important convoys. The Zero was 143ft 5ins long, compared with a Zeppelin which measured over 600 feet. The first Zeros flew in the summer of 1917 and a total of 77 were built, right up to the end of the war.”

Airships like these patrolled the coast looking for U-Boats, which threatened Merchant shipping, fishing boats and Royal Navy vessels supplying and supporting Britain’s war effort. By 1917 bad harvests and U-Boats threatened Britain’s civilian food supply, leading to rationing and an early form of ‘Dig for Victory’, as mentioned elsewhere on our blog. The remains of heavy concrete mooring blocks from British  airship sheds can be seen on the Lizard in Cornwall,  an hour away from Newquay Zoo where our wartime garden project is based. There is more about these in  Ian Castle’s book  or  Pete London’s books about Cornwall in The Great War (Truran, 2014) and  U-boat Hunters: Cornwall’s Air War, 1916-19 (Truran, 1999).                             

A photograph from Ian Castle's collection of SSZ 37, the type of Zero airship shown in our postcard photograph. Source: Ian Castle

A photograph from Ian Castle’s collection of SSZ 37, the type of Zero airship shown in our postcard photograph.
Source: Ian Castle

The ZSL Archive artefact of the month recently was the 1914 WW1 ZSL report. Looking slowly day by day through the daily occurrence books of London Zoo from August 1914 in the amazing  ZSL library and archive recently, I didn’t reach 1917 or 1918, something to do on my next visit. They would certainly have been amongst the talk of many of the staff who lived in the Primrose Hill, Regent’s Park  and  Camden area. Edith Spencer’s Diaries – 1917  A glimpse of everyday life amongst the London  air raids can be found in the unpublished civilian diaries of Edith Spencer (born 1889, St. Helen’s, Lancs). These form part of my wartime diary collection for the World War Zoo Gardens project.

Please credit Mark Norris / World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo if you reproduce any sections of Edith Spencer’s diaries or contact us via this blog site comments.

When the diaries recently went on show in my village as part of a WW1 centenary display, several elderly ladies spoke vividly of their mother’s stories of hiding from the Zeppelins in London.

March 1917 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

March 1917 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

With a brother away at the Western Front, Edith was the unmarried youngest daughter of  William W. Spencer, a deceased Wesleyan Methodist Minister. Several of her brothers became Methodist ministers and missionaries. It seems from Edith’s diaries that paid work was probably new, as she had no paid career listed in the 1911 census. Her mother Isabella (nee Reid) had died the year before on the Isle of Wight, where there was a strong family connection. This meant Edith was now  working in London as a clerk, working at the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society offices at 24 Bishopsgate in London. This building has now been replaced by the Pinnacle skyscraper.

Her employment there may have been part of freeing up men for the war effort. There is more about this organisation on the website Wesleyan Methodism archives . Edith’s unpublished diaries for 1917 to 1920 have some surprisingly understated entries (a lot of the entries are work related). Maybe the raids were becoming a commonplace feature of London life by then. Date evidence suggests that these are aeroplane raids, rather than the last of the Zeppelin attacks.

As Ian Castle suggested after reading her diary extracts, Edith Spencer’s low key reaction was surprising but not unusual:

“I am always fascinated when you read diaries such us this as they are so ‘relaxed’. These early bombing raids on London and other cities were so new – like something from science fiction to the average civilian, yet their diary entries are so ‘matter of fact’!”

Friday 19 January 1917: terrific explosion at Silvertown.

This explosion at a muitions factory at first was thought to be the result of air raids and was widely reported at the time. Her next entry seems to refer possibly to the Geological or  Geographical Society offices as a lecture venue. She also goes to many other talks of an evening, on art and other things, but mostly faith related.

Friday 9 February 1917: Lecture on ‘Aircraft’ at B.G.S.

Eighteen Gotha  large bombers attacked London on 13 June in broad daylight at the height of 12,000 feet, the first daylight raid on London. Despite the efforts of 90 British home defence aircraft scrambled to intercept them, 100 bombs were dropped on London by the 14 aircraft that got through.  Several notable buildings were hit ranging from the Royal Hospital Chelsea  and Poplar County Council School where 18 children were killed and others injured. 162 people were killed and 432 injured in this first daylight raid by aeroplanes on London. No Gotha was brought down and the air  defences of London were found wanting. Source for the additional details of these raids throughout this blogpost are the books First Blitz by Neil Hanson (Corgi Books) and London 1917-18 The Bomber Blitz by Ian Castle (Osprey), as well as his excellent website. Edith Spencer records this raid which saw bombs fall all around her place of work  in Bishopsgate:

Weds 13 June 1917: 10.30 PM [Prayer Meeting]  11.30 Air Raid, piece of bomb on roof. Thurs 14 June 1917: Warning of raid, 3 – 4 in basement.

March 1917 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

March 1917 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

The 14 June entry appears only to have been a warning, rather than a raid. The next daylight raid came on 7 July 1917.

July 1917 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

July 1917 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World war Zoo Gardens collection

Saturday 7 July 1917: Big German air raid on London . Stayed in Committee Room. Leadenhall Street hit badly …

The ” Archies” or AA guns  were readier this time but more of the 24 German Gothas were successfully engaged by Sopwith Pups and other planes of No. 37 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. 21 Gothas reached London around 10.30 a.m.  and again many of the 72  bombs on the City  hit the area near Edith Spencer in Bishopsgate. 54 were killed and 190 were injured. Leadenhall Street, Fenchurch Street and Billingsagte Fish Market were hit in this raid, according to Ian Castle, Leadenhall being mentioned by Edith Spencer.

Tuesday 17 July 1917: Emergency Committee met. Tuesday 21 August 1917: Mr. Goudie called meeting re. shelter in Air Raids, decided to go to our own strong room.

August’s poor wet and windy weather deferred many other raids and some of these August daylight raids only reached the coast.

August 1917 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

August 1917 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

Wednesday 22 August 1917: Rumour of Air Raid, only reached Margate. Spent an hour in the Strong Room.

With more well organised air defence by the RFC, the German Gotha raids switched to night raids, as recorded by Edith Spencer:

Monday 3 September 1917: Air raids at night – didn’t hear anything.

16 were killed and 56 were injured by around 50 bombs from the 5 Gothas that made it through. One reason that she might not “hear anything” much is that on many night she was at home in Watford, though sometimes stayed up in London. Edith’s home address was the now vanished (1869 – 1966) Wesleyan Manse, 1 Derby Road, Watford, Herts. The shrapnel from this first night-time bombing raid can still be seen on Sphinx and Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment today.

There were other Gotha raids on London 24 and 29 September 1917, more in October and a planned firestorm of incendiaries on London in December 1917 but these have no record in Edith’s diary; these sections are mostly blank of any entry. 1918 entries Edith Spencer’s unpublished diary These most probably relate to air raids by Giant and Gotha aeroplane bombers as the last Zeppelin raids on London were on 19/20 October 1917. Britain’s air defences were becoming too organised for the lumbering Zeppelins; “the day of the airship is past for attacks on London” the Kaiser declared after the 23/24th May 1917 raids (Castle, London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace, p.85 ). Only four Zeppelin raids were mounted in 1918 against Britain on the North and Midlands ending on 5 August 1918; several Zeppelins were also destroyed by fire at their home base of Ahlhorn on 5 January 1918. From now on, aeroplanes were the emerging new threat.

Monday 28 January 1918: Raid, lights down 8.10 onwards. Tuesday 29 January 1918: Raid, warning 10pm.

January 1918 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

January 1918 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

The 28th January 1918 raid saw 65 killed and 159 injured from 44 bombs, including 38 killed and 45  men, women and children injured in the basement shelter of Odham’s printing works at Longacre in London. This was the sort of basement shelter that Edith Spencer and work colleagues used at Bishopsgate. A night time raid warning maroon was sounded for the first time shortly after 8pm. Sadly panic from these unfamiliar explosions led to a crush in Shoreditch heading towards  one air raid shelter at Bishopsagte Goods Yard, leaving 14 killed and 12 injured. Thankfully only 3 of the 13 Gothas and 1 of the 2 new Giant bombers made it as far as London. Several attacked coastal targets and 5 were lost to landing accidents or one shot down over Essex.

It is interesting that she refers to  ‘lights down’ suggesting a form of blackout in practice, either routinely or in response to air raid warning. This precedes the chaos of life in the blackout in WW2 As well as brothers who were Methodist ministers, Edith had family fighting in the war.

Sunday 10 February 1918: letter from Frank reporting next move to France on 26th [February]

F.W. Spencer her younger brother (born in 1891 at St Helen’s, Lancs.) survived his service with the 58th Brigade, Royal Garrison Artillery as a Lieutenant  and later as Acting Captain, Royal Field Artillery which he joined on 11 March 1916. Raids on London continued as weather permitted  into 1918:

16 February 1918 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

16 February 1918 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

Saturday 16 February 1918: Raid warning 10.5 to 12.5 only, very distant firing heard. [this .5 might be 50 minutes or half past].

feb 18 2

17 and 18 February 1918 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

Sunday 17 February: Raid Monday 18 February: Holly and  I cleaned silver. Raid, firing nearer. Hilda, Holly and I made row in kitchen.

The sound of the anti aircraft guns is a vivid note in her record of this raid. This was a raid by only two German ‘Giants’ that made it to London where Woolwich was hit and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, killing around 7 people. On the next day 17th  London was hit again, by the R.25 a Giant, the only available German plane, but 20 were killed and 22 injured including servicemen home on leave and several in a shelter at St. Pancras station.

7 March 1918: Air Raid at 11.20. In bed.

It looks like Edith was often back in Watford each night, as she missed injury in the raid by 3 Giants which left 23 killed, 39 injured in the St. John’s Wood and Clapham Common area. A single 1000 kilogram bomb at Maida Vale was responsible for 12 of those killed and 33 injured. One of those killed was Lena Ford who wrote the words for Ivor Novello’s wartime hit song “Keep the Home Fires Burning”.

Whit Sunday Bank Holiday May 19 1918   Air Raid 11.30 to 1.15

This was the largest and last air raid of the war on London, according to Castle. It was a Bank Holiday weekend of notably fine weather. Edith Spencer on the Monday had a “beautiful walk round Plum Lane … Weather glorious, the fields all gold and green …” 18 Gothas and 1 Giant bomber reached London for the Whitsun raid of 1918, thankfully under half those that set out. 48 were killed, 172 were injured by the raid. The evening raid was the first countered by the newly amalgamated Royal Air Force which was created from the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service units on 1 April 1918. Several Gothas were brought down by the RAF and anti-aircraft fire over London and the Coast. After the War Edith Spencer continued to work for the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, working on her Pitman Shorthand and recording family, religious and missionary activities returning to normal.  Our diaries finish in 1920 by which she was experiencing increasing health problems.

11 November 1918 entry, Edith Spencer's diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

11 November 1918 entry, Edith Spencer’s diary. Source: Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens collection

In her armistice day entry, I think Mary is Edith’s  older sister Isabella Mary Spencer, who seems to have been involved in nursing after a career as a teacher and Methodist missionary. The reference to ‘hospital isolation to help with pneumonia’ suggest the Spanish flu epidemic that killed so many civilians and servicemen who survived  the war. Edith is off work for several weeks dealing with Mary, when she herself comes down with flu from working in the hospital. This flu  probably accounted for the post-war deaths of  several zoo and Kew gardens staff after WW1 as set out in our WW1 casualty biography sections. Lessons learned for another war? You can look at the equivalent raid entry for each date on Ian Castle’s website www.iancastlezeppelin.co.uk as these years are added to this evolving website or in his book the London 1917-18 The Bomber Blitz.

WW1 air defence technology that survived into WW2.

WW1 air defence technology that survived into WW2.

Ian Castle’s website shows more details of the Zeppelins, German and British  planes involved as well as the increasingly organised air raid defences. These would be tested again, resembling some of the WW1 devices like sound locators, searchlights,  aircraft batteries, balloon screens  and plotting rooms (all shown on propaganda / information cigarette cards of  the late 1930s, see above)  but with the  significant improvement of RADAR in the Second World War. Zoos themselves were staffed by WW1 veterans who had served in the forces or worked at the zoo through WW1. This would give them some insight into how to prepare for the threats that air raids and gas raids might pose as WW2 loomed. My research area of zoos, botanic gardens and aquariums has uncovered many stories across Europe  of preparing for and surviving disastrous events like air raids in the Second World War.  Swords into  ploughshares … Researching what happened to wartime zoos, aquariums and  botanic gardens one sometimes comes across odd facts. Former airfields and failing  estates make  suitable large spaces for wildlife parks. Newquay’s coastal sister zoo Living Coasts in Brixham  (opened on the Marine Spa /Beacon Quay site in 2003)  was briefly part in 1918 of a naval seaplane station; its war surplus hangers eventually became aviaries in the fledgling Paignton Zoo in the 1920s. This must be some kind of ‘swords into ploughshares’ or its zoo equivalent, for a very different kind of flight! Mark Norris, World War Zoo Gardens project, Newquay Zoo. Postscript Edith Spencer’s diaries are written in the  Boots Home Diary and Ladies’ Note Book for 1917 to 1920.

Fighting German Imports, a page from Boots Home Diary 1918.

Fighting German Imports, a page from Boots Home Diary 1918.

Amongst the handy medical and legal information, one interesting page is about Boot’s the Chemist’s  role in the War. Collecting and growing plants for the Vegetable Drugs Committee in WW1 and WW2 is another story for a future blog post.

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