Episode 66: London’s Blackout

Join host Hazel Baker as she explores London’s Blackout during World War II and answers questions such as:

  • What was London like in 1939?
  • What was the blackout?
  • When did the blackout begin and why?
  • What did Londoners think of blackout restrictions?
  • How did London’s commuters cope with blackout?
  • Did the blackout make London a more dangerous place to be?

London’s Blackout


Recommended Reading:


Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 


Today’s episode is about London’s blackout. Let’s set the scene…What was London like in 1939?

1939 London was a different place than today. 18% of the UK’s population called London home, compared to only 13% today. By 1939 London’s population had peaked at c. 8.6million, now being the second biggest city in the world having been overtaken by New York. 

Of those 8.6million 2.7% of Londoners had been born abroad and half of those were from Ireland. The average life expectancy was a mere 62 yrs. Much of London’s population were crammed into the high density Victorian housing in the East End. Most people rented their homes. The average home costing around three years’ salary. 

Statutory education only went up to the age of 14. Not even 2% of Londoners went to university, and most of those who did were men. 

It was a time where St Paul’s Cathedral was still the tallest building in London. 

Where one in three Londoners worked in manufacturing and 250,000 of those worked within clothes making. 

Even though motor omnibuses had already replaced horses, for the most part, horse-drawn freight drays were still commonplace on the streets of London. There was even a 3 storey horse park in Paddington which housed 500 working horses. 

Cars were still rare, but that didn’t stop there being traffic jams. Walking and cycling were the main methods of transport for Londoners. Tube trains still had 1st, 2nd and 3rd class carriages and some even had steam locomotives. 


What was the blackout?

One of the most significant public safety measures introduced by the government during the build up to and throughout World War II. The blackout required all UK citizens to keep their homes completely darkened at night to obscure the vision of Luftwaffe bombers overhead. 


Beginning of the Blackout

In the months leading up to the declaration of war, black paper sales increased. Women sewed blackout curtains and blinds.  The Times newspaper carried adverts for “ARP curtaining”, available not only in black but in brown, green and dark blue.  When London’s Gaiety theatre closed, its brown velvet curtains were auctioned off to be converted into superior blackout curtains.

As some people hunkered down and prepared for war at home others decided to create a new home elsewhere. In the summer of 1939 war was imminent. It’s estimated that in August and September of that year 1.25m people left London.  The government’s plan of evacuating children, mothers with infants and the infirm took place in several waves. The first came on 1 September 1939, the same day as the blackout began. At sunset on Friday the 1st September 1939 Britain’s blackout began. Two days later on Sunday 3rd September 1939, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. 

Everyone across the UK had to cover their windows and doors at night (before sunset) with heavy blackout curtains, cardboard or paint and would seal gaps around the edges with brown paper. The nation endured this imposed darkness until 23 April 1945. Putting blackout curtains up everyday was wearing on the material. The government issued a leaflet on how people should look after their blackout curtains “hoover, shake, brush then iron” – the latter to make them more light-proof, to seal the threads together.

Not only were houses no longer releasing light; they no longer let in air and the air circulation in homes decreased.

This wasn’t London’s first blackout. Londoners had experienced a blackout during WWI, bright exterior lights were extinguished or dimmed. Street lamps were painted with black paint. This was extended to the rest of England in Feb 1916. 

The blackout of WWII, however, was on a totally different level. This time round, street lights were switched off at the mains, traffic lights were fitted with slotted covers to deflect their beams downwards to the ground and vehicle headlights were masked to show only a slim slither of light. 

It must have been fairly chaotic, especially in the beginning. Getting around town must have been so difficult, disorientating and dangerous. Phylllis Warner worked at the Ministry of Home Security and lived in Central London. She described in her diary: “For the first minute going out of doors one is completely bewildered, then it is a matter of groping forward with nerves as well as hands outstretched.” Not only did Londoners have the problem of just finding our way in the dark but there were times when the weather added to our problems. Fog was a regular addition especially when it was aided by the smoke screen put up on the outskirts of the city to confuse the bombers.

Imagine moving through streets that you thought were familiar, which have now been plunged into darkness. Blackout must have made everything harder, especially during the long winter months. Workers would need to rush home after work to darken their windows before the designated start of the nightly blackout period. It’s estimated it took about half and hour to black out your windows each time. During the winter months it would hardly seem worth it. There were frequent interruptions of electricity supply, fuel and water. Workers would needed to have gotten up earlier in the darkness and reported getting ready for work by candlelight.  

There are reports of merchant sailors falling into the Thames river and drowning. We know of a couple of incidents where men fell down open manhole covers while on their way home from the pub. 

People fell off curbs and tripped over sandbags. People walked into lamp posts and into each other! Unsurprisingly the sale of walking sticks and torches soared. That wouldn’t help you if you were cycling though. Frederick Lindemann was the government’s leading scientific adviser. He had heard of a young woman who worked in his laboratory who had suffered a fractured skull cycling into a hole on her way to work during blackout. He secretly paid all her medical bills. This was a time before the NHS.

Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sydney Hetherington could remember one frightful evening: “I can well recall walking home using my bicycle to feel the kerb, hoping that I would not take a wrong turning. If that happened one was completely dis-oriented and one could only hope to meet someone who could put you back on track. In one instance, near where I lived, a man mistook a left turn and, instead of turning down the road he wanted, he turned down a track leading to the canal. He fell in and although his cries could be heard, he drowned before anyone could locate him.”

In the first month of blackout 1,130 people were killed on the roads of London as drivers drove almost blind. In 1939 there were 8,272 road fatalities reported in London. In 1940 8,609 road fatalities were reported and that same year a strict 20 mph speed limit was enforced with steep fines for anyone not adhering to it. Saying that though, the police still managed to issue 5,935 speeding tickets in 1940 alone! One person died a year for every 2000 vehicles on the road. Today the figure is one for every 20,000. 

Westminster council distributed posters encouraging people to wear light or something white such as a newspaper or handkerchief in order to be more visible. But the campaign was a notable failure. Opinion polls found that people remained unconvinced of its merits and didn’t want to look conspicuously cautious. 

Trees and lamp posts were painted with rings of white to help guide the drivers and pedestrians.

London underground continued to run while also providing shelter from the air raids – accounts of commuters literally having to step over sleeping civilians on the platforms. Commuters also had to adjust to entering the darkness outside from the light of the tube station: one poster said ‘Pause as you leave the station’s light’. There were hidden dangers too, quite literally ‘Before you alight make sure the train is in the station. Look for platform’

Travelling by train was made more difficult by the blackout. Porters struggled to read labels on freight travelling at night which led to increasing delays for passengers. When people did travel, they sat in carriages shrouded by blinds and illuminated by cold blue lights. New lighting attendants were employed and patrolled the train carriages to check the blackout.

Meeting people at a train station during the blackout had its challenges too. One man wrote of how he needed to meet a new colleague at Paddington station and decided to stand in a prominent spot and use his light to illuminate his collar. That seemed to do the trick.   

Buses and trolleybuses had their headlamps masked and interior lamps fitted with cowls. Other lamps such as sidelights were removed completely. Their windows were covered with protective netting to prevent injuries from splintering glass, with just a small diamond aperture in order to see out.  It must also have been so tricky to catch a bus. Transport for London had the buses dashboards painted white for when passengers would queue in the dark to know when their bus had arrived. In 1943, London Transport displayed posters saying ‘To hail a bus or tram shine a torch onto your hand’  When you had caught a bus there was no guarantee you had caught the right ones as the bus route numbers on the buses were now unlit and therefore of uncertain destination unless announced by a conductor. It was a challenge being a bus conductor too as they found it difficult to punch tickets correctly in the blackout and also to tell the difference between copper and silver coins when collecting fares. With so many male staff away in the Armed Forces, London Transport began to recruit women bus conductors. Bus routes were diverted due to bombing debris. Bomb damage turned simple commutes into hours-long ordeals. There are reports of people catching random vans or other such vehicles just to get home. 


Three Spanish Steamers at East India Docks, London. Credit: Express from Photo Images


What did Londoners think of the blackout restrictions?

People understandably mumbled and grumbled but they learned to live with them. It was over a year from when the blackout was enforced to when the blitz began and people had questioned whether the blackout really was necessary. Some even felt that the blackout was taking a toll on their mental health. The Home Intelligence division noted in 1944 that “A number, particularly war workers, feel the blackout is responsible for much depression and illness; some think it could be lifted in their areas; others would welcome at least more star-lighting.” Starlighting was the name given to the pin pricking of blacked out street lighting.

Every December Mass Observation diarists were asked to rank the list of inconveniences caused by the bombing. Unsurprisingly the blackout ranked highest with transport coming a close second, although these two were undeniably linked. A ban on Christmas lights made it a dark Christmas too.  

The majority of the public, however, did comply with the blackout/ While some may have flouted rules deliberately, many also broke them by accident, it’s understood that compliance may have increased once bombs began to actually drop on London, with members of the public experiencing first hand the threat they faced through non-compliance.

There were tensions with ARP Wardens (ARP = Air Raid Precaution) as they would enforce the blackout rules, handing out fines to those who didn’t comply or shouting ‘put that light out’, a phrase that is still used today; a part of our verbal heritage (think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban!). 

Ultimately the blackout rules were accepted because they were believed to be effective and were universally applied, even if the impact of the bombing was highly localised. One could say that the restrictions forced individuals to accept a certain level of responsibility for collective security and to alter their own behaviour accordingly. 


Did the blackout make London a more dangerous place to be?

The police force had been significantly reduced; virtually halved, with able bodied policemen being called for active service.  Crime was a concern for many. Criminals took advantage of darkened streets to rob and assault members of the public. It must have been a pickpockets paradise. Racketeers charged exorbitant amounts for ‘reserving’ a place in an air raid shelter or tube station. Loan sharks took advantage of desperate people. 

The crime rate increased by 57% and the murder rate increased by 22%. 

The chaos of the Blitz provided the perfect cover for people to get away with things they wouldn’t normally. The closure of schools in some areas led to concerns over juvenile delinquency as bored youths, so called ‘Blitz kids’ roamed the streets while their parents were at work. Met Police Commissioner Sir Philip Game said juvenile crime was on the increase, accounting for 47% of all arrests. 

The realities of bombing, the black out, and consumer rationing led to new forms of criminal behaviour as illegal entrepreneurs spotted new opportunities to make money. 


How did career criminals benefit during the blitz?

Career criminals took a strategic approach, they targeted houses that had been closed up for the duration where the family sought sanctuary elsewhere. The houses’ contents would be removed as would the lead on the roof!

Criminal gangs became dominant in the black market. In London, the main player was Billy Hill, from Seven Dials. His gang pulled off a number of jewellery ‘smash and grabs’ early in the war, including some in the West End. In his memoirs Billy Hill boasts “I didn’t make use of the black market, I fed it.”


Looting in wartime London

Looting was a big problem. There were reports of looters taking advantage of the chaos during bomb raids. Bomb-chasers would visit an area during a raid and smash shop windows and take what they could. One London trader told the Daily Mirror “I lost more through looting than by bomb damage.”

There are accounts of looters grabbing the watches and bracelets from outstretched arms of people stuck in the debris of the Cafe de Paris bombing. This was happening while ARP Wardens were trying to find survivors. Civilian women tore their expensive gowns to create bandages for the wounded and looters moved alongside them taking all they could. Rings from the deceased were removed, along with the finger if necessary.

The number of cases for looting in London in September 1940 was 539. In October it had risen dramatically to 1,662. The maximum sentence for looting was only 3 months imprisonment, even though some were made examples of. 

Larry Rue, an American journalist in London writing for the Chicago tribune wrote “Air Raid Blitzkrieg Breeds Crime, London Learns’

Blackout created opportunities and freedom for some, but for many, it created a darker and scarier world, something they may not have experienced before.

If you would like to learn more about London during World War II then you can watch episode 3 of Walking Wartime Britain on 5Select in which you will also see me sharing a few stories I haven’t included here. 

Our next episode is all about some unusual London street names. I’ll see you then!

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