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THE CHILDREN OF POPLAR

The first daylight air raid was on Wednesday June 13, 1917. The morning was hot, and clear except for a heat haze. You could hear the planes before you saw them, and when you did see them, they looked not so much menacing as magical, with the sunlight glancing brilliantly off their wings in the clearer sky above the haze. The planes (‘in a domino formation’ said one onlooker, ‘football team positions’ said another) reached the Essex coast around 11.00, and pressed on towards their target: London.

Most of the bombs (mainly shrapnel with a few incendiaries) were dropped in the East End. One fell on a railway station, hitting an incoming train. Elsewhere, warehouses, factories, an oil refinery and shops were damaged, and fires were started. There were the usual stories of lucky escapes. A solicitor suddenly decided to leave his office only moments before it was hit. A coal merchant broke a daily habit and took a later bus; afterwards he heard that his usual bus had been bombed. Down the road one of his men was busy delivering coal – and was only just missed by a bomb (which failed to explode). Nearby a cart was demolished – but the horse received no more than a cut from flying glass.

This was one of the heaviest raids London had seen. 104 people were killed. 423 were injured, 154 of them seriously. And among the dead were 18 children who had been working quietly in their classrooms at Upper North Road council primary school in Poplar. A bomb dropped through the roof and the upper floors, to explode in the infants’ classroom on the ground floor.

poplar children's memorial

The children's memorial today

These are the names and ages of the children who were killed:
Louise Annie Acampora (5)
Alfred Ernest Batt (5)
Leonard Charles Barford (5)
John Percy Brennan (5)
William Thomas Henry Challen (4)
Alice Maud Cross (5)
William Hollis (5)
George Albert Hyde (5)
Grace Jones (5)
Rose Martin (11)
George Morris (6)
Edwin Cecil William Powell (12)
Robert Stimson (5)
Elizabeth Taylor (5)
Rose Tuffin (5)
Frank Winfield (5)
Florence Lilian Wood (5)

Jeanette Levy, the youngest child in the school, was among the survivors. ‘I remember quite vividly that we were making paper lanterns. You had to cut the paper and stick it with glue. There was a bang and everything seemed to collapse around us, but I was more interested in getting my lantern stuck! A sailor carried me on his shoulder to my home – I suppose the head teacher told him where I lived.’ At the funeral, on June 20, Jeanette was chosen to lay the first wreath.

Grace was buried privately, and Louise and John’s funeral was at the Poplar Roman Catholic church. The coffins of the other 15 children (a 16th coffin contained only severed limbs) were taken to Poplar Parish Church the day before the funeral. Here they were surrounded by a ‘glorious profusion of flowers’. These came not only from the children’s families but from many other people touched by the tragedy. They included, said a reporter, ‘modest bunches from little boys and girls, simple offerings of wild blossoms from remote rural villages’, and over 800 elaborate wreaths.

After the funeral the horse-drawn hearses, also flower-laden, travelled slowly down East India Dock Road, which was lined with thousands of people. Behind them came 70 cars carrying the children’s relatives; representatives of Poplar’s trade union branches followed on foot. Curtains were drawn all along the route, and flags were flown at half-mast. At the East London cemetery 300 wounded soldiers lined the path along which the coffins were carried.

In his funeral address the Bishop of London said, ‘Never did we expect to have war waged on women and children. Our hearts burn with natural indignation. But we must be careful that indignation drives us to the right action.’ There was much confused thinking about reprisals, he pointed out: it would be very wrong to demand that helpless German babies should also lie dead, as a revenge.

A special fund was set up locally for a memorial to the dead children, and raised a remarkable £1,455 – over £72,000 today. Some of the money funded two children’s hospital beds. The remainder paid for gravestones, and for a granite and marble memorial which was set up in Poplar recreation ground and unveiled on June 23, 1919. It is still there.