A commemorative plaque has been unveiled to honour those who lost their lives in the bombing of Savage’s corset factory on 22 June 1944. Twenty four people were killed, mainly young girls. This was the largest loss of life in Peckham during World War II. The plaque is situated on the corner of Nunhead Lane and East Dulwich Road by Glover House, the site of the original factory.

It was unveiled by the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr Charlie Smith on Friday, 23 June 2017. At the ceremony our Chairman, Peter Frost, set the scene by saying that he spoke with a sense of deja vu following the recent loss of life at the Grenfell Tower block fire and terrorist activities. He stated that in the Second World War the German Luftwaffe bombed our part of London between 1940 and 1944. By the summer of 1944 it was felt that because the bombing had decreased many of the young evacuees could start returning back home. However Hitler used other strategies with his terror weapons, the cruise missile V1 or ‘Doodlebug’ and later the supersonic V2.

Ron Gain was the former occupant of the house in which Peter lives on Peckham Rye. The family had returned from Hitchin, Hertfordshire and Ron’s young son Martin, on hearing the air raid warning sound, ventured out into the front garden which at the time had a good view of the corset factory. He saw the V1 pass over; it then inexplicably turned through 180 degrees, the engine stopped and it came down on the factory. There was absolute destruction of the building and the tram tracks were broken, twisted and curled up in the air.

Initially the passers by and the rescue crews could hear the staff singing to keep up their spirits in the air raid shelter below. When eventually they were found they were all dead, probably from asphyxiation.

After this introduction Cllr. Smith said a few words before unveiling the plaque to applause from the assembled gathering. The Revd. Dele Ogunyemi, Vicar of St Antony with St Silas Nunhead, said a prayer and stated that we live at a time when death is very much in the news at present. We need to recognise the loss of life during the last world-wide conflict so that the young people and future generations are informed. The next speaker was Benny O’Looney who had been instrumental in the design and construction of the plaque in conjunction with Andy Newman and the Southwark Cleaner Greener Safer team. Benny highlighted the scale of death, injury and destruction of buildings caused by the conflict.

This note was also echoed by our last presenter Cllr Ian Wingfield, an eloquent speaker who summed up the proceedings. Ian also spoke of the indiscriminate terrorism and the futility of war. He finished by quoting from the memories of John Burnett, who earlier on in the war had been  bombed out of the family flat next to Tilling’s Steam Bus Garage in Nunhead Lane, and subsequently moved out of the area. However the family returned in 1944, when John was 14, and moved into 23 Nunhead Lane. On the morning of 22 June 1944, John was working outside repairing some boarding at a shop which his parents owned very close to the corset factory. The siren sounded and he went inside as the V1 came over the house with its typical loud noise. It abruptly became silent and was then followed by an enormous explosion and everything went black. John’s family were all covered in debris and dust but fortunately only suffered superficial wounds. The shop had to be demolished.

The plaque itself describes a brief history of the war by bombing and rockets. It contains a description of the corset factory including a list of the names of the deceased. One of them was Winnie Ray whose brother James, 97 years old, was at the unveiling, along with relatives of Frederick Savage, the factory owner. Other guests present were Susan Smith, the Mayoress of Southwark, Deputy Mayor Cllr Jamille Mohammed and residents of Glover House. Refreshments at The Rye Hotel followed the unveiling.

Altogether this is a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives.

Peter M Frost

Reprinted from Peckham Society News, Issue 149 (Summer 2017)