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The Second World War

Both the church and the parish were changed irreversibly by the Second World War. The restoration work started in 1939 had to be stopped. Even before the outbreak of war in September 1939, the restoration fund was effected as seen in an April 1939 PCC minutes ‘the international situation has had an adverse effect upon the appeal.’ The church and area suffered huge damage due to bombing which changed the landscape and makeup of the parish for ever.

Precautions in case of aerial bombing were initiated from the beginning of the war, and in December 1939, the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) were held in the rented church hall for six weeks. The organ was insured for £600 under the War Damage Scheme up until the 20th September 1941. From 1940, the church began to pay Borough Council Air Raid Protection and in 1941, the council sanctioned converting the crypt into an Air Raid Shelter under the Civil Defence Act, 1939. This was rented by the council at the cost of £13 per year. As well as the use of the crypt, a disused railway tunnel under the St. George’s Churchyard Gardens was also used as a shelter. A concrete entrance to this was erected in the northern garden of the church. In the Crypt Air Raid shelter ‘was a canteen and…organised short plays, entertainments and sing-songs.’ Air raids caused extensive damage to the church and parish, and St. George’s was hit numerous times. The church was damaged during a raid on May 10th 1941 and again in 1942. On January 22nd 1945, the church was hit by a rocket bomb which damaged the west entrance, most of the roof and the ceiling. In the roof, 8 purlins were smashed and rafters split. The church was in such poor condition by 1945 that services had to be held in the crypt due to safety concerns. The parish and South London in general were a major target for heavy bombing ‘in Newington Butts, St. George’s Road, New Kent Road, Borough Road…bands of fire spread from side to side of the roads and , sweeping from end to end, destroyed all in their path.’ The deadliest air raids on the area were in the late spring of 1941, when over 2300 incendiary bombs alone were dropped on the area between April and May resulting in 20 dead and 11 wounded.

The war had a marked effect on the congregation and pastoral life of the parish. Evangelical work had to stop, until then a major part of pastoral outreach, due to ‘evacuation and the blackout’. In 1939, the PCC was looking for volunteers to take part in the evacuation scheme and as Air Raid Wardens. The church’s heritage was also under attack, with the ARP advising the church to protect and preserve any registers prior to 1836. The Rector found that all bank vaults were already full, and so the registers were left in the church safe with a plan suggested by Mrs. Ridpath to take them to the vaults of Messrs. Wigan and Co if needed. In 1942, the Bishop of Kingston was contacted in an effort to get the Church Plate out of London and into the countryside for safety.

Members of the congregation and of the parish took part in military and domestic service during the war. In 1939, the scoutmaster, Mr. Killick, was ‘called up’ for active service. By 1941, an Active Service Role was compiled in the church, listing men of the parish who were in active service. It had over 150 names on it, and daily prayers were offered for all those on active service as well as regular letters sent to them. Metal was salvaged for the war effort, with the iron railings of the church being requisitioned and taken down in 1943. Domestically, many of the congregation were engaged in fire-watching during air raids. In 1943, the fire-watching team was made up of Mr. Gale, Mr. Grant and a sister (presumably a Raynard Nurse). In the event of a siren or gun fire, the fire-watching team would be at the church throughout the air raid to put out fires.

By July 1941, due to evacuation, only 26 families out of the pre-war 200 families remained in the parish. As Mary Pinder recollected in the 1980s ‘people were bombed out if this parish, so near the very centre of London.’ With the end of hostilities in 1945, only four people were left from the pre-1939 congregation. However, everyday life did shine through during the uncertain war years. The scout group was restarted in 1943, and an argument in the PCC over the benefits of hassocks or wooden kneelers resulted in a compromise in 1940 with half the pews being allocated hassocks and the other half wooden kneelers.  Plans for a church library were continued, and in November 1941 the list of books had to be retyped due to the first list being destroyed in an air raid. This library was opened in 1942, and was located in a cupboard outside the Choir Vestry and attended to by a sister from the Raynard Nurses.

Throughout the war, the church’s finances illustrate the effect enemy bombing was having on St. George the Martyr. Collections were made for relief organisations, for example in December 1941 for the Russian Red Cross and in April 1944 for the United Aid to China Fund, but the biggest financial costs of the period are to tackle war damage. Throughout 1942, there was a drive to increase donations to fix bombing damage. In the same year, two claims for war damage were made to the sum of £2000, however, these could not be settled until after the war. In 1943, the church’s biggest expenditure was on war damage repair, with a total of £158 2 shillings 8 pence being spent that year.

With the end of the war, a Victory Service was to be held half an hour after the official victory was announced on May 8th 1945. During this service, a collection was held for Lord Luke’s fund for rebuilding churches on the continent. The old Victorian tenement buildings of the parish were completely destroyed in the Blitz. In November 1940 alone 371 houses were damaged beyond repair in Southwark, as well as over 6000 damaged but repairable. The returning population had to struggle to find adequate housing. During the 1950s and 1960s, new housing was built in the area, completely changing the urban landscape of the parish.