First World War: A look back at the terror and turmoil on Islington’s home front
12:25 04 August 2014
Spy rings, heroines, riots, courageous football captains and myriad personal triumphs and tragedies engulfed Islington during the First World War.
A total of 9,000 people who lived, worked or were in some way connected with the borough perished in the Great War, out of a total 1,000,000 British deaths.
Islington’s death toll could have been higher, if not for the heroic actions of Pc Alfred Smith, who saved the lives of many women and children on June 13, 1917,
The officer was on duty in Central Street, Finsbury, when a squadron of Gothas – German heavy bombers – swept overhead in London’s first daylight bombing raid.
Workers at the nearby factory, about 150 women and children, panicked and fled from the building.
The quick-thinking officer immediately starting shepherding them back into the relative safety of the factory walls – unfortunately Pc Smith himself was killed in the blast.
A memorial to Pc Smith in Postmans’s Park in the City of London reads that he was “killed in an air raid while saving the lives of women and children”.
Another local heroine was Edith Cavell, a nurse at Highgate Infirmary, now the Highgate Wing of the Whittington Hospital.
In 1914 she was the matron of Red Cross hospital in Brussels. When the Germans occupied the city during the invasion of Belgium, she helped allied soldiers escape into neighbouring Holland.
The Kaiser’s men accused her of assisting the enemy and trying to damage the German war effort; she was tried and sentenced to death by firing squad on October 12, 1915.
Across the borough able-boded men were signing up in their droves. The Central Library, in Fieldway Crescent, Highbury, the North Library, in Manor Gardens, Upper Holloway and the West Library, in Bridgeman Road, Barnsbury, all became recruiting stations.
Sixth formers from Holloway School for Boys, now Holloway School, in Hilldrop Road, Holloway, went straight into the army where they joined many of their teachers.
A roll of honour for those men is still in the school.
Campbell Road (now Whadcoat Street, Finsbury Park) was known as Campbell Bunk – a notorious slum with a reputation for crime and lawlessness.
Yet a total of 300 residents showed their patriotic colours by signing up for combat.
Even Arsenal got in on the act. As attendances dwindled from an average of 23,000 to 13,000, club captain Percy Sands enlisted for the Royal Army Medical Corps and served as a sergeant on the western front.
Reserve team player Jack Butler also joined and ended up in France with the Royal Artillery.
And the Honourable Artillery Company, in City Road, Finsbury, provided some 13,000 men for the war effort, five of whom were awarded the Victoria Cross.
But it wasn’t all patriotic fervour in Islington.
A spy ring was discovered lurking behind the innocent facade of a barbers shop at 156 Caledonian Road.
The proprietor, Karl Gustav Ernst, a Hoxton born man of German descent, was covertly acting as an unofficial postmaster for people sending and receiving mail to and from Germany – some of which covered details of British naval movements in the Atlantic.
The operation was uncovered by British Intelligence officers – including William Melvill (thought to be the inspiration for M in the James Bond novels) which in turn led to the smashing of a much larger spy network.
Ernst was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Mob mentality got the better of people at times. The owner of a German-run bakery at the corner of Cross Street and Essex Road, Islington, lost his temper after an altercation with a groups of boys and started making offensive remarks.
A hostile crowd gathered and raided his shop, stopping only when police intervened.
Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst addressed an anti-war meeting in Finsbury Park, but the meeting was violently attacked by the anti-German union.
Meanwhile at the Brotherhood Church, Southgate Road, philosopher. logician and political activist Bertrand Russell attended pacifist rallies of up to 250 people.
On one occasion 8,000 angry residents gathered – incensed by a leaflet campaign claiming the meetings were pro-German – and stormed the church, assaulting delegates.
Islington’s prisons were kept busy during the war. In Pentonville, pacifist Fenner Brockway ended up in jail after not paying a fine for distributing anti-conscription leaflets.
Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement was arrested after going to Germany to seek support for a campaign to end British rule in Ireland. He was charged with treason and espionage, stripped of his knighthood and hanged in Pentonville on August 3, 1916.
Guests at Holloway Prison included Alice Wheeldon, who was sentenced to 10 years for plotting to kill the Prime Minister, and Emma Ahlers, wife of former German vice-Consul Adolph Ahlers, who was confined to prison during the war and took her own life.
And after a bombing raid in 1917, angry residents plotted to attack an internment camp for German and Austrian internees in Cornwallis Road, Upper Holloway.
Police discovered the plans and managed to repel the assault.
Another bombing raid, and the first Zeppelin attack on London, on May 31, 1915, targeted Mildmay Road, and Balls Pond Road, in Newington Green.
Henry and Caroline Good lost their lives during the bombing; the inquest recorded death by “suffocation and burns having been murdered by agents of a hostile power”.
Their charred bodies were discovered kneeling by their beds, as if in prayer.
The Eaglet pub, in Seven Sisters Road, was all but destroyed during an aerial assault on September 29, 1917. The Gotha dropped a 50kg load on Alwyne Road, Islington, luckily with no casualties, then headed for Seven Sisters Road where it bombed the pub, killing four.
The ground and first floors and cellar were destroyed and timber and debris littered the road.
But the hardy pub is still going strong, serving thirsty punters today. In these days of relative peace, it’s hard to imagine the daily terror which typified Islington life back then.
n With thanks to Islington Local History Centre