100 years ago tonight, London's first ever air raid took place. But if you associate air raids with aeroplanes, check the date and think again. For the year was 1915, and the bringer of aerial bombardment was a giant German Zeppelin. These had bombed coastal towns before, causing damage and fatalities down the coast from Norfolk to Kent. But only on 31st May did an airship slip through inland, turning west at Southend and heading for the London suburbs. Until that night war had always been something that took place elsewhere, but a rain of fire from the sky made the capital's civilians vulnerable for the very first time.
Kaiser Wilhelm had initially been reluctant to send his airships over the capital, what with London being a historic city and the King being a relative of his. But he changed his mind to allow bombing of the docks, opening up a drop zone to the east of Tower Bridge, and so it was north and east London that suffered in the debut raid. The first incendiary bomb was dropped over Stoke Newington at around 11.20pm, the zeppelin then tracking cityward along a line to the west of the Kingsland Road. Floating two miles up its aim was fairly random, its bulk unseen and its engines almost unheard. The bombing run nudged the City at Shoreditch, including a direct hit on a music hall during a performance, then headed east across Whitechapel and Stepney before dropping its final loads on Leytonstone.
Altogether 90 incendiary bombs were dropped, starting 41 fires and causing material damage assessed at £18,596. Seven civilians were killed and 35 were injured, these shocking statistics for the next day's newspapers, although precise locations were withheld for fear of giving the Germans too much strategic information. And Zeppelin LZ.38 returned safely to its base at Evère (near Brussels), where precisely one week later it was bombed by a British aircraft and burnt quickly in a hydrogen inferno. Several further raids would bring death from the skies before the war was over, although even collectively these pale into insignificance compared to a single night of the Blitz 25 years later.
The first bomb: 16 Alkham Road, Stoke Newington
It's an unassuming spot, ground zero for London's first air raid. Alkham Road is a Victorian suburban street lined by basemented townhouses, in Cazenove to the north of Stoke Newington (Overground) station. Number 16 has been scrubbed up better than its neighbours, the grime of over 100 years recently blasted from the facade. A set of pristine steps leads up to the front door, behind which railway clerk Albert Lovell and his family were asleep when the very first incendiary bomb crashed through their roof and set fire to the top floor. The Fire Brigade were called and extinguished the blaze, as yet unaware how busy the night was shaping up. A couple of days ago Hackney council erecteda plaque on the front of number 16, now owned by a surveyor called Imran, so that the random first target can be permanently marked. It's testament to the relative feebleness of that attack that the house still stands.
The misplaced plaque: Nevill Road, Stoke Newington
Previously, Hackney council had marked bomb site number one with a plaque in the wrong location. They thought The Nevill Arms on the corner of Osterley Road was the right site, specifically the pub's garden, and they got the date wrong too. The pub alas is no longer a pub, and the plaque has been removed leaving a telltale circle on the wall. But the first German raid did indeed pass overhead, about six bombs in, and rather sweetly there's a plastic zeppelin hanging from the wall above the spot where the plaque once hung.
The first deaths: 33 Cowper Road, Stoke Newington(2 killed, 3 injured)
A little further south, the other side of Butterfield Green, the air raid caused its first fatality. The Leggatts' home at number 33 went up in flames, causing the family to evacuate, but one young child was left behind. Mr Leggatt thought three year old Elsie had been rescued by a neighbour, but her charred body was later found beneath her bed where she'd crawled to hide. To add to the tragedy, Elsie's 11 year old sister Elizabeth May died later from her burns. Cowper Road is entirely unrecognisable today, every single 1915 home having been swept away by a cavalcade of not terribly exciting flats. It's therefore impossible to be sure where number 33 might have been, neither is there anywhere a commemorative plaque would make sense.
Barrett's Grove, Arundel Grove, St Matthias' Road, Woodville Road, 46 49 50 56 Mildmay Road, Queen Margaret's Grove, King Henry's Walk
The second deaths: 187 Balls Pond Road, Kingsland(2 killed)
Two high explosive grenades striking 49 and 50 Mildmay Road caused only minor damage, but kept firefighters just busy enough that they failed to arrive at one other blaze in time. 187 Balls Pond Road was the home of husband and wife Henry and Caroline Good, and they duly became the third and fourth fatalities of the attack. Today on the even numbered side of the Balls Pond Road most of the original Victorian buildings survive, including elegant townhouses and two parades of shops. Alas those on the odd numbered side have been swept away by progress, at least at the top of Southgate Road, leaving a historic hole between numbers 173 and 231 filled by dull and marginally swish blocks of flats.
Delayed shock: Southgate Grove, De Beauvoir Town(1 died)
Not everybody died from burns. A 67 year old resident of Southgate Grove, Eleanor Willis, died two days later from shock. Her locality had indeed been hit by incendiary bombs, but all had hit either gardens or roadways causing no lasting damage. Nevertheless it's easy to imagine how frightening their sudden appearance must have been, given that fire didn't simply fall from the sky over London... until that night. Southgate Grove today is a brief but beautiful street, blessed by a dozen large brick Georgian homes of the kind that give estate agents palpitations. They're generally undivided into flats, and one down the end is totally smothered in verdant foliage, the lucky residents.
6 Witham Street, Hoxton Street, Hobbs Place, St Johns Road, 28 Hemsworth Street
The largest fire: 31 Ivy Street, Hoxton
A cabinet maker's premises and timber yard in Ivy Street were struck as the zeppelin passed over Hoxton, slightly injuring a child and causing extensive damage. That's northern Hoxton, just off the street market, rather than hipster central some distance to the south. Indeed other than the High Street the vast majority of the area is covered by postwar flats and is in no way characterful, belying Hoxton's hip reputation.
Ivy Lane, Bacchus Walk, Drysdale Street, Kingsland Road, Felton Street, Little James Street, Shoreditch Empire Music Hall, Bishopsgate Street Goods Station, Pearl Street, Princelet Street, Fashion Street, Osborn Street, Johnnie Walker & Sons distillery, Commercial Road East, 13a Berners Street
The third deaths: Christian Street, Whitechapel(2 killed, 11 injured)
One of several streets leading south off Commercial Road, Christian Street would have been lined by slums and small factories and warehouses devoted to the clothing trade. It's a sign of how overcrowded these were that two bombs hitting the same spot were able to injure so many, as well as killing 8-year-old Samuel Reuben and 16-year-old Leah Lehrman. Today the only vaguely old buildings hereabouts are at the Commercial Road end of the street, below which a typical Tower Hamlets residential zone kicks in with late 20th century flats and highrises (and, one suspects, not terribly many Christians).
Burslem Street, Jamaica Street, East Arbour Street, Charles Street, 130 Duckett Street, 16 Ben Johnson Road
After these last strikes across the heart of Stepney, the commander of LZ.38 reined in his attack for the next three miles. In doing so he passed safely over my house in Bow, which is where I gave up on the eight mile walk and went home for tea.
Wingrave Road, Colville Road, Florence Street, Park Grove Road, Cranleigh Road, Dyers Hall Road, Fillebrook Road
But in 1915 one final flurry of activity followed, with the zeppelin emptying its last few bombs onto Leytonstone. Three residents were slightly injured, the final drop zone being Fillebrook Road just to the west of the A12 and Leytonstone tube station. The first air raid on London had lasted only fifteen minutes, but had left a trail of havoc and death in its wake. And however awful people thought the bombing at the time, it was merely a wake-up call, and Londoners have been eyeing the sky with various degrees of trepidation now for 100 years.