On 13 June 1917, Upper North Street School, Poplar in London’s East End, was bombed by one of Germany’s new long-distance Gotha aeroplanes.
The plane was part of a squadron targeting the city in the first daylight air raid of the First World War. Eighteen children were killed, most just five years old. At least 37 others were seriously injured.
The high explosive bomb smashed through the school roof into the girls’ classroom on the top floor, killing one child, then crashed down into the boys’ classroom on the middle floor, killing several more, and finally exploded in the classroom on the ground floor where there were 64 infants. In those terrible seconds, 18 children died.
The bombing raid on London that day caused the single highest number of casualties of all air raids on the city during the First World War. In total, 162 people were killed and 432 injured.
The school’s caretaker, Benjamin Batt, found the remains of his son Alfie amongst the devastation. Batt died five months later. It was widely believed he never got over the trauma of that day.
A week after the tragedy, in one of the biggest funerals in London, fifteen of the children were buried in a mass grave in the East London Cemetery, Plaistow. Three were interred in private graves. The public sent over 600 wreaths in a wave of grief. King George V and Queen Mary (the present Queen’s grandparents) issued a personal message to be read out at the funeral service.
The little coffins, covered in pink and white blossoms, were laid out in a row in front of the altar. The congregation was full of children. Many had themselves been rescued from the devastation.
Blinds were drawn, shutters closed, and flags flew at half-mast. Outside the church, Scouts and Guides lined the steps while waiting for the cortege. Cadets from the local secondary school, dressed in khaki, stood on either side of the road.
Mementoes of the tragedy were produced, and a convalescent fund was raised to send bereaved mothers and surviving children to the countryside at Maidenhead, Berkshire, to recuperate.
A separate fund, quickly set up to erect a memorial to the children, raised £1,455 – an enormous sum then. Some of the money was also used to endow two beds in Poplar Hospitals’s Children’s Ward, as well as one at the Lord Mayor Treloar’s Home for Crippled Children, Alton, Hampshire.
15 of the children killed in the bombing raid were buried together at the East London Cemetery, Plaistow. Three were buried privately:
Grace Jones was privately buried at Abney Park Cemetery, London Borough of Hackney.
Grace Jones’s grave before, and after recent restoration.
John (Johnnie) Brennan and Louise Acampora’s graves at St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, London Borough of Waltham Forest.
John (Johnnie) Brennan’s grave before and after recent restoration.
A black poplar was planted, along with a commemorative plaque, near Upper North Street School (now Mayflower Primary School) 1 April 2014 to commemorate the tragedy.
- ‘First Blitz’: Neil Hanson. Pub: Corgi 2009. Paperback.
- Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives
- The Silvertown Tragedy: Explosion on the Home Front
- 5 Memorials that chart life and loss in the First World War