HC Deb 21 April 1999 vol 329 cc876-81

1 pm

Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford)

Civilians are helpless and random casualties of war, and too often their sacrifice and courage go unrecognised. That is why in Romford we want a memorial specifically recognising the civilian casualties of the second world war.

When I first became involved in the project, I could not have foreseen the pictures on our television screens, night after night, of civilians being driven from their country, Kosovo—people made refugees not because of anything that they have done, but because of who they are. Many have lost their lives—civilians placed on the front line through no wish or action of their own.

I detest the intolerance and violence that have led to such ethnic cleansing. It seems to me a failure of reason and a breakdown of civilisation, yet there are times when a tyrant will not reason or negotiate, and we must stand up against him. Thus it is in Kosovo, and thus it was in the second world war.

I have been to Remembrance day services and I am always moved by the depth of feeling, even so long after the world wars. The pain is still strong after 60 or even 80 years. It is right that we honour the service men and women who died in the second world war so that we might be free. It is also right that we honour the civilian casualties—people who tried against all the odds to live their lives as normally as possible in the extraordinary conditions of war. They tried to keep homes going for service men and women to return to after the war.

Almost 30,000 men, women and children died in the London blitz. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and others for their work to get a civilian memorial park in London. There are such parks in Hiroshima and Coventry, and we should have one in London.

My own family were in London during the blitz. They kept being evacuated, but got homesick and always ended up back in London. My sister has described to me how she used to go up on to the roof of her flat and see the fires all around.

On the grand scale of things, one could say that Romford was lucky. On the worst night of the bombing, 55 people died in Romford. However, we are not talking about statistics. Each death was a unique tragedy, leaving scars for the rest of their lives on family, friends and witnesses who survived.

That worst night of bombing in Romford was the night of 19 April 1941. The first parachute bomb dropped at 9.40 pm; the bombing ended at 11 pm. By then, 55 people had been killed and many more injured. The youngest to die was one year old and the oldest was 73. Thirty-eight people died in one road—Essex road—and others in Brentwood road, Hillfoot avenue, Hillfoot road and Stanley road. Whole families were wiped out—the Wilson family, the Barclay family and the Limehouse family of Essex road. The Gill family in Brentwood road lost nine of its members.

There were many tragic stories from survivors. Joan Limehouse was the eldest daughter of her family and had gone out to buy fish and chips for the family supper. She was on her way there when the bombs dropped. By the time she reached home, there was nothing left of her house and she was an orphan.

A service man, Bill Barclay, received a telegram to tell him that his mother, cousin and three brothers had died on that awful night. Bill has said: I have always thought these are the forgotten people of the war. Every night I cry about it.

There are casualties of that night who have never been named and are "known only to God". Others could not be identified because of the force of the bombing, and 12 bodies were buried in four mass graves in Romford cemetery.

Essex road was left a pile of rubble, yet strangely, one wall survived and on that wall there was left hanging a picture, still in it usual place. It was hanging at a weird angle, but was completely untouched by the carnage around it. That picture was of Christ—"The Light of the World", by Holman Hunt. It now hangs in St. John the Divine church in Mawney road in Romford, with a memorial book recording the names of the Essex road casualties, for in the week following the bombing, 34 of the funeral services were held in that church.

The priest at that church, Malcolm Griffin, wants a permanent memorial to the men, women and children who died that night. The aim is to erect a statue of Christ and a brass plaque recording the names of those who died, and a tribute to all civilians who have lost their lives in warfare.

Coincidentally, our local newspaper, the Romford Recorder, has taken up the same issue. It wants a memorial plaque incorporated into the street sign of Essex road and the other roads where bombs dropped on that April night. It also wants to place a bench in the cemetery where the unnamed victims are buried—a place to sit, reflect and remember. We are now all working to achieve that aim. Havering local authority is considering sympathetically the request for planning permission for the plaques on the street signs and has given us much support, which we welcome. The project will cost about £10,000.

This Sunday, a memorial service will be held in St. John's church to mark the anniversary of the bombing and to launch the campaign to have the memorials in place before the 60th anniversary in 2001. We will be asking local businesses and local people for funds, as this is indeed a community project. Already, surviving relatives have sent money to the Romford Recorder towards the fund. We would appreciate any support and advice that the Minister can give us about the funds that we can apply for, and about whether there are similar memorials around the country.

The aim is to make sure that the people who died that night are not forgotten by the community and by the young. When the Romford Recorder ran the story, many young people wrote in. Steven Halfteck, aged 10, wrote: Isn't it sad about all the people who died? We have been working about the bombing and we think you should have a memorial. If you did have a memorial we could remember the 55 people who died in the bombing. It is important that we remember.

At the meeting of the council of the borough of Romford on Wednesday 21 May 1941, it was recorded in note 564 on air raid casualties that the Mayor expressed the sympathy of the Council with the relatives of persons killed in a recent Air Raid and the Council stood in silence for a short period. Fifty-eight years later, on Sunday, our present mayor and councillors will do the same. We have not forgotten, but it is right that we should have a permanent memorial.

In conclusion, I quote from Winston G. Ramsey, the editor of "The Blitz Then and Now", who stated: Let not those who come after forget the victory won by the ordinary citizens of Britain. By their sacrifice of loved ones, they have earned the right to have their ordeal remembered in a fitting memorial. That is what we are trying to do in Romford.

1.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) on obtaining a debate on an issue of such importance to her constituency, and on the very moving way in which she introduced it. No one can fail to recognise the strength of feeling in her community which came through very clearly in her speech.

The subject that my hon. Friend raises should certainly not give rise to contention in the House. The debate gives us all a great opportunity to recognise the debt of gratitude that we owe to those who served our country, and who were injured or died—and their families—as a result of two world wars, particularly the second world war, in which the incident to which she referred took place.

Each year, at Remembrance day ceremonies, both at the Cenotaph, which is attended by leading national figures, and war memorials across the country, we rightly pay tribute to those who fell. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to her pride at attending her local ceremony, which reflects the view of many Members of Parliament, who proudly join their communities to remember those who have fallen in defence of this country, international freedom and world peace.

We all recognise that, naturally and understandably, such ceremonies have a predominantly military flavour; the armed forces bear the brunt of war—directly and often terribly. The names on most of the country's many war memorials are of men and women who served in the forces—either at home or, particularly, overseas—but we must never forget that war does not only affect those in uniform. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the civilian population made an invaluable contribution to the war effort during the second world war, as a result of which many lost their lives. I shall say more about that later. They, too, deserve our respect, and should be commemorated.

It was reported in a magazine article last year that it is Government policy that no further memorials of the second world war should be allowed to be erected. That report arose from an unfortunate misunderstanding concerning a village in East Anglia, and understandably caused great consternation not only in that small community, but among the wider readership of the church magazine. As a result, a number of hon. Members received letters from constituents, whose concerns I fully understand. Obviously, I have written to those hon. Members—to reassure them and, through them, their constituents.

I am very pleased to be able to take this opportunity to put paid to the rumour that the Government have imposed—or would even consider imposing—such a restriction. It would be quite contrary to our intentions and fundamental beliefs. We are very happy to encourage further commemorative ventures. Indeed, I am pleased to say that several such projects are currently afoot, of which the one to which my hon. Friend referred is an extremely important example.

As some hon. Members may be aware, in December, the Prime Minister announced plans for a national memorial at Coventry cathedral. In some ways, Coventry suffered even more than London in the blitz, although it has, of course, been reconstructed following those horrific events. The memorial will honour those who worked on the home front—in the dockyards, shipyards and factories, down the mines, in transport, on the land, and in many other areas in maintaining daily life and sustaining the war effort.

Mrs. Gordon

The proposed plaques on street signs would represent a very simple, dignified recognition of the bombing. The streets have, of course, been repaired; one would not think that anything had happened. Essex road has been returned to its state before the bombing. We want to commemorate the bombing to let the people who live there know what happened, and so that the young will always remember.

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Although the physical scars of the bombing may have been removed, mental scars among families and communities are still apparent. I was very pleased to hear of her local authority's concern and encouragement, and its favourable indications that that awful night will be remembered on the street signs. That is important, and ties in very well with the church's proposal, with which I shall deal later. My hon. Friend also drew attention to the enormously encouraging interest among many youngsters in this country's history—how their grandparents stood up against totalitarianism and fascism, and the suffering that they endured.

As well as commemorating the service of those who worked on the home front, the memorial will commend their self-sacrifice to future generations. I am so pleased that schools are taking that up. I am also pleased to say that a campaign is under way to raise funds for a memorial to the women of the second world war, which will commemorate those who served in civilian roles as well as in the armed forces.

I turn to the specific subject of civilians who were killed during the war. More than 60,000 United Kingdom civilians lost their lives as a result of enemy action during the second world war. As my hon. Friend pointed out, 30,000 of those were killed in the London blitz alone—quite apart from all those who were injured during those awful attacks. Men, women and children of all ages and all walks of life lost their lives, as the bombing in Romford represents.

Since the end of that war, more than 120 memorials have been erected to the memory of civilians who were killed. Understandably, many of them are in London and on the approaches to the capital—both of which suffered terrible losses during enemy bombing raids. A plaque was recently installed at St. Paul's cathedral, commemorating those who were killed in the blitz. The people of Romford are therefore seeking to follow a well-established, admirable and honourable tradition.

As we have learned from my hon. Friend, a parachute mine was dropped over Essex road and the surrounding roads in Romford on the night of 19 April 1941. In Essex road alone, it demolished 17 houses, and 38 civilians were killed. Of those, 34 were identified, and their funerals were held at St. John's church, Romford the following week. Other roads were similarly affected; as my hon. Friend said, a total of 55 people died in the locality. The names of the 34 people who were identified are inscribed in a book of remembrance that is kept in the church.

I read with interest and humility the information that has been prepared by the vicar of St. John's church. It is impossible not to be moved by it; my hon. Friend's speech demonstrated that better than I can. A dreadful toll was extracted from that one road: 38 people were killed in one night and several families lost as many as five members. Nearly a third of the dead were children. The effect on what was, no doubt, a tightly-knit and supportive community must have been devastating and, indeed, lasting, which has been shown by the response from Romford.

It is important to say that, although the great conurbations—London and the west midlands are the two I know best—may appear to be great, amorphous sprawls to people who live outside them, they contain a mixture of local communities, many of which include families who have lived there for many generations. The impact of such incidents on local communities in those areas is as great as it would be on more isolated villages and towns across the country. It is right that we remember that, which is why this particular venture is so much to be encouraged.

As my hon. Friend said, amidst the rubble, a reproduction of Holman Hunt's famous painting "The Light of the World" survived, and still survives, in St. John's church. A passage quoted from "Ordeal in Romford" says that in a sea of devastation, 'The Light of the World' remained—a reminder and a challenge". I find it heartening that, 58 years after that tragic event, the people of Romford have kept the reminder and risen to the challenge. They clearly still have their civilian war dead very much in their minds, and are setting about doing something to ensure that their memory will be perpetuated.

The people of Romford are also to be commended in that the proposed memorial will extend beyond local loss of life and will pay tribute to all civilians who lost their lives in warfare. The service of commemoration, which is to take place at St. John's church this Sunday, will also be an act of prayer for peace in the world.

As hon. Members will know, it has long been the policy of successive Governments that war memorials should be erected following a public appeal for donations, rather than provided by Government funds. That is because the Government receive many requests—from individuals, groups and organisations—for assistance to fund war memorials. It would be neither fair nor possible or practicable to support one application and not another.

Public subscription also has the advantage of being a way in which the people of this country can make a direct and unmistakeable demonstration of their respect for those who lost their lives. That is what my hon. Friend and the community that she represents are proposing, and the venture has the Government's warmest approval and support. I welcome this opportunity to wish the organisers every success with their fundraising activities.

I also welcome the support from the local paper, the Romford Recorder, which will stimulate further interest in the campaign. I look forward to hearing of progress and my Department would be more than happy to provide the organisers with advice on fundraising, about which my hon. Friend inquired, and to offer representation at any dedication ceremony when the memorial is in place.

I join my hon. Friend, on behalf of the whole House, in paying our respects to the memory of the civilian war dead of Romford and in expressing our admiration for those who are undertaking this most worthwhile venture to perpetuate their memory.

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