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London’s foretaste of the Blitz

09 May 2014

Bernard Palmer reads about the capital and its Bishop in 1914-18


Victim of a Zeppelin raid: the reviewer's grandfather, F. B. Palmer, was devastated by the death of his Church Times sub-editor, Harry King (above), who, medically unfit to serve in the army, was a special constable. King was escorting three frightened women to Charing Cross tube station during the raid when all four were fatally injured by a bomb that fell near Cleopatra's Needle

Victim of a Zeppelin raid: the reviewer's grandfather, F. B. Palmer, was devastated by the death of his Church Times sub-editor, Harry King (above),...

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
Jerry White
Bodley Head £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT654 )

THE theme of this book is of particular significance for anyone interested in the history of the Church Times, in that a key member of the paper's then editorial staff was a victim of a wartime bomb. He was Harry King, who was doing duty as a special constable on the night of 18 December 1917 when he was hit by a fragment from the bomb; he died in Charing Cross Hospital from the effect of his injuries.

King had been a member of the Church Times staff for more than 20 years at the time of his death; he was a skilled reporter, sub-editor, and descriptive writer. He was also a stalwart of a well-known Anglo-Catholic church, St John the Divine, Kennington, where hundreds attended his funeral. I recall learning much about him from his daughter Marjorie, who inherited his mantle in the Church Times newsroom, worked there for 20 years, and, as Marjorie Kunz (she had married a Swiss banker), was a regular feature-writer up to the time of her death in 1976.

Of course, the bombing of London during the First World War was but a shadow of the Blitz of the Second; but its effects were no less terrible when, as in the case of the Church Times's Harry King, someone known to you might be a victim. Jerry White's aim in his new book is to describe the daily lives of Londoners as they coped with the effects of the war. White is London's foremost historian. He has already written books about the metropolis in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. As one critic put it: "Jerry White is to London as Boswell is to Johnson." Zeppelin Nights sets the seal on his writings about the capital.

His chapters describe in fascinating detail the many and varied ways in which Londoners had to adapt their lives to wartime conditions. He has much to say on how the churches rose to the occasion, even if it was only to attempt to cope with the problems of drink and "harlots".

Leading the Anglican clergy was the Bishop of London, A. F. Winnington-Ingram, then not yet halfway through his 38-year episcopal reign. In White's words: "He embodied the alliance between puritan and patriot that had such influence over the life of London and the nation during the war." White recalls the Bishop's notorious address in Westminster Abbey in December 1915, when, in the words of Adrian Gregory, "he preached what might be regarded as the most infamous sermon in Anglican history," and spoke of the nation's great crusade to kill Germans: "to kill them not for the sake of killing but to save the world . . . to kill them lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed."

Such words were in striking contrast to the "perfect charity" that he had urged in a sermon preached in St Paul's Cathedral in August 1914, on the first Sunday of the war. And he had to back down hastily when, in connection with the 1916 National Mission of Repentance and Hope, his original intention to allow women to preach in churches provoked a furious opposition.

White has painted a vivid portrait of a city transformed by war. Many of the poor found more money in their pockets than in peacetime. Women were able to exchange the drudgery of domestic service for the making of munitions. Hundreds of thousands of troops passed through the capital on their way to and from the Front. Endless attempts were made to clamp down on drunkenness by reducing the hours during which pubs might open. And at night the city was plunged into darkness in the hope of deterring the Zeppelins. White's book is likely to rank high among the hundreds published for this centenary.

Dr Bernard Palmer is a former editor of the  Church Times.

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