Home » Human Life » The Tragedy at the Upper North Street School in Poplar – 1917

The Tragedy at the Upper North Street School in Poplar – 1917

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The post about the recent centenary of the Silvertown explosion was a reminder to write about another tragedy that happened a century ago. This tragedy involved a Poplar school and children who were victims of one of the early bombing raids on London.

Although the first air raids on Britain were from German airships, these tended to be short and sporadic. However in late 1916, the German Air Force formed an ‘England Squadron’ commanded by Captain Ernest Brandenburg which undertook a bombing campaign designed to strike terror into the British population. The campaign saw the squadron’s Gotha G.IV and R.VI Giant bombers conduct raids across the country.

The worst raid in terms of casualties took place on the 13th June 1917 and involved 20 Gotha bombers attacking London; when the raid had finished 162 people were killed and 432 injured.

The East End of London was one of the places the Germans targeted especially around the Dock areas. On the 13th June, In the East End alone; 104 people were killed and 154 seriously injured.

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One of the worst incidents involved a bomb which entered the Upper North Street School in Poplar and exploded killing 18 young children. 

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The pupils who were killed were mainly between the ages from 4 to 6 years old. Around a week later, one of the biggest funerals ever seen in London was held for the children. Fifteen children were buried in a mass grave at the East London Cemetery, while the other three children were buried in private graves. A newspaper report gave details about the ceremony.

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Child Victims of  London Air Raid.

Seventeen Little Coffins, covered with pink and white blossoms, seventeen little coffins—-some of them pathetically small—lay in a row before the altar of Poplar Parish Church, London, on the 20th June.

Sixteen of them held the bodies of sixteen child victims of Germany savagery, school children who were killed in the daylight raid. In the seventeenth coffin were broken fragments of two other little bodies.

Seated amongst the mourners were many little boys and girls dressed all in black, with tense white faces, the brothers and sisters of the dead. Some of them (says the London “Daily Express”) had themselves been extricated from the medley of powdered brick, wood, and human flesh and blood in their school building after the bomb exploded.

The eighteen children—fourteen of them were aged only five—were all killed in their classroom at a London County Council school on Wednesday, 13th June, by a bomb dropped by a German airman.

Children took a large part in the funeral ceremonies. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides made an aisle on the church steps, cadets in khaki from the secondary schools lined the road in front of the church, and at the end of the service the band of boys from the Poplar Training School played the “Dead March,” and, later, a special funeral march composed by their conductor.

Although the tragedy has largely been forgotten, at the time it was widely used by the newspapers and government for propaganda purposes and encouraged anti-German sentiment, often the newspaper reports had lots of gory details.

Whilst people accepted atrocities on the battlefield, air-raids breached the boundary between soldiers on the battlefield and civilians at home. It was the first time that people began to understand the concept of total warfare.

A memorial in Poplar Recreation Ground, unveiled in June 1919, bears the names of the 18 Upper North Street School pupils that were killed.

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