On the 16th September 1940, John Wilfrid Marston, managing director of WJ Marston & Son, sat down to compose a letter to Mrs Kay, recently appointed as manager of the company’s newly built hotel on the Kent coast. “The bombing in London is certainly rather terrible”, he began, but “so far, we have been rather fortunate.”
It had been a grim week. War was declared a year earlier, but had only became a reality for most Britons over these past few days with the start of the ‘Blitz’ – Germany’s aerial onslaught that filled each night with wailing sirens, bolts to the air raid shelter, oil bombs, fire bombs, high explosive bombs, homes destroyed, factories and shops wrecked, towns and cities left in ruins.
The first bombs to hit Fulham came in the early hours of Monday 9 September 1940: a burst of deadly explosives, one of which destroyed a whole block of Fulham Hospital. There followed a direct hit on the turbine house at Fulham Power Station, causing serious damage to the plant. Then, a horrific incident at midnight on the Munster Road end of St Dionis Road: a delayed action bomb, next to a group of volunteer ARP wardens working to rescue the injured, suddenly exploded; ten wardens died.
The bombing raids soon settled into a pattern, with German aircraft attacking targets in Fulham nearly every night. As darkness fell, the sirens started up, and before long, the throbbing of aircraft engines was heard overhead; workplaces were obliged to close early to let people reach home in daylight.
The night of Friday 13 September 1940 was particularly gruesome: among a number of bombs that exploded, a large surface air raid shelter in Bucklers Alley, off Haldane Road, designed to hold 1,200 people suffered a direct hit. Thirty-eight people lost their lives.
In anticipation of the onslaught, the local war emergency committee had divided Fulham into sectors for the purpose of emergency ‘first aid repairs’. JW Marston was appointed to co-ordinate repair work for the South Fulham area, which included the industrial parts of the borough. “We are extremely busy,” he wrote, “repairing and reinstating houses in order that the people can live in reasonable comfort.”
Each morning, Mary Stutely, secretary to JW, received instructions from the Town Hall outlining the damage done in Fulham’s southern sector the previous night. JW would arrive in the office, examine the list and ascertain which of the ‘panel firms’, Marstons included, was best suited to deal with each of the damaged properties. Calm-headed, JW would spend the rest of the day organising teams of builders, sorting out problems, keeping people’s spirits up and getting the job done: JW was in his element. Even in reporting the scale of attack to Mrs Kay, he used a light touch: “When you know that in Fulham alone we had 300 bombs in three days, you can well imagine it was not exactly a health resort.”
There was no shortage of work that week: a house did not necessarily have to be hit to suffer damage. A bomb in the vicinity could bring down ceilings, blast off doors and smash windows; slates came off roofs, and soot tumbled down chimneys, coating everything in black dust. Water and gas would be cut off if a bomb had damaged the mains. Shattered windows posed more of a problem as winter set in.
Householders were rightly made the priority for repairs, but not everyone appreciated the directive: JW had to inform Mambre and Garton, a large company on Willowbank Wharf, that they would have to wait. In spite of the longstanding relationship between the two businesses, they never instructed Marstons again.
Over the four months leading up to Christmas 1940, 395 high explosive bombs and forty-two anti-aircraft shells had landed on Fulham. Between thirty and forty Marston’s staff spent 25,000 hours repairing doors, windows, walls, ceilings, steps and leaks for properties across Fulham, Wandsworth and elsewhere, as well as building or reinforcing air raid shelters. The company’s own offices experienced several near misses, with Fulham Power Station and Sands End Gas Works – strategic targets subjected to repeated attack – only a few streets away.
Given the scale of damage, speed and efficiency were the order of the day: foreman Percy Deacon recalled leaving the yard each morning with the lorry stacked high with boards and always with his tin hat. Sent off to board up the windows of a bomb-blasted wine merchants one early morning, he had virtually completed the task by the time the owner arrived to open up the premises.
With materials in short supply, staff relied on their wits. On another occasion, Percy was sent to Sloane Street to build a shelter for a client’s bedridden wife; his solution was to strengthen the uprights on her four-poster bed and place corrugated iron over the top.
A few days before Christmas 1940, the borough engineer reported to the war emergency committee that, in just fifteen weeks, the combined forces of Marstons, other local builders and the council’s own workforce had carried out first aid repairs to a total of 8,823 houses in Fulham: a staggering achievement.
“I am sure that Mister Hitler would be quite disappointed at the comparatively normal state of things even after quite a severe shake up,” wrote JW, “In fact, it only makes us all the more determined to see this job through.”