Self-help in an air raid

The following letter appeared in the Evening News, 13 12 March 1935, 6:

On the brick wall at the side of our street door can still be seen faintly two large letters, "P. P.," which stood for Poplar Patrol. Every Friday night it was my job to collect 3d. from each house-hold that belonged to the "P.P." This paid for rent, fire and refreshments for our small front room, where three men, each in his turn, used to sit up every night.

In the event of a raid, as soon as they got the first warning they used to run and knock on every door where there was "P.P."

-- From Mrs. G. Stillwell, 9, Finnymore-road, Dagenham, Essex

Air-raid alerts in the First World War were highly variable in both form and usefulness: depending on the time and the place, they might include Boy Scout buglers, police cyclists wearing signs saying 'TAKE COVER', or maroons which sounded something like bombs going off. Government authorities dithered over whether it was even advisable to give warnings, since they could lead to unnecessary anxiety and (perhaps more importantly) lost sleep. So it was possible for civilians to not know there was an air-raid alert on at all, particularly if they were already asleep. I assume this was the reason for the Poplar Patrol: any family concerned about being caught in their beds when the Zeppelins or Gothas came could subscribe their 3d. a week and be assured of a loud knock on the door, whatever the government was or wasn't doing that week.

I think Samuel Smiles would have approved of this form of community self-help. On the other hand, it might be hard luck for those who didn't (or couldn't) pay up, if a bomb fell in their street. I wonder if voluntary civil defence schemes like this created local schisms between the ins and the outs, as the more inclusive (but still mostly voluntary) air-raid precautions of the 1930s and 1940s did to a degree.

A minor question: why 'Poplar'? Poplar and Dagenham are both in east London, but aren't particularly close to each other. In fact, Dagenham wasn't considered part of London until 1926. My guess is that it is a reference to the shocking tragedy of the Upper North Street School in Poplar, which was hit by a Gotha's bomb on 13 June 1917. Eighteen children were killed, including sixteen 5- and 6-year olds. For a long time, the Poplar infants school symbolised the horrors of the new warfare, just as Guernica did after 1937.

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12 thoughts on “Self-help in an air raid

  1. Chris Williams

    Dagenham was built up during the 1920s and 1930s (and 1950s) as an industrial suburb, chiefly to serve the massive Ford factory which was also built there. The road from the traditional East End (ie Poplar) out to it was pretty well-travelled - it was where you went to escape the slums if you could. You can get a good flavour of the place in the 1950s from an autobiography written by my mate Dave Ray, which begins with his conception on VE Day... ISBN 978-0955292613.

  2. Erik Lund

    It's a weird, weird symmetry that brings the author of _Lives of the Engineers_ into the civil defence conversation. From the kid who never went to school (lest they get all Anglicanised) and end up great inventors nonetheless, to air raid patrols that only visit the paid-up households, you can almost draw some kind of line from the Nonconformist to the libertarian.

  3. Ian Evans

    Traditional principles, surely? Didn't fire brigades operate that way until the 1800s in Britain? (And I seem to remember reading that Imperial Rome used the same system)

  4. Indeed. There was a house with a Fire Insurance Mark in the village we lived in in Oxfordshire. (As an antique, rather than someone not letting go from granddad's system!)

  5. Chris Williams

    Commercial fire insurance with associated brigades arrived in the UK at the end of the C17th and dominated til the mid C19th. Some of the companies kept good records which have survived as an excellent source for C18th urban history.

  6. Post author

    Traditional, maybe, but that sort of practice (as Chris notes) ended a generation or two before the First World War, so I doubt there's a direct line. But I'd suggest it's born of the same impulse. The government did not yet provide the full panoply of services that we would now expect it do, so when a new need arose, there was a period of muddle (or perhaps experimentation) where people had to look after themselves. The difference being that in this formative period of the welfare state, the government did eventually take on those responsibilities whereas a century earlier they wouldn't have had a bar of it. (That's one to Titmuss!)

  7. Australia's Ambulance 'club' seems a modern near-equivalent, with having to pay a fee for a 'membership' to avoid the major cost if you need an ambulance. (This was a surprising system having come from the UK's and being familiar with the NHS.)

    Currently it appears some US states are finding it hard to provide such levels of emergency service and I recall reading about (but can't find now, of course) charging for an aspect of an emergency call out.

    It's one of those areas where (even today) as a traveller you keep bumping into different systems the locals consider 'normal'.

  8. Neil Datson

    The Poplar school explanation seems a good one to me.

    Incidentally Brett, can it be that: 'London wasn’t considered part of London until 1926.' Shome mishtake, shurely?

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