How the Second World War changed H&F forever

VE Day 75th anniversary celebration on Friday 8 May 2020

Hammersmith & Fulham’s parks witnessed scenes of joyous celebration in the wake of VE Day, but they also played important wartime roles as the borough suffered bombing raids through the Second World War.

Several of today’s pocket parks owe their existence to the bombs that fell. A series of Luftwaffe bomber reconnaissance photographs reveal many of the secrets that the parks contained.

This aerial view of the Lillie Road recreation ground contains one of the few wartime installations to have survived for 75 years – a redbrick building in the centre, constructed as the firing base for an anti-aircraft gun.

A similar building once existed in Bishop’s Park, while the former cricket pavilion in South Park almost certainly played the same role, with a gun sited on the thick reinforced concrete roof.

Monochrome aerial view of Lillie Road Recreation Ground showing map legends
Image caption: Aerial photograph at Lillie Road Recreation Ground with installations near the middle

Take shelter

Unlike other parts of the capital, the borough had no deep Underground tube stations that could double up as air raid shelters, so parks became the places to site communal shelters. Parsons Green, Eel Brook Common and Shepherds Bush Green all had large civilian shelters, which filled up when the sirens sounded.

Monochrome aerial view of Eel Brook Common showing map legends
Image caption: Aerial photograph of Eel Brook Common, with a shelter near the middle, where the paths intersect

Impact on trees

The larger trees in parks also saw war service. When the older trees on Shepherds Bush Green were being pollarded, they were found to have fixture points for 1940s telephone wires, for example.

Other trees were destroyed or damaged during the bombing. The large plane tree in Ravenscourt Park was hit by a wartime bomb, and the canopy never fully recovered; hence its strange, squat shape today.

Riverside

Enemy bombers were able to navigate to their targets by following the path of the Thames, and from the glinting of railway tracks and canals.

Many of the old wharves along the riverfront in Hammersmith and Fulham received direct bomb damage and, post-war, some of these bombsites were turned into parks such as Stevenage Road, Rowberry Mead and Upper Mall open space. 

Changes

A recent discovery, which featured in the Evening Standard last year, was a small but pristine air raid shelter under one of the parks by the Great West Road. It has now been sealed up again, to safeguard it for posterity.

Some other smaller parks show remnants of old roads that ran through them before the war, such Normand Park and Marcus Garvey Park, where buildings were destroyed.

And in what is now the Gwendwr Gardens open space, a memorial was put up to remember the lives lost in the air raids of 20 February 1944 in what was known as the Baby Blitz – the last major concerted bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe. The sunken garden owes its existence to a crater left by a large bomb.

Monochrome aerial view of Gwendwr Gardens terraced houses showing map legends
Image caption: The terrace buildings damaged during the war resulting in the Gwendwr Gardens open space, just south of the then Gwendwr Gardens

Dig for Victory

Another use of some of the borough’s larger parks was to bury the debris and rubble from bombed buildings.

Wormwood Scrubs’ served as a shooting range for troops during the war, but it also housed anti-aircraft guns and – in common with every patch of park or open land – was used extensively for vegetable cultivation in the Dig for Victory campaign.

The famous poster image of a boot pushing a spade into the ground was photographed in a west London allotment. The foot belongs to William McKie, a keen member of the Acton Gardening Association!

Meanwhile, St Paul’s Gardens (formerly St Paul’s Boys’ School) in Hammersmith Road was commandeered by the army and used as a training ground for D-Day forces, and to plan the operation.

For General Montgomery, it was like coming home… he’d been a pupil at the school. The park was visited by King George VI, prime minister Winston Churchill, and the American president, Dwight Eisenhower.

On one of the park entrance pillars are the painted letters EWS – indicating that it housed Emergency Water Storage. The cellars of bombed-out buildings were often converted into mini reservoirs to hold water to put out fires.

The nearby St Mary’s Church, and other buildings close by, were destroyed by bombing in 1944.

Monchrome aerial view of St Paul’s School showing map legends
Image caption: 1940 aerial photograph of St Paul’s School

Temporary homes

Some of the borough parks became sites for post-war pre-fabs to house bombed-out families until homes could be rebuilt. The eastern side of Braybrook Street at Wormwood Scrubs is one example.

Gorleston Street, running through Marcus Garvey Park, was also the site of new temporary homes.

Monochrome view of temporary homes and cars on a road
Image caption: Now a beautiful wooded area in Marcus Garvey Park, this was the post-war look; a site of temporary homes. Photograph courtesy of the Friends of Marcus Garvey Park