The Place

Air-raid damage in Croydon Road, Plaistow, in September 1940. The lamp post was painted white for safety during the black-out.
Photo: Newham Heritage and Archive collection. Used with permission.

Rescue squad volunteers search the wreckage of bombed houses in South Molton Road, Canning Town, September 1940. Corrugated-steel Anderson shelter to the left.
Photo: Newham Heritage and Archive collection. Used with permission.

The location I chose for the Blitz Detective is today part of the London Borough of Newham, home of the 2012 Olympic Games. But in 1940 it was the Essex County Borough of West Ham, bordering the eastern edge of London.


For centuries this was an area of tiny villages and marshland, until Victorian times, when it underwent rapid and sometimes unscrupulous development.


Charles Dickens wrote in 1857 that because it was outside London and its regulations, West Ham was “chosen as a place of refuge for offensive trade establishments turned out of town – those of oil-boilers, gut-spinners, varnish-makers, printers’ ink-makers and the like”.


Living conditions for many were atrocious, with only an open ditch behind the houses for sanitation. “This outskirt,” said Dickens, “is free to possess new streets of houses without drains, roads, gas, or pavement… The stench is horrible.”


But there was work, and the population soared – from 6,485 in 1801 to 38,331 in 1861. By 1911 it was 289,030.


The opening of the Royal Victoria Dock in 1855 and the Royal Albert Dock in 1880 in the south of the borough brought big factories to Silvertown, together with cheap housing for the workers. By 1901 most of the borough had been built up.


By 1940, when the Blitz started, the docks were of vital economic significance, and together with the surrounding warehouses and factories they made the area a prime target for the Nazi bombing.


On a personal note, this is also where I was born and where my dad grew up. In 1940 he spent his nights perched on the roof of Stratford Town Hall as a teenage fire-spotter in the Home Guard, watching out for incendiary bombs. I imagine him there as Detective Inspector John Jago stalks the streets below.