Wapping 1941



In 1941, American journalist Ernie Pyle wrote this account of a visit to Wapping, 

as part of his book Ernie Pyle in England.


London, January 1941

519YYzsedLL. SX384 BO1,204,203,200

This is the way the people of London are. Last night I was standing in the dimly lighted office of the marshal of a big air-raid shelter in the East End.

A bareheaded man with a mustache, a muffler and a heavy overcoat was sitting in a chair tilted against the wall. I hadn’t noticed him until he spoke.

“Have you been around Wapping?” he asked.

Wapping is a poor, crime-heavy, conglomerate, notorious section of London. Also it has been terrifically bombed, as has all of London’s waterfront.

“No, I haven’t,” I said, “but it’s one place I’d like to see.”

“Well,” said the man, “I’m a policeman and tomorrow’s my day off. I’d like nothing better than to show you around Wapping if you would care for me to.”

Would I care for it! To get around Wapping with a policeman as a private guide— you can’t beat that if you’re out to see London. I jumped at the chance.

 

So Mr Ian Rubin, London bobby, and I walked six miles around Wapping. We did back alleys and dark places, burned warehouses and wrecked churches, block after block of empty flats. We did Wapping with a finetooth comb. And so I’m in a position to say that as far as Wapping is concerned there almost isn’t any Wapping any more.

Wapping is one part of the big borough of Stepney. Today its population is a mere few hundred. The entire ward was compulsorily evacuated in that first awful week of the blitz. They put people on boats and took them down the Thames. Those who have come back are mostly men.

In normal times Wapping would be a swarming, noisy mass of humanity, a population as dense as in our Lower East Side in New York. Today I walked block after block and met only half a dozen people. There was no sound in the streets. The place was dead. It was like a graveyard.

We walked into the big inner courtyard of a square of tenement flats. Rear balconies on each floor formed the walls of a square. The windows were all out; the walls were cracked; abandoned household belongings lay where they had been thrown. In the balconies above, no faces peeped over the railings. There was no sound, no movement, no life in the whole block. It was the terrible silence of that Wapping courtyard that got me.

Policeman Rubin and I walked on. We went into the station of a demolition squad— the men who pull down dangerous walls before turning over the general job of demolition to others. These are brave men. Five of them, in workmen’s clothes, were sitting before a crackling fireplace. There was nothing for them to do today— but there might be any time. They were very friendly, but I could barely understand their Cockney speech. One of them asked me if it was possible to write a letter to San Francisco. One of his fellow workers answered for me. “Sure, you dummy,” he said. “You can write anywhere you want.” Everyone of these men had been bombed out of his flat, one of them three times. Their wives have been evacuated, but they stayed on to work— a part of London’s great civilian army.

We stood now in a vacant lot where until last September there had been a five-story block of flats. It was fully occupied when a bomb hit. On the wall of a building across the alley you can still see the handprints of a man who was blown from his flat and smashed to death against the wall. We stood amid the wreckage of a church, in which Policeman Rubin himself had toiled all night helping to reach a mother superior who had been buried in the debris. She was dead when they found her.

We went to see the Church of St. John of Wapping, well known to American tourists. Only the steeple was left, and it was being torn down for safety’s sake.

We passed a pub where in the old days pirates and smugglers used to gather from the ends of the world to sell their illicit goods. It has been boarded up since September. We passed an undamaged warehouse, where big sacks of East Indian spice were being loaded onto drays, and the smell was sweet and wonderful. ,

We came to a street sign that said, “Danger. Unexploded Bomb.” So we walked around it. Policeman Rubin showed me where a time bomb fell at the edge of a school. They couldn’t get it out, so it lay there nine days before blowing the school to smithereens. The wreckage of the school still lay there in a heap.

I saw firemen damping down the inside of a warehouse in which a small new blaze had sprung up after months of smoldering. I saw great mounds of burned newsprint paper, and other mounds of scorched hemp. I saw half walls with great steel girders hanging, twisted by explosion and fire. But I saw whole warehouses, too; for Hitler didn’t get them all. We wandered back and forth through dead, empty streets, and looked at hundreds of ground floor apartments where rubble-covered furniture stood just as it had been left. The owners probably will never come back for it. We walked for another hour, Policeman Rubin and I, and then suddenly we came upon a small store with the wallboard front and little show-window center which are today the badge of a bombed establishment that’s still doing business. And when I saw that window it dawned on me that in a solid hour of walking this was the first open store window I had seen. Every other doorway and window in an entire hour of walking through the heart of a city district was a doorway or a window into a room that no longer held human beings or goods.

That is the way in Wapping today. There will have to be a new Wapping when this is all over.

© New Crane Wharf 2006-2020