THE TWO SHORT interviews here form a single track on a 1940 BBC transcription disc titled Evacuation of Civilians, catalogue number 891191. The interviews were made by the Peckham-born radio producer Olive Shapley but her voice isn’t heard anywhere on the disc.
The catalogue entry describes the track’s contents:
Woman evacuee. Husband came home on short leave and decided London too dangerous. Took herself and baby and left everything. Next day aero-torpedo dropped on house and only two things recoverable were the bread-knife and electric iron. Another woman evacuee was sitting quietly in shelter when 500 lb. bomb descended on her house. Went to a school five minutes away where she saw her friend, her friends mother and sister killed. 400 people killed in the shelter that day. (Grief almost overcomes this speaker).
The second woman states that 400 were killed in a shelter during the ‘first night of the big raids’, although there is no historical record of so many lives lost in a single place and moment during the Blitz. It may be that she’s referring to the direct hit on the trench shelters in Kennington Park on October 15, 1940, which killed just over 100 people.
According to Rob Pateman’s booklet Kennington’s Forgotten Tragedy, no official death toll was given at the time and this led to rumours of a cover-up. The fear and shock produced by the air raids, combined with the government’s policy of describing casualties only as slight, considerable or heavy, may have made civilians likely to overestimate the number of deaths.
Londoners in general were more stoical than politicians and war planners had anticipated. Pre-war estimates of the effects of bombing raids foresaw widespread social breakdown and an exodus of three to four million Londoners into the surrounding countryside, and tube stations were at first ruled off-limits as air raid shelters because it was feared that people would never want to emerge from them.
Even though such predictions proved false, it was important to maintain public morale by showing civilians as resourceful and defiant, as in this Pathe newsreel of a woman’s reaction to being bombed out of her home. Olive Shapley’s interviews show a different and more tragic side, and so they may have never been broadcast.
Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.