The worst fire in the history of the London Underground killed 31 people at Kings Cross St Pancras station.
King’s Cross St Pancras is a major intersection on the London Underground network. Numerous deep platforms serve the Metropolitan, Northern, Piccadilly, and Victoria lines in addition to the Thameslink service. At the time many of these platforms were reached by wooden escalators that had been in place for many years, inside which large amounts of combustible waste had accumulated.
At approximately 7.30pm, passengers reported a fire on one of the Piccadilly Line escalators. The official inquiry later determined that it had been started by a lit match being dropped, which caused the fire to break out beneath the escalator in an area that was difficult to reach with a conventional fire extinguisher. Although water fog equipment was present in the station the staff had not been trained on how to use it so the fire brigade was called instead.
The decision was soon made to evacuate the station using the Victoria Line escalators, and just a few minutes later the fire brigade arrived to find a small fire that soon engulfed the entire escalator. Superheated gases rose to the ceiling of the tunnel, where layers of old paint absorbed the heat that caused a devastating flashover at 7.45pm. Due to the construction of the escalator and the 30° angle of the shaft, a jet of flames and smoke burst into the ticket hall in what scientists now refer to as the ‘trench effect’.
The intense heat of the flashover killed or seriously injured the people who were still in the ticket hall, while hundreds more were trapped below ground and were forced to escape on trains. London Underground were later criticised for failing to train staff effectively on how to deal with fires and evacuate passengers.
The Tyneside town of Jarrow had been the site for Palmer’s Shipyard that was responsible for a large proportion of the town’s employment. Having operated since 1851, the yard was sold in 1933 due to a collapse in the British shipbuilding industry and the impact of the Great Depression.
The shipyard closed shortly afterwards and, although American entrepreneur T. Vosper Salt proposed turning the site into a steelworks, he was forced to withdraw after members of the British Iron and Steel Federation lobbied to make the project unfeasible.
The collapse of the steelwork plan was a devastating blow to the people of Jarrow, where unemployment had hit 70% in the months following the closure of the shipyard. In response David Riley, the chairman of Jarrow Borough Council, proposed a march to London in order to raise the profile of the economic disaster.
The marchers had the full support of their local Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson, and secured funding for the march from the local community including all the political parties. Over 1,200 men volunteered to take part in the march, of whom 200 were chosen to take the petition to London. They marched for 25 days and received a generally positive reception wherever they passed through.
Arriving in London on 31 October the marchers entrusted the petition of 11,000 names to Wilkinson, who presented it in the House of Commons on 4 November. It achieved no immediate response from the government, and the marchers returned home feeling that they had failed.
The Metropolitan Police, which is often considered to be the first modern police force, began operating in London.
Informally known as ‘the Met’, the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 established the first structured system of law enforcement. Policing had previously been the responsibility of unpaid parish constables, although paid ‘thief-takers’ were sometimes employed by the victims of crime to catch criminals.
The appointment of Sir Robert Peel as Home Secretary in 1822 brought about the reinvigoration of a committee tasked to investigate the current system of policing. Peel immediately acted upon the committee’s findings, distilling the key aspects of his approach into a series of ‘Peelian principles’ that involved the payment of police officers who were organised along civilian lines.
Peel’s ideas for the system of policing were approved by Parliament in the Metropolitan Police Act with Royal Assent being granted on 19 June 1829. The 895 constables of the new force, nicknamed ‘Peelers’ or ‘Bobbies’ after their founder, were responsible for law enforcement and public order within a seven-mile radius of Charing Cross. They were overseen by a progressing hierarchy of Sergeants, Inspectors, Superintendents and two Commissioners who reported directly to Peel himself.
Deliberately given blue uniforms to distinguish them from the red used by the military, the first police officers were equipped with only a wooden truncheon and a ratcheted rattle to raise the alarm. Despite these attempts to avoid the image of a totalitarian police force, some members of the public argued that the Met was a threat to civil liberties. Within a decade, however, the force had begun to prove itself and its powers were increased.
The Nazi German Luftwaffe launched the first of 57 consecutive days and nights of bombing raids on London in what became known as the Blitz.
The Luftwaffe had been attacking British targets in the Battle of Britain since June 1940. This was an attempt to achieve air superiority over the RAF to enable a land invasion by the Nazis or force the British government to sue for peace.
Having failed to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Hitler and Göring instead ordered a policy designed to crush civilian morale. The first raid of the Blitz took place on 7 September in which over 337 tons of bombs were dropped on London, and 448 civilians were killed. The earlier decision by Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command, to focus on day fighter defences meant that Britain was woefully unprepared for German bomber attacks at night when they became the official policy on 7 October.
The Luftwaffe used technology known as beam navigation to locate their target, in which the crews had to detect converging radio signals from two or more ground stations. Britain countered this by transmitting false navigation signals that were designed to send the incoming crews off course. They also created a number of dummy targets such as diversionary airfields and industrial targets that used lighting effects to simulate factories and transport.
By the end of the Blitz on 11 May 1941, approximately 41,000 tons of bombs had been dropped by the Luftwaffe and more than 40,000 civilians had been killed. Yet, despite the psychological pressures of the situation in which class divisions and anti-Semitism often surfaced, British society continued to function, morale remained high and British industrial production actually rose.
The Great Fire of London began on the 2nd September 1666. Having famously started at a bakery in Pudding Lane, the catastrophic fire blazed for more than three days and destroyed over 13,000 houses, churches and government buildings.
London in the 17th Century was a sprawling and disorganised conurbation, with the thousands of buildings inside the old Roman wall at its heart. This area – known confusingly as ‘the City’ – may well have been the centre of English commerce but was also an enormous fire hazard due to its narrow warrens of houses and workshops. The ballooning population ignored the law that banned the use of wood and thatch, and continued to construct up to six- or seven-storey buildings with over-hanging ‘jetties’ whose roofs would often meet.
It’s generally accepted that the Lord Mayor should have acted more decisively when pressed to authorise the demolition of buildings to create a fire-break. Having failed to cut off the fire in the early hours of Sunday morning, it quickly spread to the south and west thanks to the wind. By lunchtime most residents had given up any hope of extinguishing the flames themselves, and instead were fleeing the fire. This mass of refugees in the narrow streets made it almost impossible for professional fire crews to reach the blaze.
It’s generally believed that the fire was only brought under control due to the use of gunpowder to create large firebreaks, which coincided with the previously strong winds dying down. Then the biggest challenge began: trying to rebuild the city from the smouldering ruins.
On the 31st August 1888, Mary Ann Nichols – commonly known as Polly – became the first confirmed victim of Jack the Ripper in the Whitechapel area of London. Not only had her throat been cut, but her body had been mutilated. Her corpse was left next to a gate in Buck’s Row, which is now known as Durward Street, and was discovered by a cart driver. It was three weeks before the inquest was concluded, by which time a second murder with a similar modus operandi had been committed. On studying the body of Annie Chapman, the coroner noted that “The similarity of the injuries in the two cases is considerable.”
Nichols was 43 years old when she was murdered, having found herself forced to live in boarding houses and workhouses after her alcoholism led her husband to leave her. She turned to prostitution as a way to earn money and, in the early hours of the night she was murdered, had gone out to make enough money to pay for her bed in a boarding house at 18 Thrawl Street.
An hour before her murder, her friend and roommate Nelly Holland spoke to her as she walked the streets. Nichols had already spent her night’s earnings on drink, and so continued to search for customers. Holland was the last person to see her alive before her body was found by Charles Cross at 3.40am.
Nichols’ killer was never found, and debate continues to rage about the identity of the Whitechapel murderer who was given the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’.
I’m very grateful to Giselle K. Jakobs for her thorough research and detailed website about the focus of today’s podcast – her grandfather, Josef Jakobs. You can visit her website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/
The last execution at the Tower of London took place on the 15th August 1941. Josef Jakobs was a German spy who was arrested after he signalled for help after breaking his ankle when he parachuted into Britain.
Jakobs had served in the German Army during the First World War, and became a dentist in the interwar period. However, due to impact of the worldwide depression he turn to selling fake gold, for which he served two and a half years in jail.
After his release, Jakobs became involved in providing counterfeit passports to German Jews fleeing Hitler’s regime. However, he was arrested in 1938 and sent to a concentration camp from which he was released in 1940.
Within six months Jakobs had begun training with the Abwehr – the intelligence wing of the Germany Army – and on the 31st January 1941 dressed in a business suit and parachuted into England. Having broken his ankle, he was found the next morning in a field near Dovehouse Farm in Huntingdonshire.
Jakobs was taken into custody, and was held at Dulwich Hospital in London while complications with his broken ankle were treated. Eventually he was transferred to Wandsworth Prison, where he was formally charged with espionage and tried by General Court Marshall in early August since he didn’t have British nationality and was a formal member of the Germany Army.
Found guilty, he was taken to the miniature firing range at the Tower of London on the 15th. Having been strapped to a wooden Windsor chair, he was killed by firing squad at 7:12 a.m.
RAF Flight Officer T. D. Dean became the first Allied jet pilot to achieve a combat victory when he ‘tipped’ a Nazi German V-1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bomb with his Gloster Meteor jet fighter.
The V-1 was specifically designed for terror bombing civilians, and had first been used on 13 June 1944. The RAF began to investigate ways to intercept and destroy the Nazis’ new weapon, and soon found that they could be tipped over by positioning an aircraft’s wing to within 6 inches of the V-1’s wing. This manoeuvre used the changing airflow of the interceptor’s wing to force the V-1 upwards, confusing the flying bomb’s gyroscope and resulting in it diving into the ground before reaching its target. The first aerodynamic flip manoeuvre was performed by Major R. E. Turner on 18 June, using a North American P-51 Mustang.
The following month, No. 616 Squadron of the RAF received the first ever Gloster Meteor jet planes. This new aircraft, equipped with Sir Frank Whittle’s revolutionary turbojet engines, could reach speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour and placed it well within reach of the average speed of a V-1. The hope was that the new Meteors would be able to shoot the flying bombs down using their 20mm cannons, but the guns had a habit of jamming.
On 4 August Flight Officer T. D. Dean experienced a problem with his Meteor’s cannons as he approached a V-1. He consequently resorted to the tipping manoeuvre and successfully sent the bomb off course. It is believed to have crashed on farmland near Headcorn in Kent, where shrapnel said to be from the explosion can be detected deep inside the trunk of a nearby oak tree. The destruction of this V-1 marked the first ever ‘kill’ for an RAF jet plane.
The 9th July 1877 saw the world’s first official lawn tennis tournament begin at Wimbledon in London. The Wimbledon Championship was hosted by the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, which had only begun to set aside an area for lawn tennis two years earlier due to the declining interest in croquet.
The first championship was staged in order to raise money to repair the roller that was used to maintain the lawns at the club, and only featured a Gentlemen’s Singles competition. 22 amateur competitors paid 1 guinea each to take part, and ten days later 27-year-old Spencer Gore won the final in front of a crowd of 200 spectators. This was after rain had stopped play for three entire days beforehand.
As a prize, Gore received 12 guineas in cash and a sterling silver cup, valued at 25 guineas, which had been donated by the sports magazine The Field. Under the rules of Wimbledon’s Challenge Round, the defending champion could return the next year to defend his title in the final without playing through the knock-out stages of the competition. Gore returned to defend his title in 1878, but was defeated in straight sets by his opponent. Gore never played at Wimbledon again, declaring in 1890 that tennis would “never rank among our great games” because it was “monotonous”.
Despite Gore’s damning verdict of the game, both Wimbledon and tennis have continued to grow. The Championship’s total prize fund now totals over £26.5m.
The first tournament generated a profit of £10, and the club’s roller was repaired.
On 10 November 1935 a resident of Wimpole Street called the local Welbeck telephone exchange to report a fire that had broken out in the house opposite. This was the established way of seeking the emergency services, but there was no way of prioritising such calls since they used the same exchange number as all other calls. Consequently the caller was unable to raise the alarm, and five women died in the fire.
A letter from the frustrated neighbour appeared in The Times shortly afterwards, and this brought the issue to national attention. On 10 December the Postmaster General, who was responsible for the telephone network, informed parliament that he was to launch an inquiry into what he referred to as ‘urgency calls’.
The 999 service was launched in London on 30 June 1937, and initially covered a 12 mile radius from Oxford Street. The number was initially chosen because it was easy to modify existing payphones, which used rotary dials, to allow the number 9 to connect without money needing to be inserted. 111 was ruled out since the accidental touching of telephone wires could accidentally trigger the call.
The first verified 999 call that led to an arrest took place a week after the service began operating, when a burglar was apprehended following a call from a member of the public to the police. Within a short space of time the system consistently proved to be a success, and its popularity and effectiveness in London led to the introduction of a 999 service in Glasgow the following year. It reached other British cities after the Second World War, but only expanded to cover the whole of the UK in 1976.