Ealing and the Wars

All of the world was affected by the two world wars of the twentieth century. Britain, as one of the major combatants in both, was more involved than many. The cities, towns and villages which made up the country all had their part to play, and to a greater extent than previous wars, the civilian populations were involved as well as the armed forces.

Whilst there are histories of the world wars and their impact on the districts now covered by the London Borough of Ealing, they mostly focus on one particular district. Here is a short summary of life on the Home Front during these wars, using examples taken from the histories of these different places. It does not pretend to be in any way complete. 

WORLD WAR ONE (1914-1918)

There were many aspects of local life which were affected by the war. First and foremost there were many men who joined the armed forces. Most joined the London and Middlesex infantry battalions such as the Royal Fusiliers and the Middlesex Regiment. Relatively few joined the Navy. Lieutenant Allastair McReady-Diarmid of Acton won the VC as did Captain Frank Roberts, the son of Southall’s vicar. Some men tried to avoid military service, mostly for reasons of business and family, but some for religious conviction. The sons of noted pacifist William King Baker in Acton did so, but one was assigned to a medical role in France.

It is difficult to know how many local men were killed, but it must be at least 2,570, given figures from Acton, Ealing, Greenford and Southall combined. Of the 463 men from one factory in Southall who fought, 52 never returned home. Some local notables lost sons; these included Leonard Shuffrey, architect, the Rev. Kite of St. Peter’s church, ex chief inspector Walter Dew of Perivale and Herbert Nield, Ealing’s MP. 

Page from Southall Roll of Honour

   Above: Extract from Southall Roll of Honour, 1915 

Support for the war seems to have been strong. It was not only the established Church and conservative politicians who spoke in its support, which they did, but others did, too. The minister of the Congregational church on Ealing Green, who condemned war in general, believed that this was a moral campaign against an ungodly foe. Likewise, a prominent Labour spokesman was critical of the aggressive German war machine and for both these men, war was the lesser evil of standing aloof.  

Photo of Garden Party for wounded soldiers in Acton, 1916

   Above: Garden Party for wounded soldiers in Acton, 1916

A great many refugees, especially from Belgium, which had been invaded by Germany at the war’s onset, arrived in Britain. Over 700 came to Ealing, with fewer arriving in Southall. Numerous empty houses, particularly in north Ealing, were used as hostels and numerous bodies were founded to assist the refugees. The president of the Ealing Belgian Society was Lady Humphreys, wife of an Ealing judge and who had been born in Belgium. Houses in South Road and Norwood Road were used to house Belgians and those of school age attended local schools.

Photo of Miltary Hospital in Southall

   Above: Ward in The Maypole Institute, Southall, converted for use as military hospital, c.1916 

Hospitals were used for military purposes and some buildings were converted for medical use. The Maypole Institute at the Otto Monsted’s Margarine Factory in Southall became a hospital, staffed mainly by Ealing women who became nurses. Marylebone School in Southall became a hospital largely for wounded Australians, closing in 1919. There was a temporary Red Cross Hospital established in Montpelier Road, Ealing. Ealing also provided ambulances to ferry injured troops to hospitals. 

Newspaper picture of ambulance outside Ealing Town Hall 1916

   Above: Ambulance outside Ealing Town Hall, c.1916 

Factories began to produce munitions. In Southall, Abbotts Factory made ammunition boxes and hospital furniture. Factories making jam and tinned foodstuffs such as Ticklers and Kearley and Tongue in Southall received contracts from the War Office to supply the army. Acton’s factories were also very active. Wilkinson’s increased their output of swords and bayonets (making over two million of the latter). Napier’s built parts of ambulances, aircraft and trucks. The Ogston Motor Company made travelling kitchens for the troops at the arte of six per week in 1915. In Greenford a National Filling Station was erected in 1916 in order to fill gas shells, and a special branch line to Greenford Railway Station was built. The output was prodigious, with 83,000 shells being filled over a fourteen shift period in 1918.

Anti-German sentiment was strong. In 1915 several German owned shops in Acton were damaged by stone throwing crowds, and though culprits were condemned by magistrates they were let off lightly. Less violently, places with German names changed them. Thus the Heidelburg School in Ealing became the Harvington School and the King of Prussia pub in Southall became The Victory. There were also fears about spies and saboteurs, so volunteer constabulary forces were formed to help the reduced police forces deal with additional concerns.

The role of women in the war was unprecedented. Many young women were attracted by the relatively high wages offered in the munitions factories and the local press often carried adverts for these. This work could be dangerous, however, and in 1916 Miss Harman of Ealing and in 1918 Dorothy Crowther of Acton both died in accidents in Acton munitions factories. In Ealing street cleaning was carried out by women and an Ealing woman became a special constable helping patrol the parks in London.  

Photo of Ealing Women at Work

                         Above: Women at work in Ealing, c.1917 

There were other dangers to civilians, too. For the first time there was the risk of aerial bombing by zeppelins and Gotha bomber planes in 1915-1918. Some people went into the countryside to avoid danger. School lessons were disrupted by the perceived need to take shelter. In Acton two people died because of fears brought on by the bombing. Yet the only bomb dropped in the locality was at Whitestile Road in Brentford. Ealing residents visited the place where houses had been destroyed and their residents killed.  

Painting of A Zeppelin on fire

                              Above: Destruction of a zeppelin, 1915 

Food shortages were another hardship. Despite an initial rush on food selling shops when war broke out, food supplies remained steady until 1917, though food prices rose, leading to demands for higher wages or war bonuses as they were called.  By 1918 Acton council employees were given up to an extra 20 shillings per week. A limited form of rationing was introduced by 1918 and in Acton sugar was only available legally in four designated shops.

To help counter these shortages, councils opened National Kitchens were subsidised meals could be bought. Two were provided in Acton and four in Ealing by 1918. Rochester House in Little Ealing became the first communal kitchen in Ealing in 1917. More land was cultivated to grow food instead of flowers. This happened in both public parks and in open ground that had not yet been built upon. In Ealing there were 1,975 allotments in 1917 and by the next year, 3,000. 

There were various fund raising drives to buy war bonds to help finance the war, or for particular war related projects. For example in Acton in 1914 there was a Pound Day to raise money to help the refugees. In 1918 there was a Tank Day in both Acton and Ealing when a tank was brought to both places and money was subscribed. Over £100,000 was raised on the Acton Tank Day. 

Photo of children collection for Red Cross Flag Day

                        Above: Children collect for Red Cross flag day in Ealing, c.1916 

The armistice of 1918 ending the war was greeted with relief and celebration. Rumours began to be spread in the morning in Acton at the post office and the council offices; people on buses began to congratulate each other, waving and cheering from the tops of trams. Works and shops closed as people took the afternoon off. Some went up to London to join crowds outside Buckingham Palace. People put out flags and made lots of noise. Outside Ealing Town Hall that evening the band played but civic dignitaries urged the crowd to be thankful that the war was over but to avoid jubilation. Despite this, patriotic songs were sung by those assembled. In the following years war memorials were built in Ealing, Greenford and Southall or additional wings to hospitals in Acton and Hanwell were built to mark the return of peace. Captured enemy artillery were placed in parks as well (one was used as scrap metal in 1940). 

Photo of Remembrance Ceremony at Greenford Memorial

    Above: Unveiling of the Greenford War Memorial, 1922 

WORLD WAR TWO (1939-1945)

There had been fears about a possible war in Europe throughout the 1930s and civilian preparations were beginning to occur before the declaration of war with Germany in 1939. No one wanted war and when the mayor of Ealing congratulated Neville Chamberlain on his return from Munich in 1938, proclaiming ‘Peace in our Time’ he spoke for the majority. Those who thought that the policy of appeasement was dishonourable and unprincipled were in the minority.

When war did come in September, the news was accepted with grim resolve. Mr Goodlet recorded in his diary,

            ‘Well, here I am on service, and it looks as if the show really had started…Rose at
time and found everywhere a sense of real urgency, very different from the
             optimism or indifference of yesterday’.

Children in Acton and in Ealing and Hanwell south of the Uxbridge Road could be evacuated at the war’s onset and about half of them were. Many went into country towns and villages in Buckinghamshire and further westwards.

School work was disrupted as some children remained whilst others left. Teachers and equipment had to be shared between sites and with other schools. Air raids further disrupted schooling as children were sent to shelters during bombing raids. For some children, the war was exciting and collections were made of shrapnel and other items which fell from the skies. Most children returned home in 1940, but left again with the onset of the Blitz. However, many children stayed with their parents throughout the war.

Compared to the situation in 1914, many of the policies slowly taken up in the First World War were introduced at the beginning of the second. These included rationing, black outs and conscription. There was also far greater emphasis on the need for civil defence against aerial attacks. Throughout 1939-1940 Anderson shelters were distributed to households and there were a number of shelters dug in open spaces such as Churchfields Recreation Ground and Walpole Park.

Service casualties were far less in World War Two; with about 508 Ealing men being killed (about half those killed in the previous war), and more from Acton and Southall, but civilian casualties were far higher than in the previous conflict, with over 500 deaths and many more injured during the bombing which began, locally, on 7 September 1940 and continued sporadically until 14 March 1945, with Southall sustaining the fewest losses, perhaps because it was furthest westward. Some prominent buildings were also destroyed, such as St. Saviour’s church, St. Benedict’s, the Railway Hotel, The Load of Hay pub in Greenford, Norwood Rectory and many others homes and shops. However, the main German targets such as the AEC Works in Southall and the Wharncliffe Viaduct, were almost unscathed. There was a visit to Perivale after a night of bombing there in 1940 by the King and Queen. Bombing was a terrifying experience as an Ealing woman wrote in a letter to a friend:¹

            ‘From Ealing Broadway down on both sides, every house or shop either all the
             windows out or some were burnt. We were all petrified…you can’t imagine what
             is going on. It was 5 am this morning before we could go to bed, and at 7.45 am
             we heard the siren again…It wasn’t a raid it was a bombardment. Ealing was
             alight. A basket of bombs, right through Sanders furniture shop, and storage all
             alight. Sayers, all the back on fire. Shelter back of Christ Church bomb dropped
             on…Madeley Road bomb on houses all to the ground…An oil bomb on a house
             in Eccleston Road, burnt several people and three houses. Westfield Avenue,
             eight houses down, Rowse’s shop windows not one escaped’.

Photo of Sanders Shop destroyed in air raid

    Above: Destruction of Sanders’ department store, Ealing Broadway, 1944 

Information about bombing damage was kept vague in the local press, with references to a suburb in west London being hit by enemy aircraft and a church being damaged, for instance. Yet local newspapers also showed that there was a great deal of debate about political and moral issues thrown up by the war. How intense should the British offensive be? How should a defeated Germany be treated? What should the post war world look like? There was also criticism of local civil defence facilities, which had not been fully built until a year after war began. As in the First World War, reports about local casualties and local men who won awards for gallantry were frequent features, as were propaganda pieces about the need to invest in war bonds.

Industry was far more prominent in this district in the Second World War because so many factories had been built in Greenford and Perivale in the 1930s. As in the earlier conflict, plough shares were transformed into swords. AEC which was famous for making buses, now made parts for armoured cars. The Hoover factory at Perivale ceased its production of vacuum cleaners and now made parts for aircraft. Napiers’ and Acton Bolt also made aircraft parts. Wilkinson’s were also busy with bayonet production. Some factories had their own Home Guard units. 

Photo of Home Guard, Greenford, 1941

    Above: Home Guard section, Rockware Works, Greenford, c.1941 

A Central Ordnance depot was established near Long Drive in Greenford. This was to take the pressure off the Woolwich Arsenal and was to store and distribute military stores. By 1941 there were nearly 3,000 people employed there. Northolt Racecourse was used to store artillery. An ATS camp was set up nearby so women could take over jobs currently done by men. 

Northolt Aerodrome, established in 1915, became one of the important RAF bases during the Battle of Britain in 1940. As well as hosting British squadrons, there were also Polish fighter squadrons there, too. After the war a Polish War Memorial was erected just outside the airbase perimeter.   

Photo of an air raid shelter being built in Southall, 1940

              Above: Building air raid shelters in Southall, c.1940 

Many more civilians were enrolled either in a full or part time capacity as civil defence personnel. Some were air raid wardens, some drove ambulances, some were in the auxiliary fire service. For the first year of the war there was relatively little for them to do, except to take part in training exercises, but with the onset of the Blitz in September 1940 they did much to assist those injured or affected by the bombing.  

Photo of Ealing Civil Defence Wardens

                         Above: Ealing Civil Defence Wardens, 1944 

Food production was also of critical value. Although rationing prevented much hoarding or bulk buying, more food had to be home grown. The number of allotments in Acton soared from there being 150 in 1939 to 1,039 in 1941. Many of these were on land owned by the council and hitherto used for playing fields such as Acton Park and Acton Green. Extensive allotments were established at Churchfields in Hanwell and remained until the 1950s. Southall council established a municipal piggery near the Brent and encouraged people to save their food scraps for the pigs, as did Acton council. British restaurants were opened to provide meals which could be eaten on site or at home; four opened in Southall.  

Photo of

                   Above: Land Girls help gather the harvest, 1942

Also in Southall one million food parcels for allied prisoners of war were packaged to be sent to the Red Cross for delivery. These included food suitable for Indian prisoners and during the war six Indian servicemen arrived in Southall to give their thanks.

It seems that there were less refugees locally than in 1914-1918. Southall welcomed 250 Belgium refugees in May 1940 as Belgian was once again invaded by Germany. The University of London hall in north Ealing housed young Polish refugees. Ealing’s Polish community has its roots in World War Two. 

Photo of Belgium refugees in Southall, WW2

                    Above: Belgian refugees in Southall, c.1940 

There were many attempts to salvage anything that might be sued for the manufacture of weapons or other war related material. This often led to Salvage Drives, were processions moved through the streets to raise awareness and encourage people to hand in old paper and metal. In Southall these were quite elaborate and men dressed up as ‘Knights of Salvage’.  

Photo of scrap metal drive for tank building

                    Above: Salvage Drive, Southall, 1941 

War Weapons Weeks and Salute the Soldier Weeks were similar, with processions, events and concerts to raise funds to pay for the war, usually by encouraging the purchase of war bonds, which could be redeemed, with interest, after the war. Some of these activities involved a particular target, for example the purchase of a tank, aircraft or a ship. The borough of Southall raised £477,174 to adopt the destroyer HMS Boreas in 1942. Schools were also involved in these fund raising drives.

It was important that people had scope for leisure activity, though. Until 1940 the cinemas had been closed on Sundays for religious and moral reasons, but the council overturned that bye-law to let people see films on that day. Ealing Studios, which had been damaged by bombing, nevertheless continued to make films. Many of these concerned the war, such as Nine Men about the war in North Africa and Went the Day Well, about an invasion attempt aided by a traitor. It had been an offence to play games in the parks, too, until 1940 and this was overturned in 1940, too. 

The defeat of Germany was acknowledged on 8 May 1945, which led to a number of impromptu celebrations; street parties, bonfires and burning Hitler in effigy. Official rejoicing took place later; in Southall this was at the Park 12 days later. There was a false dawn in Acton on 2 May when a cinema screen announcement read ‘The Germans have surrendered’ but the complete sentence ended ‘in Italy’. There were bonfires and church bells were rung. As well as these loud marks of celebration, which were also seen in August following Japan’s surrender, many went to churches to give thanks. 

Erica Ford, a young woman employed in Ealing’s Fire Service, wrote in her diary in May 1945:

            ‘Victory Day: At last. Cycled to ‘Z’ via Broadway – homes and shops gay with
             bunting and flag & church bells ringing. Sunday routine – rather quiet at C1. Went
             to Hanger Lane for while. Back for eta. Bacon roll for supper. We watched band go
             out and play outside Town Hall from 8.00 – 9.00…We all cheered it & rushed to
             side entrance to watch & cheer. When band came marching back, half of Ealing
             was marching behind & came right in the yard through the gates – wonderful sight.
             Band played some more, then dismissed…Houses floodlit & bonfires scenting the
             air…Couldn’t get down Haven lane because of crows dancing outside pubs. Big
             crows on the Green singing & dancing…Bed 1.45’.

Photo of VE Party in Acton, 1945

              Above: VE Party, Acton, 1945 

After 1945 additions were made to existing war memorials, rather than new memorials being erected. Buildings that had been destroyed or damaged were mostly repaired and rebuilt. St. Benedict’s was rebuilt in part from West German funding, but St. Saviour’s church was not rebuilt.

There are plenty of primary sources available for life in the Home Front during the world wars. Council minute books, photographs, school log books, parish magazines, local newspapers, memoirs and diaries exist and can be viewed at Ealing Library, though far more exist for the Second World War than for the First. Relatively little has been published about the First World War locally except for a series of booklets, some focussing on those killed abroad, by Tanya Britten. For the Second World War, Denis Upton’s Ealing at War provides a good coverage, though concentrates on bombing. Most general histories of the places within the borough refer in passing to these conflicts. 


1     Further information about the contribution of local industry to the war effort can be found at the listed blog post:
       Stolarski, P. (2015) 'Contribution to Victory'. Local History Blog. (August 2015)
       Available from: http://www.ccslibraries.com/libraries/ealing-libraries/local-history-