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The Battle of Waterloo Road

Every year, the 8th of May is celebrated as Victory in Europe Day, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe as fighting against Nazi Germany came to an end in 1945 following their surrender the previous day.

Situated in the heart of London, Waterloo has its share of war ravaging stories. To commemorate the 75th anniversary since VE, we're publishing an extract from Peter Jefferson Smith's St John's and St Andrew's History.

St John's Waterloo (June - July 1941), Photo: Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

an extract from the chapter 'The battle of Waterloo Road'

"Local authorities set up public air raid shelters. Many were in existing vaults thought to be safe, including those of the Lion Brewery, abandoned after a near miss, since it was dangerously near the river. One of the safest shelters was in the crypt of St John’s. New strong brick walls were built, to partition the crypt into three big rooms, and to reinforce the roof. A false ceiling was built, to protect against any bricks falling from the vault during a raid. Round the walls were cubicles with chemical toilets. The shelter was entered by stairs from the churchyard at the south west corner of the church, and there were also six emergency exits. There was space for 460 people.

In September 1940, the Blitz began, and continued for eight months. On 8 December 1940, 3,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on London, one of them hitting the roof of St John’s and gutting the interior. After the fire, the Vicar placed on the railings this notice, written in red and black:

In December this church was bombed. One hundred and fifty people in the crypt were unhurt. Give God the praise.
On the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a high explosive struck its roof. This Waterloo Church, stoutly built by fine builders, took the shock and shuddered to its depths. In those depths 150 people, including her parish priest, were assembled. The old church, mother of souls in this parish, true to her maternal instinct, gathered the full fury of the blow into her heart and gave her life for her children. Now we take to the crypt for our worship, as better Christians have done before us, until this church shall rise glorious from the ruins. A.M.D.G.

The pencilled report by the Air Raid Wardens, preserved in the Lambeth Borough Archives, was more succinct: “SHELTERERS OK”.


Father Hutchinson
Photo: Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

The Vicar of St John’s, Charles Hutchinson [here photographed], generally known as Father Hutch, continued his rounds of duties in the parish. He was regularly at the school, overflowing with pupils from other schools which had been bombed, and there were patients to visit at the Royal Waterloo Hospital. Fond of the stage (he was head of the Actors’ Church Union) he put on amateur theatricals. The Vicarage was shabby and uncomfortable with the windows blown out, but the door was always open, with a stream of people dropping in. At night, he was in the shelter, keeping spirits up. On the night the Church was gutted, his response to someone coming in with alarming accounts was: “Talk about the price of carrots, you fool”.

In May 1941 two visitors arrived from the United States. One was an English journalist, Diana Forbes-Robertson, the other an émigré Hungarian, Robert Capa, the pioneering war photographer. They had been commissioned by an American publisher to produce a book on how a London family was enduring the Blitz. They were introduced to Father Hutchinson, who led them to the Gibbs family.

They were a typical local family; married at St John’s, they had lived in Waterloo all their married life, and Mrs Gibbs’ parents lived nearby. Mr Gibbs worked as a police guard at Morden underground station, and the couple were shelter marshals at St John’s. They had a double allotment in Brockwell Park, and after a day’s photography, their visitors would be sent back to their grand West End hotels with armfuls of vegetables. In The Battle of Waterloo Road, Capa and Forbes-Robertson recorded their lives and the lives of many the diverse Waterloo community – wardens, caretakers, a charlady, and “Kate my jewel” (the Vicar’s term for her), a tramp who in summer hawked lavender in the country, and thanks to the war was now able to get regular shelter at night.


A year later, after victory in Europe, a Labour government was elected; and for the working class communities of North Lambeth that brought the promise of the Beveridge Report, of freedom from the five giant evils, of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease."

Whichcote Street (Waterloo, June-July 1941). Photo: Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

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