Make Do And Mend

Okay. World War II’s ended, the bunting’s been taken down, the street parties packed up and the cost is finally being counted.

Top of the list of jobs to do is to build housing for all the people displaced by the Blitz. Thing is, the stuff you have in your warehouses isn’t always quite right for the job…

For example – you’re really short on railings to go round these new homes for heroes. All you’ve got in the stores are thousands of old stretchers hurriedly fashioned from tubular metal and wire mesh as standard issue for ARP wardens. They’d always been bloody uncomfortable if you had the misfortune to have to lie on one, but they did the job – and it seems a shame to throw them away. Waste not, want not…

I first read about Wartime Stretcher Railings in Peter Ashley’s fascinating More London Peculiars (English Heritage, 2007) but he was only talking about them as being around one block of flats – just outside Oval cricket ground. I actually made a pilgrimage to see them – and they are fab.

You honestly wouldn’t know they weren’t actually built as railings if it weren’t for the four little kinks – one in each corner – bent into the supporter bars to keep the stretcher off the ambulance floor, and the weld-marks every six feet or so where the handles have been bonded together.

Thing is – the picture above isn’t from the Oval.

I actually took this picture in Watergate Street in Deptford. I hadn’t noticed the railings – I was too busy looking at the ancient piece of wood embedded in the giant dock wall opposite and they had to be pointed out to me – but there’s no doubt about it – these are wartime stretcher railings.

Which begs the question – how many more are there? I was under the impression that the ones at Oval were unique – it would seem not. South and East London copped most of the bombs – so presumably they also had most stretchers. I’m beginning to think there must be more of these recycled pieces of Home Guardery – anyone know any?

Next time you happen to be walking down Watergate Street (if nothing else, to see the watergate itself, slid in between that poor old Borthwick warehouse that only has its facade left and doesn’t appear to have been touched for years, and the giant dock wall, down a nasty scaffolding passage) take a moment to look at those railings and allow yourself to be transported to the Blitz.

To the rubble and smoke, fires and blood – and the poor sods who were carried to hospital on a set of garden railings…

3 Comments to “Make Do And Mend”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I remember, as a teenager growing up in East Greenwich having the railings around the Ernest Dense Estate pointed out to me, by one of the elderly residents of Trinity Hospital. (for those who don’t know, the Ernest Dense Estate is the 3 blocks of flats located on the corner of Old Woolwich Road and Eastney Street) These railings looked identical to those in your picture and were indeed stretchers.

    I remember being impressed with the ingenuity of whoever thought this was a good use of military surplus. Having walked passed them a thousand times without noticing them myself, made them even more….special, I suppose.

    I have to confess that on a couple of occasions, after spotting tourists taking photographs around that end of Old Woolwich Road, I have struck up a conversation with them and pointed out the railings. One American tourist in particular almost burst when I pointed them out as he remembered them from his service days.

    Sadly these railing were replaced some time in the 1990’s with some rather utilitarian looking grey spikes. I’d wager the person responsible didn’t realise the history he was removing.

  2. Danny Taylor says:

    Well, i never knew that, i grew up just arond the corner in czar st, and there was loads of these railings along new king st as well, i must have walked down watergate st past those railings millions of times over the years and didn’t know they was made from the old stretchers. thanks for the old pics to remind me of my old home town, must go back for a visit someday soon, even just for a bit of manzes pie n mash :)

  3. richard ramirez says:

    Very interesting, I live not very close and have always walked past and never given any thought, In fact as a kid I used to play on these an the grass behind them.