And just before the Blitz actually started, evacuees, or to give them their proper title, ‘unattended children’, were returning to Liverpool Street Station at a rate of two and a half thousand every week. So many chose to come back to London because from September 1939 to September 1940 whilst officially at war, it didn’t really feel like war.
Then came 7 September 1940 and 600 enemy bombers were spotted heading straight for London. And the evacuees couldn’t leave now. When the bombers were directly overhead, thousands of children were in London who shouldn’t have been!
All around the Docks, in Whitechapel, Limehouse, Shadwell, Poplar, and Wapping, thousands of displaced evacuees waited, well aware they were surrounding the prize target. The Blitz began at 4 o’clock that afternoon. It may not have felt like war before but it did now, and it would for the foreseeable future!
The youngsters who only a few months before had been tucked away, in England’s green and pleasant and safe land, were as it turned out, brave way beyond their years, and they had a name. They were the ‘Dead End Kids’ and they were the brain child of 17 year old Patsie Duggan, son of a Poplar bin man. Soon a gang of scruffy urchins, including Patsie’s 13 year old sister Maureen, and recruits as young as ten, had equipped themselves with an assortment of tools, buckets of sand, rope and axes. Night after night, raid after raid, they were out there. Scouring the area for people in distress, hoping to perform the most daring rescue this time round. With no adults to supervise them, the game very quickly got seriously out of hand.
During the Blitz they were responsible for a series of life saving missions. On one really bad night, as reported in the London Fire Journal, an eye witness describes,
‘They rushed up the stairs, ready it seemed to eat fires!’ The same witness then described them as ‘emerging from the building, some of them with their tatty clothes smouldering.’
They became known as unofficial fire-fighters across the East End. But it was a dangerous game.
During the Blitz children accounted for one in ten deaths, and unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, two of Patsie’s group were killed on duty. Ronnie Ayres and Bert Eden died together on a night when Patsie himself was also badly injured. They were putting out incendiary bombs when without warning three heavy bombs came down the other side of a wall to where they were furiously working away. They died instantly, killed by the falling wall. Ronnie had wanted to join the RAF but had been too young. After his death, Frank Lewey, Mayor of Stepney related two stories. One from an Italian who said the night before his death Ronnie had put out a fire started in his cafe by an incendiary. Then a local pensioner recalled Ronnie carrying her from her burning house all the way to the nearest shelter, still in her armchair. Some members specialized: Shamus O’Brien could climb at speed, Shamus was only ten.
On another night warehouses were blazing furiously on the docks. The kids disappeared en masse into the flames. The only public record of that evening says ‘They did incredible things that night!’ On one particularly bad night Ronnie Ayres and his team were credited with saving 30 horses from a burning building. On another occasion a group of kids rescued 230 people from a damaged shelter and led them through the falling bombs, getting all 230 to safety.
Before the Blitz was over they came to the attention of the powers that be. However whilst at Downing Street, one of the Kids ‘broke wind’ in front of the assembled dignitaries. On being reprimanded he responded loudly with ‘Why don’t you just shut your ears mister?’
Their public thanks was quietly but quickly shelved. The little press coverage they had begun to receive dried up and then stopped completely. They returned home and carried on saving lives just for the fun of it.
By Ian Parson on behalf of the Whitechapel Society