Tuesday, 16 February 2016

A Ghostlier Heritage, or: the Forgotten History of West Hendon

There is so much that could be written about the history of West Hendon, that has gone virtually unrecorded, or at least - unacknowledged, and that may now be passing out of memory, destined to become at best a footnote in a forgotten book, a faded photograph, or a few lines in a yellowing piece of newspaper. 

Does it matter, you may wonder? The world moves on, and we should move on with it, looking to the future, not the past. 

But it is always true to say that the future depends upon that past, and unless we remember what has gone before, what happens next may be the creation of something other than we deserve, or want: it may even sow the very seeds of our own destruction.

Here in Broken Barnet, integral to an understanding of the present story of the 'regeneration' of the West Hendon housing estate is a proper knowledge of the history of that site: of the very earth which is being churned up, and gouged out, in the pursuit of profit for the developers who now own it, in a literal, if not metaphorical sense. 

And the story of West Hendon is the story of London, as it was, and as it will be soon: a capital city of the future, from which ordinary Londoners will be excluded, and forgotten.

A memorial service in West Hendon, February 1941

History safely locked away in the basement stacks of local archives, unread: that is the preference of property developers, and their friends in the Town Hall. Less risk then, of intervention in the process of approval for their plans: proposals drawn on a special sort of map, which measures distance but not the value, in human terms, of the spaces in between, or the layers of time that lie beneath the ground they want to lay waste, and build upon.

And when inconvenient history threatens to impede the progress of development, as in the case of West Hendon, it is simply set aside, and not acknowledged. It does not exist. 

When residents objected to the plans imposed upon them here, to demolish their homes, evict them, and build a private, luxury development in their place, they were ignored. They had no part in the decision making process that had set the plans in motion: or rather they were tricked into believing they had been, when promised new homes in the new development.

One focus of much of the impotent fury felt by residents in West Hendon became a point of huge significance in the fight they are still pursuing against the iron fisted destruction of their community. And that point of focus was the issue of encroachment upon an open area of the estate known as York Memorial Park. 

The fury they felt, and their sense of failure from an inability to protect this piece of land, was both directly related to the issue itself, and the wider impotence and vulnerability of the people in the face of decisions made without their consent. It is a symbolic point of entrenchment: a last defiance. Here we stand: leave us alone.

This area of green space, leading down to the water's edge, fringed by trees, was part of land left undeveloped after the war: land which the older residents knew was the site of something now almost forgotten, part of their own unacknowledged history: their own inconvenient history. 

This was the place where, in February 1941, the Luftwaffe had dropped a massive bomb, destroying outright three entire streets, killing and injuring many residents, as well as making around 1,500 others homeless. Of the dozens who lost their lives, some were never found, and the site of the bombing therefore became a place of commemoration, and left untouched.

The site of the bombing in West Hendon, taken the next day, 14th February 1941

In the early days of what was supposed to be a refurbishment and renewal of the housing estate that was built in the late sixties, to accommodate a new generation of the families of this part of West Hendon, the Tory council had made certain promises to residents: that they would all have new homes here, of course - and that York Memorial Park would not be built upon.

These promises were quietly buried by Barnet Tories, once they had made a deal, in secret, with Barratt London - to turn what had been a plan to renew the housing in the estate, for the benefit of local residents, to one of private development; subsidised by public funding, in the form of land given for free, on the pretext that this was necessary in order to make the deal economically viable. 

Residents were no longer all to be housed on the new development - in fact it became clear that almost certainly none would be so lucky - and then: York Memorial Park was to be built on, after all.

In fact York Memorial Park, as such, they said, did not exist. 

By the time it came to last year's Housing Inquiry into the Compulsory Purchase Orders of properties on the estate, the position of the council and Barratt London, as presented by Capita and their QC led legal team, was that there had never been a Memorial Park, and that anyway the properties in question were not in the area that had been bombed.

This claim was one step too far for me, listening to the case put by the development partners, at the hearing in the Town Hall: and one lunchtime visit to the borough's Archives next door quickly yielded evidence of the memorial services held there, days after the terrible event, and then for years afterwards. 

Equally, a cursory look at the maps provided to the Inquiry, and the use of a ruler, was enough to show that yes - some of the property in question was part of the bombed area, and part of the open green space added on to existing parkland after the terrible incident, and huge loss of life. 

After some consideration, I was 'allowed' to submit this as evidence , with a warning that such a course might make me personally liable for huge costs, for presenting material, at that stage, even if it was to correct misleading information put to the Inquiry. I wasn't held liable, luckily, but the QC cleverly asked me no questions when giving evidence: and then misrepresented what I had said in his summing up, when I was not allowed to contradict him, claiming there was no proof of continuing memorial services, of which there was, in the material deposited. 

I was also sent a typically churlish email, incidentally, from Barnet Council, keen to obscure wider knowledge of the events of 1941, and the implications of the associated evidence, objecting to the use of the only image then available of the bombing, seen below - in response to which I invited them to prove copyright, which they have not. 

History belongs to those who lived it, and those who inherit the legacy of their experience - not to those who try to deny it.

The story of the bombing of West Hendon, of course, was concealed in wartime, in line with restrictions on reporting the extent of loss, for fear of the effect on morale, and in order to confound the strategy of the enemy. And now in Broken Barnet, seventy five years later, this terrible incident still has the power to disrupt, and disturb the narrative of another story, whispered in secret, behind closed doors.

Why had planners not visited the Archives to check for themselves the status of the land, and its history? Or studied their own maps? We don't know.

What we do know is that the whole affair did nothing but bring further bad press to what was gathering momentum as a media story of no little interest. 

Eventually, someone, somewhere, had the sense to see the only direction for the developers to go, in order to redeem something from the self inflicted damage they had created. The weight of protest and opposition from residents, and the level of support and sympathy felt for them, forced valuable, if belated concessions in terms of, for example, the previously low valuation of leaseholders' properties: and some tenants were rehoused in rather better accommodation than had earlier been put before them.

And then came a gesture of conciliation over York Memorial Park. At last, a change of tone. 

The 75th anniversary of the wartime bombing would be on 13th February, this year. One or two residents had wanted to have a service of remembrance. This was now to be authorised, and Barratt's 'media consultants' HardHat liaised with residents' spokesperson Jasmin Parsons, offering at last to pay for a memorial and allocate some part of the green space to be set aside in commemoration of the events of 1941.

Too little, too late, you might think, but still: this was how we found ourselves, on Saturday morning, the 13th February 2016, standing in the rain, in a semi circle on the grassy mound between Marriotts Close and the margin of the Welsh Harp, perhaps a hundred or so, huddled in the shadow of the monstrous tower, the first of three monoliths that will soon be squatting there, in a place of such natural and rare beauty, punching the skyline triumphantly above the metal shuttered flats now emptied of their tenants. In the crowd, Barratt London's representatives looked on, discreetly, battling with their umbrellas.

As well as residents attending the ceremony, there were some invited local figures - no sign of Hendon's Tory MP Matthew Offord, but then he was probably too scared to enter the mythical 'no-go' area of West Hendon he described so eloquently on the BBC Sunday politics show recently - to the surprise of local police. 

In truth, for Matthew Offord, the West Hendon estate may well be a 'no-go' area now. 

He wasn't missed.

Local Assembly member Andrew Dismore and the three Labour councillors for West Hendon all came to pay their respects: Devra Kay, Adam Langleben, and Agnes Slocombe. 

Two of the film makers who have made a documentary for the BBC, due to be shown this month about the story of West Hendon, came too. Also present was the Guardian's Dave Hill, who writes here about the event.

The Deputy Lieutenant of Barnet, Martin Russell, was there, as was the Deputy Mayor, Alison Cornelius, wife of the Barnet Tory leader. Oh, and two other Tory councillors, not from the area, so rather surprising to see in attendance: John Hart from Mill Hill, and former Mayor Hugh Rayner, both of whom decided to be unnecessarily discourteous, when I arrived - for no apparent reason.

Perhaps they were compensating for the sense of shame that any Tory politician attending should have felt, in the circumstances - especially those present who were responsible for the betrayal, misrepresentations, and broken promises served to the current residents of the estate. Rayner at least had the grace to (sort of) apologise after the ceremony, coming up to offer his hand. What a curious lot they are.

The service began and ended in a downfall of persistent rain: it seemed appropriate to the occasion. Reading out an edited version of the chronicle of events of February 13th, 1941, it was hard not to look up at the sky and think of the sound of the 'The Thing', as it is described by the local newspaper report published at the end of the War, falling towards the streets below, bringing a terrible firestorm of destruction upon the people of West Hendon ...

"a fearful rushing, roaring noise, like the sound of an express train passing high up in the air". 


Fr Damien from St Mary's church led the prayers and blessing: 

And the Methodist minister for Hendon read from the Book of Psalms:

You turn us back to dust, and say 'Turn back, you mortals',
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday, when it is past, or like a watch in the night,
You sweep them away: they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning;
In the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed ...

Jasmin Parsons, without whom the the memorial service would not have taken place, and the anniversary left in the annals of the forgotten history of West Hendon, read a poem she had written especially for the occasion, paying tribute to the courage of those who had put their own lives at risk and worked to rescue their neighbours from the wreckage of the blast:

Safe homes now the takers of life
Coughing smoke, showered with soot, 
Brick dust and burning embers,
The locals did not flee:
They mustered strength, fuelled by courage, in desperation to find life
They dug with their own bare hands

From a description of the bombing by the Editor of the Hendon & Finchley Times, 1945

Most important of all those attending the service, of course, were family members of some of those who lost their lives in the bombing of 1941, which gave the ceremony a deeply personal, and dark perspective. 

Sally had come with her husband all the way from Norfolk to attend the ceremony, which clearly meant so much to her: as a child she had been brought to York Park, and told why it was a place of memorial. 

She spoke most touchingly of her family's dreadful loss in the bombing: how her father had had to tell his sister, who survived, of the death of her mother, husband and daughter: unimaginable grief for her. Sally commented that as a child, the stories her father told her about his family were about people she had never known, but as she had grown older, she had realised how important it is to remember people, places, and dates. How true, and no less because, as she commented, the people who lost their lives that night, as she observed, were 'just ordinary people, doing ordinary things'. 

Jacqui was a resident displaced by the current development: deeply affected by the service, she struggled to speak the names of her lost relatives, and broke down in tears. Later on, at the gathering in the community centre, she still could not bear to talk about the loss her family had sustained.

Brian was there to represent the Peacock family, members of whom have lived in Hendon for hundreds of years: his grandmother and uncle both lost their lives that night. His grandmother's body, in fact, was never recovered: the fate of at least seven other residents - and yet, he told the gathering, her ten year old son was found several hundreds of yards away, unmarked, delivered by the blast into a tree. At least there was somebody to bury, he observed.

It was of course from a tree damaged in the bombing that the original memorial cross had been made, before another memorial, now lost, was placed somewhere on the site.

Cllr Alison Cornelius, the deputy Mayor of Barnet, lays a wreath

Wreaths were now laid in front of the simple memorial plaque, and then, very poignantly, an elderly man, a local resident, came to leave a little wooden cross, placing it carefully upright in the wet grass. His name was Ron Cripps, and his father had been the local milkman, one of the first to come across one of those injured by the blast, returning home, covered in blood, to find his own house damaged, but his family luckily unhurt. 

After the bombing, Mr Cripps and his wife started up a youth group, to help the community recover from the terrible losses it had endured. He had met his wife there, as had several other local couples. After the memorial ceremony, at the estate's community centre, Ron laid out sepia tinged photographs of his family, and local neighbours inWest Hendon, off on a charabanc trip to Margate, or taking part in a pageant to celebrate the coronation.

As we stood against the backdrop of the water's edge, and the wide expanse of the Welsh Harp, circling seagulls cried, as they moved around the reservoir - and the words of the ceremony were punctuated by the sound of workmen on the new development. Nothing stops the machinery of profit: even the memory of loss, and an act of mourning.

In truth, it was a sombre moment: much more so than I had expected - most of us dressed in black, by chance, rather than agreement, and the depth of emotion, and sense of loss palpable, and deeply moving.

But the sense of loss, and mourning, was not just for those lost in 1941, to some residents, but for their grandchildren, and those who survived, who rebuilt Hendon, and London, and who must leave the homes they have had here, for so long. 

It was for what has been lost, or destroyed: not just by enemy action in wartime, but by elected representatives, in the twenty first century: in indifference to any sense of community, or belonging, and the common bond of generations growing up together, helping each other, in times of trouble.

The People's Mayor, and local resident Mr Shepherd, in attendance

Margaret Thatcher famously claimed there is no such thing as society: and her heirs in Hendon Town Hall continue to create a world in which tenure of property, and the right to a home, belong only to those with private wealth. The creation of stability, and a sense of belonging, a shared history: necessarily of inconsequence now, in Broken Barnet - representing as these things do the enemy of progress, and yes, profit. 

But still: in the words of the wartime Dean of Hendon:

"The last word shall not be with the destroyer. That is the meaning of our service, and of the simple Cross under which we stand ... Such scenes of desolation as this form a terrible monument to the wickedness of those who pursue brute force without reference to the God of Righteousness, and Justice and Love, before Whom they must one day render account for their deeds.

The 'Little People' of London's suburbs, whom they sought to smash, live on, bearing the unquenchable torch of Freedom, and the rough wooden Cross at West Hendon remains as a symbol of the spirit that prevailed against the greatest peril of oppression humanity has ever had to face".

West Hendon Cllr Devra Kay

I came across this poem, just the other week, by chance, courtesy of 'Spitalfields Life', whose 'Gentle Author' writes so eloquently in defence of our built heritage and communities under threat from development, now, rather than from the depredations of the Blitz. This is by Lilian Bowes Lyon, the radical 'rebel' cousin of the Queen Mother, who lived in the East End throughout the war, and the worst of the bombing there: perhaps you will agree these words hold a certain resonance for the history of West Hendon, the story of Broken Barnet - and the future of our capital city.

Evening in Stepney

The circle of greensward evening-lit,
And each house taciturn to its neighbour.
The destruction of a city is not caused by fire;
What many have lost begets a ghostlier heritage
Or hails the unknown horizon; workaday street
A travel-ordained encounter, the breakable family
Fortified in defeat by the soldering air.

The destruction is in the rejection of a common weal;
Agony's open abyss or the fate of an orphanage,
Mass-festering, mass-freezing or mass-burial,
Crime's worm is in ourselves
Who crumble and are the destroyer. 

West Hendon, February 13th, 2016


Anonymous said...

I would go to the architectural press about this - really shocking try olly wainwright at the guardian etc

Anonymous said...

What the Troy's are now doing here locally & on a national Level will have consiqences beyond anything there tiny minds can comprehend & that is the social backlash from the working class people ! Who for one are being so hard pressed from every angle & with a government who take sheer delight in heaping on the misery . So what could possibly happen ? The poor could take us out of Europe with there vote . They could rise up and demand from there politicians that we have a fair tax system , wouldn't that be a novel thing , they could demand that our politicians be made to be accountable for the decisions they make , that up to & including personal financial liability. After all there are more poor than there are rich , the torys have made sure of that .

Mrs Angry said...

Anon 1: too late, I fear.

Anon 2: I do agree that politicians - at least those with budget responsibilities - should be accountable for financial mismanagement and carry some extent of personal liability. I believe that might concentrate their minds rather more acutely on the scrutiny of contracts, for example, a duty some seem to regard with undue complacency.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this moving account, and for making clear the terrible lack of memory among most councillors and officers.

Mrs Angry said...

My pleasure, Anon: I'm afraid the lack of memory in some quarters was deliberate - an inconvenient history. It is important to remember always what lies beneath the ground: especially when it is targeted for development. In the case of West Hendon, at least some of the past has been retrieved from memory, for the community.