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Bomb damage, 2-5, Bartholomew Close, September 1915

​Bomb crater in front of 2-5 Bartholomew Close, 8 September 1915.

​The airborne menace - First World War Zeppelin raids on London

When we think of sustained bombing of the capital, it is the Blitz that comes to mind, but in fact the first aerial bombardment of London happened 100 years ago during the First World War. Sharon Tuff looks back at the devastating impact on London of the Zeppelin attack focussing on Clerkenwell where London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) is now situated.

The devastation to London during the Second World War forms part of London's collective memory and it is easy to forget the damage to London by German airships and aeroplanes during the First World War.

The months following Britain's entry into war on 4 August 1914 saw changes to the lives of Londoners. London was placed at the centre of the war effort, troops were quickly mobilised and volunteers signed up, many passing through London on the way to the continent. Unemployment in many trades rose while others, for example munitions, saw an influx of workers. Refugees began to arrive from Belgium and camps were established at Earl's Court and Alexandra Palace. Meanwhile people of German heritage, many of whom had been in the country for many years and had families and settled lives, were the cause of suspicion and camps were established to house them. The 1915 losses on the front were reported in the newspapers and the hospitals filled with wounded soldiers.

From the start, there were concerns about the ability of the German forces to mount airborne attacks on Britain and especially London using airships. Airships were rigid structures with a metal or plywood frame, filled with gas balloons and covered in fabric with a gondola underneath containing the crew, equipment and weapons. Many airships were made by the Zeppelin factory and this name became synonymous with all airships. As early as the middle of August 1914, anti-aircraft measures had been put in place and guns sited in Whitehall.

The first air strike on Britain was on towns in East Anglia on 19 and 20 January 1915, but it wasn't until May 1915 that Kaiser Wilhelm gave permission for attacks on London. The first was over 31 May and 1 June and began in Stoke Newington with the airship heading south dropping its bombs. By August 1915 the Kaiser had agreed to unrestricted bombing of London.

There were several raids over the summer of 1915, but the one on 8 and 9 September has a special significance for Clerkenwell. On that night, a single Zeppelin, commanded by Heinrich Mathy, brought devastation to the area. The raid began in Golders Green with two explosive and ten incendiary bombs dropped before moving to central London where a bomb was dropped in Bloomsbury. The Zeppelin continued through Holborn, over the Clerkenwell Road, Leather Lane and Hatton Garden, dropping bombs on the way.

In Farringdon Road a number of buildings suffered varying levels of damage. 61 Farringdon Road was occupied by the Brass Foundry & Lamp Co Ltd and West & Price, jewellery manufacturers. The London County Council (LCC) Fire Brigade daily report of air raid fire calls describes it as 'A building of six floors about 60 x 20 ft (used as showrooms, office and store), three upper floors and contents severely damaged by explosion and fire and roof off; rest of building and contents damaged by heat, smoke and water.'

Other businesses on Farringdon Road included medical trades, a telescope maker, a picture frame maker, a glass manufacturer, a brush maker and gas engineers all of whose buildings were damaged; ranging from glass and roof damage to damage by water.

Bomb damage, City of London Union, September 1915

​Bomb damage at the City of London Union, Bartholomew Close, 8 September 1915

The drill hall of the 6th Battalion, City of London Regiment at 57A Farringdon Road was also damaged. The LCC Fire Brigade return describes this building as ' ... of two and five floors about 120 x 60 ft (used as drill hall, dwelling and store) and contents damaged by explosion and water'.

Leaving Farringdon Road the Zeppelin continued into the City. In Bartholomew Close a 660lb bomb was dropped killing two people and leaving a hole eight feet deep. Many of the buildings in the Close, which included the headquarters of the City of London Poor Law Union and the Royal General Dispensary, suffered damage – mostly broken windows and damage to ceilings. Further bombs were dropped in the heart of the City of London near Guildhall and on Liverpool Street station before the airship headed back to Germany. In this raid alone 22 people died and 87 were injured.

The final airship raid on London took place in late 1917. As anti-aircraft defences improved and the development of aeroplanes gathered pace, aircraft rather than airships became the preferred method of air attack, and by mid-1917 German bombers were seen in the skies over London.

Farringdon Road and Bartholomew Close recovered. 59-61 Farringdon Road was rebuilt in 1917 and the premises, now called the Zeppelin Building, are still in use, as is the Drill Hall. The plaque sited on the front of the Zeppelin Building records its destruction and acts as a permanent reminder of the air raids and their effect on Clerkenwell.

This article originally appeared in The Clerkenwell Post no. 27 September/October 2015 as "The Zeppelin Menace".

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The images show damage caused by a Zeppelin air raid in Bartholomew Close, September 1915. They are part of the Miles and Kay collection, which you can now see in stunning close up detail on our newly relaunched website: Collage - the London Picture Archive.

Collage Search images
29 June 2016
Last Modified:
02 December 2019