The war comes to Kenilworth 

 

Published in the Kenilworth Weekly News 19th November 2010 

(Additional photographs submitted with the article but not published, are included here)

 

            Each year, as Remembrance Day passes, thoughts inevitably turn to November 21st 1940, the date of the most significant incident in Kenilworth in living memory. An event that had repercussions for decades, and left issues unresolved to this day.           

            Coventry started to suffer sporadic air raids from July 1940 and they continued as winter loomed. With aircraft mostly approaching from the south, Kenilworth’s anti-aircraft positions at Crackley Woods and Rouncil Lane were in regular use. On Thursday 7th November, shrapnel from one of these fell to ground at 7 Arthur Street just as Sarah Collett opened her front door. Sarah was the first person to die in Kenilworth in the conflict.

            At 7.00 p.m. on 14th November, the most devastating raid on Coventry started. Over 500 aircraft in several waves flew over Kenilworth towards their target. The anti-aircraft guns were again in action and Gladys Lawrence, 27, at 14 Hyde Road became the second to die in Kenilworth from the effects of local anti-aircraft fire.

            A ‘stick’ of 5 bombs landed in a line at Watling Road (where a house was slightly damaged), the railway embankment near the gasworks, and three on the common; one left a large crater but it is thought the other two buried themselves deep into the soft terrain and may still be there today. Stray bombs are known to have fallen at Manor Road and Villiers Hill, and another in the fields across the road from Red Lane with shrapnel damaging nearby houses. Although the dates of these incidents appear to be uncertain, it is probable that some at least were on the night of the Coventry Blitz.

            As so much of the City of Coventry was destroyed, many people were homeless and others simply sought out a safer refuge; over the following week hundreds made their way to Kenilworth. On Wednesday 20thNovember, the day of the first mass burial of Coventry blitz victims, no fewer than seventy Coventrians gathered at ‘The Globe Hotel’ awaiting dispersal to anyone who would take them in, and during that afternoon they were all found somewhere to stay. ‘The Globe’ was particularly accommodating as the landlord James Stanley was from Coventry; amongst his guests was his son Ralph, on leave from the RAF for the birth of his first child.

            With two civilian deaths in the previous fortnight, bombs falling around the town, a flood of evacuees arriving and its emergency services routinely assisting in Coventry during air-raids, Kenilworth was suddenly on ‘the front line’.

*   *   *

            Abbey End was originally very narrow but was widened in the 1930s. Partly residential including several new houses, it also had Oscar Lancelotte’s Tea Room and Confectionary, a doctor’s surgery and the drapery of Smith & Millar. At its southern extremity, Abbey End opened out into The Square; ‘The Globe Hotel’, with the address of 3 The Square, was in line with the Abbey End buildings.

            At 2 a.m. during the night after the dispersal at ‘The Globe’, the drone of a solitary aircraft heading northeast towards Coventry was heard. Suddenly, there was a massive explosion; a landmine had fallen in a field at the point where today Oaks Road and Beauchamp Road meet. The nearest houses in Chestnut Avenue had windows blown out, as did some in St Nicholas Avenue, otherwise there was little damage but a very large crater.

            Within seconds, there was another immense, shattering explosion; a second landmine on a parachute had detonated in the town. The centre of the blast was at 3 & 5 Abbey End, Smith and Millar the drapers. Guests for the night, Mr & Mrs Glennie, Mr & Mrs Snape and their nephew, all from Coventry, and residents George and Nellie Webb died; proprietress and host Isabella Smith was badly injured and died a week later. Either side, buildings were also totally destroyed; at number 1, confectioner Oscar Lancelotte lost his wife Winifred and guests Mr & Mrs Lucas and Mr & Mrs Allen, all from Coventry, died. At number 7, Mr & Mrs Saunderson from Coventry died, but their host survived. A few walls remained of number 9 where Grace Halls of Coventry died.

            Across the way, number 2 Abbey End was gone killing Tom Bristow of Lincoln and 31 year-old Annie Lee; at number 6 new resident Lavinia Redwood died.

            Some of ‘The Globe’ had been blown away, but much survived protecting those within. Perhaps as many as thirty had stayed the night at the inn, all but three survived; Bertie Lamb and widow Rose Lane, from Coventry, and Ralph Stanley, son of landlord James, died – his son was born just hours later. Directly opposite, 1 The Square was severely damaged, killing residents Beatrice Astle and her daughter Louie.

            Rescue teams descended on the area. Kenilworth’s firemen, still weary having just returned from Coventry an hour or two before, were joined by other fire crews, Civil Defence & Home Guard units and volunteers who worked together throughout the night and much of the following day.

            Seventy civilians with injuries were taken to the medical centre set up early in the war at St John’s church hall; the town’s ambulance was kept in a garage erected in the car park there and was used to take the more severely injured to hospitals throughout mid-Warwickshire. Kenilworth’s cemetery chapel became a makeshift mortuary; the pews were removed and as victims were recovered, they were laid on the floor on covered sheets of corrugated iron. Twenty-six died in the explosion, two of whom were never identified.

            The attack was known about in the country of its origin: the traitor Lord Haw-Haw is reputed to have stated on air that the devices were not intended for “the little hamlet of Kenilworth”. The devastated area was quickly cleared and left for the weeds to grow. The damaged buildings on the periphery that were not demolished carried ‘temporary’ repairs, some until the 1960s.

  

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 The remains of 'The Globe Hotel' where perhaps more than two dozen survived is on the right, and the walls of 9 Abbey End is on the left. The complete destruction of numbers 1,3,5 & 7 Abbey End is clear.

Below is the same view November 2010. Both are taken from next to the clock tower. 

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 *   *   *

                 It was in 1950, that the Kenilworth Urban District Council (KUDC) ordered a commemorative plaque to record the 26 known names of all the civilians who died in Kenilworth - nine residents, sixteen from Coventry and one from Lincoln.

            By the time it was completed in 1952, with Abbey End still a weed-strewn desolate landscape, the KUDC’s intentions were clear, as this official minute records; “The plaque containing the names of civilians who lost their lives through enemy action in Kenilworth during the last war is now ready for erection. The committee are in favour of the suggestion now put forward that the plaque shall be erected on the clock tower for the time being and that plans for the development of The Square, provision shall be made for its erection in a suitable position”.

            In all probability, the plaque was not attached to the clock tower and in January 1954 it finally found a home when the Council agreed that it should be installed in the Cemetery Chapel “temporarily” until the bomb-damaged area was rebuilt.

            When final plans for the reconstruction of Abbey End were unveiled in the early 1960s, the intended provision of a memorial was overlooked. Some 30 years later a small stone cairn was erected but the plaque bearing the names of those who died was not attached as it should have been, nor was it on subsequent occasions when improvements were made.

            And so the plaque remains “temporarily” in the chapel, locked away and hidden from all except for those attending funerals, or viewing by arrangement. The memorial cairn does however carry a plaque that does not accurately record the night’s events.

            The two victims who were never identified were buried together in an unmarked grave in Kenilworth’s cemetery eight days after the explosion. Unmarked, that is, until the writer’s recent inquiries led to the cemetery supervisor thoughtfully marking the spot with the plot number, V 1630. Their memory as “Two unknown souls” was unfortunately omitted from the civilian memorial plaque.

            November 21st 2010 is the 70th anniversary of the destruction at Abbey End. It is also 60 years since the decision was made to record on a memorial on the site the names of those who died.

            The installation of the plaque at Abbey End is long overdue and surely it must soon be put in its rightful place. Perhaps too, it is time for the town to mark the grave of the two unknown souls.

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The commemorative plaque, currently locked away in the Cemetery Chapel, bearing the names of the 26 civilians killed in Kenilworth in three seperate incidents. It was intended by the Kenilworth Urban District Council to have been included in a permanent memorial at a rebuilt Abbey End.

 

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V 1630: the grave of the two unknown victims, located and then thoughtfully marked by the Cemetery Supervisor due to the writer's inquiries.

  Footnote:

Following the publication of the above article, I interviewed Stan Kelsey who provided a wealth of detail of wartime Kenilworth and he corrected an error in the above account. Please read "Stan Kelsey Remembers...."