Thursday, 8 January 2009

Echoes from the past

When I first started researching the subject of the London Underground during the Second World War, it quickly became apparent that there was much to it that did not appear in the "standard reference works." In particular it seemed that many of the casualty figures could ultimately be traced to Charles Graves's account of London Transport's wartime operations, published as London Transport Carried On in 1947, and in some cases incorrect numbers were being endlessly perpetuated, while other incidents were effectively "forgotten" because they weren't covered. I don't think that the latter constituted a deliberate attempt to sweep certain events under the carpet, rather it was simply a reflection of either limited space or incomplete information available to the author, but it has had the side-effect that even now new books are being published that regurgitate the same myths or omissions.

Most books on the Underground - either as a whole or in relation to specific lines - generally only include the following station bombings:
12/10/1940 - Trafalgar Square (7 dead)
13/10/1940 - Bounds Green (16 Belgian and 3 British dead)
14/10/1940 - Balham (64-68 killed)
14/10/1940 - Camden Town (1 killed)
11/01/1941 - Bank (56 killed)
11/01/1941 - Green Park (2 LT staff injured)
16/01/1941 - Lambeth North (20 injured)
I wanted very much to put names to these anonymous statistics, but while I knew that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) maintained a Register of Civilian War Dead for the conflict, it wasn't possible to easily identify all the appropriate records using the rather limited search engine on their website. Using the latter's "Search by Casualty" option allows filtering of civilians by year of death, but not a specific date, and at least a partial surname (even a single first letter) must be included. The only alternative is to "Search by Cemeteries," which for civilians it is actually the municipal area in which the death was registered, as opposed to the actual place of burial or (for no known grave) commemoration for service deaths. This can be used for incidents which occurred in London boroughs where there were a relatively small number of casualties (e.g. Bounds Green station in Wood Green Municipal Borough - 86 deaths in total), but it is not feasible for more central areas with a much higher death toll (e.g. Bank station in the City of London - 375 deaths in total). An obvious additional consideration is that areas are named as they were at the time of the War, which do not necessarily equate to their modern-day equivalents.

I therefore e-mailed the Commission, asking if it was possible to have an extract from their database where the word "Tube" appeared in the (non-searchable) "additional information" field, which they duly supplied the next working day. In many cases this confirmed the above statistics, although there were a few anomalies. Only one death was attributed to "Trafalgar Square Tube Station," although the borough listing revealed the other six documented as "Died at Trafalgar Square Station." Similarly, 55 were recorded for "Bank Tube Station," with the apparent missing 56th victim being matched by surname and date of death in hospital eight days later. Most surprising was that the character and death toll at Bounds Green was very different from every published account, although despite first setting the record straight in 2004, as recently as last year new books were still appearing with the erroneous version. Equally surprising were a number of fatalities at other stations I hadn't had any previous inkling of. Turnpike Lane on 05/01/41 and Chalk Farm on 17/04/41 were completely "new," while other bombings where it was thought only injuries had occurred were shown to be more serious, such as Green Park on 11/01/41, and Lambath North on 16/01/41.

Over the years I've occasionally revisited the subject, usually as a result of new information coming to light drawing attention to something that usually demonstrated the limitations of the "tube" data extract. Sometimes this was in a published source, such as a British Transport Police history webpage that mentioned fatalities at Paddington (Praed Street) Station on 13/10/40 that revealed a previously unknown death toll equal to that at Trafalgar Square the day before. On other occasions, people researching their own family or local history have pointed me in previously unexplored directions, with similar positive results. One was an Underground worker whose 09/03/41 death was recorded rather esoterically by the CWGC as, "at King's Cross Metro Station," another was a victim of the 14/10/40 Balham bombing not documented by the Commission at all (i.e. not even as a civilian casualty unconnected with the station incident), although having passed the information down the appropriate channels, hopefully they will be eventually.

Working with the Commission's own search engine coupled with a degree of lateral thinking has produced much new information, but the most significant breakthrough was reading on a First World War discussion forum about Geoff Sullivan's third-party CWGC search engines for both that conflict and the Second World War. These utilities are far more flexible than the Commission's own, allow not only specific data and date-range searches, but also the "additional information" field. This allowed me to recheck previous searches, as well as eliminating any nagging doubts over certain incidents, such as Bounds Green.

The most recent development has been another family history researcher alerted me to a "new" fatality recorded as, "Died at Green Park Station, Piccadilly," on 11/01/41, and a search on the same or similar phrases revealed another five casualties for that incident, as well as a new one at Chalk Farm a month after the previously-known bombing, as well as what appears to be a 57th casualty at Bank. While this is essentially a finite task, I'm sure that even these latest additions don't constitute "the last word" on the subject.

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