The Zeppelin Menace | Bombing the Capital

When we think of sustained bombing of the capital, it’s the Blitz that comes to mind – but in fact the first aerial bombardment of London happened 100 years ago during World War I.

As the London Metropolitan Archives readies its London at War exhibition, senior archivist Sharon Tuff looks back at the Zeppelin attack that devastated Clerkenwell.

The months following Britain’s entry into war on 4 August 1914 saw dramatic changes to the lives of Londoners. The city was placed at the centre of the war eff ort, troops were quickly mobilised and volunteers signed up, many passing through London on the way to the continent. People of German heritage, many of whom 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.

As early as August 1914 there were concerns that the German forces would mount airborne attacks on Britain, and especially London. The German 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 were made by the Zeppelin factory and this name became synonymous with all airships.

During the summer of 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 19-20 January 1915, but it wasn’t until May 1915 that Kaiser Wilhelm gave permission for attacks on London (he was initially reluctant because of his connections to British royalty). The fi rst was over 31 May and 1 June and began in Stoke Newington with the airship heading south dropping its deadly cargo. By August 1915, the Kaiser had agreed to unrestricted bombing of London.

There were several raids over that summer but the one on 8-9 September has a special significance for Clerkenwell. On that night a single Zeppelin, LZ-13, 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 landed in Bloomsbury. The Zeppelin continued through Holborn and over Clerkenwell Road, Leather Lane and Hatton Garden, letting loose its explosives on the way.

In Farringdon Road, a number of buildings suffered varying levels of damage. Number 61 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 fi re calls stated: “A building of six floors about 60 x 20 ft (used as showrooms, office and store), three upper fl oors and contents severely damaged by explosion and fi re and roof off ; rest of building and contents damaged by heat, smoke and water”.

Other businesses on Farringdon Road affected by the bombing included a telescope maker, a picture frame maker, a glass manufacturer, a brush maker, gas engineers and the drill hall of the 6th Battalion, City of London Regiment.

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The first Zeppelin raids in London took place in May 1915

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The plaque commemorating a Zeppelin raid on 61 Farringdon Road

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Damage caused by a German Zeppelin air raid in Bartholomew Close

The Kaiser agreed to unrestricted bombing of London

Leaving Farringdon Road, the Zeppelin continued into the City. In Bartholomew Close a 660-pound bomb was dropped killing two men near the Admiral Carter pub 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, were caught up in the blast, causing 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 Zeppelin scare is just as if the whole place was in imminent fear of an earthquake,” wrote General Sir John Monash. But weather and night flying conditions made airship navigation difficult. Mathy led a raid on London in a ‘Super-Zeppelin’ on 24-25 August 1916, but while nine people were killed, overall the assault by 12 airships was a failure.

The final airship raid on London took place in late 1917. As 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 Gotha bombers were seen in the skies over London. Like the rest of the country, Clerkenwell recovered: 59-61 Farringdon Road was rebuilt in 1917 and the premises, now offi ce space called the Zeppelin Building, is still in use, as is the former 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 the people of Clerkenwell.

War in London is a free exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives from 16 November 2015 to 27 April 2016. 40 Northampton Road, EC1R 0HB. Open Mon- Thurs and one Saturday each month.

The Zeppelin building was home to an intriguing gallery. 

Luftschiff Zeppelin 13 (Airship Zeppelin 13), which wreaked havoc on Clerkenwell, has inspired an art space in the neighbourhood. Formerly based at 61 Farringdon Road, the Aquarium L-13 took its name from the German airship that destroyed much of the building. It exhibited work by unorthodox and punk artists including Jamie Reid, Jimmy Cauty and Billy Childish. It also published Childish’s brief biographical book, “Bombs, Buggery and Buddhism”. “L-13 seeks to reinvigorate and subvert pre-conceived ways in which art is considered and produced, blurring the distinctions between art production and exhibition,” it says. The gallery moved to Eyre Street Hill in 2009 and was renamed L-13 Light Industrial Workshop, but is now only open by appointment.